Wu Zetian, Ruthless Autocrat or Enlightened Despot?

The only woman to ever rule China in her own right, Wu Zetian (Empress Wu), has been both vilified and commended. 

Born February 17, 624 CE, Empress Wu was a calculating and vengeful woman. In her rise to power, Wu murdered enemies and rewarded friends. Wu’s childhood was unlike many young girls of her time. Her father–a chancellor of the Tang Dynasty–actually permitted her to read and gain an education. Due to her beauty, at the age of 14, Emperor Taizong chose her as a concubine in his court. In general, the role of a concubine is sexual in nature. But it was also possible for concubines to exercise considerable influence over the emperor’s decisions; this was certainly the case for Wu.

When Wu began her tenure as a concubine, she was restricted to laundry duties. One day, however, she spoke directly to the emperor. In many cases, this would have resulted in expulsion from court. Taizong, though, was thoroughly impressed by Wu’s intelligence and the fact that she could read and write. In response to her intelligence and boldness, Taizong made Wu his personal secretary.

Li Zhi, the son of Emperor Taizong, and Wu shared a mutual attraction. But because Wu was the concubine of Taizong, and Li was married, they could not act on their impulses. However, when Taizong died and Li became emperor, taking the title Gaozong, they were essentially free to begin a relationship. The quandary now, though, was that upon the death of an emperor, his concubines were sent to Ganye Temple to live out their lives in chastity as nuns. Nevertheless, being emperor has its advantages; Gaozong would use his position to bring Wu back to court and make her his favored concubine.

By all accounts Wu should have denied Gaozong’s request to return. However, she understood the prestige and power she would be afforded. Her decision, notwithstanding, created a great deal of animosity between Wu, the emperor’s wife, Lady Wang, and the emperor’s first concubine, Xiao Shufei. While Xiao and Wang despised each other, they hated Wu even more. The initial problem for Wu, though, was that Lady Xiao had given birth to a son and two daughters. Gaozong had already agreed to appoint Liu Shi, his chancellor’s son, Li Zhong, to be his heir. Thus preventing major disagreement between Xiao and Wang. A bigger problem arose for Xiao and Wang when Wu gave birth to two boys. Then in 624 CE, when Wu gave birth to a daughter who was strangled, she accused Xiao of murdering her out of jealousy. The emperor believed Wu because Xiao had no alibi. Soon, Wu set her sights on Lady Wang. Wu claimed that Wang and her mother were witchcraft practitioners. Again, Gaozong believed Wu and exiled Wang from his court. In no short order, the emperor removed Wang’s uncle, Liu Shi, from his chancellorship, cutting off Wang’s sons right to the throne. As such, Wu became Gaozong’s wife and empress of China guaranteeing her sons’ right to rule.

Shortly after her official enthroning as empress, an earthquake struck China. In traditional Chinese culture, natural disasters were seen as serious omens and as the gods not agreeing with the state’s direction. Wu, owing to her father’s decision to raise her with the same standards as boys her age, was not comfortable accepting the role of doting housewife. When, in 683 CE, Wu began manipulating Gaozong and affairs of state, her ministers warned her that she was disrupting the natural order i.e. acting as a man would act. It was in 660 CE, though, that Wu actually started running the show. Gaozong had suffered what many historians believe to be a stroke, leaving Wu to lead China. For her ministers, she continued to smack them in the face. In 666 CE, Wu led a group of women, while pregnant, up Mount Tai to perform a ceremony that had always been done by men. She was even more successful at military campaigns when, in 668 CE, she essentially made Korea a vassal state of China. Then, in 674 CE, Gaozong and Wu took the titles Tian Huang (Emperor of Heaven) and Tian Hou (Empress of Heaven), respectively. 

Apart from Wu’s altercations with her ministers, she was met with resistance from her son, Zhongzong, who she had installed on the throne. This was another case of a woman gaining too much power over another woman. Zhongzong’s wife, Lady Wei, had started influencing her husband too much by appointing her father Chief Minister. Realizing that Zhongzong and Wei were becoming too powerful, Wu banished them. She then made her second son, Ruizong, emperor. Ruizong would prove to be a failure in Wu’s mind. As a result, she forced him to abdicate in 690 CE, and took the title Wu (weapon) Zetian (Ruler of Heaven). 

Wu’s rule came between the Tang Dynasty; as such, she named her state Zhou. Taking it a step farther, in order to solidify her authority, Wu called her reign Tianzhou, meaning “granted by Heaven.” Additionally, she imprisoned members of the Tang royal family. Further, she proclaimed herself the incarnation of the Maitreya Buddha, calling herself Empress Shengsen (holy spirit). She would continue to make use of the secret police force she established in 660 CE, to weed out dissension and punish those guilty. Wu also changed the dynamics of state by firing those who were not pulling their weight and appointing bureaucrats based on merit and intelligence, not family ties. Finally, and maybe most importantly, Wu changed many Chinese characters, in an attempt to define what people would know and how her history would be written.

Wu would redefine education in China by hiring dedicated teachers and reorganizing the training of bureaucrats to better represent the will of her people. She had uniform farming manuals published and rewarded those who produced the most. She also taxed farmers the least. Knowing that she had considerable military prowess, as evidenced by her successes in Korea, Wu mandated that military leaders take exams to test their competency and intelligence. Finally, she reopened the Silk Road which had been shutdown during the reign of Taizong due to the plague and nomadic attacks. The land she had retaken from the Goturks was redistributed to the common citizen. 

The fall of Wu’s empire came from paranoia and gender. She readily believed that her administration was conspiring against her. In her typical manner, she had them banished or executed. One other issue that, had she not been a woman, would not have mattered, concerned her affection for the Zhang Brothers. The two brothers were favorites of Wu and she spent considerable time, possibly sexual, in their presence. Had she been a man, this would not have mattered, as almost all emperors kept young women as concubines. 

In 704 CE, Wu was forced to abdicate the throne in favor of her exiled son, Zhongzong, and his wife, Wei. On February 22, 705 CE, Wu died, having put a distinct mark on the history of China. Since her death, she still remains the only woman to have officially held the title Empress of China. 

Much of the historical interpretation of Wu’s reign has centered on her being a woman in a man’s world. Chinese historians have been, and continue to be, overly critical towards Wu, as she challenged the established order. In many ways, even given her despotism, had she been an emperor, it is likely that the criticism being leveled would not even exist. 

I hope you enjoyed today’s blog! Please like and share!

In peace,



Mark, Emily. “Wu Zetian.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. March 17, 2016. Accessed February 22, 2017. http://www.ancient.eu/Wu_Zetian/.

Dash, Mike. “The Demonization of Empress Wu.” Smithsonian.com. August 10, 2012. Accessed February 22, 2017. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-demonization-of-empress-wu-20743091.


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