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Ambitious through Defiance: Wu Zetian, the Last (and Only) Empress

Updated: 5 days ago


The Dragon Throne, still displayed today inside the maze of buildings that are part of the Forbidden City in Beijing, is the vivid embodiment of the power once detained by Chinese emperors. Since a unified Chinese empire was established in 221 BCE, it has seen only men claiming the necessary privilege to sit on it. After all, in imperial China, only men were considered worthy to reign. However, during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), people in the imperial court were able to witness an event never to be repeated. On that seat, for the first and only time in two-thousand-year imperial history, a woman ruled as empress, or, to be more precise, as huángdì 皇帝 in Chinese. ‘Huángdì’ is a gender-neutral title (an aspect that inevitably gets lost in the English translation) adopted by the first emperor to describe his new-found authority. While the capital at that time was not yet Beijing, the power of that woman, often mentioned to this day by her posthumous title Wu Zetian, was very real, and her authority absolute. Through family advantages, persistence, and ruthlessness, she was able to engrave her name in the chronicles of the Chinese empire, affecting its historical course for several decades.

 

While there are no definite sources on Wu’s birth name, we know that she was born in 624, perhaps in Lizhou, modern-day Sichuan province (Colla, 2018). Wu entered the court at a young age as one of Emperor Taizong’s concubines,  thanks to her father and mother’s familial connections to the imperial clan. When Taizong died of illness,, she was sent to a Buddhist monastery, as was the custom for the consorts of dead emperors, destined to spend the rest of her life there as a nun far from the court’s intrigues (Colla, 2018). Her role, however, was far from over. She was summoned again to court by the wife of the new emperor Gaozong, Empress Wang (here the term ‘empress’ needs to be understood as the emperor’s wife, not as huángdì). Wang planned on using Wu to diminish the increasing influence of consort Xiao, one of Gaozong’s concubines. Thus, the young woman swiftly began to build her position. Wu cunningly ousted both Wang and Xiao, slowly influencing the actions of the Emperor and, after Gaozong suffered a stroke in 660, she became the real holder of power (Paludan, 1998).


Following the Emperor’s death in 683, everything was ready for Wu to take the last, decisive step towards absolute authority. Wu’s second son became the new emperor in 684, but she soon ousted him and replaced him with his younger brother, who acted as no more than a puppet. In 690, Wu finally appointed herself the new title of ‘Holy and Divine Empress’ (Shèngshén Huángdì 聖神皇帝), with the peculiar choice of adding two characters to describe her divine nature (Paludan, 1998). She proclaimed the beginning of a new Zhou dynasty, alluding to the original one from 1046-256 BCE, which was considered a golden age in imperial history. Therefore, she was shoring up legitimacy for her power move by comparing herself to historical figures, including the sage kings Wen and Wu, and the Duke of Zhou, who belonged to an idealised past (Colla, 2018). In this way, Wu became the only woman in Chinese imperial history to officially reign as empress. As was often the case inside the imperial court, her rise to power was backed by violent initiatives. Accordingly, she is often described as a ruthless ruler in traditional historiography. Historical sources tell us that Wu ordered the amputation of ex-empress Wang’s arms and legs and of one of Gaozong’s concubines, while also having their supporters killed (Paludan, 1998). 


An interesting aspect of the Zhou period, Wu Zetian’s personal inter-reign before the re-establishment of the Tang authority, lies in her quest to justify female rule. To properly understand this point, one needs to consider the broader social context in which she lived and reigned. The influence of Confucianism and of its principles had long pervaded the empire’s social fabric, creating a solid distinction between men, women, and their respective gender roles. Wu became empress at a time when, even if powerful women were able to navigate the imperial court’s intricacies as concubines, imperial wives and empress dowagers, common women were seen in a less favourable light. In a male-dominated society with a rigid social hierarchy, they were constrained  by the so-called sāncóng 三從, the ‘threefold following’. Usually forced to  remain in the domestic realm, they had to be dependent on and obey their fathers, husbands, and sons (Colla, 2018). The Tang dynasty offered, in this aspect, a more favourable environment to women, who enjoyed a degree of freedom unthinkable to their predecessors. This situation, however, does not change the reality that common women had to experience relative discrimination. For this reason, Wu Zetian felt that she needed, before and after she took power, to legitimise her claim as the rightful Huángdì. She accomplished this through a mixture of religion, magic, and symbolism, mainly directed to appeal to the broad masses. 


Before Wu’s ascendency as empress, the discovery of a stone stele (bǎotú 寶圖) in 688 with the inscription ‘A Sage Mother shall come to Rule Mankind; and her Imperium shall bring Eternal Prosperity’ served as a symbolic omen to illuminate the imminent arrival of an auspicious woman (historical sources tell us that Wu herself may have had a role in fabricating the discovery) (Kory, 2008). Involved in superstitious rites, Wu also decided to sponsor Buddhist and Daoist religions, having state-sanctioned temples established throughout the empire while promoting spiritual art. These moves planted the image of a divine empress, a rightful and benevolent ruler, in people’s minds. One of the most notable cultural legacies of the Zhou dynasty is indeed the enormous Maitreya Buddha statue that was carved at Longmen in 673 under Wu’s commission, whose features resemble those of the Empress (McNair, 1994).


Despite the importance of legitimation, Wu Zetian was not solely concerned about her right to govern the empire. During her reign, Wu pushed for a reform of the imperial recruitment policy. She delegated the so-called Scholars of the Northern Gate (a group of scholars dedicated to promoting literary endeavours while supporting Wu’s administrative work) to write a Rules for Officials chén guǐ  臣軌 in 693, which became part of the civil service examination (Colla, 2018). In doing so, she emphasised  candidates’ talents and education level over their clan lineage. Moreover, Wu focused on boosting the imperial economy, especially by supporting agriculture reforms and taking advantage of the Silk Road trade opportunities. These aspects, together with her patronage towards Buddhism, present us the figure of a skilled and educated ruler (Lee, 2015). 


Wu Zetian’s reign could therefore be described as a unicum in the history of the Chinese empire, an ambitious project of a woman willing to challenge the social preconceptions of her time. Wu’s aspirations prompted her to search constantly for ways to legitimise her authority, while strenuously defending her rule. Despite representing a deviation from the normal course of events, Wu was nonetheless a product of her age, where the path to ultimate power was often entangled with court intricacies, vengeances, frail alliances, and any sort of plot devised to subdue possible rivals. Probably displeased by the fact that a woman was able to gain such power, later accounts particularly stressed the ruthlessness of her rule, and even compared it to a “violation of nature” (Jay, 1996). While there is evidence that Wu’s time as empress was characterised by cruel events, her reign still represents a remarkable cultural legacy in the broader Chinese imperial history. Wu, by and large, was the defiant Empress who furthered the prestige of the Middle Kingdom, preparing the empire for one of its most prosperous heyday.   


ABOUT THE AUTHOR


Davide L. Barattin 白小炟 holds a Master's Degree in International Relations and European Studies from the University of Florence. Passionate about China and East Asia, he is especially fascinated by China’s past and contemporary history. You can find him on Twitter: @DavideLBarattin and on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/davide-barattin/ 


This article was edited by Kalos Lau and Luca Rastelli.


BIBLIOGRAPHY


Colla, E., 2018. When the Emperor is a Woman: The Case of Wu Zetian 武則天 (624-705), the ‘Emulator of Heaven’. In: E. Woodacre, ed. A Companion to Global Queenship. Amsterdam: ARC Humanities Press, pp.13-26. Available from: 


Jay, J.W., 1996. Imagining Matriarchy: ‘Kingdoms of Women’ in Tang China. Journal of the American Oriental Society, 116(2), pp.220-229. Available from: 


Kory, S.N., 2008. A Remarkably Resonant and Resilient Tang-dynasty Augural Stone: Empress Wu’s Baotu. Tang Studies, (26), pp.99-124. Available from: https://www.wellesu.com/10.1179/073750308790779350.


Lee, Y.T., 2015. Wu Zhao. Ruler of Tang Dynasty China. Asia: Biographies and Personal Stories, Part II, 20(2), pp.14-18. Available from: 


McNair, A., 1994. Early Tang Imperial Patronage at Longmen. Ars Orientalis, 24, pp.65-81. Available from: https://www.jstor.org/stable/4629460.


Paludan, A., 1998. Chronicle of the Chinese Emperors: The Reign-by-Reign Record of the Rulers of Imperial China. New York: Thames & Hudson. 







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