Did you know that China was once ruled by an empress?
Like the late Queen Elizabeth II, whose recent passing marked the end of the world’s longest female reign, Empress Wu Zetian also ruled by her own right and power. It is widely known, however, that a woman governing an empire by the virtue of her own name was not considered the norm. The British, at least, can count Elizabeth II’s reign as queen regnant as one of six officially recorded in their history. But in China, there was only ever the one.
Controversially known to be a ruthless tyrant and usurper, Wu Zetian is considered to be the only woman who successfully laid claim to the Dragon Throne. From her beginnings as an imperial concubine to her rise to power, here are nine things you need to know about China’s sole empress regnant:
1. She was well-educated.
Born into a wealthy clan, Wu Zetian was not left wanting for anything. In fact, although young girls were not typically expected to pursue an education at the time, Wu Zetian was encouraged by her father to read books and study, eventually becoming well-versed in politics, literature, music, and writing. This helped to prepare her for future life in court: She was said to have become Emperor Taizong’s secretary after impressing him with her charming wit and knowledge of Chinese history while changing his bed sheets!
2. She first entered the palace as an imperial concubine.
At the age of 14, the beautiful Wu Zetian was taken to the palace to become a low-ranked imperial concubine for the Emperor Taizong. Although she was not favored at the time and had not produced any children, Wu Zetian was said to have been ambitious right from the start.
According to historical records, upon bidding farewell to her tearful mother to enter the imperial harem, Wu Zetian was noted to have said: “How do you know that it is not my fortune to meet the Son of Heaven?”
3. She married her husband’s son.
Unlike Queen Elizabeth II, whose royal birthright had never been questioned, Empress Wu Zetian spent most of her life grappling for power through marriage. When Emperor Taizong died, Wu Zetian was expected to be confined to a monastic institution and serve as Buddhist nun for the rest of her life since she did not bear any children. However, prior to Emperor Taizong’s death, Wu Zetian had already engaged in relations with his son Li Zhi, who succeeded his father as the Emperor Gaozong. Because of this, Wu Zetian was able to return to court with much improved status as one of the head concubines of the successor.
4. She was believed to have murdered her own daughter to become the empress consort.
One of the most controversial stories about Wu Zetian is that she was rumored to have strangled her own infant daughter so that she could accuse Empress Wang of jealousy and tarnish the latter’s reputation.
At the time, alleged eyewitnesses confirmed the story by saying that Empress Wang had been spotted by the infant’s room. Since the Empress Wang was not able to produce any credible alibi, the angry Emperor Gaozong then had her deposed and replaced with Wu Zetian as the empress consort — the highest rank that a woman could supposedly hold in the empire.
5. She became the Empress dowager and regent for 25 years.
As the empress consort, Wu Zetian’s influence and power had grown so immensely that by the time the sickly Emperor Gaozong died, most major decisions on governing the empire were under her control. Wanting to stabilize her position, she first allowed the ascension of her son Li Xian as the Emperor Zhongzong before having him overthrown less than two months later because of his increasing independence. She then had her youngest son Li Dan named emperor, with herself as the ruling regent until Emperor Ruizong came of age in 690. The regency lasted for as long as 25 years.
6. She established the second Zhou dynasty by becoming the empress regnant.
Even though a regency is supposed to last until the ruling monarch comes of age, Empress Wu Zetian never had any intention in training her son for the role. In 690, having had no control over the imperial court his entire reign, Emperor Ruizong officially passed the Dragon Throne to his mother. After becoming the empress regnant, Wu Zetian proclaimed the start of the Zhou dynasty, which lasted for a total of 15 years until her deposition in the year 705.
7. She advocated for more equality for women.
According to Confucian principles, women were believed to only be capable of producing children. After smashing her way through societal expectations, Wu Zetian’s ascension to the throne allowed her to stage a series of campaigns to improve women’s status and rights. Among these efforts is her commissioned publication of women with exemplary achievements, which further supported her image as a competent ruler for the empire.
In addition to this, Wu Zetian extended the traditional mourning period of deceased mothers to be equal to that of fathers. She also promoted the valuable power that a mother has over her children, likening an ideal ruler’s values to be that of a good mother.
8. She had a ruthless system of spies.
Part of why Wu Zetian’s reign was so successful was because of the way she consolidated her power. After building a vast network of spies, the empress was able to effectively identify and eliminate threats to her rule, ordering the demolition of entire noble households, as well as the demotion, execution, and exile of her perceived enemies.
9. She is regarded as one of the greatest emperors in Chinese history.
As the only woman in Chinese history to have legitimately taken the position of huangdi (皇帝, emperor), as opposed to having merely remained as a huanghou (皇后, empress consort), Wu Zetian has been well known to be one of the most competent rulers in the history of China.
Despite her infamous brutality, her prosperous reign has been best characterized by her strong leadership, her military contributions to the major expansion of the Chinese empire, the reformation of the imperial examination system, and the increased state support for Taoism, Buddhism, education, and literature.
Want to know more about Chinese royalty? Check out this article on notorious Chinese emperors here!