Empress Wu Zetian: the only woman to rule China, and who would be hated for it
For more than 3,000 years, only one woman ruled China in her own right: a concubine who became the wife, then mother of emperors, before taking the throne. Samantha Morris explores how Wu Zetian broke away from the typical woman’s role in medieval China and ruled through strong, often brutal, leadership
“Women are to be led and to follow others,” is a quote attributed to the hugely influential Chinese philosopher and teacher of the sixth and fifth centuries BC, Confucius. “A woman ruler would be as unnatural as having a hen crow like a rooster at daybreak.”
In medieval China, where most followed Confucianism, women were to be seen and not heard. Their roles were to stay at home and produce children; that a woman could hold any sort of power was unheard of. The very idea was taboo. That was until one woman turned everything on its head.
Her name was Wu Zetian, and for half a century she ruled China, in one form or another, ruthlessly removing any rivals to secure her authority and efficiently seeing to governance, the economy and the expansion of the empire. But she also became one of the most demonised and maligned people in China’s history.
Why? Wu was all-powerful, and power was something women should have in seventh-century China, according to a male-dominated society. Her life is mired in controversy, as sources from the time and years afterwards tarred her with the brush of a brutal and despotic ruler. Much of the real Wu remains hidden beneath layers of bias. What is known for certain, though, is that she is the only woman to have ever ruled China in her own right.
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Born in AD 624 – to a father who was a timber merchant and a mother in the Yang family – Wu was not raised to be near power. Though lesser nobility, her family was relatively wealthy and the young daughter was afforded an excellent education. This served her immeasurably when summoned to join the royal court at 14 years old, to be an imperial concubine of Emperor Taizong.
She remained a lesser wife until Taizong’s death in AD 649. The new emperor, Gaozong, had by all accounts slept with Wu while his father was still alive, and while custom dictated that childless wives of a deceased emperor should live out their lives in a religious institution, Wu’s banishment did no last long. Gaozong had been so enchanted with her that he soon recalled Wu to court.
Wu’s brutal rise to power
This is when Wu started what would be a monumental rise to power. She rose through the ranks of Gaozong’s concubines with her eyes firmly on the prize of reaching the top. She had already given the emperor a child, proving – by the standards of the day – that she was more suited to the task of being empress than Gaozong’s wife. But Empress Wang, along with another of Gaozong’s favoured women, needed to be removed if Wu was to take what she saw as her rightful place.
If the story is true, her next move was exceptionally brutal. According to the official histories (written by those with a reason to besmirch Wu’s name), she smothered her new-born daughter and blamed Wang, who had been the last person to see and hold the child. Reportedly devastated, Gaozong had his empress locked away, soon followed by the other favoured consort who was accused of being an accomplice.
In AD 655, as Wang languished in a cell, Wu was raised to empress and bore Gaozong four sons and a daughter. To secure her position, she swiftly ordered that both of the jailed women be executed as they could prove to be dangerous if left alive. They had their hands and feet chopped off and their broken bodies thrown into a vat of wine where they were left to drown.
For more than two decades, Wu effectively ruled as the weak-willed Gaozong grew sickly. Enemies at court were removed, or executed, and everything on matters of administration went through her. With Gaozong’s death in AD 683, Wu became dowager empress, but rather than retire, as custom demanded, she stayed on at court as regent and retained power by manipulating the reigns of her sons.
Eventually in AD 690, Wu, who was now in her mid-60s, forced her youngest son, ruling as Emperor Ruizong, to abdicate and took the crown for herself. Having already been de facto ruler of China for three decades, she would rule in her own right for the following 15 years as head of the Wu Zhou dynasty.
Was Wu a progressive ruler?
While Wu’s rise had been meteoric, her years as empress regnant were largely quiet. Usually overlooked are the changes she introduced that would help the economy and society, and make her popular with the people. One of the biggest reforms was to the Imperial Examination System, used for to recruit into government service and the bureaucracy. Where previously only a certain calibre of person could be selected, Wu changed it so both commoners and gentry could apply. Successful candidates were chosen for their ability, rather than their family name or money.
A similar change was made to military promotions. Wu also worked closely with a number of scholars to commission works on important women from Chinese history, and changed the mourning period for deceased mothers to match that of a father. To all intents and purposes, she was an early feminist.
Empress Wu’s final years and death
Later in her life, Wu surrounded herself with young men, something that proved highly controversial among those at court. Many believed that she used these young men for her sexual gratification and as a way of trying to keep herself from aging. It has been pointed out, however, that many of the male emperors did a similar thing without provoking such ire.
Just as she had taken the throne in a coup, the end of her reign came the same way. Two of Wu’s young companions, the Zhang brothers, were seen as getting above their station. Fears rose of them getting too powerful and being able to manipulate the empress. They were accused of corruption by members of Wu’s family, including her grandson Li Chongrun, the Prince of Shao and her granddaughter Li Xianhui.
In AD 705 AD, during a period of serious illness for the empress, a cohort of ministers and generals hatched a plot to kill the Zhang brothers and install Wu’s son, Zhongzong, as emperor. On 20 February, they put their plan into action. Once the Zhang brothers were dead, the conspirators then forced Wu to yield her throne and she went into seclusion. Just 10 months later she was dead, and was interred alongside her husband, Gaozong.
So ended the life of China’s only female ruler, whose actions proved that women were just as capable as men. Following her death, much was made of her brutality and overly sexual nature, painting her in such a light that even today – and despite the efforts of historians to record the life of the real Wu – she is still severely disliked.
By the standards of the time, she should have stayed quiet and remained powerless, a plaything for powerful men. Yet Wu rose from obscurity to be proclaimed an empress. Though she was certainly responsible for the deaths of many who stood in her way, she did not act all that differently to the powerful men who came before and after her. Her crimes were twisted and her name blackened – a common fate for women who tried, and succeeded, to change the established order of things.
Samantha Morris is a historian and author, specialising on the Borgia family and the Italian Renaissance. Her latest book is Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia: Brother and Sister of History’s Most Vilified Family (Pen and Sword, 2020)
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