Empress Wu was the only female monarch of China, and remains the most remarkable, influential and mysterious woman in Chinese history.
Contrary to the teachings of Confucius, this was a woman who ruled the empire for over half a century; while her actions have been a subject for debate for more ten centuries. Opinion is sharply divided between those who admire her for her many achievements and those who regard her as a ruthless, merciless schemer and autocrat. Others will say merely that she did what she had to do and that her actions were no different from those of male emperors of the period. What then are the facts about this redoubtable woman?
She was born in 624 and named Wu Zhao. Her parents were rich and of noble families. Her father was one of the original supporters of Emperor Taizong and her mother was a member of the Sui (581 - 618) royal family. As a child she was taught to write, read the Chinese classics and to play music.
At the age of fourteen, this accomplished child became a concubine to Emperor Taizong. She was given the title Cairen (a fifth grade concubine of the Tang). Her perspicacity set her apart from others in the palace and her knowledge of literature and history and talent quickly found favor with the emperor. He bestowed the title Meiniang which means 'charming lady' upon his new favorite and she was assigned to work in the imperial study. Here she was introduced to official documents and quickly became acquainted with affairs of state.
In 649, when she was twenty-six years old, the emperor died. He was succeeded by his son Gaozong and following the established court procedures, the old emperor's concubines were sent to a nunnery to live out their days. Emperor Gaozong was fascinated by Wu's talent and beauty and frequently visited her in the nunnery. After a period of some two to three years, she was summonsed to the palace and became Zhaoyi, the second grade concubine of the new emperor.
The Power Struggle
By virtue of her intelligence and accomplishments, Wu gradually earned Gaozong's trust and became a favourite of the entire court. After giving birth to two sons, she gained still more influence. Stealthily, she began to compete with Empress Wang and the senior concubine Xiaoshu for the favour of Emperor Gaozong. Seizing upon an opportunity to accuse the empress of infanticide when her newborn daughter died, Wu Zetian finally succeeded in her quest for power.
In 655, Gaozong promoted Wu to the position of Empress in place of the now disgraced Wang. Before long both the former empress and the concubine, Xiaoshu, were put to death and Wu's position was finally secure. Having acquired the title and position she had coveted for so long, Empress Wu Zetian began her political career in earnest. A woman of ambition, she was not content to be merely the Empress, her immediate desire was to be the emperor in all but name.
Her resourcefulness and discernment meant that she was highly esteemed by her husband, the emperor. Wu recommended and had accepted new ideas regarding agriculture, tax reduction, social reforms and effective labour saving practices. Not least, she also introduced ideas for fighting fires. This was very important considering the amount of timber that was used in the traditional construction of buildings. Clearly, she was a very clever person. Within five years of her marriage, Wu took an active part in state affairs and fostered her henchmen with zeal. Those who opposed her in any way were quickly removed from office, exiled or forced to commit suicide.
The emperor suffered a crippling stroke in 660 and the Empress took over the administration of the court. She then created a secret police force in order to spy on those who might oppose her. As her power grew, so did her confidence. Showing no mercy toward anyone who failed to conform to her wishes, she would have them thrown into prison or executed. Her cruelty extended to members of her family as well as those high ranking officials who had contributed much to the founding of the dynasty.
Emperor Gaozong was disgusted by these actions but by now had become too feeble to make efforts to curb Wu Zetian. She would appear in court alongside the emperor whenever he held an audience. When in 674 Gaozong took the title the Heavenly Emperor and granted Wu Zetian the title Heavenly Empress, the pair became known as the Holy Sovereigns. From that juncture Emperor Gaozong became merely a figurehead and ruled in name only.
Gaozong died in 683 and Wu's third son, Li Xian (656 - 710) ascended to the throne and was named Emperor Zhongzong. In the February of the following year, Wu deposed Zhongzong as he was proving difficult to control and replaced him with his younger brother, her fourth son, Li Dan (661 - 716). This latest emperor was known as Ruizong. All along, Wu was the puppet master and ruled the empire through her son, who had no option but to do what she told him. Finally, in 690 Wu Zetian usurped the throne and declared the empire was henceforth ruled by the Zhou Dynasty from her capital city Luoyang.
In spite of her ruthless rise to power, Wu proved to be a very competent monarch and throughout her reign the legacy of prosperity bequeathed by the late Taizong.
The Empress was eager to draw into her government all manner of talented people. In the first year of her period of absolute power, she sent officials far and wide to search for people of outstanding ability. Wu Zetian even encouraged people to volunteer their services should they consider themselves of value to her. In this way no effort was spared to recruit able persons into the civil service. The imperial examination system was further revised in order that no man of ability should be excluded due to his lowly birth. She also initiated the practice of personally interviewing candidates. This became the sole means by which officials could be recruited. These formalities guaranteed appointments could no longer be obtained through patronage, bribery or corruption.
Surprisingly, she showed tolerance towards her critics. Ever willing to listen to new ideas and suggestions, she generously rewarded those who offered sound advice and demonstrated enterprise. This ensured that throughout her long reign, she always had the support of a loyal administration.
Wu Zetian attached great importance to the development of agriculture. She ordered the construction of irrigation schemes. So as to create a bank of knowledge about agricultural matters and develop expertise, she commissioned the compilation of farming textbooks. Local officials were charged with the task of bringing more land under cultivation. As an incentive for increased production, taxes were reduced and the imposition of corvee upon the peasant population was eased. By allowing peasant farmers to retain more of their produce, they were able to improve their lot and in general the population benefited from quite considerable prosperity.
The relationships that had been established between the empire and the neighboring Tubo deteriorated. A series of many border skirmishes led to a final defeat of the Tubo in 692. Afterwards, steps were taken to keep the vast lands to the north and south of the Tainshan Mountains secure from invasion. The Anxi Military Viceroy and the Beiting Military Viceroy were given responsibility for the area, with the consequence that Wu's defence policy effectively consolidated the north-western border region.
Wu's religious policy gave Buddhism precedence over Taoism as the favoured state religion. She encouraged gifted scholars to settle in China and many Buddhist temples were built. Also, many of the finest Buddhist cave sculptures were created. Under the patronage of the Empress, Buddhism made its greatest advances within China.
Wu Zetian poured scorn on the Confucian belief that women should always be subordinate to men. As well as furthering her own ambitions, she sought to enhance the position of women in society. This included employing scholars to write biographies of famous women. These works served as a reminder to everyone that women were every bit as capable of men. All they lacked was equal opportunity.
It is said there is good and bad in everybody. So far as Wu Zetian was concerned, when she was bad she could be very bad indeed. To achieve her ambitions she was as ruthless as was possible. She did not hesitate to arrange the murders of members of her family, her husband's concubines or ministers if they opposed her. Even Wu's infant daughter was sacrificed in order that she might succeed in her desire for power. The men whose loyalty to both Li Yuan and Li Shimin had helped establish the Tang Dynasty were subjected to her cruelty. These included Zhangsun Wuji, Zhu Suiliang, Yu Zhining and Cheng Wuting and many others who were either put to death or reduced in rank. Members of the Li royal family and their relatives were likewise eliminated.
Once she was on the throne, Wu was ever cautious lest any of her ministers proved to be disloyal or plot against her. She appointed sadistic and cruel officials to seek out and eliminate any opposition to her regime. Men such as Suo Yuanli, Zhong Xing and Lai Juncheng became infamous due to their methods of exposing so-called enemies of their mistress. In such times, it is possible to be rid of rivals by denouncing them as conspirators or laying trumped up charges against them. So, although those who opposed Wu were severely dealt with, also many other innocent people were cruelly put to death. However, once Wu Zetian was satisfied that her regime was secure, she did relax some of her repressive measures and there were far fewer executions.
In her later life, and probably to ease her conscience, Wu Zetian resorted to Buddhism for solace. Her enthusiasm for building temples and monuments placed a huge strain on resources and labour. This show of religious fervour could not hide her continued craving for greatness and acclaim as she enjoyed an extravagant lifestyle. In particular, her penchant for her male concubines contributed to her reputation for decadence!
Retirement from Center Stage
As Wu grew older, so her hold on state affairs began to lessen. She also realised that as a woman, she could only be respected after her death as a member of the Li family. She therefore allowed herself to be persuaded in 698 to reinstate Li Xian as Crown Prince. In the year 705 there was a palace coup and Wu was forced to resign in favour of her son. He resumed the throne as Emperor Zhongzong thus restoring the Tang Dynasty to power. It was then that Wu was given her title Zetian which means 'Supreme Empress' and it is by that title she is best remembered.
Aged eighty-two, Wu Zetian died in the December of the year in which she had been deposed. She was buried alongside Emperor Gaozong in the Qiangling Tomb, located west of the present day Xian City. At her own wish, her final resting place was marked by a plain tombstone lacking any inscription. To some, this symbolises her absolute power that no words could describe. To others the absence of any comment suggests that she wanted future generations to decide for themselves how she should be eulogised.
So lived and died the only woman who ever ruled the Chinese empire in her own right. According to Confucius, having a female monarch is unnatural as 'a hen crowing like a rooster at daybreak.' However, for what proved to be one of the most glorious periods during the Tang Dynasty, a woman did rule the empire. What is more, she did so with more than fair measure of success. Down the ages, many have described Wu as a ruthless, cruel and despotic autocrat. Others, with rather more pragmatic views, have said she merely behaved as many men in her position had done, both before and since her notorious reign.