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  • James Houser

October 16, 690 - Wu Zetian, Empress of China

Updated: Jun 15, 2021

October 16, 690 A.D. A new Emperor ascends to the throne in China. No one cares, right? Well, prepare to care. HER name is Wu Zetian, the first and last female Emperor of China, and she is the most cold-blooded, tyrannical, efficient, and uber-competent #bossbabe in possibly all of history. Under her iron fist, China will experience unprecedented peace and prosperity for half a century. Just don’t cross her.

Let’s be real: it’s a long way to the top in medieval China. It’s a much, much longer way when you are a woman in a highly patriarchal society. It takes a lot of murder, intrigue, poisoning, and generally underhanded maneuvering that is not acceptable in a 21st-Century society. Let me be very clear: Wu Zetian was a bad, bad person. But despite her later reputation, she really wasn’t any worse than anyone else of her period. Consider that when she began her rise to power, the Emperor was Taizong of Tang. Whether you’ve been following my posts or not, I don’t expect you to remember that name, but he was the Chinese Emperor who rose to power by having his brothers ambushed and killed, then coercing his father into transferring power. So we’re not dealing with a bunch of Captain Americas here.

Wu Zetian was born in 624. Her family was a military clan in northern China, and her father was a high-ranking officer in the Tang Dynasty’s army. The Wu clan was wealthy and prosperous, but her father was an odd duck. He encouraged young Wu Zetian to read often and enabled her to gain a first-class education, which was highly unusual for that period in China. (Despite popular perception, female education was highly common in most civilized societies from the ancient era on – just NOT in China in the 7th Century.) Wu learned a great deal about politics, government, literature, and fine arts; she was undoubtedly extremely bright from a very young age.

It was this obvious intelligence that brought her into the Imperial fold. At age 14, Wu Zetian – apparently extremely beautiful and graceful, as well as wicked smart – was chosen to become an Imperial concubine. Yes, gross. Imperial concubinage, though, was a complex social and political system that relied on political relationships as much as sex. The Imperial harems of China often held hundreds of women, and if you think the Emperor was taking his time to make time with ALL of them you may overestimate male stamina. (Most men can’t even handle ONE woman.)

It’s worth noting that when Wu joined the Imperial harem, Emperor Taizong was 40 and well-known for being extremely committed to work and duty. Not exactly a high-libido age. It’s just as likely that some nasty courtier told him “Hey, look at this hot teenager” and he said something like “Hm? Oh yes, cute. Um…I’m busy. Go wave a fan or something.”

According to Wu Zetian’s own records, she slept with Emperor Taizong only once. She spent most of her time in her new duties as basically a glorified secretary, which was all she had wanted at that point. Wu soaked up the Imperial library, and even impressed the Emperor on occasion with her comments about history and urban planning. At one point, she impressed the Emperor with more than her knowledge.

In a comment she would make later to a minister she was threatening, Wu said:

“Emperor Taizong had a horse with the name "Lion Stallion", and it was so large and strong that no one could get on its back. I was a lady in waiting attending Emperor Taizong, and I suggested to him, ‘I only need three things to subordinate it: an iron whip, an iron hammer, and a sharp dagger. I will whip it with the iron whip. If it does not submit, I will hammer its head with the iron hammer. If it still does not submit, I will cut its throat with the dagger.’ Emperor Taizong praised my bravery. Do you really believe that you are qualified to dirty my dagger?”

Despite this – or maybe because she scared him – Wu was never the Emperor’s favorite concubine. She did, however, become his son Li Zhi’s favorite, which was a super big no-no in Imperial China. See, Wu Zetian had her sights set high from an early age. When she had gone off into concubinage, she comforted her crying mother with the statement that "How do you know that it is not my fortune to meet the Son of Heaven?" Wu was not content with being a concubine – even though that was literally about as high up the food chain as a woman could get in Imperial China. Wu Zetian would make a habit out of finding men with power, sucking them dry, and moving right along to the next. And she was GOOD at it. Extremely attractive, extremely intelligent and utterly ruthless, she had no intention of being shoved off.

So when Emperor Taizong died in 649, Li Zhi ascended the throne and became Emperor Gaozong of Tang. (Again with these Chinese name changes.) It was customary for all the concubines of a dead Emperor who had NOT borne his children to be confined to a monastery as a nun. Wu Zetian found herself locked up in a nunnery – but not for long. Emperor Gaozong still had the hots for her, and visited her often to hear her talk. She only became more captivating to him, and by 650 Gaozong said “to hell with tradition” and brought her back to court as his own concubine. Step One of “The Plan” was complete.

Now…how to gain the first place in the Emperor’s favor? Gaozong already had an Empress named Wang, and she was well-regarded by the whole court. To make matters worse, Gaozong’s acceptance of his father’s concubine into the harem was considered incest in Chinese custom, making everyone very leery of Wu Zetian. But obstacles that would have stopped most power-seekers were NOTHING to Wu. She monopolized the Emperor’s time, giving birth to his son in 654. Later that year, after she had birthed a daughter, she encouraged Empress Wang to play with the baby – then allegedly suffocated it, framing the Empress for the murder. (That, at least, is the story. As we will see, Wu Zetian had unusually bad press.) Empress Wang and her family were accused of witchcraft.

Within a year, Empress Wang and her entire family were demoted and the Empress herself imprisoned. Soon Wu Zetian herself had taken her rival’s place, with her son now the designated heir to the throne. Emperor Gaozong, possibly fooled but equally likely to have been in on the whole scheme, had purged his ministry of the old Empress’s cronies, which left Wu Zetian an opportunity to staff the court with her own competent, careful appointees. Finally, to cement her coup, Wu demonstrated a level of brutality rarely displayed in any episode of Chinese history. She had the former Empress Wang executed, allegedly having her rival dismembered limb from limb before being drowned in a vat of wine.

As death metal/horror movie as that sounds, one thing needs to be stated before we get too carried away with the concept of supervillain Wu Zetian. All her historians, anyone who wrote the records of her rule, hated her, absolutely despised her. Confucian ideals, which were the bread and butter of the Chinese intelligentsia, are extremely clear about the role of women in a properly ordered society. The result was that Wu Zetian’s career was almost uniformly recorded by her haters. She didn’t help matters with her manipulative and commandeering rise to power, but the scholars who wrote the histories had every interest in working every salacious rumor, every violent accusation into her storyline – even while they had to admit through gritted teeth that her rule was beneficial and prosperous to China. The truth of the matter is: history is written NOT by the victors, but by the writers.

So did Wu Zetian actually murder her own child? Or did Empress Wang, jealous of the fact that she gave Emperor Gaozong no children, kill the baby? Or was it just SIDS, a very real and very misunderstood problem even to this day? There’s no disputing that Wu used her child’s death to her advantage, no matter the reason. Did Wu actually have Empress Wang torn apart before drowning her? Maybe…if the story didn’t so closely resemble an ancient Chinese legend. Possibly, Wu took inspiration from this legend; probably, the historians cribbed ancient stories to make her seem more evil. Truth is, we’ll never really know.

What mattered now was that in 655 Wu Zetian was the Empress-Consort, and quickly took up the reigns of power. She would not release them for 50 years. Gaozong, according to one record, “sat with folded hands” while Empress Wu exercised the supreme power in the land. “Promotion or demotion, life or death, were settled by her word.” She attracted all the best and most able hands in the Empire, most of whom were attracted by her ruthless pragmatism, capability and efficiency. The same historian described her as “rapid and sure in decision. Therefore all the brave and eminent of the epoch were glad to serve her and found opportunity to do so.”

This is, of course, TOTALLY unrelated to Gaozong’s mysterious migraines and hypertension-related illnesses starting from 660. With the Emperor bedridden or in treatment much of the time, he increasingly relinquished power to Empress Wu, and everyone saw a sudden uptick in efficiency and governance. For the rest of Gaozong’s reign of 23 years, Wu would literally be the power behind the throne. After a brief kerfluffle in 664 when hubby tried to reassert power and Wu beat him back into submission, the Empress sat behind a pearl screen over Gaozong’s shoulder at all imperial meetings. She was effectively making all the decisions from here on out.

Wu’s place of nearly co-equal power to the Emperor needed all the legitimacy it could get, and she resurrected ancient Chinese rituals and religious practices. She reconstituted the ancient capital Luoyang as a secondary capital city, and in 666 she browbeat Gaozong into performing the great Mount Tai ritual for the first time in six centuries. However, Wu added her own twist, performing a second and parallel ceremony for the women of the court and the harem. Throughout her career, Wu would exploit tradition to her benefit – even as she uprooted it entirely.

Because unlike many female rulers in the premodern era, Wu Zetian did work to advance the station of fellow women. She took her status as the breaker of the glass ceiling as an opportunity to raise it by placing a ceiling on marriage dowries, lowering the mandatory mourning period for mothers, and commissioning a series of biographies of great Chinese women. Later her daughter and a female scholar would join her in something like a female cabinet that ran China. Wu also loosened up many other old laws, initiating amnesties and tax cuts for the people of China. She dismantled some old feudal structures, instituted the world’s first labor laws, and got rid of kangaroo courts for the lower classes, which would have the odd effect of making her something of a Marxist hero in the late 20th Century.

Of course, being a Marxist hero has a downside. Wu Zetian organized one of the world’s first organized secret police forces, and instituted a reign of terror that later Communist societies would be jealous of. With dozens of spies and assassins running around, the usual “coup, then coup again” cycle of Chinese Imperial rule was abruptly stopped in its tracks. Within a few months of the secret police’s creation, they were throwing out plots like moms throw out dirty clothes when they clean kids' rooms. Yes, it is bad to have a secret police, but based on how many plots they uncovered you can’t blame Wu for keeping them around. At the apex of their power, two generals on the frontier that had only BEGUN to plan a coup found their heads on spikes within a year.

With her newfound power, Wu began to exile or basically push aside her own children if they seemed like they posed a threat – like, say, if they were to succeed an Emperor that was increasingly incapable of holding the throne. When Emperor Gaozong finally did die in 683, his oldest son who wasn’t dead or exiled became the 28-year-old Emperor Zhongzong. When Zhongzong tried to speak up to his mother and assert his authority, Wu said “nope” and after only a month replaced him with his younger brother Emperor Ruizong, all of 22. She also promptly purged the court of anyone who had stood behind Zhongzong. Ruizong wasn’t even allowed to move into the Imperial Palace: Mama refused to move out.

It was by 690 that Wu Zetian, who had basically ruled China for thirty years, looked around and decided it was time to stop even pretending she wasn’t in charge. That year, she had her son Ruizong yield the throne, and on October 15, 690, established the Zhou Dynasty, with herself as the first and last female Emperor of China. (Note I do not say Empress. The Chinese did not have a word for “Empress” per se.)

For the next fifteen years, Emperor Wu Zetian ruled China with an iron fist, basically doing whatever the heck she wanted. She scandalized the intelligentsia by reverting old Chinese custom and never taking a husband, instead taking male lovers as she saw fit well into her 70s. (Of course, male Emperors had been keeping a literal stable of women for centuries and no one said boo.) She continued with both her reign of terror and her remarkably progressive rule. Wu Zetian remained committed to improving the lives of the common people, keeping the government staffed with competent and meritorious officials regardless of family or nobility, and maintaining a strong and reformed army. Her armies managed to subdue Tibet and reconquer the Western Regions now known as Xinjiang and Kyrgyzstan. She conducted military strategy and diplomacy with the same skill and attention to detail that she conducted – well, everything.

The upshot of all this is that Tang China was at its height during the reign of Wu Zetian. One of the lessons of any study of history is that great people are often really BAD people, and Wu definitely fits that category. Undeniably a horrible human being and possibly deserving that old word "evil" that I hate to use in these history posts, she oversaw 50 years of economic prosperity, military achievement, political stability and religious reform within Imperial China. The murders and the Orwellian secret police and everything were pretty bad – but they were also concentrated within the elites of society, leaving the bulk of the people free to live their lives in a peaceful and prosperous society. No genocides, no great famines, no plagues or economic crises or military invasions. Just a bit of murder and torture concentrated in the tippy-top of governmental politics.

That is still pretty bad, but as we all know it could be a lot, lot worse.

By 705, Wu Zetian was 81 years old, and suffering repeated bouts of illness. Palace intrigue was finally getting away from her, and she was losing her grip just a bit. One coup finally slipped past her secret police, and on February 20, the court launched a bid to overthrow her. After executing a couple of her top ministers, a couple of generals surrounded her estate and demanded that she yield the throne to her son Zhongzong, who she had deposed 22 years previously. Knowing when she was beat, and aware that she was at death’s door, Wu agreed. Two days later, the first and last Empress of China abdicated in favor of her son and quietly retired to a subsidiary palace, where she finally passed away a few months later.

Wu Zetian was buried next to her husband Gaozong, as well as her son Li Xian, grandson Li Chongrun, and granddaughter Li Xianhui – who she had all had killed. I imagine the ancestral ghosts must have had some VERY interesting conversations in that tomb above Chang’an.

Wu Zetian’s story is extraordinary both for its rarity and for its uniqueness. It’s not often that a woman was able to gain such unequalled power at any period in history; Wu was, probably, the most powerful woman in human history up until either Elizabeth I or Catherine the Great – and either of them could be disputed, since Wu faced a much more difficult ladder to power than either and ruled a more complex and difficult empire. The Tang Dynasty was probably the most powerful entity in the world in the 600s AD, and for 50 years an extremely capable, powerful, brilliant and ruthless woman sat at its center. She wasn’t just a good ruler, she was one of the greatest rulers in human history, to rival Augustus or Charlemagne or Bismarck – men well-known for their equal brutality.

This should also put the lie to the "if the world was ruled by women it would be peaceful" line of thought. Violence and tyranny are gender-inclusive.

So if you’re a time traveler in medieval China, from around 650 to 700, you’re probably going to be okay. You'll be safe, well-fed, and find a good job. You can live your life as well as anyone in the medieval age...that is, as long as you beware the wrath of the Dragon Queen.

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