Ulanara, the Step Empress

Ulanara, the Step Empress (11 March 1718 – 14 July 1766), was the second Empress of the Qianlong Emperor of the qing dynasty.

Family background

Ulanara, the Step Empress was born to the Manchu Ula clan, a subgroup of the Nara clan, which was under the Bordered Yellow Banner of the Eight Banners. Her clan name is written as Ulanara while her personal name is unknown. Her father was Narbu (那爾布), a zuoling (佐領; a type of military commander).

Becoming Empress

During the reign of the Yongzheng Emperor, Lady Ulanara became a concubine of Hongli, the fourth son of Yongzheng. When the Yongzheng Emperor died in 1735, he was succeeded by Hongli, who became known as the Qianlong Emperor. Following his enthronement, Qianlong granted Lady Ulanara the title of Noble Consort Xian (嫻貴妃). When the Qianlong Emperor's first empress, Empress Xiaoxianchun, died in 1748, Qianlong's mother Empress Dowager Chongqing regarded Lady Ulanara as a capable successor to the late empress so she urged Qianlong to elevate Ulanara to the status of Empress. However, the Qianlong Emperor delayed Lady Ulanara's promotion until after the mourning period for Empress Xiaoxianchun was over because he felt that it was an insult to the late empress if he instated a new empress during the mourning period. Lady Ulanara was first promoted to Imperial Noble Consort Xian (嫻皇貴妃) and placed in charge of the emperor's other concubines (like an acting-Empress) before officially becoming Empress.

Half a month after her promotion, Lady Ulanara accompanied the Qianlong Emperor on his tours to places such as the tombs of the former emperors (Western and Eastern Qing Tombs), Mount Wutai, and cities in southern China. In 1752, Lady Ulanara gave birth to the Qianlong Emperor's 12th son, Yongji. A year later she gave birth to Qianlong's fifth daughter.

Losing favour

Lady Ulanara accompanied the Qianlong Emperor on his fifth tour to southern China in 1765.

Things went smoothly initially, and Qianlong even celebrated Lady Ulanara's birthday on that trip. On February 28, Qianlong had food sent to the empress. However on that evening, only three consorts were seen dining together with the emperor, and Lady Ulanara was no longer seen in public after that day.

It was revealed later that on February 28, the Qianlong Emperor had Lady Ulanara sent back to the capital Beijing via waterways, and ended his tour to southern China. When Qianlong returned to Beijing , he ordered the four monuments he granted to Lady Ulanara during her four promotion ceremonies to be recalled back. He also gradually reduced the number of servants Lady Ulanara had, until the empress was only left with two maids by July. This was the number of servants low ranking concubines had. Lady Ulanara died a year later at the age of 48.

It remains a mystery as to why Lady Ulanara lost the Qianlong Emperor's favour in such an abrupt and rapid manner. According to pseudohistorical records of that time, Lady Ulanara fell from the emperor's favour because she cut her hair. By Manchu traditions, Lady Ulanara can only cut her hair when either the Qianlong Emperor or his mother Empress Dowager Chongqing died. As both were alive and well at that time, Lady Ulanara had committed a grave faux pas that can be considered unforgivable, because the act of cutting her hair was interpreted as cursing the emperor and the empress dowager to die.

However, as Lady Ulanara had lived in the Forbidden City for years, and was a Manchu herself, her rationale for cutting her hair has baffled historians. Some speculate that Lady Ulanara cut her hair in protest against the Qianlong Emperor's tour to southern China, because it is believed that the emperor travelled there in search of beautiful women.


The Qianlong Emperor was on a hunting expedition at the Mulan Hunting Grounds (木蘭圍場) when he learned of Lady Ulanara's death, but he did not end his trip immediately. Instead he sent the empress's son Yongji back to the palace.

On Qianlong's order, Lady Ulanara's funeral was ostensibly scaled down to that of an Imperial Noble Consort (one rank below the Empress), but in reality, the ceremony was much worse than it seemed. In an Imperial Noble Consort's funeral, princesses, nobles, and high ranking court officials were required to attend the mourning processions, but this aspect was absent for the empress's funeral.

For consorts and concubines of her class, Lady Ulanara was expected to have her own mausoleum or a gravestone at the very least. However instead she was laid to rest in the Yuling Mausoleum in the Eastern Qing Tombs next to Imperial Noble Consort Chunhui in a way similar to how a servant was buried beside his master. Her death was also not recorded in official court documents.

Once a court historian begged the Qianlong Emperor to organise a funeral befitting that of an empress for Lady Ulanara, but the emperor had him sent to exile in northwestern China near the Ili River. Years later a scholar pleaded with the Qianlong Emperor to reconsider the entire affair, but the emperor responded with anger and dished out a death sentence for the scholar.


Lady Ulanara bore the Qianlong Emperor three children:

Yongji (永璂; 7 June 1752 - 17 March 1776), the Qianlong Emperor's 12th son, granted the title of a beile. His wife was a member of the Mongol Borjigit clan.

Unnamed daughter (b. 1753), the Qianlong Emperor's fifth daughter.

Yongjing (永璟; 2 January 1756 - 7 September 1757), the Qianlong Emperor's 13th son.

Last update 01-06-2012

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