Wu Zetain, China's Only Female Ruler, Killed Her Children To Secure Power But Later, Spiraled into Disgrace
Wu Zetain, China’s Only Female Ruler, Killed Her Children To Secure Power But Later, Spiraled into Disgrace

Wu Zetain, China’s Only Female Ruler, Killed Her Children To Secure Power But Later, Spiraled into Disgrace

Trista - October 24, 2018

There’s a lot to be said about female political leaders. Some, like Marie Antoinette, took the blame for their state’s demise, while others, like Aung San Suu Kyi, were lauded for their peace-building achievements before becoming implicated in state-led catastrophes. Women in politics, like Hillary Clinton, can be credited with merely breaking through the glass ceiling and paving the way for other women to become active in public service. However, possibly no female politician stands out quite like Wu Zetian, China’s only female emperor.

Today, historians have a difficult time sifting through the myths and legends to determine the historicity of her reign and the events leading up to it. She defied the Confucian ideal of patriarchy by becoming a mighty woman, thereby earning her many enemies among the Chinese aristocracy and nobility. While she was characterized as being ruthless in her quest for power – she may have actually killed her own children as part of her pursuit of China’s throne – her reign was primarily characterized by peace and stability. While there are some aspects of her life and reign that can be proven, others give the historian room for speculation in the quest to understand the real Wu Zetian.

Wu Zetain, China’s Only Female Ruler, Killed Her Children To Secure Power But Later, Spiraled into Disgrace
Tang Dynasty Empress Wu Zetian found in an 18th century album of portraits of 86 emperors of China, with Chinese historical notes. Wikimedia.

Wu Zetian Was a Well-Educated, Literate Woman

Wu Zetian came from a wealthy family in the seventh century and, contrary to the custom of the day, was raised by a father who valued her education. She was encouraged to read, write, and explore the world. She was brought to Emperor Taizong’s palace at the age of 14, where she initially worked as a laundress. However, one day, she spoke to the emperor as he passed by her, and he was so impressed with her wit that they began having regular conversations. She became his secretary and his junior concubine.

Wu Zetain, China’s Only Female Ruler, Killed Her Children To Secure Power But Later, Spiraled into Disgrace
A painting portraying Emperor Taizong of Tang by painter Yan Liben (c. 600 – 673). Wikimedia.

Wu Zetian was therefore in a position to learn more about the goings on of the state, something that her inquisitive mind was already interested in, and to catch the eye of Taizong’s son, Prince Li Zhi. Following the death of Emperor Taizong, she was supposed to join his other concubines who were forced to shave their heads and become nuns so that they could never have another lover after being with the emperor. However, the Emperor Gaozong was in love with the well-educated Wu Zetian and sent for her to come back to the palace.

This idea didn’t sit well with the other women in his harem, especially his wife, Lady Wang. Even though she was his real wife, Lady Wang had no children, and she was in a state of perpetual competition with the other women, including Xiao Shufei, who was Li Zhi’s top concubine. Xiao Shufei already had a son and two daughters, and Wu Zetian soon had two sons. However, both Xiao and Lady Wang took issue with Wu Zetian, not because of her sons (the one to succeed Li Zhi as the emperor had already been decided, and it wasn’t any of their sons) but because of the attention that the emperor paid to her. She was apparently his favorite woman; even though she didn’t have the status of wife, they came to see her as a threat.

Wu Zetain, China’s Only Female Ruler, Killed Her Children To Secure Power But Later, Spiraled into Disgrace
A 17th-century Chinese depiction of Wu, from Empress Wu of the Zhou, published c.1690. Wikimedia.

Wu Zetian Began to Oppose Anyone Who Stood in Her Way

After her two sons were born, Wu Zetian had a daughter; sadly, the infant died within a week. The exact causes of the infant’s death are still a source of speculation for historians. What is known is that Wu accused Lady Wang of smothering or strangling the little girl, as Lady Wang was the last one to hold her and was known to have a particular disdain for Wu. Lady Wang had no alibi, so she was found guilty of the child’s murder and banished from the harem. Wu also implicated Xiao in the death of her child, who joined Lady Wang in exile.

However, some later writers indicated that Wu might have killed the child herself to get rid of the other two women whom she may have seen as standing in her way. Soon after Lady Wang was sent into exile, the emperor divorced her and married Wu. She functionally became Empress and wielded a substantial degree of influence over her husband, particularly in matters of the state. Maybe the people who accused her of killing the child were those who opposed her rise to power, especially as it contradicted with Confucian ideals. Perhaps, however, there was some truth in the claim.

Wu Zetain, China’s Only Female Ruler, Killed Her Children To Secure Power But Later, Spiraled into Disgrace
A depiction of Emperor Gaozong of Tang from An 18th century album of portraits of 86 emperors of China, with Chinese historical notes, who was in love with Wu Zetian and had children with her. Wikimedia.

Wu quickly won enemies in the imperial court. Advisors who had served under the emperor’s father claimed that his marriage to his father’s former concubine was considered incest. Many of them were exiled or executed. Wu came to hold even more power after the emperor suffered a stroke and functionally came to rule China for the next 23 years. One of the first things that she did as Empress was ordered that the hands and feed of Lady Wang and Xiao be cut off before they were thrown into a vat of wine to drown.

Still, some people still stood in her way, namely, her sons. One, the crowned prince, was believed to be poisoned after challenging the Empress. Another of them was sent into exile, where he was forced to take his own life. Her other son, Li Hong, became emperor after her husband died, but Wu didn’t like how much he was pushing his own agenda instead of doing as she wanted. Wu charged them with treason, and they were both banished. Her youngest son finally became emperor; however, he lived under house arrest, so Wu made all of his decisions for him before she forced him to abdicate.

At the point of her youngest son’s abdication, Wu Zetian became China’s only female emperor in history. She worked through a network of spies and secret police and even paid informants to come to the court and give accounts of anything that they knew. If she wanted to get rid of anyone, she had the means of gathering dirt on him or her and the necessary power to have that person exiled or executed. Any plot against her was quickly unearthed, and those who served as her spies were richly rewarded. No one dared to stand in her way.

Wu Zetain, China’s Only Female Ruler, Killed Her Children To Secure Power But Later, Spiraled into Disgrace
A Palace Concert. 9th century Tang Dynasty. Wikimedia.

Wu Zetian’s Demise Was as Spectacular as Her Rise

Towards the end of her 23-year reign – 15 years of which she held the official title of the emperor – Wu Zetian fell prey to the excesses that have spelled the end to so many leaders both before and after her. She took on a harem of male concubines, with two brothers – the Zhang brothers – finding particular favor. In her seventies, she became so enamored with the twenty-something-year-old Zhang men that she came to neglect her official duties.

As historian Mike Dash said, “In her seventies, Wu showered special favor on two smooth-cheeked brothers, the Zhang brothers, former boy singers, the nature of whose private relationship with their imperial mistress has never been precisely determined. One of the brothers, she declared, had ‘a face as beautiful as a lotus flower,’ while it is said she valued the other for his talents in the bedchamber…. the empress, greatly weakened by infirmity and old age, would allow no one but the Zhang brothers by her side.”

In fact, her infatuation with the two young men drew the ire of officials in the court, who realized that she was neglecting her state duties. One account actually shows that court officials became so furious that they raided the palace, decapitated the Zhang brothers, and commandeered the government. Still, Wu continued her downward spiral, which now included drug addiction, in addition to her time with her male concubines. Her paranoia increased so that anyone who opposed her would be banished, imprisoned, or executed. In time, her son, Zhongzong, had to be brought back from his banishment to take over as emperor.

Wu Zetain, China’s Only Female Ruler, Killed Her Children To Secure Power But Later, Spiraled into Disgrace
Left rear wall of Fengxian Si. Tang Dynasty, 675 A.D. Longmen Grottoes. The Fengxian cave, also known as the “Great Image Niche,” was commissioned by Wu Zetian. The rear wall is a pentad, whose center and left figures are seen here. The central Buddha is Vairocana. Wikimedia.

Despite her ruthless rise and disgraceful fall, Wu Zetian can be credited with many reforms of the Tang Dynasty. She helped expand military control of the region, which contributed to unifying the land into a governable state. A system of civil service exams was propagated, which enabled those with the necessary skills to obtain positions. Additionally, taxes and military expenditures were reduced while the salaries of those deserving were raised. Furthermore, retirees were given pensions, and formerly royal land around the palace was converted to farmland. So whether or not she killed her daughter, a lot can be said about China’s only female emperor.

 

Where did we get this stuff? Here are our sources:

“The Demonization of Empress Wu,” by Mike Dash. Smithsonian.com. August 10, 2012.

“Wuhou, Empress of Tang Dynasty,” by Charles Patrick Fitzgerald. Encyclopedia Britannica.

“Wu Zetian,” by Emily Mark. Ancient History Encyclopedia. March 17, 2016.

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