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 âa face as beautiful as a lotus flower,’ while it is said she valued the other for his talents in the bedchamberâ¦. 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.
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.
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