The Empress Wu: China’s Female Monarch

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The Empress Wu Zetian defied tradition by becoming China's only female monarch during the Tang Dynasty. Image by Cold Season.

The Empress Wu Zetian defied tradition by becoming China’s only female monarch during the Tang Dynasty. Image by Cold Season.

The Empress Wu Zetian has not had a good press. It isn’t so surprising: As China’s only female monarch, she upset the natural order of a rigidly patriarchal society, scandalizing the historians of her time and later. She was ruthless and wily, (although no more so than many a male emperor) and she certainly gave them a lot of juicy fodder for their outrage.

Empress Wu: From Concubine to Empress

Wu was born around 624 AD and was probably just thirteen [years old] when she entered the harem of the Emperor Taizong. Taizong, regarded as an exemplary emperor, presided over the golden age of the Tang Dynasty, but he was also a pragmatic and ruthless operator. His final years were spent trying to play down the fact that he had personally killed his brother to take the throne. Wu no doubt learnt much from his example. On Taizong’s death in 649, Wu was sent to the nunnery of the Ganye Temple along with the other childless concubines. However, she had already caught the eye of the new emperor, Gaozong, and after a few years of mourning, she returned to the palace in Chang’an (modern Xi’an). A discreet but deadly game of cat and mouse with the childless Empress Wang and other concubines dominated those early years in Gaozong’s harem. Wu gave birth to two sons during this period, and by 655 she was firmly ensconced as Gaozong’s wife. The unfortunate empress Wang and the previously favoured concubine Xiao were both dead, allegedly at Wu’s behest.

Emperor Gaozong and Empress Wu: The Two Sages

Known as The Two Sages, Gaozong and Wu were in effect co-rulers. Gaozong’s ill health helped Wu’s growing power, and she was the effective ruler from 660, when Gaozong allegedly suffered a stroke. Much of her reputation for ruthlessness derives from this period, when, in order to consolidate her position, Wu manoeuvred a number of hostile nobles and officials into exile or suicide.

Wu’s Consolidation of Power

Buddhism entered China at some point during the second century and slowly became firmly entrenched, even as it took part in an ongoing struggle with Daoism for influence at court. The Empress Wu was a keen patron. Whatever her private religious thoughts, she found that supporting Buddhism was an effective way to legitimise her position. Wu paid for the completion of the imperial shrine at the Longmen Caves, where the statue of the celestial Buddha Vairocana seems to bear her likeness, an assertion which still causes heated debate among archaeologists and historians. She also commissioned gold and silver caskets to house what may be the finger bone of the Buddha at the venerable Famen Temple. These and other treasures were subsequently sealed up at the temple, only to be re-discovered in 1987 during renovations of the temple’s foundations after their collapsed in 1981.

Gaozong died in 683, and Wu became empress dowager and regent for her son, who briefly became the emperor Zhongzong. When he showed signs of independence, she replaced him with his more pliable brother, Ruizong. Wu was now emperor in all but name. She continued to bolster her secret police and eliminate her rivals, real or imagined, yet even her critics had to grudgingly admit she was a capable ruler, with a keen eye for effective officials. In the midst of all this, she found time to have an affair with the Buddhist monk Huaiyi.


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The Empress Wu and the Zhou Dynasty

Wu took the final step in 690, staging a coup and establishing a new dynasty, the Zhou, with herself as emperor. Ruizong became Crown Prince. China has had other formidable empresses, but none of them went this far, stepping out from behind their sons and husbands, to rule in their own right. She moved the capital permanently to the more easily accessible Luoyang, and elevated Buddhism above Taoism to become in effect the state religion. Wu adopted the imagery of the Maitreya, the future Buddha, and declared herself ‘Chakravartin of the Golden Wheel.’ Future emperors would do the same. Suffering from ill-health and no longer able to suppress opposition, the Empress Wu suffered defeat in a coup in 705, and died shortly afterwards. The emperor Zhongzong re-took power and restored the Tang Dynasty and the patriarchal status quo. Confucian historians were quick to vilify the former Empress, but even they couldn’t deny she had left her mark on Chinese history.


T H Barrett. The Woman Who Discovered Printing. (2008). Yale University Press.

A McNair. Donors of Longmen. (2007). University of Hawaii Press.

C Michaelson. Gilded Dragons. (1999). British Museum Press.

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© Copyright 2013 Paris Franz, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past

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