Wu Zetian, China’s One and Only Female Emperor

This post is the first part of a blog about Wu Zetian, China’s one and only female emperor; part two will follow on 8th March to celebrate International Women’s Day. Historically, great female leaders have been relatively rare: Elizabeth I, Queen Victoria, and Catherine the Great may be familiar names but since the inheritance of power has tended to favour male offspring, they are the exception rather than the rule. Whether inherited, acquired by stealth, or a very rare combination of circumstances, women rulers appear to have had a harder time than their male counterparts; or at least that is what history would have us believe.

There is a saying in China – 巾帼不让须眉 or男人能办到的事情, 女人也办得到 – ‘whatever men can accomplish women can too’. But even so, in over 3,000 years of Chinese history, just one female has ruled China in her own name. It therefore seems particularly appropriate to highlight the story of Empress Wu, who reigned during the Tang Dynasty. This guest post from Professor Yichao Shi, Bryan Sitch, Deputy Head of Collections and Dr Fang Zong, Research Assistant for the Chinese Culture Gallery, draws from a collection of Chinese illustrations at Manchester Museum, to describe how Wu Zetian rose to power.

Wu Zetian was born in 624 CE to a wealthy family and she received a good education. Perhaps more importantly though, was her beauty as this was how she first came to encounter the powerful ranks of Chinese royalty in 637 CE when, at the age of 14, she became a concubine. Even though Wu was one of the lowest ranking of Emperor Taizong’s (598-649 CE) concubines, she gained his attention, and perhaps even more importantly, she also attracted the interest of his son, Gaozong.

Chinese woman empress wearing beautifl headwear and gown
Wu Zetian (image taken from an 18th century album of portraits of 86 emperors of China, with Chinese historical notes. Originally published in China, 18th century: British Library, Shelfmark: Or. 2231)

As a concubine during the Tang Dynasty, tradition dictated that only those women who gave the emperor a child would be allowed to remain in the palace on his death. Therefore, in 649 CE when Emperor Taizong died, the childless Wu was sent to a Buddhist convent. However, her relationship with Emperor Taizong’s son, now Emperor Gaozong, proved crucial to Wu’s future.

After Gaozong became emperor, he met Wu again at Xinglong nunnery and invited her to return to the palace. The meeting is depicted below in an illustration from the collection. As you will see, Wu, standing centre left, is bowing, with two monks standing behind her and Emperor Gaozong, standing to the right, is shown with his hand held out to her. It is perhaps interesting to note that Wu is shown with her hair arranged in a bun, on top of her head, but her hair ought to have been shaved off on entering the nunnery.

A Chinese woman acompanied by two chinese men meet the emperor
Emperor Gaozong meets Wu at the monastery.

Wu’s return to court was in part facilitated by Gaozong’s empress Wang who intended to use her to distract the emperor’s attention away from another love rival. This backfired horribly, however, when Wang was later accused of having murdered Wu’s infant daughter. Wu was clearly adept at court politics but in her pursuit of power and influence it is unlikely she killed her own child. Wang’s standing with the emperor was further compromised by accusations of witchcraft and not having given the emperor a son. After Wang’s fall, Wu became empress in 655 CE.

Wu’s manoeuvring also removed the supporters of the previous emperor and promoted members of her own faction at court. She acted ruthlessly to eliminate rivals and treated her own family just as harshly if they crossed her. Emperor Gaozong was suffering from a long-term illness and over time, came to rely on Wu more and more. In fact, Wu Zetian has continued to inspire some female leaders into the twentieth-century. For Song Qingling (Deputy Chairwoman of the People’s Republic of China in 1959 and awarded the title of Honorary President in 1981): “Wu Zetian was an outstanding female politician in the feudal era. But in terms of family roles, it is not difficult to see that Wu Zetian was also a good wife”.

For at least the final decade of her husband’s reign, Wu was effectively the ruler. When Emperor Gaozong died in 683 CE his sons were removed from power, exiled or ordered to commit suicide. After her youngest son, Ruizong, yielded the throne to Wu in 690 CE, she declared herself emperor and assumed the name of Wu Zetian or Wu the Celestial.

Empress Wu created a new Chinese character for herself – ‘曌’ or zhao – in which the sun and moon are shining above the sky. By doing this, Wu Zetian was associating herself with the sun and the moon. Of course, although Wu Zetian was good at wielding power and was very fierce, we must admit that her political achievements and the prosperous Tang Dynasty she created, although not as glorious as the sun and the moon, were nevertheless worthy of being celebrated for eternity. It does, however, indicate the extent of her ambition and vision, encompassing both the country and the people.

To find out more about the important legacies of Empress Wu, keep an eye out for part 2 of this post, due to be published on 8 March to mark International Women’s Day.

One Comment Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s