Empress Wu (Wu Zhao)

views updated

Empress Wu (Wu Zhao)


First female monarch


Rise to Power. Empress Wu, or Wu Zhao, challenged the patriarchal system by advocating women’s intellectual development and sexual freedom. Born to a newly emerging merchant family in the Northeast, Wu Zhao had been a concubine of Li Shimin, or Taizong, founder of the Tang dynasty (618-907). In defiance of convention Emperor Gaozong started an affair with her, and she bore him a son in 652. She then began to plot against Gaozong’s consort, Empress Wang, incriminating the empress in the death of Wu’s infant daughter. By 655 she had consolidated her position after her son inherited the throne. Wu disposed of her enemies, first the former empress and then the high-ranking officials, who had strongly opposed her rise.

New Capital. To consolidate her power, in 657 Wu designated Luoyang as a second capital. By transferring the normal seat of the court from Chang’an to Luoyang, she was able to escape the control of the great families of the northwestern aristocracy, which played an important role in the rise of the Tang dynasty. Favoring the power base in the Northeast, the royal family finally moved to Luoyang in 683. Economic considerations also played a role in this relocation. The area around Chang’an could not produce the amount of food required to feed the court and garri-sons, and the transportation of grain up the Yellow River, traversing the Sanmen rapids, was exceptionally expensive. Luoyang was favorably located on the last stop of the river routes from the South, which greatly reduced the cost of shipping grains from the Southeast to the imperial capital.

Empress Dowager. When Gaozong suffered a stroke in 660, the empress made herself the ruler. Gaozong’s third son succeeded to the throne in 683 after his death, but Empress Wu became the empress dowager in a few months, after forcing the young emperor to abdicate.

Reign of Terror. After rising to power, Wu tried to remove from power the representatives of the northwestern aristocracy, who had controlled the government from the beginning of the dynasty through the medium of the imperial chancellery. In 684 Li Jingye led a revolt of those northwestern families who had been disgraced and exiled to the Yangzi Valley. After suppressing this revolt, the empress dowager began to purge her opponents at court. She ordered the executions of several hundred of these aristocrats and of many members of the imperial family of Li. She founded a secret police and conducted a reign of terror, justifying the mass executions on the grounds that discrimination against a woman’s open exercise of power forced her to use terror to defend her authority.

Zhou Dynasty. Removing the legitimate heir, she took the name of Emperor Zetian and founded the Zhou dynasty in 690, becoming the first and only female emperor in Chinese history. Her usurpation marked a significant social revolution, the rise of a new class, which the empress tried to use in her struggle against the traditionalist, northwest nobility. Empress Wu proved to be a wise monarch, and in her reign of twenty years she continued many policies and practices of her predecessors.

Buddhists’ Support. Wu Zhao embarked on religious life as a nun in a convent after Li Shimin’s death in 649. Before coming to power, she was presented with three petitions containing sixty thousand names and urging her to ascend to the throne, which suggested that she had some popular support. To legitimize her position, Empress Wu turned mainly to Buddhism, proclaiming herself an incarnation of Maitreya (Mi-le), the Buddhist savior.

Patronage of Buddhism. During her reign she ordered the erection of temples in every province to explain the Dayunjingy which predicted the emergence of a female world ruler seven hundred years after the passing of the Buddha. Her patronage of Buddhism also expanded to other temples and sects, and much work was done on the cave temples at Longmen on her orders. She particularly supported Huayan Buddhism, which regarded Vairocana Buddha as the center of the world, much as Empress Wu wished to be the center of political power. Unlike her predecessors she was fond of the Buddhist community, which led her to build at great expense the Mingtang, or Hall of Light. It was used for religious rites supervised by her lover Xue Huaiyi. When he fell out of favor, he burned the building to the ground. Thereafter the empress favored Confucianism.

Examination System. Under Wu’s rule the government was expanded, and many of the new positions were filled through the examination system. To recruit a new class of administrators through competition, the examinations that had played only a secondary role in the recruitment and promotion of civil servants in Han times (206 B.C.E.-220 C.E.) had been organized in a systematic way by the year 669. This institution became a political weapon in the hands of Empress Wu when she usurped the throne in 690. Although this system opened government positions to a wider group than ever before, in the final stages of the process candidates continued to be judged on their appearance and speech. These criteria no doubt favored the aristocratic families. Since candidates normally tried to win favor with an examiner prior to the tests, some could use their family connections to send samples of their verse in an effort to impress the men who held the keys to government positions. In the reign of Empress Wu, persons who entered government through the examinations were able for the first time to occupy the highest positions, even that of chief minister. Nevertheless, court intrigues still greatly influenced the recruiting of civil servants.

Territorial Expansion. Under the administration of Empress Wu, Tang territory expanded through constant fighting with other peoples, particularly the Tibetans. In 605 the Qidan, who lived in Manchuria in the marginal areas between the open steppe and settled areas, invaded the Tang empire and gained a dramatic victory over Wu’s armies near the site of modern Beijing. Meanwhile, the Turks invaded Gansu, and the Tibetans posed a threat to Chinese possessions in Central Asia. The empress responded with both diplomacy and force, concluding a marriage alliance with the Turks and defeating the Qidan in battle. On the Korean peninsula Empress Wu supported the unification movement under the state of Silla. Although she was not able to control the newly unified state, relations continued to be friendly during her reign.

Abdication. In her last years Wu lost influence, although she remained energetic and cruel. Her extravagant construction projects and expensive frontier campaigns had exhausted the treasury, which led to a financial crisis. From 697 onward she found it so diffi-cult to win support that she attempted to return the throne to her son Zhongzong. Her courtiers, however, hatched a plot and afterward forced her to abdicate in 705; she died later that year. While Confucian historians condemned her usurpation, extravagance, and scandal, Wu Zhao has been credited for providing strong leadership and ruling during an age of relative peace and prosperity.


Woodbridge Bingham, The Founding of the T’ang Dynasty: The Fall of Sui and Rise ofT’ang, a Preliminary Survey (New York: Octagon, 1975).

R. W. L. Guisso, Wu Tse-t’en and the Politics of Legitimation in T’ang China (Bellingham: Western Washington University, 1978).

Edward Schafer, The Divine Women: Dragon Ladies and Rain Maidens in T’ang Literature (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973).