Power without Permission:
The Rise to Power of China’s Only Female Monarch
What does it take for a girl born from a modest background in a male-dominated world to rise to the greatest position of power in the known world? It seems to have taken an extraordinary amount of wit, intelligence, and bravery, but also no small part of ruthlessness and manipulation. Emperor Wu Zetian ruled over the Tang Dynasty of China for half of a century and became China’s first and only female Emperor, ruling in her own right as monarch for the last fifteen years of her life (FitzGerald). The contemporary poet Luo Binwang portrayed Wu as an enchantress, saying “All fell before her moth brows. She whispered slander from behind her sleeves, and swayed her master with vixen flirting” (Dash). She has been demonized as a monster of the ancient world, cold, cruel, and murderous, but perhaps that reputation is merely the price she has paid for daring to be a woman who took power for herself in a man’s world. Her rule seems to have been no more ruthless than the male power players preceding and proceeding her reign, and she is credited with unifying a crumbling China and overseeing one of the most prosperous times in Chinese history (Dash). Her life was one of great intrigue, seduction, and controversy. How much of the tales are truth and how much is rumor is often difficult to calculate but it’s a fascinating story to explore.
China’s most powerful woman was born in the year 624 in Wenshui, China, located in what is now the Shanxi province as Wu Zhao (FitzGerald). She grew up in a China that had already been fully immersed in the ideals of Confucianism. Confucianism dictated that women are of a lower social status than men and should remain subservient to them as their masters, for as “father guides son, husband guides wife”, and women should always adhere to the virtues of benevolence, righteousness, propriety, wisdom and sincerity (“Empress Wu Zetian” 2004). However, the Tang Dynasty was also was a time of relative freedom for women and many women were able to contribute in the areas of culture and politics (“Biographies: Empress Wu Zetian” 1996). It was a time of cultural revolution, during which women were allowed to be financially independent and be educated in philosophy, culture, art, and social ethics. Divorce became allowable as long as it was a mutual endeavor (“Empress Wu Zetian” 2004). Born to a lesser noble family, Wu was taught from an early age to read, write and play music, and at a young age she became known for her wit, talent, and exceptional beauty (“Biographies: Empress Wu Zetian” 1996).
At the age of fourteen, Wu Zhao was selected to come to the emperor’s palace as a Cai Ren, or lesser concubine fifth in rank. The emperor renamed her Mei Niang, meaning “charming and lovely”, but there is no indication that she ever served the emperor sexually. She did serve as his secretary for twelve years. Doing this gave her an intimate lesson into the inner workings of governing (“Biographies: Empress Wu Zetian” 1996). The emperor died in 649 when Wu was twenty-six. As tradition insisted, she was sent to a nunnery to have her head shaved and spend the rest of her life in abstinence, as it would have been insulting to the dead emperor for any man to touch her after she had belonged to him (“Wu Zetian” 2003). This could have been the end to Wu’s chapter in history, were it not for the emperor’s son, Gaozong. During Wu’s time in the palace, it is obvious that Gaozong became enamored with Wu and some historians believe they had a physical affair before the old emperor’s death, which could have cost Wu her head had they been caught (Dash). Within two to three years of becoming emperor, and after several personal visits to the temple, Gaozong shirked tradition and went to the nunnery to retrieve Wu Zhao and bring her back to the palace as his own concubine now second in rank, and he gave her the title Zhao Yi (“Tang Empress Wu Zetian” 624-705).
Apparently dissatisfied with stagnating as a mere concubine, Wu quickly began a political battle within the palace to win the new emperor’s favor and attain more power for herself. She had two sons by the emperor, which granted her considerable approval with him but also considerable resentment from the empress and other concubines (“Wu Zetian” 2003). Most historians believe that she even went so far as to kill her own two week old infant baby girl so that she could blame it on the last person to hold the child, Empress Wang (“Biographies: Empress Wu Zetian” 1996). However, she was obviously never blamed for this crime in her lifetime, and the Empress had already begun to resent Wu as a potential threat (“Empress Wu Zetian” 2004). It is possible that history portrays her far more brutally than she may have actually been since many who wrote of her were men who saw her as a usurper and an evil murderer with the “heart of a serpent” (Dash). In any case, the death of Wu’s infant daughter disgraced Empress Wang, who was demoted and eventually executed along with one of the higher ranking concubines Wang was close to. Legend says that Wu ordered both women’s hands and feet to be cut off and their mutilated bodies tossed into a vat of wine to drown. However, Wu was never credited with such a thing in her life and this tale may have been an historical exaggeration played off of a much older story regarding Empress Lu Zhi from the Han-era B.C.E. who eliminated her romantic rival by gouging out her eyes, cutting off her limbs, burning her vocal cords with acid, and tossing her in a cesspit (Dash). In the year 655 Emperor Gaozong made Wu his Empress with the title Wu Zhao (“Empress Wu Zetian” 2004).
Historians depict the Emperor as a weak-minded and sickly ruler, although the accusations of being weak-minded may stem from resentful men at the time who noticed that the emperor actually listened to and considered many of Empress Wu’s ideas about agriculture, tax reduction, social reforms and effective labor saving practices and they essentially ruled together (“Wu Zetian” 2003). The emperor was definitely sickly and had a severe stroke within the first five years of his marriage to Wu, after which administrative rule was handed over to the empress. Wu began to acquire real power under the pretext of assisting the Emperor in ruling the state. In 674, Emperor Gaozong changed his title into Tian Huang, or “Emperor of Heaven”, Empress Wu Zetian changed her title into Tian Hou, which means “Empress of Heaven”, and commoners called them Er Sheng, or “two gods” (“Tang Empress Wu Zetian” 624-705). She appeared alongside the emperor every time he held court on a throne level to his. The couple became known as “the Holy Sovereigns”, and the emperor was merely an icon who ruled in name only (“Wu Zetian” 2003). She established a secret police force to spy on her opposition and did not shy away from executing or imprisoning those who stood against her, even family members (“Biographies: Empress Wu Zetian” 1996). It is easy to understand why she did this, for there would have been extraordinarily strong disapproval from many in court who resented the idea of a woman rising to greater and greater power. None of her actions would have been so considered unreasonable or unexpected had she been a man (Dash).
After Emperor Gaozong’s death in 683, Wu's third son, Li Xian, ascended to the throne and was named Emperor Zhongzong. In February of the following year however, Wu overthrew Zhongzong and banished him because he was difficult to control and replaced him with his younger brother and her fourth son, Li Dan, who was entitled Emperor Ruizong. Empress Wu ruled the empire through him, who did as she instructed him to do (“Wu Zetian” 2003). A rebellion was attempted by Tang loyalists and officials from the south, who were defeated in a few weeks with the loyal cooperation of the royal army under the Empress’s command, which served as an efficient demonstration of her power (FitzGerald).
In order to further secure her power and challenge the Confucian rules for women, Wu began to implement methods of elevating women in the minds of the people. She gave high political posts to members of her mother’s family, she had biographers write about famous women in history, and she supposedly said that the ideal ruler “was one who ruled like a mother does over her children” (“Biographies: Empress Wu Zetian” 1996). She also declared that children were to mourn both parents, rather than just their father, as tradition previously dictated (Dash).
In 690, Wu’s weak-minded son removed himself from power at his mother’s behest and she finally assumed absolute power for herself under the legitimate title of Emperor and became Emperor Wu Zetian (“Biographies: Empress Wu Zetian” 1996). She declared the empire was henceforth ruled by the Zhou Dynasty from her capital city Luoyang (“Wu Zetian” 2003). She ruled for over fifteen years as emperor from the age of 65 without revolt (FitzGerald).
Emperor Wu’s cunning and unapologetic climb to supremacy appears to have been motivated by a genuine desire to be a benign and decent ruler to the common people. In the fifteen years of her rule as emperor, she reduced the size of China’s army while still protecting Chinese borders and the Silk Road, reduced the military’s influence over government by implementing scholars into power and requiring government officials to pass various exams before being granted authority (“Biographies: Empress Wu Zetian” 1996). She also revised the exams so that no man of ability would be excluded due to his social status. She personally interviewed many candidates herself (“Wu Zetian” 2003). She lowered taxes on peasants, leading to increased agricultural production, improved irrigation techniques, and implemented a number of public works projects (“Biographies: Empress Wu Zetian” 1996). Although she was quick to rid herself of direct threats to her power, she was known to listen to her critics, as long as they did not present themselves as political opponents. She even respected and rewarded those who offered sound guidance and initiative (“Empress Wu Zetian” 2004).
Towards the end of her life, it is believed that she kept a harem of men at her sexual disposal, just as emperors traditionally kept a harem of concubines (“Empress Wu Zetian” 2004). She showed particular favor for two fair faced artistic young men, the Zhang brothers, who frequented her private chambers (FitzGerald). As her health began to fail, she reinstated her banished son, Li Xian, as crowned prince, but did not abdicate her authority until she was bed ridden and unable to perform her duties. Li Xian ascended to the throne in 705 as Emperor Zhongzong again and restored the Tang Dynasty, but Wu was still called Supreme Empress. The Zhang brothers were executed by the new emperor apparently to eliminate any potential threats, once again indicating how very typical Wu’s level ruthlessness was in the quest for absolute power (“Empress Wu Zetian” 2004).
In December of the same year that she handed over power, at the age of 82, Emperor Wu Zetian died. She was buried alongside Emperor Gaozong in the Qianling Tomb, located west of what is now Xi'an City (“Wu Zetian” 2003). Her tomb is located in a very remote, inaccessible place within the mountain at the end of a snaking forest path. No-one knows what secrets or treasures lies inside for no one has ever opened the tomb (Dash). So in death, as in life, Wu seems destined to be shrouded in a cloud of obscurity, mystery and allure. Perhaps she was as cruel and cold as she is depicted by many historians, but I choose to believe that her efforts to improve the lives of peasants, as well as the level of love, admiration, and affection she inspired in her husband and loyalists, indicates that perhaps there was more to her than just cruelty and blind ambition. Surely she must have contained warmth and depth that has long been lost in the fogs of time, likely concealed purposefully by her during her life to maintain an image of infallible strength. Besides, her methods were no more brutal than the rule of her predecessors. As Cersei, another ruthless albeit fictitious female figure says in the first season of the popular series Game of Thrones, "In the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground" (“Cersei Lannister”).
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