Wu Zetian (624–705)

views updated

Wu Zetian (624–705)

Controversial ruler of Tang China who dominated Chinese politics for half a century, first as empress, then as empress-dowager, and finally as emperor of the Zhou Dynasty (690–705) that she founded . Name variations: Wu Ze-tian; Wu Chao, Wu Hou, or Wu Zhao; Wu Mei or Wu Meiliang; Wu Tse-t'ien, Wo Tsetien, or Wu Tso Tien; Wu of Hwang Ho or Huang He; Empress Wu, Lady Wu. Pronunciation: Woo-jeh-ten. Born née Wu (first name at birth not known) in 624 in Taiyuan, Shanxi province; died in 705 in Luoyang, Henan province; daughter of a high-ranking official, Wu Shihuo, and his aristocratic wife; married Emperor Taizong (r. 626–649), in 640 (died 649); married Emperor Gaozong (r. 650–683), in 654; children: (second marriage) Crown Prince Li Hong; Crown Prince Li Xian; Emperor Zhongzong; Emperor Ruizong; Princess Taiping ; another daughter (died in infancy).

Became concubine to Emperor Taizong (640); entered Buddhist nunnery (649); returned to the palace as concubine (654), then as empress (657) to Taizong's son Emperor Gaozong; became empress dowager and regent to her two sons (684–89); founded a dynasty (Zhou, 690–705) and ruled as emperor for 15 years.

The China that Wu Zetian was born in was the Tang Dynasty (618–906), a strong and unified empire after four centuries of political discord and foreign interaction. Tang China during the 7th century was a period of military strength and cultural attainments, its empire stretching into Central Asia and Southwest Asia and ruled by the Li-Tang imperial family from the capital city of Xi'an (Xian), Shanxi province. Missions from Japan, Korea, and Vietnam arrived at Xi'an bearing tribute and seeking education in Buddhism and Confucianism. Traders from the Mediterranean and Persia also came from both the overland and maritime trade routes, where Buddhism and Central Asian culture, dress, and music reached China. The Tang Dynasty also witnessed significant military, political, and social changes, as reflected in the transformation of an aristocracy into a meritocracy from the 7th to the 10th centuries. The Confucian dynastic system of government, based on the mandate of heaven, or the claim of heaven-sanctioned military conquest and benevolent rule, was first propounded by the Zhou Dynasty in 1045 bce and perpetuated by subsequent dynasties until 1911.

The founding emperor of a dynasty and his descendants constituted the imperial family, which through male succession produced emperors who were normally the eldest son born to the empress. A brother or a clan grandson at times ascended the throne during usurpation or when the emperor died without issue, but female succession through descent from a daughter was never permitted. To ensure imperial male progeny, the Chinese emperor's harem was an elaborate organization of eunuchs who attended to hundreds of concubines, of whom one was appointed empress, the principal wife of the emperor.

The primary and secondary sources on Wu Zetian are abundant and problematic, reflecting an almost exclusively male authorship that has portrayed her as a beautiful, calculating, brutal woman who ruled China as the only woman emperor in name and in fact. Recent revisionist reappraisals have focused on the feminist slant of her rule and her record as an emperor rather than a woman, but no new primary sources have appeared to resolve conflicting information and gaps in her biography.

Wu Zetian's father was a successful merchant and military official who reached ministerial ranks. Her mother née Yang was of aristocratic birth with mixed Chinese and Turkic blood, the result of generations of intermarriage when five nomadic tribes overran north China and founded dynasties in the 4th to 6th centuries. When she was an infant dressed in boy's clothes, Wu Zetian's potential for emperorship was predicted by an official. She first entered the imperial harem at the age of 13 as a lowly ranked concubine to Emperor Taizong (r. 626–649), who has been praised as the most capable ruler of the Tang period and hailed as the "heavenly khan" by Central Asian states. Wu Zetian's tough character and good equestrian skills were perceived by observers even when she was a teenager. When her mother was distressed about losing her to an uncertain life fraught with intrigues in the emperor's harem, she firmly reassured her: "Isn't it a fortune to attend the emperor! Why should you weep for me?" She later volunteered to tame Taizong's wild horse with an iron whip, hammer, and knife. While serving as his concubine, she risked a death penalty in engaging in an incestuous affair with the crown prince and her stepson, the later Emperor Gaozong (r. 649–683).

When Taizong died, Gaozong became emperor, and Wu Zetian joined a Buddhist nunnery, as required of concubines of deceased emperors. But several years later, she returned to the palace as Gaozong's concubine and gave birth to sons. We are told that through cruel manipulations, including strangulating her own infant daughter to falsely implicate Gaozong's then current barren empress, Wu Zetian replaced her as empress in 657 and dominated the rest of Gaozong's reign. When Gaozong died in 683, she became empress dowager and ruled on behalf of two adult sons, emperors Zhongzong (r. 684, 705–710) and Ruizong (r. 685–689, 710–712). In 690, she declared herself emperor after deposing her sons and founding her own dynasty—Zhou.

For Wu Zetian, the rise to power and consolidation involved manipulations, murders, and support of the intellectual and religious establishments. Traditional historians grudgingly acknowledged that she surpassed her sons, the legitimate heirs, in both vision and statecraft. Her daunting task was convincing the Confucian establishment about the legitimate succession of a woman who was the widow of the deceased emperor and the mother of the currently legitimate ruler. Wu Zetian was in effect taking the unprecedented step of transforming her position from empress dowager to emperor. She could not become an emperor under the Tang Dynasty because of the long tradition of male succession and the fact that she was not a member of the imperial family by birth. The answer was to proclaim another dynasty, not by military conquest, but by interpreting omens that favored her to carry out a change of dynasties and become enthroned as a woman emperor.

Give me three tools to tame that wild horse. First, I'll beat it with the iron whip. If it does not yield, I'll hit it with the iron hammer. If it still won't be tamed, I'll cut its throat with the knife.

—Wu Zetian

Changing the dynasty was the easier task and was accomplished by securing the approval of the Confucian establishment. Historians have documented Wu Zetian's resort to slander, torture, and murders to reinforce the propaganda of omens. Princes and ministers loyal to the Tang Dynasty and princes suspected of rebellious motives against her were executed. Setting up a new dynasty meant installing a new imperial family to replace the Li-Tang imperial house, from which she had married two emperors who were father and son, Taizong and Gaozong. To entrench her biological family as the imperial house, she bestowed imperial honors to her ancestors through posthumous enthronement and constructed seven temples for imperial sacrifices. Traditionally, only the emperor, as the son-of-heaven, could communicate with heaven and carry out sacrifices to heaven and earth. But already in 666 when Wu Zetian was empress to the reigning Gaozong, she had prepared for her imperial ambitions by defying tradition and mockery as she led the unprecedented procession of imperial ladies to sacrifice to earth, believed to be a female deity. To enhance her position as a woman, in 688 she constructed a "hall of light" in the eastern capital of Luoyang to serve as a cosmic magnet to symbolize the harmony of heaven and earth and the balance of male (yang) and female (yin) forces.

In preparing for the legitimacy of her emperorship, she claimed the Zhou Dynasty (1045–256 bce) and its founders among her own ancestors. She herself would thus be seen as a restorationist of the Zhou Dynasty, with the Wu family replacing the Li-Tang family. She gave titles of royalty to her own Wu family: her brothers and nephews became princes while her sisters, aunts, and nieces became princesses. The remaining Li-Tang family who survived the murders, including Wu Zetian's own son on whose behalf she was serving as empress dowager, begged to take the surname of Wu to replace their birth surnames of Li. Thus the Wu family was now elevated to the imperial house. Anticipating Wu Zetian's political ambitions, 60,000 flatterers—including Confucian officials, imperial relatives, Buddhist clergy, tribal chieftains, and commoners—supported the petition to proclaim the Zhou Dynasty with herself as the founding emperor.

On the question of succession after her death, Wu Zetian entertained notions of an heir from a Wu and Li marriage. She thus arranged marriages between her children and grandchildren with her brothers' sons and their grandchildren. Her upright Confucian minister, Di Renjie (d. 700, the protagonist of Robert van Gulik's popular Judge Dee detective novels), convinced her to bring back her son, the deposed emperor Zhongzong, to be appointed as her successor.

Wu Zetian's politics can be considered as feminist initiatives to reinforce the legitimacy of women in the political arena. She shocked the Chinese officialdom by arranging to send male grooms to the daughters and aunts of the tribal chieftains at the empire's borders, although it was customary to send female brides. When the Turkic ruler asked for a marriage arrangement, she sent her nephew's son to become the groom to the chieftain's daughter. The Turkic chieftain was insulted by the fact that the groom did not come from the Li-Tang imperial family but descended from what he perceived to be the inferior Wu clan, so he promptly imprisoned the unlucky groom and in 698 returned him to China.

Replacing the dynasty and imperial house through Confucian ideology still could not legitimize a woman on the throne. Wu Zetian turned to the Buddhist establishment to rationalize her position. Long a supporter of Buddhism through her mother's devotion and her own refuge in the nunnery after her first husband Taizong's death, Wu Zetian counted on Buddhist ideology to legitimize her reign and her dynasty. Her Buddhist supporters interpreted the Madamegha (Great Cloud) sutra to predict a maitreya Buddha (Buddha-to-come) in female form, presumably Wu Zetian herself, who would embody the concept of the cakravartin (wheel-turner, universal emperor, or the ideal man who is king). To reinforce her legitimacy, Wu Zetian also invented about a dozen characters with a new script. One of these served as her new personal name, Zhao, which articulates the fundamental Buddhist notion of universal emptiness.

Nevertheless, the legitimation was not without problems, and there was continued resistance from among the high officials who collaborated with the Li-Tang crown princes, princes, and princesses to get her dismissed as empress in 674 and dethroned as de facto ruler in 684, but both events failed. The insurrections had received little popular support and in the years that she dominated politics as empress, empress dowager, and finally as emperor, there were no widespread military unrests. But in 705, when she was 81 years old, the combined forces of the Li-Tang family took advantage of her weakening grip on the state and removed her from power. Wu Zetian died within a year.

Her overall rule, in spite of the change of dynasty, did not result in a radical break from Tang domestic prosperity and foreign prestige. But she changed the composition of the ruling class by removing the entrenched aristocrats from the court and gradually expanding the civil service examination to recruit men of merit to serve in the government. The development of the examination system during her reign was a critical step in the eventual transformation of the aristocracy to a meritocracy in the government. Although she gave political clout to some women, such as her capable secretary, she did not go as far as challenging the Confucian tradition of excluding women from participating in the civil service examinations. Already in 674 she had drafted 12 policy directives ranging from encouraging agriculture to formulating social rules of conduct. She maintained a stable economy and a moderate taxation for the peasantry. Her reign witnessed a healthy growth in the population; when she died in 705 her centralized bureaucracy regulated the social life and economic well-being of the 60 million people in the empire.

Wu Zetian's collected writings include official edicts, essays, and poetry, in addition to a treatise to instruct her subjects on moral statecraft. She changed the compulsory mourning period for mothers who predeceased fathers from the traditional one year to three years—the same length as the mourning for fathers who predeceased mothers. Wu Zetian argued that since mothers were indispensable to the birth and nourishment of infants, the three years when the infant totally depended on the mother as caregiver should be requited with three years of mourning her death. On a similar tone, she ordered that the mother of the Daoist sage Laozi (Lao Tzu, c. 600 bce) be honored.

Overall Wu Zetian was a decisive, capable ruler in the roles of empress, empress dowager, and emperor. According to almost all her biographers, she was extremely cruel in her personal life, murdering two sons, a daughter, sister, niece, grandchildren, and many Li and Wu princes and princesses who opposed her. Such killings were not uncommon among emperors before and after her. Her significance as an emperor and founder of a new dynasty lies in her redefining of the gender-specific concepts of the emperorship and the Confucian state.

As an effective woman ruler, she challenged the traditional patriarchical dominance of power, state, sovereignty, monarchy, and political ideology. Her experience reflected a reversal of the gender roles and restrictions her society and government constructed for her as appropriate to women. While functioning and surviving in the male-ruled and power-focused domain, she exhibited strengths traditionally attributed to men, including political ambition, long-range vision, skillful diplomacy, power drive, decisive resolve, shrewd observation, talented organization, hard work, and firm dispensal of cruelty. The political success of Wu Zetian indicates that the attributes needed in diplomacy and rulership were not restricted to men. Functioning in a male-oriented patriarchy, Wu Zetian was painstakingly aware of the gender taboos she had to break in political ideology and social norm. She worked against the Confucian dictum that women must restrict their activities to the home and in the wildest imagination could not become emperors. She contended with petitions against female dominance which argued that her unnatural position as emperor had caused several earthquakes to occur and reports being filed of hens turning into roosters.

The reversal of gender roles was nowhere more objectionable than Wu Zetian's sexuality, in the eyes of the traditional historians. Wu Zetian's first two sexual partners were emperors and related to each other as father and son. After the latter died in 684, she took on four or five lovers, including a monk whom she ordered executed when weary of his greed and abuse of power. Her last two lovers were the young and handsome Zhang brothers who put on makeup and exploited the relationship by obtaining offices, honors, and gifts for themselves and their family. In 705, Wu Zetian's grandson, the later Emperor Xuanzong (r. 712–756), slaughtered the Zhang brothers in spite of Wu Zetian's protest and forced her to return the Li-Tang imperial family to power.

The earliest sources on Wu Zetian already contained rumors of sex scandals in her court. An active imagination produced pornographic novels in the 16th century focusing on her alleged sexual practices. Modern popular novels and plays, in Chinese, Japanese, and English, also exaggerate the sexual aspect of her rule. If Wu Zetian is judged by the traditional female virtues of chastity and modesty, then she falls short of expectations. But if she is observed in the context of the sexuality of male rulers, then the number of her favorites is insignificant. In the last three decades, Marxist historiography on Wu Zetian in Mainland China has yielded a positive but unreliable and ideologically charged reappraisal. She appears in influential plays as a feminist and champion of the lower classes while her male rivals are shown to be aristocrats, landlords, and conservatives against the tide of history.

In sum, within the social and political context of her time, Wu Zetian was a leader who went beyond the traditional roles of submissive wife and home-bound mother to emerge as ruler, lawmaker, and head of state and society while her second husband, lovers, and sons were relegated to less powerful positions than traditionally expected. Some historians have viewed her as blazing the trail for the women who came after her, and indeed her daughter, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter aspired to emulate her success, but they failed and even died violently in the process. Thus Wu Zetian's experience might have caused some redefinition of gender in her time, but this direction has not translated into enduring gains in the society and political organization that she left behind.


Chen, Jo-shui. "Empress Wu and Proto-Feminist Sentiments in T'ang China," in Frederick P. Brandauer and Chün-chieh Huang, eds., Imperial Rulership and Cultural Change in Traditional China. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 1994, pp. 77–116.

Guisso, Richard W.L. "The Reigns of the Empress Wu, Chung-tsung and Jui-tsung," in Denis Twitchett, ed., Cambridge History of China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979. Vol. 3, no. 1, Sui and T'ang, pp. 290–332.

Jay, Jennifer W. "Vignettes of Chinese Women in Tang Xi'an (618–906): Individualism in Wu Zetian, Yang Guifei, Yu Xuanji and Li Wa," in Chinese Culture. Vol. 31, no. 1, 1990, pp. 77–89.

Liu, Xu. Jiu Tangshu [Old history of the Tang]. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1975.

Ouyang, Xiu. Xin Tangshu [New history of the Tang]. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1975.

Sima, Guang. Zizhi tongjian [Comprehensive mirror as guide to history]. Shanghai: Sibu congkan ed., 1929.

Twitchett, Denis, and Howard J. Wechsler. "Kao-tsung and the Empress Wu," in Denis Twitchett, ed. Cambridge History of China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979. Vol. 3, no. 1, Sui and T'ang, pp. 242–289.

suggested reading:

Forte, Antonino. Political Propaganda and Ideology in China at the End of the Seventh Century. Naples: Institute Universitario Orientale, 1976.

Guisso, Richard W. Empress Wu Tse-t'ien and the Politics of Legitimation in T'ang China. Bellingham, WA: Center for Asian Studies, Western Washington University, 1978.

Guo, Moruo. Five Historical Plays. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1984.

Lin, Yutang. Lady Wu. NY: Putnam, 1965.

McMullen, David. "The Real Judge Dee: Ti Jen-chieh and the T'ang Restoration of 705," in Asia Major. 3rd Series. Vol. 6, no. 1, 1993, pp. 1–81.

Paul, Diana Y. "Empress Wu and the Historians: A Tyrant and Saint of Classical China," in Nancy Auer Falk and Rita M. Gross, eds., Unspoken Worlds: Religious Lives of Women. Belmont: Wadsworth, 1989, pp. 145–154.

Su, Tong. Wu Zetian. Hong Kong: Cosmos, 1994.

Van Gulik, Robert. The Chinese Bell Murders. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1977.

Wills, John E., Jr. "Empress Wu," in Mountain of Fame: Portraits in Chinese History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994, pp. 127–148.

Jennifer W. Jay , Professor of History and Classics, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada