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Badass Ladies of Chinese History: Wu Zetian

Has China’s ruthless female emperor been demonized by history?


Badass Ladies of Chinese History: Wu Zetian

Has China’s ruthless female emperor been demonized by history?


Welcome back to another edition of “Badass Ladies of Chinese History.” Every Friday, we will be shedding some light on the “half the sky” that history frequently keeps in the dark.

This week, it’s Wu Zetian (武则天), China’s only female emperor. Wu takes “badass” to a whole new level. Not only did she single-handedly rule the Middle Kingdom for nearly half a century, but she founded her own dynasty. She was a master politician and didn’t shy away from violence in her personal life, all while maintaining peace and prosperity on a national level.

Emperor Wu has often had pretty bad press. She has a reputation for ruthlessness; for hundreds of years, Chinese historians only emphasized all the family members she may or may not have slept with, assassinated, or usurped, while blithely ignoring her achievements. More modern scholarship celebrates the complexity of Wu’s portrayal, from cold-blooded concubine to dignified ruler. The truth, no doubt, contains aspects of both these interpretations.

Thanks to imperial record-keeping, we know lots of details about Wu’s life. She was born in 624 A.D. in Shanxi province, and her father was a chancellor to the Tang Dynasty. When Wu was young, she loved to read books and was educated by her father. When she was 14, she was selected to be a concubine to Emperor Taizong because of her intelligence and beauty.

wu zetain ugly

Beauty, huh? Just kidding, everybody during the Tang Dynasty was painted like this! Wu was over 50 when this was painted.

Emperor Taizong passed away soon after, and Wu was sent to a convent, as was the tradition for consorts to dead emperors. Somehow—no record exists of how this happened, although I secretly hope it involved a martial arts showdown—she made it out of the convent and became a concubine to the next emperor.

She gave birth to a daughter who was strangled in infancy, and Wu accused the empress of murdering her child. Many historians believe that Wu actually killed her daughter herself to frame the empress, although no concrete evidence exists to support the claim. The old empress was ultimately deposed, and Wu married and became the new empress.

Wu’s rise to the top largely involved putting her sons in a position of power. When her husband fell ill (and yes, historians have accused Wu of poisoning him), Wu began to make political decisions in his place, and when he died, Wu made sure one of her sons got the throne.

After ruling from the sidelines through her sons, she eventually convinced her young son, Li Dan, to abdicate and leave the throne to her, and she declared herself the founding emperor of the Zhou Dynasty.

Despite her merciless rise to power, as a leader, Emperor Wu ruled benignly over 50 million people. Under Confucian philosophy, an emperor’s primary job is to promote stability and care for his (or her) subjects, which Wu managed spectacularly. She promoted Buddhism during her reign, and without her support, it would probably never have become such a profound influence on Chinese culture.

She avoided major wars, and expanded Chinese territory to stretch into present-day Xinjiang to promote trade along the Silk Road. She also introduced an updated form of the civil service exams that were merit-based—hypothetically, anyone could be an adviser to the emperor of they were driven and intelligent enough, and aspects of this system lasted well into the 20th century.

Why then, was Emperor Wu so reviled throughout history? Remember that Confucian writing holds that female rulers are as unnatural as “a hen crowing like a rooster at daybreak.” Wu, like many other female rulers, was subject to a double standard; she needed to be more ruthless than men to be taken seriously and hold power, yet at the same time has been criticized for using violence because it was unladylike.

Emperor Wu was viewed with great distrust by later generations. Her giant stone memorial (think a 7.5 meter high tombstone) was erected by the road leading to her tomb, but no text was ever carved onto it. She is the only Chinese emperor with a blank memorial tablet.

Historical representation of Wu has long been unfavorable, and extracting the truth of her story is a task modern historians are excited to begin in earnest.

For other awesome ladies, check out China’s first female doctor, a rebel military mastermind, and a fearsome pirate admiral.

Featured image courtesy of AncientChinese.net and comes from the upcoming drama series The Empress of China. (X)