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Wu Zetian-Former Concubine and China’s only Female Emperor

Wu Zetian-Former Concubine and China’s only Female Emperor

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History is often unfair to women. Even the most accomplished women garner less acclaim than their male counterparts. And competing as equals with men rarely sees anyone applauded as Ms. Congeniality. In the ancient world, women whose ambitions went beyond the confines of domesticity and childrearing were often demonized and had their achievements judged by double standards.

This is the case with the formidable Wu Zetian, who ruled China for fifty years. First as Empress Consort, then as court administrator, and finally as the only woman emperor in Chinese history. There’s no doubt that Wu dealt ruthlessly with her rivals, whether in the court or the bedroom. A contemporary described her as having “A heart like a serpent and a nature like that of a wolf.” She is reputed to have committed infanticide and torture. However, she also challenged a patriarchal system when doing so meant risking death. She emerged from her husband’s shadow to control her destiny—and the future of her subjects. It’s fair to say Wu was a complex individual who transcended the status quo.

The Tang dynasty (618 to 907 A.D.) was one of the peaks of Chinese civilization. This was a Golden Age of political stability, economic prosperity, imperial expansion, and cultural achievements. It was a period of excellent governance, military prowess, and flourishing science and technology. Significant breakthroughs were made in clockmaking, mechanics, woodblock printing, mapmaking, and medicine. Established by Li Yuan, the first emperor, in 618 A.D., the Tang dynasty was interrupted when Empress Wu Zetian seized the throne in 690 A.D., founding her own Zhou Dynasty, which would last for fifteen years.


Beauty and Brains

Wu Zetian was the daughter of Wu Shirou, an affluent general with connections at the imperial court. She started her career as a concubine to Emperor Taizong. As was the custom, an emperor had several concubines to ensure their best chances of securing an heir; one was said to have had as many as a hundred. Although being a concubine was considered an honor, the position was much lower in the court hierarchy than being a wife, and the chances of advancement for the average concubine were slim.

Fortunately for Wu, she wasn’t the average girl. Her family gave her an upbringing typically reserved for boys and her father, Wu Shirou, insisted that she receive an education. Wu was taught to read, write, and play music; she was widely read and said to have been highly amusing. Her literary skills attracted the emperor’s attention, and she began acting as a secretary on his behalf, becoming knowledgeable about court affairs and imperial business. It also didn’t hurt that Wu was a stunning beauty. Taizong’s term of endearment for her was Mei Niang meaning beautiful girl, and indeed so beautiful was Wu that some people thought this was her real name. Blessed with a potent combination of intellect, charisma, and captivating beauty, Wu would prove unstoppable.

When Taizong died, tradition dictated that his concubines were sequestered in a Buddhist temple. There out of respect for the deceased, they would live the rest of their lives as nuns. This looked like Wu’s fate until Taizong’s son Gaozong sent word that she was to be restored to the palace. There was gossip that Gaozong and Wu had enjoyed intimate relations during Taizong’s life which, if proven, would have been a severe breach of etiquette and dealt with by drastic punishment. However, the gossip was never substantiated, and once back at court, Wu became Gaozong’s wife.


The Power Behind the Throne

Wu’s next move was to eliminate Gaozong’s first wife, Empress Wang, and his favorite concubine. To achieve this, Wu is reputed to have killed her infant daughter, blaming the death on Wang. Gaozong believed her ploy, and Wu is alleged to have had Wang and Gaozong’s favorite concubine brutally put to death. In 655 A.D., she took Wang’s title of Empress Consort. This was a courtesy title with little power; however, an Empress Consort did have influence, and Wu learned to wield her influence very effectively.

Gaozong was plagued with ill health and riddled with headaches and other ailments. Wu began assisting her husband by governing alongside him, and he increasingly listened to her advice. She sat on a throne of equal height to Gaozong’s, albeit placed behind a screen. Wu was an attentive listener and gained valuable knowledge of court protocols, diplomacy, and governance. Her new skills stood her in good stead, and after Gaozong suffered a debilitating stroke in 660 A.D., Wu officially became court administrator and the empire’s de facto ruler.


Imperial Chinese Emperor­

She set to work consolidating her power. Rivals were banished or murdered, and those who had supported her rise were rewarded. She executed at least three chancellors and established a formidable secret police network. In 690 A.D., Emperor Wu took to the throne in her own right, disregarding the Chinese law of succession, which made no provisions for female rulers. She founded the Zhou Dynasty, which lasted for fifteen years, a testament to her diplomacy, judgment, and courage.

Wu Zetian was regarded as a ruler with her finger on the pulse. She won the people over by listening to them and incorporating their suggestions into reforms. Significant reforms included agricultural reorganization and land redistribution. Historians uncovered a granary dating to her reign that held up to 60,000 tons of rice for distribution in case of famine. Food security for a population estimated to have been one million at the time was a mammoth task, and Emperor Wu tackled it decisively.


A Radical Reformer

Her land reform efforts were widespread; on top of distributing land fairly amongst her subjects, Wu equipped them with agricultural education and an irrigation system. She also reduced taxes on farmers, and the country’s agricultural output increased substantially.

Wu promoted meritocracy and forbade nepotism. She encouraged citizens to rise in rank through merit, creating a level playing field with more equal opportunities. A strategy that also diluted the power of the aristocracy, a potential adversary to the empress. She reformed the tax system by reducing taxes for society’s lower classes, and improved education, even introducing new characters to the Chinese alphabet. By instituting exams, she encouraged people to study and qualify for positions. This helped eradicate a system that bestowed opportunities only on those of noble birth. Military personnel, previously promoted on the basis of their family name and economic standing, now had to sit exams to qualify for advancement.


A Win for Women

The period of Emperor Wu’s reign is regarded as a progressive time for women within the context of the period. Through her reforms, she attempted to free women from the harsh rules imposed for generations. Artifacts dating back to the period illustrate that women enjoyed similar rights to men, including a liberalized dress code. Women had freedom of movement and could come and go as they pleased without needing permission or being accompanied by a man. Girls had access to education and were free to explore the arts, while sports like archery and horse riding were open to them.

Before Wu’s reign, divorce was taboo. Women tried to preserve their marriages at all costs, and communities reviled those who divorced. Emperor Wu attempted to improve the situation by making divorce and remarriage socially acceptable. During her reign, Emperor Wu Zetian appointed a woman prime minister, another first, and the appointment was made on merit.

She discouraged Confucianism while promoting Buddhism. Confucianism was a widespread philosophy that upheld values such as loyalty, love, and compassion as the basis of social order. However, Confucianism also had misogynistic undertones and advocated a patriarchal society where women obeyed their husbands and fathers with no participation in public life. Women were unable to inherit property or carry the family name. By enabling women to do many things previously reserved for men, Wu Zetian blazed a trail as a proto-feminist.


A Quiet Old Age

After fifteen years on the throne, a coup d’état forced Emperor Wu Zetian to relinquish power. She stepped down peacefully and went on to live a quiet life until she died aged eighty-one. She is buried next to her husband, Gaozong, in the Qianling Mausoleum (a tourist site today). Curiously, Wu Zetian’s gravestone remains blank. There is no inscription of her accomplishments, as was the custom, for the emperors of this period. Whether this was an attempt to deny her existence is uncertain, but as they say, ‘History has no blank pages.’

Wu lives on today in popular culture. The first biopic about her was produced in China in 1939. Since then, her character has appeared in dozens of films, TV series, and video games produced in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Could it be that popular culture is more enamored of Wu than mainstream history? Although she’s not as celebrated as leaders like Cleopatra, Catherine the Great, or Queen Elizabeth I, Emperor Wu Zetian will forever be remembered as a force to be reckoned with.


Edited by Michael Moss

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