The word ‘formidable’ has been used to describe a number of consorts (wives of kings or emperors) throughout history, from Egyptian queen mother Tiye to Roman matron Livia. While these women often operated in private, behind closed doors in order to achieve their own political agendas, and did so very successfully, none had quite such an impressive career trajectory as Wu Zetian, the concubine who became sole ruler of imperial China.
Described in turns as ruthless, power hungry and benevolent, Wu Zetian made history as not only China’s only female ruler, but as one of its most controversial.
The daughter of a timber merchant, Wu entered the Imperial court at the age of fourteen as a concubine to Emperor Taizong. She remained a lesser wife until Taizong’s death in 649. When an emperor died, his widows were supposed to enter a convent and become Buddhist nuns for the rest of their lives. But Wu was different.
Instead of retiring to a life of celibacy and religious ritual, Wu Zetian somehow managed to stay on at court – as the concubine of Taizong’s son, the newly crowned Emperor Gaozong. With Gaozong, Wu began to rise through the ranks, gaining influence and forming her own alliances.
In 654, Wu gave birth to her third child, a daughter, who died suddenly. Though none of the historical sources can agree what happened, Wu lost no time in accusing Gaozong’s chief wife, Empress Wang, of murder. She later accused Wang and Wang’s mother of witchcraft, and by 655 Wu Zetian had managed to remove her rivals and secure the role of empress for herself.
Wu and Gaozong ruled almost equally for a time, and were known as the ‘two sages’, considered wise and just leaders. Wu was well versed in history and literature, and considered extremely quick witted and capable. She was also ruthless, gathering a close group of allies to root out anyone plotting against her or the emperor. Wu ordered so many exiles and executions for treason that no one dared criticise her.
Gaozong was a sickly ruler, and died young, leaving behind his two sons with Wu Zetian (any sons he’d had with other women had been removed much earlier). The elder son was difficult to control, so Wu simply replaced him for his younger brother – deciding that she would in fact speak for him.
The empress continued to rid herself of any rivals to the throne, interrupting the line of the Tang dynasty. Her reign was marked by endless plots against her – followed by swift and merciless treason trials.
After three years as regent, Wu Zetian proclaimed herself Emperor. With the help of her secret police and rigorous investigations of the nobility, Wu Zetian became the first (and, as yet, only) woman to rule China.
The estimated reach of Wu Zetian’s empire (source)
Though considered bloodthirsty and cruel by the nobles who she persecuted, Wu Zetian was very popular with the common people. Her quest to disempower her enemies has also been viewed as an attempt to flush out corruption within the imperial court. She reformed the government by reducing the military – Wu established an entrance exam for the government, meaning that the running of the empire was in the hands of educated scholars, rather than generals.
She also commissioned a number of historical texts intended to elevate the position of women in society, including Collection of Biographies of Famous Women. Her reign was one of culture, literature and scholarship. Among Wu Zetian’s other achievements, she also promoted Buddhism as the new state religion of China (over Daoism), creating a wealth of Buddhist art across the country.
In 705, Wu Zetian was eighty-one, and had been in power (in one form or another) for over fifty years. She had become less fierce with age, and finally gave up her throne to her third son. She died peacefully that same year.
Wu Zetian has been portrayed across a range of media in films, novels, television and video games. A full list can be found here.