Lady Hu became an imperial consort because of her paternal aunt who was a Buddhist nun. She managed to convince the appropriate authorities that her niece, a girl of some beauty and good upbringing, should be recruited into the palace as a consort.
Emperor Xuanwu’s consorts were unwilling to risk giving birth to a son, fearing that this would incur the enmity of the official consort, Empress Gao. Empress Gao was suspected of having poisoned her predecessor, Empress Yu, who had died in mysterious circumstances after giving birth to the emperor’s first son; the child had also died. Despite the obvious dangers of bearing the emperor’s child, Lady Hu is nevertheless said to have prayed for a son, believing an heir to be necessary and claiming that no woman should fear for her life when the imperial line was under threat. In 510 she gave birth to a son, Yuan Xu (later known as Emperor Xiaoming). When the child was two years old he was named heir apparent. Emperor Xuanwu abolished the custom of putting the crown prince's mother to death, spared Consort Hu.
When Emperor Xuanwu died suddenly in 515, his five-year-old son Yuan Xu was enthroned. He initially honored Empress Gao as empress dowager and gave Consort Hu the title of Consort Dowager. Empress Dowager Gao wanted to put Consort Hu to death, but she was protected by the officials Yu Zhong and Cui Guang, the general Hou Gang, and the eunuch Liu Teng. Yu and the imperial princes Yuan Yong the Prince of Gaoyang and Yuan Cheng the Prince of Rencheng soon seized power from Empress Gao and, after ambushing and killing Empress Gao's powerful uncle Gao Zhao, replaced Empress Gao as empress dowager with Consort Hu. Empress Dowager Hu became regent over the five-year-old emperor.
Empress Dowager Hu had inherited serious economic and social problems. Despite the efforts of Empress Dowager Wenming to institute land reforms in 483, most of the best land in the north and northwest had become imperial pasturelands and gentry families in the northeast were abusing their economic privileges. Her first task was to neutralize the regent Yu Zhong, who was in opposition to her support group and had gained considerable military power. He was recalled to court once certain problems surrounding the regency had been settled and Empress Dowager Hu then became the de facto ruler. As regent, she carried out imperial sacrifices in place of her son, issued edicts, competed in archery contests with her officials, traveled the countryside to receive petitions, interviewed new candidates for office, and took frequent pleasure trips to sacred and scenic spots.
However, Empress Dowager Hu was criticized for her softhearted handling of Yu Zhong and for the way she dealt with those who had helped her in the past and with her family members. In the wake of this dissatisfaction, Empress Dowager Hu’s brother-in-law Yuan Cha and the eunuch Liu Teng conspired to remove her from power. They placed her under house arrest in 520 and forced her to retire from her regency. All those who had benefited during her regency were removed from their posts and she was forbidden to have any contact with her son, Emperor Xiaoming.
Yuan Cha had little interest in government, and the dissatisfaction that officials and the imperial princes had felt under Empress Dowager Hu’s regency resurfaced, now directed at him. The officials and princes turned to Empress Dowager Hu when appeals to Emperor Xiaoming to remove Yuan Cha were disregarded. Under the pretext of obtaining the emperor’s permission to enter a nunnery, she was allowed to meet with her son. Thus reconciled, mother and son plotted to remove Yuan Cha, slowly stripping him of his power. Finally, convinced that Yuan Cha was threatening his favorite concubine, Emperor Xiaoming ordered him to commit suicide.
Instead of handing authority to her fifteen-year-old son, Empress Dowager Hu resumed her regency in 525. Her second regency, characterized by corruption and lawlessness, has been described as the beginning of the end of Northern Wei. The whole of north China was in open rebellion by then and the capable officials who had assisted her in her first regency had either died of old age or been murdered. Sometime during this second regency, Empress Dowager Hu, in order to further enhance her clan's prestige, married a daughter of her cousin Hu Sheng to Emperor Xiaoming, to be his empress. However, Emperor Xiaoming favored his concubine Consort Pan, and Empress Hu and the other concubines did not receive much favor from him.
By this time, Emperor Xiaoming, aged 18, was tired of the hold that his mother had on his administration, and he further despised Zheng Yan and Xu Ge. He, therefore, sent secret messengers to the general Erzhu Rong, who controlled the region around Bing Province (并州, modern central Shanxi), ordering him to advance on Luoyang to force Empress Dowager Hu to remove Zheng and Xu. After Erzhu advanced to Shangdang (上黨, in modern Changzhi, Shanxi), Emperor Xiaoming suddenly changed his mind and sent messengers to stop him, but the news leaked. Zheng and Xu, therefore, advised Empress Dowager Hu to have Emperor Xiaoming poisoned. She did so, and after initially announcing that Emperor Xiaoming's "son" by Consort Pan would succeed him, admitted that the "son" was actually a daughter, and instead selected Yuan Zhao the son of Yuan Baohui the Prince of Lintao, two-years in age, to succeed Emperor Xiaoming.
Erzhu Rong had other ideas, however. He proclaimed his own protégé - Yuan Ziyou, a grandson of Emperor Xianwen - emperor in 528 and married him to his daughter, whom he gave the title Empress of Northern Wei. The gates of the capital were opened from the inside the following day by relatives of Empress Dowager Hu’s own favorites and two days after that she was drowned, while Erzhu Rong’s soldiers killed thousands of Han Chinese and pro-Chinese officials and their families. Empress Dowager Hu’s sister collected her remains and placed them in Shuangling Buddhist Temple.
Empress Dowager Hu was considered intelligent, capable of understanding many things quickly, but she was also overly lenient and tolerant of corruption.
Lady Hu was a concubine of Emperor Xuanwu. She bore him a son.