Empress Wu
Empress Wu Zetian (625–705) was the empress of China from A.D. 690 to 705. She is the only woman in Chinese history to rule in her own right. and . She usurped the throne in 690 and died in 705 at age 81. The daughter of a Shanxi lumber dealer, she grew up in Shaanxi and was briefly a nun before she worked her way up to empress from a low-ranking concubine. Regarded as a tyrant, she reportedly killed many of her rivals and changed the name of the dynasty from Tang to Chou (or Zhou). It was changed back after she died.

Empress Wu Zetian was the only female emperor in Chinese history. Her story has intrigued many in China, and has been the subject of a TV series. She expanded China, improved international relations and trade, raised the status of women and encouraged the arts. Under her rule great works of art such as Buddhist statuary, mounted dolls playing musical instruments, gold and silverworks, ceramics and glassware were produced. She reportedly had her own harem of men and is famous for being tactful with her husbands.. She was ultimately forced off the throne by a coup in 705 orchestrated by one of her sons.

Originally a low-ranked concubine, Wu allegedly rose to power after killing her own baby daughter. Wu spent years consolidating her power and ruling behind the scenes. In 690, after Gaozong had been dead for some time and she had forced two of her sons off the throne, Wu became the official emperor of China. While condemned for her ruthlessness and violent tactics, she is credited for the stability of her reign, her reform of the civil service examinations, and her policy of keeping nationwide suggestion boxes in which ordinary subjects were allowed to criticize government officials.[Source: Tristan Shaw, Listverse, May 16, 2016]

Wu Zetian's Usurpation

According to the “Middle Ages Reference Library: Taizong’s son Gaozong ( ruled 649–83) found himself almost constantly at war, particularly against the Turks and Tibetans. In 668 he subdued the Koreans, but he did not prove as forceful a ruler as his father. During his later years, the empire was dominated by his concubine, Wu Zetian . By skillful manipulation and a ruthless approach to those who stood in her way, she made herself Gaozong’s empress in 655, and after his death in 683 became one of the few female ruler in Chinese history. [Source: Middle Ages Reference Library, Gale Group, Inc., 2001]

Empress Wu's rise to power was achieved through cruel and calculating tactics: a popular conspiracy theory stated that she killed her own baby girl and blamed it on Gaozong's empress so that the empress would be demoted. Emperor Gaozong suffered a stroke in 655, and Wu began to make many of his court decisions for him, discussing affairs of state with his councilors, who took orders from her while she sat behind a screen. When Empress Wu's eldest son, the crown prince, began to assert his authority and advocate policies opposed by Empress Wu, he suddenly died in 675. Many suspected he was poisoned by Empress Wu. Although the next heir apparent kept a lower profile, in 680 he was accused by Wu of plotting a rebellion and was banished. (He was later obliged to commit suicide.) [Source: Wikipedia +]

In 683, Emperor Gaozong died. He was succeeded by Emperor Zhongzong, his eldest surviving son by Wu. Zhongzong tried to appoint his wife's father as chancellor: after only six weeks on the throne, he was deposed by Empress Wu in favor of his younger brother, 12-year-old Emperor Ruizong. This provoked a group of Tang princes to rebel in 684; Wu's armies suppressed them within two months. She proclaimed the Tianshou era of Wu Zhou on October 16, 690, and three days later demoted Emperor Ruizong to crown prince. He was also forced to give up his father's surname Li in favor of the empress's Wu. She then ruled as China's only empress. A palace coup on February 20, 705, forced her to yield her position on February 22. The next day, her son Zhongzong was restored to power; the Tang was formally restored on March 3. She died soon after. +

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: Empress Wu had been a concubine of Taizong. After his death she become a Buddhist nun—a frequent custom of the time—until Gaozong fell in love with her and made her a concubine of his own. In the end he actually divorced the empress and made Wu his empress, in 655. She gained more and more influence, being placed on a par with the emperor and soon entirely eliminating him in practice; in 680 she removed the rightful heir to the throne and put her own son in his place; after Gaozong's death in 683 she became regent for her son. Soon afterward she dethroned him in favour of his twenty-two-year-old brother; in 690 she deposed him too and made herself empress in the "Zhou dynasty" (690-701). This officially ended the Tang dynasty. “Matters, however, were not so simple as this might suggest. For otherwise on the empress's deposition there would not have been a mass of supporters moving heaven and earth to treat the new empress Wei (705-712) in the same fashion. There is every reason to suppose that behind the empress Wu there was a group opposing the ruling clique. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

Wu Zetian as a Ruler

Wu Zetian was an able administrator and military leader. She proved herself the equal of any male counterpart. Her grandson Xuanzong (ruled 712–56) ruled the Tang dynasty at the height of its power. The Empress Wu Zetian is said to have been the first Chinese ruler to practice panda diplomacy. She reportedly gave two pandas to the Emperor of Japan in A.D. 685.

Wu Zetian had high-level female officials working under her. In September 2013, the BBC reported: “The ancient tomb of a female politician in China, described as the country's "female prime minister", has been discovered, Chinese media say. The tomb of Shangguan Wan'er, who lived from 664-710 AD, was recently found in Shaanxi province...She was a famous politician and poet and a trusted aide of Wu Zetian. The grave was discovered near an airport in Xianyang, Shaanxi province, reports said. A badly damaged epitaph on the tomb helped archaeologists confirm that the tomb was Shangguan Wan'er's. Experts described the discovery as one of "major significance", even though it had been subject to "large-scale damage". "The roof had completely collapsed, the four walls were damaged, and all the tiles on the floor had been lifted up," Geng Qinggang, an archaeology research associate in Shaanxi, told Chinese media. "Hence, we think it must have been subject to large-scale, organised damage... quite possibly damage organised by officials," he said. [Source: BBC News, September 12, 2013]

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: In spite of everything, the Tang government clique was very pro-Turkish, and many Turks and members of Toba families had government posts and, above all, important military commands. No campaign of that period was undertaken without Turkish auxiliaries. The fear seems to have been felt in some quarters that this Tang group might pursue a military policy hostile to the gentry. The Tang group had its roots mainly in western China; thus the eastern Chinese gentry were inclined to be hostile to it. The first act of the empress Wu had been to transfer the capital to Loyang in the east. Thus, she tried to rely upon the co-operation of the eastern gentry which since the Northern Zhou and Sui dynasties had been out of power. While the western gentry brought their children into government positions by claiming family privileges (a son of a high official had the right to a certain position without having passed the regular examinations), the sons of the eastern gentry had to pass through the examinations. Thus, there were differences in education and outlook between both groups which continued long after the death of the empress. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“The attitude of the Turks can only be understood when we realize that the background of events during the time of empress Wu was formed by the activities of groups of the eastern Chinese gentry. The northern Turks, who since 630 had been under Chinese overlordship, had fought many wars of liberation against the Chinese; and through the conquest of neighboring Turks they had gradually become once more, in the decade-and-a-half after the death of Gaozong, a great Turkish realm. In 698 the Turkish khan, at the height of his power, demanded a Chinese prince for his daughter—not, as had been usual in the past, a princess for his son. His intention, no doubt, was to conquer China with the prince's aid, to remove the empress Wu, and to restore the Tang dynasty—but under Turkish overlordship! Thus, when the empress Wu sent a member of her own family, the khan rejected him and demanded the restoration of the deposed Tang emperor. To enforce this demand, he embarked on a great campaign against China. In this the Turks must have been able to rely on the support of a strong group inside China, for before the Turkish attack became dangerous the empress Wu recalled the deposed emperor, at first as "heir to the throne"; thus she yielded to the khan's principal demand.

“In spite of this, the Turkish attacks did not cease. After a series of imbroglios within the country in which a group under the leadership of the powerful Ts'ui gentry family had liquidated the supporters of the empress Wu shortly before her death, a Tang prince finally succeeded in killing empress Wei and her clique. At first, his father ascended the throne, but was soon persuaded to abdicate in favour of his son, now called emperor Xuanzong (713-755), just as the first ruler of the Tang dynasty had done. The practice of abdicating—in contradiction with the Chinese concept of the ruler as son of Heaven and the duties of a son towards his father—seems to have impressed Japan where similar steps later became quite common. With Xuanzong there began now a period of forty-five years, which the Chinese describe as the second blossoming of Tang culture, a period that became famous especially for its painting and literature.

Wu Zetian, Buddhism, Merchants and Wealth

To legitimize her rule, Wu Zetian circulated a document known as the Great Cloud Sutra, which predicted that a reincarnation of the Maitreya Buddha would be a female monarch who would dispel illness, worry, and disaster from the world. She even introduced numerous revised written characters to the written language, which reverted to the originals after her death. Arguably the most important part of her legacy was diminishing the power of the northwest aristocracy, allowing people from other clans and regions of China to become more represented in Chinese politics and government. [Source: Wikipedia]

Wolfram Eberhard wrote in “A History of China”: "The eastern gentry, who supported the empress Wu and later the empress Wei, were closely associated with the foreign merchants of western Asia and the Buddhist Church to which they adhered. In gratitude for help from the Buddhists, the empress Wu endowed them with enormous sums of money, and tried to make Buddhism a sort of state religion. A similar development had taken place in the Toba and also in the Sui period. Like these earlier rulers, the empress Wu seems to have aimed at combining spiritual leadership with her position as ruler of the empire. [Source: “A History of China” by Wolfram Eberhard, 1951, University of California, Berkeley]

“In this epoch Buddhism helped to create the first beginnings of large-scale capitalism. In connection with the growing foreign trade, the monasteries grew in importance as repositories of capital; the temples bought more and more land, became more and more wealthy, and so gained increasing influence over economic affairs. They accumulated large quantities of metal, which they stored in the form of bronze figures of Buddha, and with these stocks they exercised controlling influence over the money market. There is a constant succession of records of the total weight of the bronze figures, as an indication of the money value they represented. It is interesting to observe that temples and monasteries acquired also shops and had rental income from them. They further operated many mills, as did the owners of private estates (now called "chuang") and thus controlled the price of flour, and polished rice.

“The cultural influence of Buddhism found expression in new and improved translations of countless texts, and in the passage of pilgrims along the caravan routes, helped by the merchants, as far as western Asia and India, like the famous Xuanzang. Translations were made not only from Indian or other languages into Chinese, but also, for instance, from Chinese into the Uighur and other Turkish tongues, and into Tibetan, Korean, and Japanese.

Cruelty and Ruthlessness of Wu Zetian

Summing up Wu Zetian’s reputation, Patrick Ryan wrote in Listverse: “She was a ruthless, cruel, sadistic and sexually depraved murderess who drove her people into chaos. She ordered tortures, executions and forced suicides on a daily basis. She had all of her rivals exiled or executed including the ex empress Wang. She also had members of her family executed including her niece, nephews and killed her newly born daughter. Other family members were exiled including her sons, in which one was eventually ordered to commit suicide. Wu had thousands of her people poisoned, strangled, mutilated, burned and boiled alive. Others had their noses, ears, feet and legs cut off. [Source: Patrick Ryan, Listverse, May 30, 2012]

Wu allegedly rose to power after killing her own baby daughter, when the baby was only one week old, through suffocation and pinning the death on Emperor Gaozong’s wife, Empress Wang. Since Wang often visited the baby’s nursery alone, the accusation stuck easily and she was dethroned. In 655, despite opposition at the imperial court, Wu took Wang’s place as empress. Her first act was to get rid of Wang and a concubine named Xiao, a former rival who also had her heart set on becoming empress. Wu ordered the two women have their hands and feet cut off. Their bodies were then hurled into wine jars, where they drowned on wine. [Source: Tristan Shaw, Listverse, May 16, 2016]

Mike Dash wrote in Smithsonian magazine: Wu has had a pretty bad press. For centuries she was excoriated by Chinese historians as an offender against a way of life. She was painted as a usurper who was both physically cruel and erotically wanton; she first came to prominence, it was hinted, because she was willing to gratify certain of the Taizong emperor‘s more unusual sexual appetites. “With a heart like a serpent and a nature like that of a wolf,” one contemporary summed up, “she favored evil sycophants and destroyed good and loyal officials.” A small sampling of the empress’s other crimes followed: “She killed her sister, butchered her elder brothers, murdered the ruler, poisoned her mother. She is hated by gods and men alike.” [Source: Mike Dash, Smithsonian magazine, August 10, 2012]

The most serious charges against Wu are handily summarized in Mary Anderson’s collection of imperial scuttlebutt, Hidden Power, which reports that she “wiped out twelve collateral branches of the Tang clan” and had the heads of two rebellious princes hacked off and brought to her in her palace. Among a raft of other allegations are the suggestions that she ordered the suicides of a grandson and granddaughter who had dared to criticize her and later poisoned her husband, who–very unusually for a Chinese emperor–died unobserved and alone, even though tradition held that the entire family should assemble around the imperial death bed to attest to any last words.

Just how accurate this picture of Wu is remains a matter of debate. One reason, as we have already had cause to note in this blog, is the official nature and lack of diversity among the sources that survive for early Chinese history; another is that imperial history was written to provide lessons for future rulers, and as such tended to be weighted heavily against usurpers (which Wu was) and anyone who offended the Confucian sensibilities of the scholars who labored over them (which Wu did simply by being a woman). A third problem is that the empress, who was well aware of both these biases, was not averse to tampering with the record herself; a fourth is that some other accounts of her reign were written by relatives who had good cause to loathe her. It is a challenge to recover real people from this morass of bias.

A Wikipedia article on Wu’s rise to power and how things worked in her time reports: In 675, as Emperor Gaozong's illness worsened, he considered having Empress Wu formally rule as regent but his top officials opposed the idea. During this time Empress Wu accrued more political power than the Emperor Gaozong due to his absence and a number of people fell victim to her ire. Empress Wu had been displeased at the favor that Emperor Gaozong had shown his aunt, Princess Changle. Princess Changle was married the general, Zhao Gui and had a daughter who became the wife and princess consort of Wu's third son Li Xi n, the Prince of Zhou. Princess Zhao was accused of unspecified crimes and placed under arrest, eventually starving to death. Zhao Gui and Princess Changle were exiled. Meanwhile, later that month, Li Hong, the Crown Prince—who urged Empress Wu not to exercise so much influence on Emperor Gaozong's governance and offended Empress Wu by requesting that his half-sisters, Consort Xiao's daughters, Princess Yiyang and Xuancheng (under house arrest) be allowed to marry—died suddenly. Traditional historians generally believed that Empress Wu poisoned Li Hong to death. Li Xián, then carrying the title of Prince of Yong, was created crown prince. Meanwhile, Consort Xiao's son Li Sujie and another son of Emperor Gaozong's, Li Shangjin, were repeatedly accused of crimes by Empress Wu and were subsequently demoted.

Empress Wei

Empress Wei (died 710) was an empress and the second wife of Emperor Zhongzong, who reigned twice. She was in charge of running the government during her husband's reign. In his second reign, she attempted to emulate her mother-in-law Wu Zetian and seize power. After Emperor Zhongzong's died in 710 — a death traditionally attributed to poisoning — she attempted to to take power as the empress dowager and regent. Not long afterward she was overthrown and killed in a coup led by Emperor Zhongzong's nephew Li Longji, who later became Emperor Xuanzong. [Source: Wikipedia]

It is not known when Empress Wei was born or what here given name was. During the reign of her husband's grandfather Emperor Taizong, her grandfather Wei Hongbiao served as the military advisor to Emperor Taizong's son Li Ming. When Emperor Zhongzong (then using the name Li Zhe) was crown prince, he married her as his second wife (his first wife, Princess Zhao, was starved to death when her mother Princess Changle offended Li Zhe's mother Empress Wu Zetian. After the marriage Wei’s father was given an important military position. In 682, Wei she gave birth to their only son, Li Chongzhao. Wei also gave birth to at least one daughter — Princess Changning — and possibly Li Xianhui, Princess Yongtai.

When Emperor Gaozong died in 683, and Li Zhe took the throne as Emperor Zhongzong. However, actual power was in the hands of his mother Empress Wu Zetian, the empress dowager. Li Zhe was constantly in fear in exile and mentally prepared himself to commit suicide as Wu Zetian had previously shown willingness to kill her own children. Li Zhe and Princess Wei were eventually exiled.

While Li Zhe and Princess Wei were in exile, Empress Dowager Wu had, in 690, forced Li Zhe's brother Li Dan to yield the throne to her, interrupting Tang Dynasty and establishing her own Zhou Dynasty with her as "emperor" (this when she formally became known as Wu Zetian). She named Li Dan as her crown prince, but constantly suspected him of secretly plotting against her, and in 693, she killed his wife Crown Princess Liu and concubine Consort Dou, and further investigated him for treason, stopping the investigation only when his servant, An Jinzang, cut open his own belly to swear that Li Dan would never commit treason.

In 698, Wu Zetian decided to make Li Zhe crown prince and she summoned Li Zhe and his family out of exile. In spring 705, when Wu Zetian being ill, she was forced to yield the throne back to Li Zhe (then named Wu Xin). He was returned to the throne as Zhongzong, restoring Tang Dynasty, when Wu Zetian died in 705. Wei became empress and quickly became very powerful. She plotted against her enemies and her enemies plotted against here. She had affairs with officials and people were poisoned, forced to commit suicide and exiled. People were killed for revenge and implicated in plots they were not really involved in, and killed in brutal or cruel fashion for that. Li Chongjun, the crown prince, was humiliated and harassed by Wei and called a slave. Li raised an army and tried to kill Empress Wei but instead he was killed by his own subordinates.

In 710, Emperor Zhongzong died after eating poisoned. Empress Wei did not initially announce his death, but instead placed a number of her cousins in charge of the imperial guards, to secure power, before she announced Emperor Zhongzong's death two days after his death. Emperor Zhongzong's son Li Chongmao took the throne as Emperor Shang and Empress Wei retained power as empress dowager. Empress Dowager Wei's clan members urged her take the throne, like Wu Zetian did and eliminate Zhongzong’s closest relatives. An official leaked their plan and Zhongzong’s relatives responded by killing Empress Wei’s relatives. Empress Dowager Wei panicked and fled to an imperial guard camp where she was beheaded by a guard. More of here relatives were killed and Wei and was posthumously reduced to commoner rank. Still Emperor Ruizong buried her with honors (so some historians refer this as an evidence that she never poisoned Zhongzong), but not with honors due an empress, rather with honors due an official of the first rank. Films with Empress Wei include “Deep in the Realm of Conscience” (2018), “The Greatness of a Hero” (2009). “Palace of Desire” (2000) and “The Blood Hounds” (1990).

Image Sources: Empress Wu, AllPosters.com; Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated August 2021

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