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Wu Zetian

Empress Wu Zetian (624-705) of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) was the only female monarch of China, and ruled the empire for over half a century. While her actions have been a subject for debate for more than ten centuries, Wu Zetian remains the most remarkable, influential and mysterious woman in Chinese history.

Wu Zetian was born in 624. Her parents were rich and of noble families. As a child she was taught to write, read the Chinese classics and to play music.    

At the age of fourteen, this accomplished child became a concubine to Emperor Taizong. She was given the title Cairen (a fifth grade concubine of the Tang Dynasty). Her perspicacity set her apart from others in the palace and her knowledge of literature and history and talent quickly found favor with the emperor. He bestowed Wu Zetian the title Meiniang which means 'charming lady' and she was assigned to work in the imperial study. Here she was introduced to official documents and quickly became acquainted with affairs of state.

In 649, when she was twenty-six years old, the emperor died. He was succeeded by his son Gaozong and following the established court procedures, the old emperor's concubines were sent to a nunnery to live out their days. Emperor Gaozong was fascinated by Wu's talent and beauty and frequently visited her in the nunnery. After a period of some two to three years, she was summonsed to the palace and given the title Zhaoyi, the second grade concubine of the new emperor.

Wu gradually earned Gaozong's trust and favor. After giving birth to two sons, she began to compete with Empress Wang and the senior concubine Xiaoshu for the favor of the emperor. To achieve her goals, Wu Zetian horrifically killed off other favorite concubines of the emperor, and to get rid of the empress, she murdered her own infant daughter and blamed it on Empress Wang. Of all of these crimes, the emperor knew nothing off.

In 655, Gaozong promoted Wu to the position of Empress in place of the now disgraced Wang. Before long both the former empress and the concubine, Xiaoshu, were put to death due to Wu Zetian's scheme and Wu's position was finally secured. Then Wu Zetian began her political career in earnest for her goal was to become the first female-emperor of China.

Her resourcefulness and discernment meant that she was highly esteemed by her husband, the emperor. Wu recommended and had accepted new ideas regarding agriculture, tax reduction, social reforms and effective labor saving practices. Within five years of her marriage, Wu took an active part in state affairs and fostered her henchmen with zeal.

The emperor suffered a crippling stroke in 660 and Empress Wu Zetian took over the administration of the court. Showing no mercy toward anyone who failed to conform to her wishes, she would have them thrown into prison or executed. Her cruelty extended to members of her family as well as those high ranking officials who had contributed much to the founding of the dynasty.

Emperor Gaozong was disgusted by these actions but by now had become too feeble to make efforts to curb Wu Zetian. She would appear in court alongside the emperor whenever he held an audience. The pair became known as the Holy Sovereigns, and the emperor was merely a figurehead and ruled in name only.

Gaozong died in 683 and Wu's third son, Li Xian (656-710) ascended to the throne and was named Emperor Zhongzong. In the February of the following year, Wu deposed Zhongzong as he was proving difficult to control and replaced him with his younger brother, her fourth son, Li Dan (661-716). This latest emperor was known as Ruizong. All along, Wu was the puppet master and ruled the empire through her son, who had no option but to do what she told him. Finally, in 690 Wu Zetian usurped the throne and declared the empire was henceforth ruled by the Zhou Dynasty from her capital city Luoyang.

To achieve her ambitions she was as ruthless as was possible. She appointed sadistic and cruel officials to seek out and eliminate any opposition to her regime. Not only those who opposed Wu were severely dealt with, but also many other innocent people were cruelly put to death.

As Wu grew older, so her hold on state affairs began to lessen. She also realized that as a woman, she could only be respected after her death as a member of the Li family. She therefore allowed herself to be persuaded in 698 to reinstate Li Xian as Crown Prince. In the year 705 there was a palace coup and Wu was forced to resign. Her son Emperor Zhongzong thus restored the Tang Dynasty to power.

Aged 82, Wu Zetian died in the December 705. She was buried alongside Emperor Gaozong in the Qianling Tomb, located west of the present day Xi'an City.

So lived and died the only woman who ever ruled the Chinese empire in her own right. Opinion is sharply divided between those who admire her for her many achievements and those who regard her as a ruthless, merciless schemer and autocrat.


1. In spite of her ruthless rise to power, Wu Zetian proved to be a very competent monarch and throughout her reign the legacy of prosperity was bequeathed.

2. Wu Zetian was eager to draw into her government all manner of talented people. She even encouraged people to volunteer their services should they consider themselves competent. The imperial examination system was further revised in order that no man of ability should be excluded due to his lowly birth. She also initiated the practice of personally interviewing candidates. In this way, many political talents were found and employed in the government. Such people included the famous prime minister, Di Renjie, Zhang Jianzhi, etc.

3. Wu Zetian attached great importance to the development of agriculture. She ordered the construction of irrigation schemes, and commissioned the compilation of farming textbooks. Local officials were evaluated by the task of cultivating land. As an incentive for increased production, taxes were reduced and corvee upon the peasant population was eased. By allowing peasant farmers to retain more of their produce, they were able to improve their lot and in general the population benefited from quite considerable prosperity.

Though Wu was a competent feudal monarch in terms of achievement she made, she was extremely ruthless murdering her relatives who tried to take advantage of her position. Those who opposed her in any way were quickly removed from office, exiled or forced to commit suicide including those founding fathers of the dynasty Zhangsun Wuji, Zhu Suiliang, Yu Zhining and Cheng Wuting and many others. Members of the Li royal family and their relatives were likewise eliminated. In addition, Wu favored Buddhism and ordered the construction of many Buddhist temples and sculptures nationwide, which added great pressure to the common people.