Wu Zetian’s (bloody?) Image Through the Ages

Written by H.R.R. Gorman

Chemical engineer seeking out new adventures in science and speculative fiction.

July 21, 2020

Into the Past by H.R.R. Gorman

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 (???) (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.

Wu Zetian
Painting by an unknown Chinese artist of the 18th century. The original image currently resides in the British Library. Because of course the British would own it.

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.

Wu Zetian Civ
Modern portrayals of Wu Zetian are far more favorable than older ones. Shown here is Wu Zetian as seen in the video game Civilization V. Since no contemporary images of Wu remain, this one’s just as likely as the 18th century painting above to be accurate. Except the clothes. That looks like a modern Chinese wedding dress to me.

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. ????????. If you want to know more about this white-trash-turned-excessively-bourgeois maniac, you can go to https://hrrgorman.wordpress.com/.

You May Also Like…


  1. Jessica E. Larsen

    Empress Wu is one of my favorite historical figure. She went against the tide and conquered against all odds. If she was good or evil all depends at who is the story teller… the truth remain that she’s one strong woman to lead a country during the time when no woman dares to.

  2. Anne Goodwin (Annecdotist)

    Thanks for another interesting post about a lesser-known (at least to me) historical figure. And what a legacy in the leadership assessment – I wonder if it would have saved us from some of the idiots we now have in power!

    • H.R.R. Gorman

      I think we’re always destined for leadership ups and downs. But, with a voting process, at least we aren’t guaranteed a son/daughter/whatever of the current President! I personally believe transition of power is crucial to the well-being of people.

  3. Norah

    How fascinating, H. I know little of China’s history and wasn’t aware of Wu. I hadn’t realised how recently the Qing dynstasy had finished either. I studied little of history in school and remember even less of it. I don’t believe Chinese history featured anywhere. What a huge omission.

    • H.R.R. Gorman

      I know, right? I think east Asian history, which is well-recorded thanks to their insane bureaucracy, is definitely missing in schools. It’s really hard to tell the histories of societies that have poorer record keeping (i.e. pre-Colombian societies in America), but we really don’t have that excuse with Asia.

      That being said, I’d not call myself ANYTHING like an expert. I just know some generalisms here and there.

      • Norah

        It’s good to know something. Something is better than nothing.

  4. Jules

    This reminds me just a bit of Cleopatra. So much misinformation. Oh there was also of Queen Boudica – quite a bi of her history was erased too.
    Thanks for the history and good luck learning Chinese. I started learning Italian just before the lock down and haven’t gotten very far. Can’t get together easily with my friend who was going to help.

    • Charli Mills

      Jules, the Hub and I enjoy watching Time Team (3-day archeological digs throughout the UK) and recently saw a special on Boudica and her uprising against the Romans.

      • Jules

        Might have been part of the one I saw?…
        I liked a show I watched where they (In the UK) were shifting a road and ended up finding a unique burial. Which they ended up preserving in place!

    • H.R.R. Gorman

      Haha, it’s harder and harder to keep studying things now that I’ve got a job. Things have changed a lot here in North Carolina – and not necessarily for the good of eradicating the disease.

      Either way, Boudica (or however you like to spell it – don’t want to peeve anyone, haha) is truly a hardcore lady. Very cool.

      • Jules

        Just stay safe. My area had another spike. Still the debate goes on whether or not to start Public School sooner, later or even at all this year.

      • H.R.R. Gorman

        I’m at the point where I’ll get it if I get it. I’ll take precautions, but that’s about all anyone can do.

      • Jules

        I’ve got family that thinks they’ve had it – early on… Our child in the counties Emergency Preparedness department has made videos about how to handle your mask and basically repeating that the first line of defense is stay at home, social distancing and wearing mask. But understand that wearing a mask only protects others from you.

        We can only do the best that we can. It is unfortunate that some folks still think there isn’t anything to worry about… like our Amish who think the pandemic is all some kind of English propaganda. They’ll only learn when illness and possibly death arrives.

      • H.R.R. Gorman

        It’s all terrible. The masks seem to be promising, but it’ll take a while for them to get under control. Hoping for a vaccine, personally!

  5. D. Avery @shiftnshake

    Cool. I enjoyed your article. Her less bloody accomplishments paved the way for Li Po and others who benefited from her policies and promotion of the arts. I did not realize it was this empress that left such legacies.

    • H.R.R. Gorman

      It was! And you didn’t realize precisely because the emperors didn’t want you to!

      • D. Avery @shiftnshake

        Good thing shift like that only happens in Longago China.

      • H.R.R. Gorman

        Lol, fake news is forever

  6. robbiesinspiration

    This is fascinating H. The determination of men to push down women is really quite strange especially as it was undertaken so thoroughly everywhere on the planet. Even now in SA, it is very difficult for women in corporate, the men tend to treat you with a measure of displeasure and disdain until you show them how much better than them you are. I must be honest, I’m tired of it and am looking forward to leaving corporate in a few years time.

    • H.R.R. Gorman

      I have to wonder how this happened – how did every woman, throughout all time, in all places, get so shafted? I have to imagine it’s because the first humans were terrible that way, and the cycle just continued.

      And that sucks.

      • robbiesinspiration

        I’m going to poke the bear and say that the first people, the ones that were pagans, had great respect for women as the creators of life. The development of the modern churches had a lot to do with the pushing down of women. Think about the churches, Judaism, Muslim, Christian, they all share a common thread of treating women as inferiors. This suited the men who created the man made and earthly structures of the churches. One has to remember that the doctrines of the churches were all translated and “owned” by the man made organs of the churches. They put in what suited them and left out what didn’t.

      • H.R.R. Gorman

        I’m just thinking about a national geographic article I found years ago. They looked at skeletons of ancient native Americans (in Mexico), and they found most of the women died young and *apparently* of being beaten to death. Monkeys/gorillas have a problem of female oppression and rape, so it seems to not just be a modern problem (though systems such as religion systematized it). I personally think women have been oppressed since pre-history.

      • robbiesinspiration

        Gosh, isn’t that awful, H. Your point is well made.

      • H.R.R. Gorman

        Thanks. What I find hopeful/inspirational about it is that humans have made such strides to turn this around – and we’re better than we were before. We’ll be better later (assuming we don’t all die from global warming).

  7. Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

    Fascinating. I think all old civilisations have at least one strong woman and a history that varies on the telling. I did Chinese History at school but am afraid I have forgotten much of it – I enjoyed revisiting it through your post.

    • H.R.R. Gorman

      Aww, thanks! I want to learn more Chinese history – they did such a great job record keeping from such an early era, so it’s a shame we don’t know so much here in the west!

  8. Charli Mills

    I like that history is your passion, H. I know little of China’s history, although my SIL lived in China for a year and loves Chinese film. A lot of movie portrayals include the bloody path of those in power, and yet they are set up as cruel and failing, but the hero seems to die in those depictions. An interesting statement about power. Ultimately, world-wide, we have created these systems of power and control. Just recently, I was listing to Scene on Radio, an episode called Himpathy, and a guest explained her theory that misogyny is the punitive arm of patriarchies, suggesting that men actually love women because they are the center of pleasure and nurturing, but they want to control that center and use misogyny to punish women who get out of line. I wonder if Empress Wu was feared as an example of a woman who could take men’s power and fabricated her monstrosities? On the other hand, if she was a product of her culture, perhaps she did carve out a bloody path for her rise to power. Lots to consider! I love the way history calls us to reflect and consider the pattern thus far.

    • H.R.R. Gorman

      History is very cool. The Chinese film industry, as you pointed out, has a very intriguing genre called “ancient films” about ancient Chinese history (aaaand more fantasy than we’d like, haha). But part of that gives us a new lens to look at the history, one that is more modern and similar to our own. I don’t know what Wu Zetian actually did, but I think our current knowledge points to “normal ruler who happened to be female” and, like you said, the need of men to control the pleasure centers took control after.

Discover more from Carrot Ranch Literary Community

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading