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Like so many other strong female leaders, from Catherine the Great to the Empress Dowager Cixi, China's only female emperor has been reviled in legend and history. Yet Wu Zetian was a highly intelligent and motivated lady, with a strong interest in government affairs and literature. In 7th century China, and for centuries afterward, these were considered inappropriate topics for a woman, so she has been painted as a murderer who poisoned or strangled most of her own family, a sexual deviant, and a ruthless usurper of the imperial throne. Who was Wu Zetian, really?
The future Empress Wu was born in Lizhou, now in Sichuan Province, on February 16, 624. Her birth name probably was Wu Zhao, or possibly Wu Mei. The baby's father, Wu Shihuo, was a wealthy timber merchant who would become a provincial governor under the new Tang Dynasty. Her mother, Lady Yang, was from a politically important noble family.
Wu Zhao was a curious, active girl. Her father encouraged her to read widely, which was quite unusual at the time, so she studied politics, government, the Confucian classics, literature, poetry, and music. When she was about 13, the girl was dispatched to the palace to become a fifth rank concubine of the Emperor Taizong of Tang. It seems that she likely did have sexual relations with the Emperor at least once, but she was not a favorite and spent most of her time working as a secretary or lady in waiting. She did not bear him any children.
In 649, when Consort Wu was 25 years old, Emperor Taizong died. His youngest son, 21-year-old Li Zhi, became the new Emperor Gaozong of Tang. Consort Wu, since she had not borne the late emperor a child, was sent to Ganye temple to become a Buddhist nun.
Return From the Convent
It's not clear how she accomplished the feat, but the former Consort Wu escaped from the convent and became a concubine of Emperor Gaozong. Legend holds that Gaozong went to the Ganye Temple on the anniversary of his father's death to make an offering, spotted the Consort Wu there, and wept at her beauty. His wife, Empress Wang, encouraged him to make Wu his own concubine, to distract him from her rival, Consort Xiao.
Whatever actually happened, Wu soon found herself back in the palace. Although it was considered incest for a man's concubine to then pair up with his son, Emperor Gaozong took Wu into his harem around 651. With the new emperor, she was a much higher rank, being the highest of the second rank concubines.
Emperor Gaozong was a weak ruler and suffered an illness that frequently left him dizzy. He soon became disenchanted with both Empress Wang and Consort Xiao and began to favor Consort Wu. She bore him two sons in 652 and 653, but he had already named another child as his heir apparent. In 654, Consort Wu had a daughter, but the infant soon died of smothering, strangulation, or possibly natural causes.
Wu accused Empress Wang of the baby's murder since she had been the last to hold the child, but many people believed that Wu herself killed the baby in order to frame the Empress. At this remove, it is impossible to say what really happened. In any case, the Emperor believed that Wang murdered the little girl, and by the following summer, he had the empress and also Consort Xiao deposed and imprisoned. Consort Wu became the new empress consort in 655.
Empress Consort Wu
In November of 655, Empress Wu allegedly ordered the execution of her former rivals, Empress Wang and Consort Xiao, to prevent Emperor Gaozong from changing his mind and pardoning them. A blood-thirsty later version of the story says that Wu ordered the women's hands and feet chopped off, and then had them thrown into a large wine barrel. She reportedly said, "Those two witches can get drunk down to their bones." This ghoulish story seems likely to be a later fabrication.
By 656, Emperor Gaozong replaced his former heir apparent with Empress Wu's eldest son, Li Hong. The Empress soon began to arrange for the exile or execution of government officials who had opposed her rise to power, according to traditional stories. In 660, the sickly Emperor began to suffer from severe headaches and loss of vision, possibly from hypertension or a stroke. Some historians have accused the Empress Wu of having him slowly poisoned, though he had never been particularly healthy.
He began to delegate decisions on some government matters to her; officials were impressed with her political knowledge and the wisdom of her rulings. By 665, Empress Wu was more or less running the government.
The Emperor soon began to resent Wu's increasing power. He had a chancellor draft an edict deposing her from power, but she heard what was happening and rushed to his chambers. Gaozong lost his nerve and ripped up the document. From that time forward, Empress Wu always sat in on imperial councils, although she sat behind a curtain at the back of Emperor Gaozong's throne.
In 675, Empress Wu's eldest son and the heir apparent died mysteriously. He had been agitating to have his mother step back from her position of power, and also wanted his half-sisters by Consort Xiao to be allowed to marry. Of course, traditional accounts state that the Empress poisoned her son to death, and replaced him with the next brother, Li Xian. However, within five years, Li Xian fell under suspicion of assassinating his mother's favorite sorcerer, so he was deposed and sent into exile. Li Zhe, her third son, became the new heir apparent.
Empress Regent Wu
On December 27, 683, the Emperor Gaozong died after a series of strokes. Li Zhe ascended the throne as Emperor Zhongzhong. The 28-year-old soon started to assert his independence from his mother, who was given regency over him in his father's will despite the fact that he was well into adulthood. After just six weeks in office (January 3 - February 26, 684), Emperor Zhongzhong was deposed by his own mother, and placed under house arrest.
Empress Wu next had her fourth son enthroned on February 27, 684, as the Emperor Ruizong. A puppet of his mother, the 22-year-old emperor did not exert any actual authority. His mother no longer hid behind the curtain during official audiences; she was the ruler, in appearance as well as fact. After a "reign" of six and a half years, in which he was virtually a prisoner within the inner palace, Emperor Ruizong abdicated in favor of his mother. Empress Wu became Huangdi, which is usually translated in English as "emperor," although it is gender-neutral in Mandarin.
In 690, Emperor Wu announced that she was establishing a new dynastic line, called the Zhou Dynasty. She reportedly used spies and secret police to root out political opponents and have them exiled or killed. However, she was also a very capable emperor and surrounded herself with well-chosen officials. She was instrumental in making the civil service examination a key part of the Chinese imperial bureaucratic system, which allowed only the most learned and talented men to rise to high positions in government.
Emperor Wu carefully observed the rites of Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism, and made frequent offerings to curry favor with higher powers and retain the Mandate of Heaven. She made Buddhism the official state religion, placing it above Daoism. She also was the first female ruler to make offerings at the sacred Buddhist mountain of Wutaishan in the year 666.
Among the ordinary people, Emperor Wu was quite popular. Her use of the civil service examination meant that bright but poor young men had a chance to become wealthy government officials. She also redistributed land to ensure that peasant families all had enough to feed their families, and paid high salaries to government workers in the lower ranks.
In 692, Emperor Wu had her greatest military success, when her army recaptured the four garrisons of the Western Regions (Xiyu) from the Tibetan Empire. However, a spring offensive in 696 against the Tibetans (also known as Tufan) failed miserably, and the two leading generals were demoted to commoners as a result. A few months later, the Khitan people rose up against the Zhou, and it took nearly a year plus some hefty tribute payments as bribes to quell the unrest.
The imperial succession was a constant source of unease during Emperor Wu's reign. She had appointed her son, Li Dan (the former Emperor Ruizong), as the Crown Prince. However, some courtiers urged her to choose a nephew or cousin from the Wu clan instead, to keep the throne in her own bloodline instead of that of her late husband. Instead, Empress Wu recalled her third son Li Zhe (the former Emperor Zhongzong) from exile, promoted him to Crown Prince, and changed his name to Wu Xian.
As Emperor Wu aged, she began to rely increasingly on two handsome brothers who were allegedly also her lovers, Zhang Yizhi and Zhang Changzong. By the year 700, when she was 75 years old, they were handling many of the affairs of state for the Emperor. They had also been instrumental in getting Li Zhe to return and become Crown Prince in 698.
In the winter of 704, the 79-year-old Emperor fell seriously ill. She would see nobody except for the Zhang brothers, which fueled speculation that they were planning to seize the throne when she died. Her chancellor recommended that she allow her sons to visit, but she would not. She pulled through the illness, but the Zhang brothers were killed in a coup on February 20, 705, and their heads were hung from a bridge along with three of their other brothers'. The same day, Emperor Wu was forced to abdicate the throne to her son.
The former Emperor was given the title of Empress Regnant Zetian Dasheng. However, her dynasty was finished; Emperor Zhongzong restored the Tang Dynasty on March 3, 705. Empress Regnant Wu died on December 16, 705, and remains to this day the only female to rule imperial China in her own name.
Dash, Mike. "The Demonization of Empress Wu," Smithsonian Magazine, August 10, 2012.
"Empress Wu Zetian: Tang Dynasty China (625 - 705 AD)," Women in World History, accessed July 2014.
Woo, X.L. Empress Wu the Great: Tang Dynasty China, New York: Algora Publishing, 2008.