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Hero or Villain: Empress Wu Zetian, the Most Controversial Chinese Monarch

Some see Empress Wu Zetian as a great statesman slandered by Confucian sexism, while others see her as a blood-soaked usurper who schemed her way to power. So, was she a hero or villain? It’s up to you to decide as we explore the interesting life of Empress Wu Zetian.

Her rise to power

Her family was responsible for her early moves toward power. Unlike previous dynasties, Tang permitted female education. That means Wu’s father, a duke and a general, made sure that she was knowledgeable about Confucian classics and that she practiced music, poetry, and public speaking. She was also fortunate to have been born exceptionally beautiful. She was considered to be one of the prettiest in the country before, which earned her admittance into the imperial harem at the age of 14. Emperor Tàizōng gave her the name Měiniáng, which means “the charming lady.”

Wu, although being only a maidservant, cornered the emperor while making his bed and impressed him with her wit and knowledge of Chinese history. He made her his secretary, garnering the attention of many male courtiers, including the Prince of Jin, Emperor Tàizōng’s ninth son, who was benevolent but regarded too weak by his father. The prince most likely became Wu’s new lover.

This romance brought her out of the monastery she’d been sent to after Emperor Tàizōng’s death. She returned to a busy court, with Empress Wang and Consort Xiao already vying for the newly crowned Emperor Gāozōng’s favor. Gāozōng abruptly dismissed both from their jobs after believing Wu’s accusation that the two had slain her newborn daughter. Later, some historians accused her of murdering the infant herself and using its body as the basis for her first coup d’etat.

How she became an empress

Wu became Gāozōng’s empress in 655, and was progressively entrusted with all state matters, particularly when the emperor had a debilitating stroke in 660. Gāozōng would usually sit before his ministers, while Wu would be hidden behind a screen, listening in. 

The court was quickly subdued. Gāozōng’s attraction to a niece was abruptly cut when she mysteriously died by poisoning in 666. Wu’s eldest son, who sided with her opponents, died unexpectedly in 675. When Gāozōng died in 683, Wu placed her second son Zhongzong on the throne. She ousted him after two months when he began to show signs of independence and replaced him with her younger son, Ruizong. However, Wu later murdered Ruizong’s wife on witchcraft allegations and then turned on him. Wu eventually took the throne in 690, at the demand of several courtiers and possibly the emperor himself, and established a new dynasty – the Zhou.

The Zhou dynasty

As Confucian ethics believed women were only capable of bearing kids, the concept of a woman governing an empire was stunning. However, with an eye on her own position, Wu advocated for more equality for women, stating that grieving children should grieve both their parents, not just their father. She also commissioned a collection of biographies of historical women. 

However, the opposition was tenacious and unrelenting. Throughout her reign, she repressed various revolts, mostly headed by angry Tang courtiers. According to the Zizhi Tongjian, 36 ministers were slain and a thousand members of their families were enslaved in the 690s. Wu would even wait until dusk before lighting a campfire, which attracted hundreds of moths and cremated them. She added that as long as there was something to attract people (ex. a high wage), these posts would never stay vacant for long.

Wu also eliminated 12 minor branches of the Tang family when a conspiracy was discovered in 684. Toward the conclusion of her reign, she even ordered the suicide of her own grandson and grandson-in-law when they were overheard questioning her tactics. Despite this, her strength stemmed from somewhere else: the people. Enacting measures that were well-liked by the public. Copper boxes stood throughout the capital for her subjects to lodge their comments and critiques – the box jumped through the many bureaucratic ranks, its contents reviewed by the empress herself.

In the middle of her upheaval, she turned to consistency. Her reign was intended to represent a restoration to the older Zhou dynasty’s 790-year stability, including recasting the Nine Tripod Cauldrons, which had been lost during the Warring States Period. She also declared herself Maitreya’s incarnation, established Buddhism as the national religion, and commissioned sculptures of a female Buddha in the enormous cave systems of Dunhuang and Luoyang.

Her fall

Overall, her rule was really impressive. Campaigns against the Tibetans and the Koreans secured military development, and she was able to reopen the Silk Road, which had previously been closed due to raiders under Emperor Tàizōng. Agricultural productivity hit an all-time high because of her irrigation projects and incentive scheme. The state’s coffers grew rapidly as more families enrolled for taxation. She promoted meritocracy by reforming the imperial examination system and instituting examinations for military officers. This took authority away from noble families and assured recruitment for poorer classes. She would interview ministers herself (a practice that all subsequent emperors followed) and choose skilled ministers who would continue to serve long after she was gone.

Her favoritism eventually backfired. By her late 70s, she seldom left her bed and spent hours closeted with two young men called Zhang (perhaps brothers), relying on them for counsel and sexual favors. The two men’s meteoric climb to prominence resulted in a palace coup. When Wu abdicated in 704 in favor of Zhongzong, the two Zhangs were executed, and Wu died of illness one year later at the age of 81. 

Was she a hero or a villain? 

More is unknown about Wu Zetian’s 50-year reign than any other half-century in Tang history. However, it would definitely take an exceptional person to become China’s first female empress. To attain her purpose, she would have had to go beyond what the system considered acceptable or predictable, maybe even using her own children as throwaway instruments. The scarcity of primary sources allowed historians to rehabilitate her as both a victim of misogyny and a champion of women’s rights – even her harshest detractors today cannot refute her leadership. Her reforms were preserved by posterity, even as posterity criticized her.

Wu’s burial is now commemorated by a massive gray trapezoid building in the Qianling Mausoleum, which has been closed since the Tang dynasty. Unlike every other emperor’s tomb, the stele in front of her is empty, leaving stonemasons to chisel lists of her great accomplishments. Perhaps Wu wanted this as proof of how noteworthy her actions were, or because she believed history should be her judge. However, a generation of Confucian men left it unadorned.

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