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China’s Empress: ruthless leader or benevolent Buddhist?

How Empress Wu Zetian used Buddhism to cement her rule


The Longmen Grottoes in Henan Province, near Luoyang are, quite simply, some of the most remarkable examples of Buddhist sculpture you are ever likely to so see. Known as a veritable treasure house of ancient Buddhist cave art, there are over 1,352 caves, 785 niches, more than 97,00 statues of  Buddhas, Bodhisativas, and Arhats, and 3,680 inscribed stone tablets along the 1 km long cliff, where  Mount Longmen sits to the west and Mount Xiangshan to the east of the Yihe River.

There is one statue that attracts more attention than any others. The Grand Vairocana Buddha, known as the Eastern Mona Lisa to some, or the Eastern Venus to others. Carved in the likeness of Empress Wu Zetian (625-705), it has the the unique status of being the only Buddhist statue commemorating China’s sole female Emperor.


History paints a conflicting picture of Wu; on the one hand she is depicted as a benign Buddha, on the other hand she has been vilified in history, heavily criticized as a ruthless cold-blooded killer. So, what is the truth? And what role does Buddhism play a part in her life and legacy?

Starting her imperial career as a concubine to Emperor Tang Taizong, Wu later married his favorite son, Gaozong. When Gaozong fell sick, following a stroke, Wu moved quickly, initially ruling from behind the scenes, before later establishing the Zhou Dynasty (690-705) and ultimately declaring herself Empress of China. History will attest that it is one thing to declare yourself ruler, but quite another to actually hold power. How Wu rose to power and cemented her rule is where the division over her leadership originates: she implemented different tactics to obtain and legitimatize her rule, with some methods far more bloody and, indeed, deadly than others.


In her quest to obtain the throne, much blood was spilled and many lives lost, including, most shockingly, her own daughter who she suffocated, but blamed the death on the Emperor’s wife, serving to secure herself a spot as the Emperor’s favorite. She created a secret police force to spy on her opposition, and cruelly jailed or had murdered anyone who stood in her way (not exactly Buddhist, I think you will agree). Even her sons felt the wrath of her ambitions, with some being killed while another abdicated from the throne. However, once she obtained the throne, her approach seemed to change, and there was a much gentler approach to her rule.

People believed that the Emperor’s power was given by God; aware of this, Wu decided to promote Buddhism as the favored state religion. Not a surprising move considering Confucian beliefs were strongly against female rulers. In a bout of spectacular religious engineering, Wu brilliantly manipulated Buddhism in several different ways, for example she ordered and helped to translate Buddhist scriptures that would help support her rule. With her own money, she became a patron of temples and Buddhist carvings. For example, the Grand Vairocana Buddha was important, as building large imposing statues was a way of keeping-up with rivals and outdoing them, while helping to show her worthiness as a  ruler and also acting as a site where rituals could be performed to display that she held a mandate from the Buddha.  She invited scholars to China to assist on these cultural endeavors and treated the monks with great respect, even bowing before them if they visited her at the palace. In return Buddhist monks declared that the Heavenly God bestowed power on her. This explains how Wu became a Buddhist icon, but was it deserved and sincere? Or did she just use Buddhism as a way to cement power?


Judging from how Wu ruled, it seems that she was a  good leader, albeit using cold-blooded tactics to get to the top. It is, however, agreed that when she got to the top she ruled fairly. For instance, she found the strongest  people to run the government, helping prevent the influence of aristocratic military men by replacing them with scholars; instead everyone had to compete for government positions by taking exams. This enabled those from lower ranking families to obtain official positions, which in turn increased loyalty among her subjects. Wu was also fair to peasants, lowering oppressive taxes, raising agricultural production, and strengthening public works. She also campaigned to raise the status of females in Chinese society, elevating her mother’s clan by granting her relatives senior political posts and commissioning biographies of famous women.

It is no surprise, then, that Chinese Buddhism under Wu flourished. And it can be reasonably assumed she was sincere in her beliefs; after all she even became a Buddhist nun on abdication. The traditional negative viewpoint of her reign can largely be attributed to Confucian readings of history, which are critical of her rule as she was a woman. However, alternative views of Wu’s rule are never far away. The Huangze Temple, which was built to commemorate Li Bing and his son, was later was changed to commemorate Wu as she was born there. Today, Wu is seen as a female hero and she enjoys iconic status – a great female politician in the very truest sense, her contributions towards Buddhism today have long been favorably acknowledged.

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