Zhao Ji (趙姬; literally: “Consort Zhao”; c. 280–228 BC) was the wife of King Zhuangxiang of Qin and the mother of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China. Upon her marriage, she was the Lady Zhao; after the king’s death, she was the Queen Dowager Zhao.

The daughter of a prominent family of Zhao, she was a concubine of the merchant Lü Buwei, who gave her to his protegé, Prince Yiren of Qin. A year later, she gave birth to a son named Zheng; the historian Sima Qian, ill-disposed towards the first emperor, claimed that the pregnancy was especially long and that the child was actually Lü’s. The couple were living at the time in Handan, the capital of Zhao, where Yiren was a hostage; when Qin laid siege to the city, Lü was able to bribe the prince’s way out of town but Lady Zhao and her infant son were forced to hide among her family. Thanks to Lü’s intervention and diplomacy, Prince Yiren subsequently ascended the Qin throne, becoming known to history by his posthumous name King Zhuangxiang.

When King Zhuangxiang died in 247 BC, Crown Prince Zheng ascended the throne and Lady Zhao became the Queen Dowager. Sima Qian claimed she continued her affair with Lü Buwei but, facing exposure and persecution, he gave her a man named Lao Ai disguised as a eunuch. The couple produced two illegitimate children. After Lao Ai was killed during an attempted coup d’état, the queen was imprisoned in her palace and the children were killed. King Zheng later unified China and became known as Shi Huangdi, the “First Emperor”.

Edited by staff


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