When Americans like me think of famous female rulers, we tend to imagine the queens of England: either of the Elizabeths, perhaps Victoria. Elizabeth I, especially, holds a place in people’s hearts because of her speech to the soldiers when facing the Spanish Armada.
Of similar hardcoreness, though for very different reasons, is a female monarch from a world and a millennia away: Wu Zetian (武则天) (or other names such as Wu Hou, depending on what time period of her life you’re talking about). Empress Wu was the only female ruler of China in the recorded 3000 years of its dynasties, from the first Emporer Qin to Emperor Puyi. Sure, some women were powers behind the throne and used puppet Emporers to perform their schemes, but Wu was the only one to do it outright.
And, if the non-contemporary tales about her are to be believed, she did it with a trail of blood. Writers said she killed her infant daughter in a ploy to gain leverage over the previous empress and have her executed. They claimed she poisoned people, some of them her own family members, and had many people executed in order to have her way. By a combination of scheming, murder, and religion, Wu Zetian took the throne for herself.
That trail of blood story, however, is a little strange. Some scholars, as mentioned in this Smithsonian article, mention the suspiciously similar tales between Wu Zetian’s rise to the throne and what a genuinely horrible woman did many years earlier. There are no contemporary records of the murders, but no one can say whether it was because Wu had them all destroyed or (my personal opinion) they were fabricated later.
Why make up these lies, though? After Wu Zetian’s son, the “true heir” as son of the last male emperor, rose to the throne, it became important for him to quash chances of rebellion. In order to prevent rebellion, emperors and their bureaucrats would need to malign any usurpers, of which Wu Zetian obviously was one.
Not only that, but life in China’s royal courts was already volatile at best. With empresses, concubines, eunuchs, brothers, uncles, and other schemers skulking about, the emperor had to be vigilant. Backstabbing was the norm, and executions to stay in power or gain power were commonplace. Emperors not only quashed rebellion by stifling positive memories of Wu Zetian, they reduced the chances of women “stealing” power from the man they considered the rightful ruler.
Whether for good or ill, recent interest in Wu Zetian has prompted research into her reign and a new look at who she was and what she accomplished. These efforts, of course, are told through a modern lens and can see Wu Zetian without the lens of monarchical maintenance getting in the way. One of her most lasting contributions was her establishment of China’s famous meritocracy, wherein especially talented people – even those not of the noble class – could take an examination and rise high within the power structure. This test, or at least one similar to it, was used to recruit bureaucrats and ministers until the end of the Qing dynasty in 1912.
Wu Zetian peacefully (on a large scale if not on the small, imperial family scale) held together a huge nation, passed policies to increase agricultural output, and contributed to the arts by commissioning works such as biographies of famous women and books of poetry. It is possible that these biographies and poetry were intended to compliment her order that children lament the deaths of their mothers just as they lament the deaths of their fathers. While it could be seen as a move against sexism, others have seen these efforts as ways to legitimize her reign, since women were considered deontologically incapable of reign prior to her.
It’s quite possible we’ll never be able to really know whether or not Wu Zetian floated to the throne on a veritable river of blood, or if she used her pen and quick wit to get there. The records of her time period are plentiful enough that she couldn’t be erased, but sparse enough that exactitude cannot be expected. In all likelihood, it was a combination of the two. However it happened, Wu Zetian has something on that aforementioned Queen Elizabeth I: she didn’t just fall into power on accident.
She owned it.
For more information, there are several articles available online. Here’s a few free-to-access articles I found interesting and on semi-trustworthy sites.
Smithsonian Article – Caution: this site has a ton of pics, so it loads SLOW
BBC Article – Short, but interesting
China Culture – A random site out there, but it fits a lot of what I already know about Wu Zetian
About the Author: H.R.R. Gorman is a PhD chemical engineer with expertise in biotechnology and making drugs. Following science, H’s greatest passions are writing and history. 他也正在学习中文. If you want to know more about this white-trash-turned-excessively-bourgeois maniac, you can go to https://hrrgorman.wordpress.com/.