In all of Chinese history, there has only ever been one female emperor to actually rule the whole country in her own right: Wu Zetian. And she ruled, successfully, for almost half a century. Yet Empress Wu still remains to this day one very controversial woman (Seductress! Usurper! Baby killer!). Sure, she might have been a bit ruthless in her climb to power, but her cunning and ambition gave rise to one of the most prosperous and peaceful times in Chinese history (at least, for everyone not related to her).
So, why all the hate? Killing family members was practically a sport for a lot of young men of royal blood back in the day – I’m looking at you, Roman Empire. If you guessed that Wu’s infamy had something to do with her lady bits, you’re on the right track. China was (and still is) a heavily patriarchal society based on Confucian ideals such as “A woman’s duty is not to control or take charge”.
While a lot of what we know about Wu Zetian isn’t 100% reliable (in part due to her status as a powerful female figure during a time when a woman’s duty was to be subservient, which probably rubbed many male historians the wrong way), there are things we do know. We know she was born to a wealthy(-ish, sources vary) and noble family during the Tang Dynasty; that she was unusually well-read and well-educated; that her beauty and wit made her the concubine of both Emperor Taizong, and (after his death) his son Emperor Gaozong; and that she may have had a stint as a Buddhist nun, complete with shaved head (though it’s possible she never left court at all).
But the path to becoming empress had its obstacles: namely Emperor Gaozong’s wife, Empress Wang, and his favoured concubine, Consort Xiao. When Empress Wang found herself in a power struggle with Consort Xiao, the empress hoped Wu Zetian would steal some of the favour bestowed on Xiao. It worked, but probably a lot better than Empress Wang had intended – Wu Zetian quickly found herself the Emperor’s favourite, and proved to have a lot of influence over him. So the two former rivals, Empress Wang and Consort Xiao, decided to join forces. Little did they know that they were messing with the wrong woman.
Here is where it gets really difficult to tell what really happens. Shortly after giving birth to a baby girl, Wu Zetian is claimed to have killed her own daughter with her own hands, then blamed the death on Empress Wang. Emperor Gaozong sides with his concubine, and Wang is deposed. It’s possible, of course, that Wang really did kill the child – but it’s also possible that Wu Zetian did it to remove her biggest rival. Regardless, once Wang is removed from the picture, Gaozong names Wu Zetian his new empress.
Wu didn’t stop there. After five years of marriage, Emperor Gaozong became too sick to rule (some say due to slow poisoning). So Wu Zetian took control, forming a secret police force and removing her opposition by having them jailed or killed (including the former empress Wang, many ministers and bureaucrats, and several members of her own family). When the Emperor died in 683 A.D., Wu stayed in power as dowager empress through a succession of her sons. Finally, Wu Zetian ordered her last son to abdicate and stepped into her ultimate role: that of emperor, which she held until 705 A.D. (at over 80 years of age).
It’s pretty incredible that Wu Zetian was able to accomplish becoming a female emperor, but even more remarkable is what she did during her reign. Challenging Confucian beliefs, Wu successfully promoted women’s rights, elevating the position of women – even if it was a means of legitimizing her rule. Scholars wrote biographies of famous women and children were legally able to have a time of mourning for both parents (instead of just their fathers). Wu Zetian was able to take the seat of power and move it away from traditional male power – and yet, a lot of negativity surrounds her. This was a leader who avoided war, introduced a system of examinations for her government, lowered oppressive taxes on the peasants, increased agricultural production, and welcomed ambassadors from lands as far away as the Byzantine Empire.
So, was Wu Zetian simply a ruthless and cruel autocrat? Or was she a fierce, intelligent woman doing what any male in her position would do, during a time when men were using (and expected to use!) violence to come to power (and keep it)? I think it’s pretty obvious – she might have had her faults, but overall this woman is a perfect example of a woman doing what a woman’s gotta do.