by Anna Kathryn Lanier
It’s been awhile since I’ve done a post using LADIES FIRST: history’s greatest female trailblazers, winners and mavericks by Lynn Santa Lucia. Today, I’m doing one on the only female Empress of China, Wu Zetian. In comparison to her male contemporaries, Wu was not much different from the Emperors, but the fact a woman ruled so ruthlessly adds a new dimension to the story. Wu was not the only woman to rule with an iron-fist, indeed she joins a list, albeit short compared to the list of male rulers: Catherine De’ Mendici, Elizabeth I, Maria Theresa, Holy Roman Empress, to name a few. What may make Empress Wu unique is the fact she killed her own children on her climb to the top.
Wu Zetian was born about 625, a commoner who managed to catch the eye of Emperor Taizong. Mourning the death of his chief wife, the middle-aged Taizong sought solace in his young handmaidens. Although only 13 or 14 years old at the time, she also attracted the interest of Goazong, heir apparent to Taizong. When Taizong died a few years later, Wu, along with the other childless concubine, was moved to the Ganye Temple and became a Buddhist nun.
Her exile from the palace did not last long though. Goazong remembered the “Fair Flatterer” and he brought her in as one of his own concubine. Wu, however, had no intention of being just “one of the girls.” Now 24, she set about her path to power. Wu first had to become a favorite of the emperor.
Unfortunately two women stood in her way: Empress Wang and Consort Xiao, Goazong’s wife and favorite consort. To further her place in the palace, Wu garnered favor with those who the empress had ever offended. The empress and consort, rivals for the emperor’s affection, now joined forces. By the time they made their move against Wu, however, it was too late. She already had influential people on her side who defended her actions with Goazong. Once Wu secured favor with the emperor, she set her eye on the throne.
In three short years, Wu gave birth to two sons and a daughter. When the new born baby girl was found dead in her crib (possibly at Wu’s own hand), Wu wasted no time laying the blame at the feet of Empress Wang. Wu convinced Gaozong that Wang murdered the baby out of jealousy. This accusation in and of itself did not cause Gaozong to rid himself of his wife.
Wu stepped up her attacks on the empress, accusing her of sorcery and plotting to kill Gaozong. The emperor consulted his advisors, seeking approval to divorce his wife on the grounds she had not produced him a son. Most of them were against the divorce, but one stated that this was a household affair and why did the emperor need the ministers approval? This was enough of nod of the head for Gaozong to go forward with the divorce.
Once he disposed of Empress Wang and Consort Ziao, he married Wu and made her Empress. Her first official act as empress was to order the executions of Wang and Xiao, as it appeared Gaozong was having second thoughts on ridding himself of them. It is alleged that Wu had Wang whipped, her hands and feet cut off and thrown into a vat of wine to drown.
The deaths of Wang and Xiao were just the beginning of a 30 year reign of terror that included the murder of five of the emperor’s sons, including two of her own, her own brother, sisters, nieces and hundreds of her husband’s family. Thousands of others from ministers to common villagers were also killed on her orders.
Wu ruled with an iron fist and did not favor her own children. When her eldest son and crown prince Li Hong annoyed her, she placed him under house arrest. When he died suddenly, rumors flew that she had killed him. A few years later, she accused one of her other sons, Li Xian, of treason and had him exiled. This left a younger, and more easily managed, son to become the crown prince.
When Goazong died in 863, some believed she’d poisoned him. Li Zhan, now twenty and renamed Emperor Zhongzong took the throne, but Wu retained authority. Eventually, Zhongzong also disappointed his mother and he too was exiled. She also sent a general to Li Xian’s place and had the general force him to commit suicide on the grounds he’d committed treason.
Her youngest son, Li Dan, renamed Emperor Ruizong, was emperor in name only. Wu remained in control. Officials were not allowed to meet with Ruizong and he was not allowed to participate in matters of state. Wu continued to rule as she always had—demoting, exiling and murdering those who opposed her.
In 690, with the opposition finally crushed, Empress Wu crowned herself as the first Zhou dynasty emperor. Thus she became the first and only woman to rule over China as an empress.
Once fully and securely in charge of the state, Wu was a model leader. Her reign of terror came nearly to an end. She installed honest leaders to rule the country as civil servants, garnered peace with Korea, reduced taxes, increased agricultural output, and promoted cultural and art. She also promoted freedom among women and commissioned the biographies of important Chinese women.
Wu reigned as Sacred and Divine Empress of China for 15 years. On February 20, 705, she was overthrown by the son she’d once exiled, Zhongzong. At nearly 80 years old, she relinquished her male harem and retired into a life of luxury.
Before her death on December 16, 705, Wu wrote out a will, pardoning all the people who had forced her to kill them. She was buried, as she wished, next to her “beloved” husband Gaozong.
Anna Kathryn Lanier