Empress Wu Zetian

Machiavellian Autocrat or Power-hungry Cinderella?

Many wonder whether Wu Zetian was a heroine or villainess - but whatever role she took, her reign laid the foundation for the golden age of the Tang dynasty.




Biographical profile

Family background, early life and influences
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Wu Zetian, celebrity depiction

There are many different beliefs as to when and where Wu Zetian was born. The most popular one is that she was born on February the 17th in year 624. Wu was born in Lizhou (modern day Guangyuan City of Sichuan Province), where she spent most of her childhood. The Wu family was relatively wealthy. Her mother Yang Shi was from a prominent family; her father Wu Shiyue was a mere timber merchant until he met Liyuan, who was at the time the Emperor of Sui. Wu had two brothers and two sisters, the two brothers Wu Yuanqing and Wu Yuanshang were born from Wu Shiyue's first wife Xiangli (they were later exiled for offending Wu's mother); the two sisters wereAfter Liyuan overthrew the Emperor Yang, he became the Founding Emperor Gaozu of Tang Dynasty. Gaozu was always very obliging to the Wu family, as Wu Shiyue was one of his most trusted confidantes and one of the founding fathers of the Tang Dynasty.

As a child, Wu lived a rather privileged life, travelling with her father to the different areas he governed. At a very young age Wu was taught to write, play music, read and appreciate the Chinese classics, from which she developed political awareness and a wide general knowledge which wasn’t common for women at that time, although the women of Tang Dynasty were given reasonable freedom as compared to the later dynasties, they were still expected to do needlework and take care of their husbands and children. However the political changes which happened in the year 626 had rendered Wu’s father powerless; Gaozu was overthrown by his son Li Shimin, known as Taizong of Tang, who coincidentally married Wu in the later years.

Career and occupations

In the year 637, the then fourteen year-old Wu was enlisted into the court of Taizong as a cairen (a fifth rank concubine in the Tang dynasty). For a brief period of time she was under the Emperor’s favour due to her beauty and intelligence, and he bequeathed Wu with the title of Meiniang (meaning ‘charming lady’, though it may have seductive insinuations). But after he appointed her as his personal secretary and found out about her natural talent at politics, rumors circulated amongst the folk that ‘Wu will replace Li’ (Li being the Imperial Family’s surname), he started to disregard her. After being a cairen for 12 long years without the emperor showing her any attraction towards her (she did not bear Taizong any children, neither did her rank raise), Taizong died in 649. According to court procedures Wu was forced to become a Buddhist nun at the Gan-Yeh convent, being a childless concubine.
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Wu Zetian being a nun, celebrity depiction


However, her chance to return to court soon came. During the time when she was still being ignored by Taizong, she developed an intimate relationship with Taizong’s son – Li Zhi who later became the Emperor Gaozong. The key points to Wu’s return to court were two prominent women – Taizong’s Empress Wang and his Consort Xiao. Wang was getting desperate as she had fallen out of favor with the Emperor –despite being empress, she had no children to speak of whilst Xiao already had a son, a great honour in the Tang dynasty. Consequently, Wang knew of Gaozong’s infatuation with Wu, so she ordered the return of Wu to court with hopes that another beautiful concubine would divert the Emperor’s attention from Xiao. Wu quickly climbed to power, from her initial fifth rank as cairen to the second rank of zhaoyi. She bore two sons, Li Hong in 652, and Li Zhi in 654. But being a ambitious woman, Wu quickly managed to dispose of both Wang and Xiao as she learnt that they planned to unite together in order to defeat her.

Wu had successfully framed Wang of murdering her daughter, but some sources say that she murdered the baby princess herself, which adds to her ruthless nature. Wu had guards hit both Wu and Xiao hundred times with a wooden cudgle, and thrown their bodies into wine vats after breaking off their hands and legs. Once Wang was effectively deposed of (the official statement was that she was sonless and practiced witchcraft), Wu finally became the Empress, but that was only the start of her great rise to power. There were various officials who vehemently refused to acknowledge her as Empress, but they protested with no avail – the Emperor Gaozong had his mind set on elevating Wu’s status to the highest power. After Wu became Empress, she quickly exiled all the voices who spoke against her, including Zhangsun Wuji (the Emperor’s maternal uncle).

In the year 660, Gaozong suffered from painful headaches and temporary blindness (recognised to be hypertension-related, but some historians aruge that Wu had slowly poisoned Gaozong). It was then when he made Wu to take care of the day-to-day running of the empire and govern the officials. It was said that Wu was so adept in the statescraft that Gaozu’s authority had began to waver. However by the time of 664 Gaozonf became irritated as Wu was meddling too much with politics. But Wu quickly convinced him otherwise, having half a dozen opposers executed at the same time. Almost no one dared to interfere any more because of Wu's tendency to hold a grudge.


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Wu Zetian, artist depiction

As Gaizong's illness was worsening by the day, Wu attempted to gain power through various routes. She began urging various mid-level officers (collectively known as the 'North Gate Scholars') to compose works on her behald (Biographies of Notable Women, Guidelines for Imperial Subjects etc). Many notorious events happened during that particular period of time. For instance, the crown prince Li Hong had arubtly died after his attempts for Wu not to interfere with Gaozong's ruling and political affairs. Many traditional historians determine that Wu had poisoned Li Hong. Wu had Gaozu make Li Xian the second crown prince, after she successfully demoted consort Xiao's remaining son Li Suijie. However after Li Xian found out that Wu was not his birthmother but rather his sister Lady of Wei's murderer, he became perturbed around her, an act which enraged Wu. Within a few months, Wu had already amassed several crimes under Li Xian's name and subsequently exiled him. The crown prince then changed again to another one of Wu's sons - Li Zhe.

In late 683, Gaozong died whilst in Luoyang. Li Zhe had inherited the throne becoming Emperor Zhongzong, but it was Empress Wu who became the defacto ruler of Tang being Empress Dowager and regent.

But this did not mark the end of Wu's power. The newly-elected Emperor Zhongzong immediately began showing signs of disobeyance, to Wu's great annoyance. She had no choice but to exile him, and replace Zhong Zong with her third son Li Dan, who went on becoming Emperor Ruizong, a mindless puppeteer played by his mother, who had no say on any state matters, and was forbidden to consult with any officials. Wu held onto her power firmly. crushing many rebellions against her, and continued politiacally motivated murders on royal Li family members and officials.

In the year 690 Wu finally approved of the requests submitted by officials to take the throne for herself. She subsequently changed the state name from Tang to Zhou, claiming to be a descendant of the Zhou Dynasty. Wu took the title of Empress Regnant Shenshen, which literally meant 'Divine and Sacred Empress Regnant'. Ruizong was then deposed and made her crown prince, next-in-line to the throne. Her new founding of the Zhou Dynasty had interrupted the Tang Dynasty, making Wu the first and only woman to ever reign over China as Empress Regnant.

During her reign Wu attained two young lovers who were brothers (Zhang Yizhi and Zhang Changzong) who became incredibly powerful later on. She relied on them to such an extent that only those two were allowed to visit her on her sickbed. Many state affairs were trusted to them and they had been later made dukes. The two brothers were said to be haughty, cruel and arrogant, but had Wu in firmly in their thumbs.

Major achievements
Though known by many to be a coldblooded leader on her rise to power, Wu Zetian neverless proved to be a capable and intelligent monarch, she developed agriculture by ordering construction of irrigation schemes. Wu also commissioned farming textbooks, evaluated local officials by seeing how they cultivate the land, and allowed peasant farmers to keep more produce. Generally the population turned reasonably prosperous.

Wu was also willing to use talented people, no matter if they have lowly birth or not. She specially improvised the imperial examination system to make sure no one was excluded. Many famous people were drawn in, such as the great chancellor Di renjie and Zhang Jianzhi.


Death

In winter 704, Wu had fallen seriously ill, she permitted only the two Zhang brothers to see her, an act which caused deep resentment within her sons and chancellors.By spring 705, February 20th, the Zhang brothers were executed for treason. They surrounded Changsheng Hall (where Wu currently resided) and forced her to abduct the throne in flavour of Li Zhe. On the 23rd of February, Li Zhe reclaimed the throne formally, and despite the past, he honoured his mother Wu with the title of Empress Regnant Zetian Dasheng. On the 3rd of March, Li Zhe ended the short-lived Zhou Dynasty, restoring Tang to all its glory.

Wu Zetian died on 16 December, marking the end of her long, legendary life. She was buried by the Emperor Zhongzong with his father Emperor Gaozong.

Legacy and Impact
Wu Zetian was no doubt one of the most controversial women in history - there were rumours that she murdered her own infant daughter for power; she managed to gain absolute control from her second husband, an Emperor; she forced all of her sons to either abducate or be sent into exile and traditional Chinese Law did not allow women to succeed the throne (much like the Salic law in Europe), Wu still worked her way around it. She employed usage of the secret police to nullify opposition. During her iron-fisted reign of both the early Tang Dynasty and Zhou Dynasty we could see that she was a power-hungry woman; Wu encouraged people to inform her about everyone and everything.

There was a story which circulated the folks which Wu herself told when she was of old age: "Emperor Taizong had a horse with the name 'Lion Stallion', and it was so large and strong that no one could get on its back. I was a consort atetnidng Emperor Taizong, and I suggested to him, 'I only need three thigns to subordinate it: an iron whip, an iron hammer, and a sharp dagger. I will whip it with the iron whip. If it does not submit, I will hammer its head with the iron hammer. If it still does not submit, I will cut its throat with the dagger.' Emperor taizong praised my bravery." The story goes on to show how ferocious a lady she was.

The Song Dynasty historian Sima Guang had commented in his famous book on Zizhi Tongjian: Even though the Empress Dowager excessively used official titles to cause people to submit to her, if she saw that soemeone wa incompetent, she would immediately depose or even execute him. She grasped the powers of punishment and award, controlled the state, and made her own judgements as to policy decisions. she was observant and had good judgment, so the talented people of the time also were willing to be used be her.
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Wu Zetian surrounded by followers, artist depiction


According to historians, the Zhou Dynasty founded by Wu achieved better equality between sexes. Due to the later Tang Emperors nearly all being descendants of her, Wu was generally viewed in a positive light. However especially in the Southern Song Dynasty, when Neo-Confucianism had been established as the mainstream political idealogy of China, sexism determined Wu Zetian's harshly criticized evaluation. Literary allusions to Wu Zetian usually connote the fact that she was 'a woman who has inappropriately overstepped her bounds, preaching compassion while simultaneously engaging in a pattern of corrupt and vicious behaviour, ruling by pulling strings in the background'.Wu was used as an example for centuries - what may go wrong when you place a woman in charge. It was only until the late 1860's when Mao Zedong's (first president of China) wife Jiang Qing lifted the the sexist opposition on Wu in order to aid her propanganda campagin to succeed her ailing husband. Traditional Chinese historical view on Wu Zetian was mixed in general. Wu was greatly admired for her abilities in the politics and how she came to power being a mere woman, but maligning her for her uncouth actions in seizing power.

A typical commentary from thh Book of Tang, written in the late Jin Dynasty by chief editor historian Liu Xu can easily sum up her life: The year that Lady Wu declared herself regent, heroic individuals were all mournful of the unfortunate turn of events, worried that the dynasty would fall, and concerned that they could not repay the grace of the deceased emperor (Gaozong) and protect his sons. Soon thereafter, great accusations arose, and many innocent people were falsely accused and stuck their necks out in waiting for execution. Heaven and earth became like a huge cage, and even if one could escape it, where could he go? That was lamentable. In the past, the trick of covering the nosesurprised the realm in its poisonous, and the disaster of the human pigcaused the entire state to mourn. In order to take over as empress, Empress Wu strangled her own infant daughter; her willingness to crush her own flesh and blood showed how great her viciousness and vile nature was, although this is nothing more than what evil individuals and jealous women might do. However, she accepted the words of righteousness and honored the . Although she was like a hen that crowed, she eventually returned the rightful rule to her son. She quickly dispelled the accusation against Wei Yuanzhong, comforted Di Renjie with kind words, respected the will of the times and suppressed her favorites, and listened to honest words and ended the terror of the secret police officials. This was good, this was good.

Timeline of Wu Zetian’s Life

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Map of Wu Zetian's Life


Map 1
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Map 2
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Primary Source Analysis

Note: not many primary sources can be found about Wu Zetian due to her time period. There are no known existing artifacts.

Source 1:

This is a painting from tla.jpghe famous Chinese Tang Dynasty Painter Zhang Xuan of 713-755.

The name of the collection of paintings is 唐后行从图. There is no known English translation for it.

(This is most likely a replica made in later years, as unfortunately none of Zhang Xuan's paintings survived through the dynsasties.)


Though there are no actual visual depictions of Wu Zetian from the time of her range we can still sketch an imaginary image of her in our minds with some writings left over from the Tang Dynasty describing Wu Zetian's looks.

Wu Zetian once said that her daughter Taiping Princess looked like herself.

According to historical records Taiping Princess was 'curvy with a broad forehead'. In the Tang Dynsasy, plump women were considered to be the standard of great beauties.

When Emperor Zhongzong of Tang was still the crown prince, his study-companion the famous poet Cui Rong once praised Wu Zetian's beauty as 'so great that it overshines the moon'.

The reknowned Tang dynasty seer Yuan Tiangang once described her as having 'dragon's eyes and phoenix's neck', both being symbols of the royal family.
Source 2:
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Wu Zetian's famous 'No Name Tomb'

The Qianling Tomb is where the third Tang-dynasty Emperor Gaozong and his Empress Wuzetian, China's first and only governing female emperor. It is the most representative among the eighteen Tang-dynasty tombs, with immaculate detail on the grand stone carvings and statues located above ground.The tomb is located on top of Liang Mountain.

Apart from the main Tumulus mound and unfeground tomb of Gaozong and Wu Zetian, there is a total of smaller attendant tombs, commonly known as peizang mu. Usually when a prominent figure back in the olden days died, his mistresses/servants were traditionally made to suicide so they could be buried together, and continue serving as mistresses/servants to their masters in the afterlife.


This is the famous tablet of 'No Words' for Wu Zetian's QianLing Tomb. It is a row of stone stele on the right side. The entire tablet holds no charcaters or writing. The design of the tablet was made on orders of the Empress Wu Zetian right before she died. Wu had clearly noted 'my merit surpassed what later people could judge, so they are not to write anythign on the stele'. This shows her unyielding confidence and utmost pride in herself. She is for no one but herself to judge.



mi.jpgSource 3:

This is yet another reknowned depiction of Wu Zetian in the later years.

The painting came from the collection 历代古人像赞. There is no known English Translation for the name.

It was painted in the year 1498 by an unknown artist who collaborated many other portraits of famous people from the ancient times.

The painter was, quite obvioulsy, not a great fan of Wu Ze Tian as he wrote on the sides of the painting two lines 'massacring ancestors and poisoning good people'.

(Please note that this is a self-translation which cannot fully interpret the meaning of the poetic verses, the original lines in Chinese actually rhyme when one says it)

The poem aside, we can clearly tell that it is a picture depicting a Tang Dynasty woman. For instant the wide face shape and double chin - it is noteworthy that plumpness was fashionable only in the Tang Dynasty. You can also tell by Wu's luxurious clothing and elaborate headgear that she is of incredibly prominent status and posititon.


The last finishing touch on the overall painting is the flower in the middle of Wu Zetian's forehead - sticking thin, brightly-coloured metal flowers on the foreheads was considered some sort of stylish thing for aristocratic ladies to do, rather like the beauty dots which were all the rage in Europe.


Note - many of the passages in the wiki are self-translated from Chinese and may not always be found in English texts online.

Picture Gallery

As Gaozu's illness was worsening by the day, Wu attempted to gain power through various routes. She began urging various mid-level officers t(collectively known as the 'North Gate Scholars) o compose works on her behalf (Biographies of Notable Women, Guidelines for Imperial Subjects, New Teachings for Official Stagg Members etc.)
wu2.jpg
Wu Zetian by Fan Bingbing, celebrity depiction




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Wu Zetian, celebrity depiction
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Wu Zetian, celebrity depiction



Many notable events happened during that particular period of time. For instance, the crown prince Li Hong arubtly died after his attempts for Wu not to interfere with Gaozong's political affairs. Many traditional historians determine that Wu had poisoned Li Hong, as he also offended her by his requests for his half-sisters to be married (they were placed under house arrest by Wu). Wu had Gaozu make Li Xian the crown prince, after she successfully demoted consort Xiao's only remaining son Li suijie. But after Li Xian found out that Wu was not his birth mother but rather the murderer of his sister Lady of Wei, he became perturbed around her, an act which greatly enraged Wu. Within a few months Wu had amassed several crimes against Li Xian and had him exiled. The crown prince then changed again to another one of Wu's sons - Li Zhe.





















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Wu Zetian surrounded by her loyal subjects, artist depiction

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Stone Statue of Wuzetian at Guangyuan Huangze Temple


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Wu Zetian reading documents, artist depiction





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Wu Zetian, artist depiction
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Wu Zetian, celebrity depiction




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Wu Zetian, celebrity depiction



Recommended Reading List


Here are the list of books and websites I used in researching Wu Zetian
  • http://www.womeninworldhistory.com/heroine6.html
    'Biographies - Female Heroes of Asia: China - Empress Wu Zetian' viewed on 21st August
    I found this website rather adequate in regarding historical accuracy. It even used a rather cute little sexist confucian belief as an introduction - having women rule in place of men is like 'a hen crowing like a rooster at daybreak' - impossible! It showcases Wu Zetian in an entirely positive light, stating that she ruled one of China's most peaceful and culturally diverse periods ever. I found this one heaps useful!
  • http://www.chinamuseums.com/qianlingm.htm
    'Qianling Museum - Wu Zetian's tomb'
    This website is a wonder - it gives an incredibly detailed piece on Wu Zetian's tomb! Great architectural terms used in this one, and its credibilty should rather high too, complete with a number of useful pictures.
  • http://www.chinaculture.org/gb/en_aboutchina/2003-09/24/content_22879.htm
    This website is incredibly easy to navigate with a clear little facts of information. It was super easy to understand and gave me a general timeline in no time.
  • http://www15.brinkster.com/orientalempire/life1.htm
    This particular website held nearly all the information I needed. It's set out with hyperlinks to the left side of the page that links you to different periods of Wu's life. It's loaded with all the right bits of information.
  • Female Rule in Chinese and English Literary Utopias by Qinyun Wu
    I found this book off Google Scholar, it had quite a few extracts on the legendary Wu Zetian - overall it was actually quite a good and interesting read, exploring how Wu's extraordinary reign\ improved feminist rights back in the Tang Dynasty.
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wu_Zetian
    Wikipedia is apt enough if you just want a general outline and understanding of Wu's life. But as for its accuracy, i'd suggest you cross reference it with other websites and sources of information just to prove its correct.
  • http://baike.baidu.com/view/2225.htm
    This website is sort of like the Chinese version of Wikipedia, but better. Its sources are usually highly credible. But it is always best if you could run a quick check with other websites to see if the dates and details match.


Activities

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Wu Ze Tian


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CAIREN
CONSORT
DAUGHTER
EMPRESS
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WUZETIAN
ZHAOYI

Haunted Maze!

Empress Wu is haunted by the ghosts of consort Xiao and empress Wang...time is ticking by.
Will she be able to escape the maze in time? Or will she fall into the clutches of the two women, and be lost, forever?

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The perfect combination between maths and history..........I give you Maths Square!
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It's Criss Cross Puzzle time

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Across
3. What dynasty did Wu Zetian found?
6. What is the fifth rank of consort in the court?
10. What dynasty was Wu born in?
11. When Taizong died what did Wu Zetian become?
12. Whose horse did Wu Zetian threaten to whip, hammer and stab?
Down
1. Where was Wu Zetian born in?
2. Where did Wu Zetian live after founding Zhou Dynasty?
4. Which month was Wu Zetian born in?
5. Where was Tang Dynasty's capital?
7. Who was rumoured to have killed Wu's daughter?
8. What was the surname of Wu Zetian's mother?
9. What title meaning 'seductive vixen' was given to Wu Zetian?








ENJOY!