Wu Ze-tian

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Wu Ze-tian

Born 625

Died 705

Chinese empress

"A sage mother will befall and her imperium [empire] will be prosperous forever."

"Prophecy" concerning Wu Zetian's rule

I n China as in many other countries, women have exerted an influence over the government without actually holding office. Usually they have been wives or lovers of men in power, and often they have held greater authority than their men. But in nearly four thousand years of Chinese history, only one woman has ever officially ruled China: Wu Ze-tian. During her reign, she proved herself the equal of any man—both in ability and in ruthlessness.

Friends in high places

She is sometimes known as Wu Chao (ZHOW), the name she would take when she assumed the Chinese throne, but she was born Wu Ze-tian or Wu Tse-t'ien (zeh-CHEE-en). Her father, Wu Shi-huo (zhee-WOH), was a wealthy businessman in southeastern China in 617 when he received an important request from Li Yüan (yee-WAHN), then the military commander of the region. At that time, the harsh Sui (SWEE) dynasty ruled China, but Li Yüan had plans for its overthrow, and he needed Wu Shi-huo's help.

In the following year, Li Yüan and his son Li Shih-min (ZHUR-min) took power with the assistance of Wu Shi-huo and others, establishing the T'ang (TAHNG) dynasty. The new emperor rewarded his ally by giving him an important position in the government, and by offering him the cousin of the last Sui emperor, Lady Yang, as his wife. The couple had three daughters, of whom Wu Ze-tian was the second.

Wu Ze-tian was a beautiful young woman, and when Li Shih-min (who had become emperor) heard about her, he arranged for the fourteen-year-old girl to come to the palace. In China, rulers were assigned titles after their death; Li Shihmin is better known to history as T'ai Tsung (dy-DZAWNG; see entry), the greatest ruler of T'ang China. Twenty-six years older than Wu Ze-tian, he made her his concubine, a woman whose role toward her "husband" is like that of a wife, but without the social and legal status of a wife.

Jockeying for power

T'ai Tsung became ill in 649, and died later that year. His son and designated successor, Li Chih or Kao Tsung (gow-DZÜNG; ruled 649–83) soon took the throne. As a symbol of mourning, Wu Ze-tian shaved her head and entered a Buddhist temple as a nun; yet she had already attracted the attention of Kao Tsung. He married, but soon afterward, he visited the temple where Wu Ze-tian was living, and asked her to come back to the palace.

Back at the court in 651, twenty-eight-year-old Wu Ze-tian began to exhibit the cleverness and cunning that would make her the most powerful woman in China. She worked to create a friendly relationship with the empress while building a network of spies. The fact that the emperor was madly in love with her, and that the empress had been unable to produce a child, worked in her favor; then in 654, Wu Ze-tian herself presented the emperor with a daughter.

The Chinese valued sons over daughters, and therefore the birth of a girl was not as great a cause for joy as that of a boy—but that hardly explains what Wu Ze-tian did next. Knowing that the emperor adored their daughter, Wu Ze-tian secretly strangled the baby girl; then her spies informed the emperor that the empress was responsible. This gave Kao Tsung an excuse to set the empress aside, and Wu Ze-tian took her place as his number-one wife. The former empress died soon afterward, most likely through the efforts of Wu Ze-tian.


Though she never ruled her country as Wu Ze-tian did, the Frankish queen Fredegund (c. 550–597; ruled 561–584) exhibited some of the same ability to achieve and maintain power. Like Wu Zetian, she had nerves of steel, and rarely shied away from any act that she deemed necessary to further her own position.

Fredegund first came to the palace of Chilperic (KIL-pur-ik), grandson of Clovis (see entry), as a slave girl. Like Wu Ze-tian, however, her beauty soon won her the king's attention. In so doing, she displaced the queen, Audovera, who had borne Chilperic three sons, but Fredegund remained a concubine and not a full-fledged wife.

In 567, Chilperic took a second wife, Galswintha; but Galswintha was strangled in her bed soon after the wedding. It is not clear whether Fredegund arranged her murder, but in any case she now had no serious competition for the king's affection.

In the years that followed, Fredegund proved herself more vicious than Chilperic in dealing with his enemies, and she ordered numerous assassinations. Meanwhile, she tried to increase her own standing at court by producing a son and heir to her husband. At least then she would stand a chance that her offspring could become ruler while she wielded the real power behind the throne. Several efforts failed, however, and two of her boys died in childhood. But several of Audovera's sons died too, and Fredegund finally succeeded in murdering Audovera and the latter's last remaining son.

Fredegund left a trail of bodies behind her, a death toll that is too long to recount. One of her favorite tactics was to use one person to help her get rid of another, then murder her former ally as well. In fact she may have been responsible for her own husband's death—but not before she bore a son, Chlothar (KLOH-thar), who lived. Chlothar finally took power in 596, but Fredegund had little opportunity to enjoy her success: she died a year later.

Quarrels with her sons

Kao Tsung became increasingly ill, and as his power faded, that of Wu Ze-tian grew. She became involved in making policy and proved herself an able leader, introducing a twelve-point program of reform that included reductions in the military, taxes, and forced labor; increases of salaries for government officials; and improvements in agricultural production. These measures won her a great deal of support.

In 674, Wu Ze-tian created the titles of Heavenly Emperor and Heavenly Empress for her husband and herself. By this point, she and the emperor had three sons, but the first one died mysteriously, probably murdered by his mother. Then in 680, the second son was charged with starting a rebellion, and he was sent away.

Three years later, Kao Tsung died, and the third son, Li Che, took the throne. He proved incapable as a ruler, and shortly afterward Wu Ze-tian replaced him with a fourth son, Li Tan. Her tampering had made Wu Ze-tian a number of enemies, and in 686 they launched an armed rebellion against her. She managed to put down this uprising, along with a second one several years later.

Sole ruler of China

With Li Tan still on the throne, Wu Ze-tian set about consolidating her power. This she did in part by giving help to poor people around the country and by punishing corrupt officials. She was further assisted by a couple of items that were mysteriously discovered around the same time. One was a white stone bearing the words "A sage mother will befall and her imperium will be prosperous forever." This, along with a Buddhist scripture that predicted the coming of a great female ruler, were interpreted as prophecies of Wu Ze-tian's reign. These "prophecies" certainly appeared at a convenient time for Wu Ze-tian, and it is likely she arranged to have them planted and discovered.

In 690, she received three petitions, one signed by more than sixty thousand people, asking her to take power. Using this as justification, she removed Li Tan from power, and declared the end of the T'ang dynasty. Wu Ze-tian, now sixty-six years old, assumed the throne under the Zhou (ZHOH) dynasty, though as it turned out, she would be the only ruler in this dynasty.

Over the fifteen years of her reign, Wu Ze-tian once again proved herself an able administrator. She promoted men of talent and honesty, and her troops won a number of victories. But in 705, when she was eighty-one years old, one of her officials led a rebellion against her, and Wu Ze-tian realized that she was too old to maintain power. When the official restored the throne to Li Che (who was then replaced in 710 by Li Tan), she put up no fight. She died in November 705.

For More Information


Ashby, Ruth and Deborah Gore Ohrn, editors. Herstory: Women Who Changed the World. Introduction by Gloria Steinem. New York: Viking, 1995.

Asimov, Isaac. The Dark Ages. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1968.

Chiang, Ch'eng-an. Empress of China, Wu Ze Tian. Monterey, CA: Victory Press, 1998.

Reese, Lyn. The Eyes of the Empress: Women in Tang Dynasty China. Berkeley, CA: Women in World History, 1996.

Web Sites

"Ancient China: The T'ang, 618–970." [Online] Available http://www.wsu.edu:8080/~dee/CHEMPIRE/TANG.HTM (last accessed July 26,2000).

"Female Heroes: Empress Wu Zetian." Women in World History. [Online] Available http://www.womeninworldhistory.com/heroine6.html (last accessed July 26, 2000).

"The Franks." [Online] Available http://www.btinternet.com/~mark.furnival/franks.htm (last accessed July 26, 2000).

"Fredegund." Imperium. [Online] Available http://www.ghgcorp.com/shetler/oldimp/147.html (last accessed July 26, 2000).

"The T'ang Dynasty (a.d.. 618–907)." [Online] Available http://deall.ohio-state.edu/jin.3/c231/handouts/h9.htm (last accessed July 26,2000).