Wu Zhao or Zetia (Tse-tien) is famous in Chinese history because she was the only woman who ruled in her own name. Daughter of an official of the recently founded Tang (T’ang) dynasty she was selected to join the harem of the emperor Taizong (T’ang-tsung) at age 15 with the rank of fifth grade concubine. She bore him no children and as all other childless concubines she retired to a Buddhist convent in 649 when Taizong died.
On the first anniversary of Taizong’s death his son and successor Gaozong (Kao-tsung) attended a commemorative service at the Buddhist temple where Wu resided and took her back to the palace when he returned, and she became his concubine. Her intrigues caused the fall and death of Gaozong’s wife, the empress Wang, and the consort Xiao (Hsiao), mother of the crown prince. Installed empress in 656 she bore Gaozong four sons and a daughter. Her eldest son became crown prince. Energetic and ambitious she assisted her weak-willed and vacillating husband in administration, especially after he suffered a major illness, perhaps a stroke, in 660. Gaozong’s deteriorating health led the court to suggest the installation of Crown Prince Li Hong (Wu’s eldest son), already 24 and an able young man, as regent. In 675 while visiting his parents Li Hong suddenly died. His standing up to her earlier over her treatment of her opponents has led to speculation that he had been poisoned by his mother.
Gaozong died in 683. He was succeeded by his and Empress Wu’s second son, then aged 27, under the reign name Zhongzong (Chung-tsung) with his mother as regent, as stipulated in Gaozong’s will. The hapless new emperor was soon demoted to the rank of prince and exiled with his wife and children. Empress Wu then installed another son on the throne, Ruizong (Juitsung); pronounced him unable to rule; became regent; and promoted her brother’s son to the title of “emperor expectant.” In 689 Wu Zhao held a magnificent festival in which she assumed the title of “Sage Mother, Divine Sovereign.” In 690 she proclaimed the founding of a new Zhou (Chou) dynasty, took the title “Holy and Divine Emperor,” and moved the capital city from Chang’an (Ch’ang-an) to Luoyang (Loyang). She then began a reign of terror against all members of her husband’s family and Tang officials opposed to her usurpation, during which thousands were brutally killed or exiled. Revolts were put down ruthlessly. Those of the Li family who survived, including her sons, lived under house arrest.
While many strong women ruled behind the throne as wives, mothers, and grandmothers of male rulers, Wu Zhao was the only woman to rule in her own right. She was hardworking and capable and the empire prospered under her rule. She expanded the examination system of recruiting civil officials on the basis of ability and initiated the personal examination of candidates by the monarch. In 693 she even added a work that she wrote, titled “Rules for Officials,” as a compulsory text for the exams. It expressed her political philosophy based on selected passages from Confucian and Daoist (Taoist) canons.
Wu’s foreign relations mainly were involved with the Tibetan Kingdom in the west and Turkic and Khitan tribes in the north. In 692 Chinese armies crushed the Tibetans and reestablished protectorates among the oasis states along the Silk Road. Bribes of expensive goods of Chinese manufacture, marriage alliances, and military actions also ensured peace between the Turkic and Khitan tribes.
Empress Wu’s reign became adversely affected by her scandalous personal life, which became more bizarre as she aged. Her successive lowborn and little educated favorites were given enormous state powers, which they abused. They included a peddler of cosmetics and aphrodisiacs whom she installed as abbot of the White Horse Monastery, the oldest Buddhist establishment in Luoyang. He pleased her by supervising the building of a sumptuous ceremonial hall, called the Mingtang, that was 294 feet high, topped by a gold-clad phoenix 10 feet tall, but she had him killed when she tired of his corruption and arrogance. Her final and most scandalous favorites were a pair of young entertainers, the Zhang (Chang) brothers, who grew fabulously rich on bribes because of her favor. When her grandson, her granddaughter, and her husband reportedly criticized her behavior and their conversation was reported to her, Empress Wu had all three young people killed in 701.
Although she had proclaimed a new dynasty and had proclaimed her nephew (her brother’s son) heir, Empress Wu did not finally settle the succession, perhaps torn between the claims of her own clan and those of her sons. The fact that her nephews were unworthy men might have added to her problems. In the end, Di Renjie (Ti Jeh-chieh), a senior statesman in her administration who had served both her and the Tang sovereigns loyally, won the argument in favor of the Tang claim. He convinced her that only her son could properly perform the ancestral sacrifices to her spirit when she died. By 705 Empress Wu was often ill and rarely attended to business.
Many courtiers feared that the Zhang brothers, who had constant access to her, might attempt a coup if she should suddenly die. In 705 they entered the palace with an armed escort and with the deposed Zhongzong in tow seized and executed the Zhang brothers. Empress Wu then formally abdicated and Zhongzong ascended the throne as emperor. The Tang dynasty was restored, surviving members of the Li clan were restored to their titles and ranks, and those who had not were given posthumous honors. Empress Wu was given her own palace in the imperial complex in Luoyang, where she lived with all honors until her death later in that year.
- Fitzgerald, C. P. The Empress Wu. Melbourne: The Australian National University, 1953;
- Lin, Yutang. Lady Wu, A True Story. London: William Hanemann Ltd., 1957;
Twichett, Denis, ed. Cambridge History of China, Vol III: Sui and T’ang China 589–906. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979.
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