Asia,  China,  ER

Empress Wu Zetian


A 17th-century Chinese depiction of Wu, from Empress Wu of the Zhou, published c.1690. No contemporary image of the empress exists.

In the East as in the West, female rulers were not the norm.  In China, the famous philosopher Confucius is reported to have said a woman ruling was as unnatural as a “hen crow like a rooster at daybreak.”  Huh.  A regular John Knox, that guy.  Well cock-a-doodle-doo, Confucius, because this is the story of Empress Wu Zetian of the Tang dynasty, the only female emperor in Chinese history.  Originally, named Wu Zhao she was given the name Zetian, which means “emulator of heaven”, after death.  Sources about Wu Zetian’s life are a hodgepodge, which some condemning her as the devil himself and others testifying she was an absolute angel.  As we know, the truth is somewhere in the middle.

Wu Zetian is believed to have been born in Wenshi County, Shanxi Province around 624 CE.  She was born to a wealthy family as her father was Wu Shihuo, a chancellor of the Tang Dynasty.  Her father encouraged her education and Wu Zetian learned to play music, read the classics, write poetry and the art of oration.  These were traditionally male only skills.  However, the Tang dynasty was a time of relative freedom for women as they were not required to live as submissively as women in other time periods in Chinese history.  On top of being witty and smart, Wu Zetian was also strikingly beautiful.  It was no surprise when she was selected as a concubine for Emperor Taizong at age 14.  One source says she caught Taizong’s eye when she attempted to tame the emperor’s horse.  No one had been able to do it, but Wu Zetian asked to try armed with an iron whip, an iron mace and a dagger.  The story claims she said she would first whip the horse and if that didn’t work she would hit it in the head.  If even that didn’t work, she’d slit its throat with the dagger.  Damn.   Apparently, Taizong liked her moxy and scooped her up.

Concubines were not just playthings of the emperor, but actually had court jobs to do.  Wu Zetian was put in charge of the laundry.  Supposedly, she engaged the emperor in a discussion about Chinese history while changing his bed sheets. He was stunned by her education and intelligence.  He had her moved from the laundry to the position of his private secretary.  He gave her the pet name of “Mei-Niang” meaning “beautiful girl” and she was his favorite concubine.  From this position, she met all the notables of court including the heir to the throne, Prince Li Zhi, Taizong’s son.  Li Zhi fell hard for Wu Zetian despite the fact he was married to someone else and she belonged to his father.  The two began a torrid affair.  When Taizong died, their idyll was supposed to have been over.  Wu Zetian was sent to Ganye temple to become a nun like the rest of Taizong’s concubines after his death.  Li Zhi was proclaimed Emperor Gaozong, but he didn’t forget his love.  Gaozong broke all the rules and sent for Wu Zetian as one of his first official acts as emperor.  She became the first of his concubines despite the jealousy of Gaozong’s wife, Lady Wang, and his former first concubine, Lady Xiao.  These two were going to be trouble as the actively conspired against Wu Zetian.  They did not know who they were dealing with.

Wu Zetian recounts how she got rid of these rivals, in a brilliant yet brutally ruthless fashion.  Lady Wang had not children, but Lady Xia had a son and two daughters.  Wu Zetian gave birth to two sons in quick succession, Li Hong and Li Xian.  The birth of two sons made Wu Zetian rise higher in Gaozong’s favor and made Lady Xia and Lady Wang ready to spit nails.  So when Wu Zetian’s daughter born in 654 CE was found strangled in her crib, Wu Zetian blamed Lady Wang.  She was the last person seen in the nursery and had no alibi.  The story grew that Lady Wang and her mother had formed a coven of witches which included, surprise surprise, Lady Xian.  Lady Wang got divorced, they all got exiled, and any children were disowned.  Wu Zetian was raised to empress of china and her sons designated as heirs to the throne.  The part that makes this horrifying?  Some sources claim that Wu Zetian strangled her own infant daughter to make this happen.  Wu Zetian’s account blames Lady Wang, but later Chinese historians paint Wu Zetian as a ruthless killer and blame her for her daughter’s death.  There is no way to know what exactly happened.  

With her rivals out of the way, Wu Zetian and Gaozong began what could be considered a joint rule.  She played the part of a respectable wife, but anyone at court with a pair of eyes knew she was the power behind the throne.  Gaozong was often in ill health and developed a debilitating eye disease in 660. During those times Wu Zetian publically took the reigns of government.  Even sources that were biased against her begrudgingly admitted she ruled well, rooting out corruption and helping the common people.  She and Gaozong were referred to as the Two Sages.  She challenged the Confucian beliefs against female rule by having histories written about famous women.  She also replaced Daoism with Buddhism as the state religion.  However, several sources indicate she was ruthless in rooting out her enemies at court as well and was not afraid to use treachery or torture.  The lives of her sister, her elder brothers and her mother are all added to her murder total.

In 683, Emperor Gaozong died of what is believed to be a stroke.  The reigns of power did not change much when her eldest son took the throne as Emperor Zhongzong.  However, Zhongzong and his wife Lady Wei were not going to play nice with mom.  They tried to take too much power for Wu Zetian’s liking and Lady Wei was openly disrespectful.  When Zhongzong refused to discipline her, Wu Zetian had him charged with treason and the two of them were banished.  She had her younger son crowned as Emperor Ruizong and kept him under house arrest.  She claimed Ruizong had a severe speech impediment and Wu Zetian was forced to issue decrees for him.  Soon even this was not enough and Ruizong and his wife were forced to abdicate in 693 on trumped up charges of witchcraft.  Wu Zetian took the throne in her own right, and thus begins the period of time known as the “reign of terror”.

As can be expected, many members of the court and government were not happy with this arrangement.  A coup was mounted and was put down, but it was now open season on traitors at court.  According to one source, she eradicated fifteen family lines that were not loyal to her.  The methods were brutal and included false treason charges, executions and enforced suicides in which she made them kill themselves in front of her.  Her secret police and spy networks from her days under Gaozong were still active, and became that much more powerful.

Not every change was a bad one, however.  Wu Zetian reformed the government to reduce spending and efficiency.  She hired her officials on a merit based system instead of through family connections as before.  She also instituted a “suggestion box” system for reforms.  It was also brilliant to anonymously rat out enemies.  The system is described by historian Kelly Carlton as follows, “Wu had a petition box made, which originally contained four slots: one for men to recommend themselves as officials; one where citizens might openly and anonymously criticize court decisions; one to report the supernatural, strange omens, and secret plots, and one to file accusations and grievances”.  To emphasize her difference from her husband’s regime, she changed the dynasty name from Tang to Zhou and called her reign Tianzhou, or “granted by heaven”.  She also proclaimed herself an incarnation of the Maitreya Buddha.  Chinese Buddhism was at its height under her rule, so this was a smart move.  Under her rule education improved and the Silk Road was reopened improving trade.

However, it couldn’t last.  After so many years of fighting to stay in power, Wu Zetian began to get distracted.  She began spending less time governing and more time with her young lovers, the Zhang Brothers.  Court was scandalized as Wu Zetian was in her eighties and they were in their twenties.  This was perfectly fine when emperors did this, but for a woman?  Scandal.  Unfortunately, she also began to get paranoid and ordered a purge of the government.  Court officials could no longer take this behavior, and in 704 CE forced Wu Zetian to abdicate and her favorites the Zhang Brothers were murdered.  Former emperor Zhongzong were brought back and installed as Emperor of China.

After Wu Zetian’s death, she was buried next to Gaozong.  However, the stele erected outside the tomb to record her accomplishments were left blank.  Much like the Egyptian Pharaoh Hatshepsut (For more on her, please see this post: ), her name was blackened and her accomplishments were attempted to be blotted out.  After a power struggle, Zhongzong was deposed by his brother Ruizong with the help of his sister Princess Taiping.  Then Ruizong abdicated and his son Li Longji succeed him.  Taiping tried to rule her nephew the way her mother ruled her father and brothers, but it did not work.  She committed suicide, and Li Longji decreed no member of Wu Zetian’s family would be able to hold office again.  However, he kept up all Wu Zetian’s reforms.  That is her true legacy.