The Tang Dynasty (618-907) was a time of slightly deconstructed misogyny which allowed for the advancement of women. In fact, the Tang Dynasty experienced a small interruption with the second Zhou Dynasty (690-705) established by the only female monarch in Chinese history-Empress Wu. Empress Wu rose to power through ruthless tactics to move her from the emperor’s concubine, to the emperor’s consort, and eventually to the position of empress of China.
Her significance as a Chinese ruler is exemplified through her use of the Chinese secret service, her influence over the civil service examination, her edicts to relieve the lower classes, and her lasting impact on China’s military and diplomacy. Wu Zetian was born during the Tang dynasty in China and had an advantage in when she was born as she was born during a time when women were not expected to live fully subordinate lives. She was born into a wealthy Chinese family that had many servants, and since the servants took care of all major domestic tasks, Wu was able to focus on studying Chinese literature and music.
At the age of fourteen, she was renowned for her outstanding attractiveness and intellect. Young Wu Zetian caught the eye of the reigning emperor, Emperor Tai Zong. Wu was brought to the imperial city to serve the emperor as a concubine of the fifth rank which was commonly known as the talented group, or cairen. When Wu’s mother, Lady Yang, heard that her daughter was called to the imperial city, she cried. Wu said in response, “How do you know that it is not my fortune to meet the Son of Heaven? Why are you crying like a young child? It became clear to Lady Yang what her daughter’s intentions were, and she allowed for her to go. Consort Wu, however, did not appear to be much favoured by Emperor Tai Zong, although it appeared that she did have sexual relations with him at one point. Despite the alleged interactions, Emperor Tai Zong never produced any children with Consort Wu and was thus sent to a Buddhist convent for the rest of her life after the emperor’s death. Wu left the nunnery a few years later, but on what account is disputed.
Some sources state Wu had started an affair with Emperor Tai Zong’s son, Li Zhi, who later succeeded him as emperor. For that reason, a few years following Wu’s arrival to the convent, Li Zhi (at this point known as Emperor Gaozong) showed up to bring her back to the imperial city. Other sources divulge Emperor Gaozong had gone to the convent to light incense for his deceased father and Wu Zetian saw him and mourned with him. Either way, Emperor Gaozong brought Wu Zetian back to the imperial city as his personal concubine of the second rank.
Not only was Wu still famed for her beauty and wit, but her time at the convent had also taught her patience and control, which was even more enticing to the emperor. With her new found virtues of patience and control, Wu honed her desire for power and status. Emperor Gaozong had an already long lasting relationship with another concubine, Consort Xiao. Consort Xiao had three children at the time of Wu’s arrival to the imperial city, whereas the emperor’s wife, Empress Wang, had yet to bear any. Empress Wang hoped that Wu’s arrival would distract the emperor from his growing relationship with Consort Xiao.
To ensure this, Empress Wang acted as a mentor to Consort Wu. Soon, Wu became Emperor Gaozong’s favorite concubine and in 652, unforeseen by the emperor’s wife, gave birth to her first child and only a year later gave birth to another. Consort Wu’s risen status made both Empress Wang and Consort Xiao jealous, and, in turn, gained her two enemies. Wu was conscious of the jealousy of the two and identified it as a threat. In 654, Wu had another child who died shortly after birth from some sort of suffocation.
Consort Wu accused Empress Wang of the murder of her child. The allegations peaked suspicion within Emperor Gaozong and he began to arrange meetings with various high ranking officials to discuss the topic of replacing the empress. Most officials opposed the idea which made the emperor hesitant. However, only a year after accusing the empress of murder, Wu then accused both Empress Wang and Consort Xiao of witchcraft. Emperor Gaozong incarcerated Empress Wang and consort Xiao and named Consort Wu as the new empress, then named Wu’s first born son as his heir.
Later in the year, Empress Wu gave the orders to have both Wang and Xiao executed upon hearing the emperor’s thoughts of having them released. In addition to Empress Wu ordering the executions of Wang and Xiao, she began targeting the officials that opposed her ascension to empress. Wu’s newly appointed chancellors accused the old officials of treason under her orders. All those officials accused of treason were sent into exile (where some were forced to commit suicide) and a few were executed.
To further ensure her position, she exiled Emperor Goazong’s oldest son born to an old consort and named her eldest son heir. In 660, Emperor Goazong began to become ill and was incapable of making decisions. Thus, the emperor allowed for Empress Wu to make decisions on his behalf in light of her renowned wit. Nevertheless, certain officials believed that Empress Wu’s power began to rival that of the emperor’s. While this assertion angered Emperor Goazong, nothing enraged him more than the accusation that the empress was taking part in witchcraft.
Out of rage, Goazong drafted an edict to have the empress removed. Upon hearing the news of the edict, Wu went to the emperor to convince him that the accusations were false. The emperor believed her and, in his guilt, blamed the official Shangguan Yi for the edict. Empress Wu then had Shangguan convicted for treason, and he was later executed. From then on, Emperor Gaozong and Empress Wu would attend all imperial meetings together and became known as the “Two Holy Ones”. In 683, Emperor Goazong reached the height of his illness and died late in the year.
Empress Wu’s son came to power under the name Emepror Zhongzong, but Wu reigned as empress dowager. After only 6 weeks, the new emperor showed blatant disregard for Wu’s instructions and advice. Wu was thoroughly displeased and had her son removed from the throne and sent him and the entirety of his wife’s family into exile. After, Wu named her youngest son as emperor who ruled under the name Emperor Ruizong. However, Wu was not subtle in using her son as a puppet ruler. She gave the emperor commands in view of the public and never allowed him to move into the imperial quarters.
After a few years of Ruizong’s reign, Wu forced him to give the throne to her and she officially established herself as the first empress of the Zhou Dynasty. Empress Wu was wellknown during her reign for her use of the secret police and various informants. She set up a system that placed copper mailboxes outside of government buildings for people to secretly report any opposition against her. Most people did not approve of Wu’s position, seeing as she was the first female monarch of China.
Many tried to show their disdain of Wu’s ascension to power, but her use of the secret police allowed her to eliminate all possible opponents. Along with the police, Empress Wu was famous for her organization of the civil service exam. Eventually, some would speak out against the exam as it didn’t seem fit to find the right people to put into government positions. On the other hand, some historians from later dynasties would concede that Wu had impeccable judgement when it came to government officials. For instance, Sima Guang stated that “even though…
Empress [Wu] excessively used official titles to cause people to submit to her, if she saw that someone was incompetent, she would immediately depose or even execute him. ” Wu’s reign lasted for approximately 15 years, and within her first year she gave Buddhism the highest status as a religion, erected many Buddhist temples, and named several monks as dukes. Her reign was seen as a prominent advancement of the religion in China. Alongside this, she also made great territorial advancements for Zhou China. The extent of Wu’s empire was estimated to be close to the following:
However, in her later years, Wu feared she would die without naming a successor. Therefore, she proclaimed that her youngest son (who had formerly ruled under the name of Emperor Ruizong) would take the throne after she had passed. Empress Wu died in 705, and her reign under the Zhou Dynasty left many lasting impressions on China. Her ruthless tactics allowed her to ascend to power and leave a major impact. Wu’s work on the imperial examination increased its importance and allowed for a larger number of qualifying applicants (as she opened the examination to commoners, which had previously been prohibited).
Her cruel ways made use of the secret police and officials under her reign produced the Manual of Accusation that detailed the means of producing confessions through torture. Despite her reputation of a brutal killer, she was also ironically known for her various edicts that helped provide relief to the lower classes. The Zhou Dynasty under Empress Wu was characterized by its relatively high standard of living. Empress Wu may be a contradictory character, but her rule (good or bad) was surely impactful and unique.