Even though according to the Confucian beliefs having a woman rule would be as unnatural as having a "hen crow like a rooster at daybreak," during the most glorious years of the Tang dynasty a woman did rule, and ruled successfully. She was Wu Zetian, the only female in Chinese history to rule as emperor. To some she was an autocrat, ruthless in her desire to gain and keep power. To others she, as a woman doing a "man's job," merely did what she had to do, and acted no differently than most male emperors of her day. They also note that she managed to effectively rule China during one of its more peaceful and culturally diverse periods.

Empress Wu was the only female sovereign in the long history of China. She murdered three of her children as well as most of her husband's relatives and elevated members of her own family to acquire and secure the throne. She had herself declared a reincarnation of Buddha and she scandalized the court with her affair with an ex-wrestler whom she named abbot of a Buddhist temple. Disgusted by her shameless behavior she was eventually overthrown by her own ministers. She was 80 at the time.

Wu Meiniang was the daughter of a prestigious general in the service of the first T'ang emperor, T'ai-tsung. She joined the emperor's household at the tender age of fourteen and eventually became one of the 27 tsairen, the lowest-ranking official concubines. When the emperor dies in 649, Wu and the other court ladies were sent to a Buddhist convent as was the custom and fate of concubines. The new empress, Wang, brought Wu back to court to distract Emperor Kao-tsung, who was lavishing too much attention on his favorite, Lady Shiao. Wu quickly enchanted the emperor but the court was horrified seeing as Wu was his father's mistress. Wu's first child was born in 651. Wu strangled the infant and placed the blame on Empress Wang. Not believing that Wu would kill her own child, Kao-tsung believed the lie and fell out of favor with Wang. Wu waited for a while and finally in 655 she planted a wooden figure with a nail through it's chest under Wang's bed that was discovered by the emperor who accused Wang of practicing witchcraft, imprisoned her along with Lady Shiao and went on to marry Wu.

Wu, afraid that the emperor might begin to regret Wang and Shiao (as indeed he did) ordered them whipped and their hands and feet cut off. She then had them thrown into the palace wine vats. "Let their bones and marrow melt in drunken ecstasy," she said of their horrible fate. Supposedly Wu was troubled by their ghosts and she then persuaded the emperor to build her a new palace so she could get away. The emperor found it increasingly difficult to defy his wife's wishes. After coronation she methodically began removing all his most trusted advisors and substituted men who were loyal only to her. The deposed ministers were exiled to other provinces. Many died on the way and others were forced to commit suicide at their final destination. To prevent further complications their families were sold as slaves. Women whom Kao-tsung spent time with died unexpectedly (usually after dining with the imperial couple). Two women who were removed in such a fashion were the Duchess of Han in 655 and her daughter Sansan in 666. The Duchess was Wu's sister.

In 664 the Emperor had the first in a long series of paralytic strokes. He was only 36, but life with Wu was perilous. As he grew weaker, Wu asserted her her authority in all matters and affairs of the state. He died in 683, but long before his death the real ruler of China was his wife. Wu had four sons by Kao-tsung and Hung, the eldest was intelligent and brave. When he objected to the way his mother had treated his brother Jer's wife (Wu locked her up in a small house and starved her to death) he too died suddenly after a banquet with his parents in 672. Shien, the second son who was said to have been equally courageous and honest complained about his mother's affair with the palace astrologer and found himself exiled to Szechuan. Jer, the third son ruled for 54 days after his father's death when Wu substituted him with Dan (the youngest) and banished him to Hopei. Wu sent a captain to supposedly protect Shien in Szechuan. Shien was forced to hang himself.

Ruling in the name of her son Dan, Wu began a purge of the late emperor's family. Her corrupt and bribed judges convicted dozens of T'ang princes of treason, using confessions extorted by torture, and then executed of exiled them. Their families were also killed or turned into slaves. By 690, after eliminating all threats the empress declared herself the sole ruler of China and founder of the Chou dynasty.

In an effort to take care of her public image Wu wrote two books: "Lives of Model Women" and "Domestic Duties of Women." She chose Wu Tsertien which means Wu Modeled-after-Heaven, as her coronation name. By 688 she had become Shengmu Shenhuang (Holy Mother Divine Sovereign) and in 690 she had herself declared a reincarnation of the Buddha Maitreya, graciously descending from heaven to rule the fortunate Chinese people. When she formally came to the throne, she changed her title again, this time to Shengshen Huangdi (Holy Spirit Emperor) and raised her ancestors for seven generations to imperial rank, thus getting her dynasty off to a good start.

While she was giving herself these lofty titles she was scandalizing the court by having a liaison with an ex-wrestler named Feng, known as Little Precious. Wu named him Embracing Righteousness and made him an abbot of the huge White Horse Buddhist temple within the palace walls. Having become a very powerful man, the abbot tired of Wu after ten years and he stopped satisfying her private demands. She in turn took a new lover and spurned Feng in public. He took his revenge by burning the temple that Wu built for him inside the palace. In return she had him killed and dropped Buddhism for Confucianism and changed all her titles again.

She spent her last years with the Jang brothers, two beautiful young men who became her favorites in 697. Worn out by carousing; she was unable to resist a palace coup in 705 which put Jer back on the throne as Emperor Chung-tsung and restored the T'ang dynasty. Amazingly enough she died at 80 of natural causes.

 

 

In order to challenge Confucian beliefs against rule by women, Wu began a campaign to elevate the position of women. She had scholars write biographies of famous women, and raised the position of her mother's clan by giving her relatives high political posts. She moved her court away from the seat of traditional male power and tried to establish a new dynasty. She said that the ideal ruler was one who ruled like a mother does over her children.

During her reign, Empress Wu placed Buddhism over Daoism as the favored state religion. She invited the most gifted scholars to China and built Buddhist temples and cave sculptures. Chinese Buddhism achieved its highest development under the reign of Wu Zetian.

---

When the emperor died and Kao Tsung took over, Wu was now twenty seven years old. In time she became a favorite concubine of the new emperor, giving birth to the sons he wanted. As mother of the future emperor of China, she grew in power. She managed to eliminate Kao Tsung's wife, Empress Wang, by accusing her of killing Wu's newborn daughter. Kao Tsung believed Wu, and replaced Empress Wang to marry the up and coming Wu Zetian.

Read More >>

Further Reading

Empress

Wu Ze Tian: Empress of China


 

 

625 - 705 (the only feminine monarch in Chinese history)