Empress Wu Zetian

Yesterday (March 8th) was International Women’s Day – an occasion I can never remember holding much significance in Australia, but carries considerable more clout in Asia. When I was teaching at the Provincial Teacher Training College in Cambodia, we marked the day by holding an assembly and requiring all the male students to bestow gifts on their female counterparts. In China, the girls at work were all treated to chocolates.

So, in tribute to International Women’s Day I thought I’d write a post on China’s first, last and only ruling Empress, Wu Zetian (武则天). This blog won’t be all about 2011 in China. Now and again, I’d like to delve into the rich nuggets of China’s 5,000-year-old history. I should add that I’m an avid listener of the China History Podcast – essential listening for anyone interested in China’s history. It’s done by the amicable Laszlo Montgomery, who’s Chicago drawl and conversational tone breathes new life into China’s annals of history. I’m referencing him because the days of passing off other’s work as my own were for university (apologies to any past lecturers who might be reading this).

Wu Zetian (625-705AD) lived a relatively long life of 81. She ruled during the infancy of the Tang Dynasty (618-907AD), universally considered China’s golden period.

GIRL POWER: China's sole ruling Empress, Wu Zetian


There are varying historical perceptions of her rule. She was either a vile creature or a great reformer, who reigned over time of great peace and advanced women’s rights in a Confucian society. Confucius as a philosopher stated that:

“Women and people of low birth are very hard to deal with. If you are friendly with them, they get out of hand, and if you keep your distance, they resent it.”

Wu Zetian was born Wu Zhao near, in modern-China, Shanxi’s provincial capital Taiyuan. Her father was an official close to the Tang Dynasty founder, Gao Zu. She enjoyed an aristocratic upbringing rare for girls of her time, reading Chinese classics, and studying calligraphy and music.

She became an imperial concubine at 13, one of about 120 concubines to Emperor Taizong (唐太宗).

TANG EMPEROR: Wu served as teen concubine to Emperor Taizong.


She soon became his favorite concubine. But she also had eyes for his son, Li Zhi (李治).

Emperor Taizong died in 649, ironically after consuming some kind of elixir of life that killed him. Wu, now 25, is sent to a Buddhist convent, where she shaves her long, beautiful hair and prepares to live out her days as a nun.

By this time the son of the late Emperor Taizong, Li Zhi, is at the throne. He has adopted the royal name Gaozong (高宗). His wife, Empress Wang (王皇后), beckons Wu to return from the convent and into the imperial palace as concubine. For Wu Zetian, this is welcome news. After all, she had being eyeing Gaozong since he was a Crown Prince. Now, he was in power.

Wu soon becomes the Emperor’s favorite concubine, giving birth to the sons he wanted. As mother of the future emperor of China, she grew in power. Despite her deeds of recalling Wu from convent life to the imperial court, Empress Wang falls on hard times at the hands of the power-hungry concubine.

This is where the story turns into a soap opera. Wu bores a daughter for Gaozong. One account is that she strangled the newborn infant to frame Empress Wang of murder. The other account is that the jealous and childless Empress killed the baby. Whatever the case, Gaozong takes Wu’s side. Empress Wang, no doubt regretting ever re-introducing Wu to the court, lives out her days as a lowly maid servant.

At the stage, Wu begins adopting a bigger role in power politics. Her noble upbringing and tenure as a teenage concubine taught her a great deal about imperial affairs. This was knowledge Emperor Gaozong was happy to have at his disposal. But it also gave rise to a growing base of enemies among strict Confucian officials, who believed the woman’s place was at home and not in meddling with such important affairs. Wu knew her enemies well, and her inevitable rise to power would later see these same officials meet a grisly end by drowning in a vat of wine after having their limbs cut off. Ouch.

STROKE OF LUCK: Wu Zetian took power amid Emperor Gaozong's ailing health.


In 660 at the age of 32, Gaozong suffers a series of crippling strokes that leave him incapacitated for his remaining 23 years. The Empress Wu seizes the opportunity to run administrative duties of the court, a position equal to the emperor. Her husband’s eventual death in 683 sees her outflank her eldest sons and moved her youngest and weakest into power. But Wu, now pushing 60 years old, was still pulling the strings and effectively ruled, telling him what to do.

But Wu was a tough mother to have. She killed her eldest son, deposed another, and another lived under house arrest before becoming Emperor.

In 690, Wu’s youngest son removed himself from office, and she was declared Empress. She lowered taxes and allowed farmers to keep and sell more of their produce for their own profit. She changed the imperial exam system in 669, so it was open to all and not just aristocracy. This created a shift in government being controlled by scholars, instead of those with imperial heritage.

But her greatest legacy was progress in gender equality. This included allowing women to be financially independent with their own wealth in their own name, pushing for women to educated in philosophy and politics. Women also weren’t required to bind their feet. Despite her ruthless, Machiavellian rise, she carried out beneficial reforms under strong leadership.

In 705, she was pressured to give up the throne in favor of her third son. She died late in that year and was buried at the Qianling (乾陵) Mausoleum just northwest of Xi’an in Shanxi Province. Her tomb to this day remains unexcavated.

FINAL RESTING PLACE: Wu Zetian's burial site in Shanxi Province.

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