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.