Wu Zetian: The Dragon Lady of Ancient China


Wu Zetian, Empress of the Tang Dynasty


by Dennis Chan Hong Ming

As China’s international status has risen over recent decades, human rights issues have become a concern for many. Gender inequality in particular has long been the target of criticism from Western cultures. Historically, girls and women in China were merely considered “belongings” of their husbands and fathers. Young girls from prestigious families were forbidden to leave their rooms until they reached marrying age (三步不出閏門) and the notorious foot binding practice (纏足) applied to girls during the Qing dynasty are just two illustrations of the suppression of females under the patriarchic society in ancient China.

Polygyny was the dominate form of marriage for thousands of years. It was not uncommon for male peasants to have four wives at the same time, and emperors from different royal dynasties kept innumerable concubines in their inner palaces. According to legend, each emperor of the Northern Song dynasty was married to “three thousand beauties” (后宮佳麗三千) at once. Women only had the unfortunate destiny of being men’s appendages.

Considering the many long-established societal constraints, the appearance of Wu Zetian’s (武則天) story is exceptional. So exceptional that no one in the past five millennia has ever come close to what she achieved and established. Regarded as the only ruling “female emperor” in Chinese history, Wu Zetian showed that women’s abilities in politics are no weaker than men’s.

Wu’s rise to power was not a smooth one. Though debated, it is generally accepted that the Wu family was not aristocratic. Her father was originally a timber businessman, but he contributed to the establishment of the Tang dynasty, which helped to land him a minor official title in the royal court. Born as Wu Zhao in 624 AD, Wu Zetian had shown herself to be a strong-willed child as she refused to practice needlework and chose studying instead. Because of the reputation of her beauty, Wu was chosen to be a concubine (才人) of Emperor Taizong of Tang at the age of thirteen.

The age difference between Wu Zetian and Emperor Taizong was more than 27 years; it is not surprising that Wu Zetian became attracted to his son Prince Li Zhi, who was only four years older. The affair between Wu Zetian and Prince Li Zhi had been kept secret for years until the death of Emperor Taizong in 649 AD.

Wu never gave birth to any children with Emperor Taizong. According to royal custom, childless consorts of deceased emperors were permanently consigned to Ganye Temple (a Buddhist monastic institution) after the emperor’s death. Hence, Wu was forced to accept such an arrangement as well, and was expected to serve as a Buddhist nun for the rest of her life. Meanwhile, Prince Li Zhi had taken over the throne. The new emperor had never forgotten Wu, and he intentionally chose Ganye Temple for his inauguration. Wu and Emperor Gaozong met again, and not long afterwards it was discovered that Wu was pregnant with his child. By the early 650s, Wu left the temple and was welcomed by Emperor Gaozong to the inner palace. She was promoted to be Zhaoyi (昭儀), the second highest concubine title in the Tang royal court. Her imperial life started over again.

Throughout her marriage, Wu gave birth to four princes and two princesses. Her ambition to climb up the hierarchy had always been obvious. Bearing royal offspring and having them chosen as heir to the throne was the only way for women to achieve such aims, so Wu had strategically allied herself with other influential royal concubines and high-ranking government officials in order to guarantee that her first son would be the next emperor.

In the meantime, Wu had been longing for the position of Empress Consort. However Emperor Gaozong already had a queen (Empress Wang). Wu succeeded in eliminating Empress Wang by framing her for killing Princess Anding (Wu’s daughter) out of jealousy. In reality, Wu strangled her own one-year old daughter to death. Wu successfully became Empress Consort in 655. The mercilessness and cruelty of Wu in achieving her goal alarmed the entire inner palace, and later, even the emperor.

Emperor Gaozong was not a wise ruler. Most of his decisions actually came from Empress Wu. Gradually, she dominated both the inner palace and the government, while the Emperor became severely dependent on her and was entirely under her constraints. Though Emperor Gaozong eventually became aware of Wu’s ambition, he no longer had the ability to stop her.

In 683, Emperor Gaozong died and Wu became the Empress Dowager and Regent. She poisoned the crown prince and had the other princes exiled. Her own son, Li Zhe, thus ascended to the throne. However, he was not willing to act as his mother’s puppet. He tried to seize power from her, but Wu realized the plan, reduced his title back to prince and had him exiled just six weeks after his inauguration. Afterwards, Wu made her youngest son, Li Dan, the new emperor. He was fearful of his mother’s ambition and power, and in 690 he abdicated the throne to his mother. This remarkable moment marked the birth of the first and only female emperor in Chinese history. Wu ascended to the throne as the sovereign of a great empire. She changed the name of the dynasty to Zhou, and changed her name from Wu Zhao to Wu Zetian, which literally means “as high as the heavens.”

During her reign from 690 to 705, the Zhou dynasty became one of the most powerful dynasties in Chinese history. Wu encouraged talented people to work for the government by reinforcing the public examination system (科舉) for civil servants. Even commoners had a chance to take part and thus become government officials. Wu was also devoted to fighting against corruption, and the Zhou court is historically regarded as fair and upright. According to the Chinese history classic Book of the Tang Dynasty (唐書), Wu’s Zhou dynasty is referred to as part of the “Greatest Era of the Tang Dynasty” (盛唐), which was the golden era of Chinese history.

The map of the Chinese empire under Wu’s rule expanded beyond its previous territorial limits, deep into Central Asia and through the upper Korean peninsula. Development of Chinese literature and arts reached their peak. Wu Qianling_Mausoleum_42_2013-08also enlisted other women in her government. Among others, Shangguan Wan’er (上官婉兒), daughter of an exiled official from the Tang dynasty, was appointed as prime minister. The Zhou dynasty, the only dynasty led by women, was unprecedented and was the golden age of China in terms of political, economic and social development.

The Machiavellian method Wu used to achieve her ambitions was undeniably brutal; nevertheless her contribution to Chinese society should not be undervalued. Was this Dragon Lady a blessing or a curse to Chinese civilization? Even Wu herself couldn’t give the answer. She had the “Wordless Stele” at her tomb at Qianling Mausoleum left blank to let the successors of Chinese culture judge her achievements and mistakes.

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