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Empress Wu Zetian: The only woman to rule China, and she is hated for it

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In more than 3,000 years of history, only one woman ruled China in her own right: a concubine who became the wife, then mother, of emperors before taking the throne. In this article today, we will learn how Wu Zetian broke away from the role of the typical woman in medieval China and ruled through strong, often brutal, leadership.

“Women should be led and others should follow” is a quote attributed to Confucius, a hugely influential Chinese philosopher, and teacher of the sixth and fifth centuries BCE. “A female ruler would be as unnatural as a rooster crowing at dawn.”

In medieval China, where most followed Confucianism, women could not be seen or heard. Their role was to stay at home and raise children; That a woman could hold any kind of power was unheard of. The idea itself was forbidden. That was until one woman turned everything on its head.

Her name was Wu Zetian, and for half a century she ruled China, in one form or another, ruthlessly eliminating any rivals to secure her authority and efficiently overseeing the governance, economy, and expansion of the empire. But she also became one of the most demonized and infamous people in the history of China.

Why? According to the male-dominated society, Wu was all-powerful, and women were supposed to have power in seventh-century China. Her life has been mired in controversy, as sources from time and years later scrutinize her with the brush of a cruel and despotic ruler. Most of the real Wu remains hidden under layers of prejudice. What is known for certain, however, is that she is the only woman to have ruled China in her own right.

Born in 624 AD—to a father who was a timber merchant and a mother in the Yang family—Wu was not raised in proximity to power. Although of lesser nobility, their family was relatively wealthy and the young daughter was given an excellent education. This served her greatly when she was called to join the imperial court at the age of 14 to be Emperor Taizong’s imperial concubine.

She remained a minor wife until Taizong’s death in 649 AD. The new emperor, Gaozong, had slept with Wu while her father was still alive, and while custom dictated that childless wives of a dead emperor should live their lives in a separate way. The exile of the religious institution, Wu, did not last long. Gaozong was so infatuated with her that he soon recalled Wu back to court.

Wu’s brutal rise to power

This is when Wu ushered in a monumental rise to power. She had her eyes set firmly on the prize of rising through the ranks of Gaozong’s concubines to the top. She had already given the emperor a child, proving—by the standards of the day—that she was more suited to the task of being empress than Gaozong’s wife. But the removal of Empress Wang, another of Gaozong’s favorite women, needed to be done if Wu was to see his rightful place.

If the story is true, her next move was exceptionally brutal. According to the official history (written with a reason to discredit Wu’s name), she murdered her infant daughter and blamed Wang, who was the last person to see and hold the child. Reportedly devastated, Gaozong banished his empress, soon followed by another favorite consort, who was accused of being an accomplice.

In 655 AD, while Wang was rotting in a cell, Wu was raised to empress and Gaozong had four sons and a daughter. To secure her position, she swiftly ordered that the two imprisoned women be executed as they could prove dangerous if left alive. Her hands and feet were cut off and her dismembered body was thrown into a vat of wine where she was left to drown.

For more than two decades, Wu ruled effectively as the weak-willed Gaozong became ill. Enemies in the court were removed or killed, and in matters of administration, everything went through her. With Gaozong’s death in 683 AD, Wu became an absolute empress, but instead of retiring as custom demanded, she remained at court as regent and maintained power by manipulating her sons’ rule.

Eventually, in 690 AD, Wu, now in her mid-60s, forced her youngest son, Emperor Ruizong, to rule as emperor and took the crown for herself. Already the de facto ruler of China for three decades, she ruled in her own right for the next 15 years as head of the Wu Zhou dynasty.

 Was Wu a progressive ruler?

While Wu’s rise was meteoric, her years as empress were largely quiet. Generally ignored are the changes that she introduced that would help the economy and society and make her popular among the people. One of the biggest reforms was the Imperial Examination System, which was used for recruitment to government service and bureaucracy. Where previously only a person of a certain caliber could be selected, Wu changed this so that both commoners and gentlemen could apply. Successful candidates were selected for their merit rather than their family name or money.

A similar change was made for military promotions. Wu collaborated with a number of scholars on works on important women in Chinese history and changed the period of mourning for deceased mothers to meeting a father. For all intents and purposes, she was an early feminist.

Empress Wu’s last years and death

Later in her life, Wu surrounded himself with younger men, something that proved highly controversial among those in court. Many believed that she used these youths for her own sexual gratification and as an attempt to protect herself from aging. However, it has been reported that several male emperors did a similar thing without provoking such anger.

Just as she had assumed the throne by a coup d’état, so did her reign. Two of Wu’s young comrades, the Zhang brothers, were seen walking up from their station. Fears grew that she was too powerful and capable of manipulating the empress. She was accused of corruption by members of Wu’s family, including her grandson Li Chongrun, the Prince of Shao, and her granddaughter Li Jianhui.

In 705 AD, during a period of serious illness for the empress, a group of ministers and generals conspired to kill the Zhang brothers and install Wu’s son Zhongzong as emperor. On 20 February, he put his plan into action. Once the Zhang brothers were dead, the conspirators forced Wu to give up her throne and she went into seclusion. She died exactly 10 months later and was buried with her husband, Gaozong.

This ended the life of China’s only female ruler, whose actions proved that women were just as capable as men. After her death, much was made of her brutality and overtly sexual nature, portraying her in such a light that even today – and despite the efforts of historians to record the real Wu’s life – she is still considered a serious and Strongly disliked.

By the standards of the time, she should have been quiet and remained powerless, a toy for powerful men. Yet Wu rose from obscurity to be declared an empress. Although she was certainly responsible for the deaths of many who stood in her way, she acted no differently from all the powerful men who came before and after her. Her crimes were hushed up and her name blackened – a common fate for women who try and succeed in changing the established order of things.

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