Jitō – 645 – 703 – Yamato, Japan

Japan

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Jitō was the third woman to rule Japan as empress regnant.

Her father was Emperor Tenji, who was succeeded by his half-brother Emperor Tenmu. Jitō was married to Tenmu (her uncle) and succeeded him on the throne in 687 at the age of forty two. This was to ensure that their son, Kusakabe-shinnō, could eventually ascend to emperor himself.

Prince Kusabake did indeed follow his mother, but died while still young, leaving his son Karu-no-o who was too young to rule. This meant that Jitō stepped in once more, this time to preserve the throne for her grandson.

Jitō’s total rule was eleven years, in 697 she abdicated in favour of Karu-no-o, who became Emperor Monmu. Jitō retired to a monastery but retained much of her political power and continued to excervcise it behind the scenes as a cloistered ruler.

There are two poems attributed to Empress Jitō, the first of which is:

After the death of the Emperor Temmu

Oh, the autumn foliage

Of the hill of Kamioka!

My good Lord and Sovereign

Would see it in the evening

And ask of it in the morning.

On that very hill from afar

I gaze, wondering

If he sees it to-day,

Or asks of it to-morrow.

Sadness I feel at eve,

And heart-rending grief at morn –

The sleeves of my coarse-cloth robe

Are never for a moment dry.

Composed when the Empress climbed the Thunder Hill

Lo, our great Sovereign, a goddess,

Tarries on the Thunder

In the clouds of heaven!


References:

On Wikipedia:

Seondeok – d.647 – Silla, Korea

Korea

 

Embroidered portrait of Seondeok dressed in traditional Korean robes and a tall golden grown.

Seondeok was the first woman to rule as queen of Silla (one of the three kingdoms of Korea) and her reign coincided with that of Empress Wu Zetian in China.

A precocious child, there is a story from her childhood in which Seondeok’s father, King Jinpyeong of Silla, received a box of peony seeds from China. This particular strain had not been seen before in Korea, and so the box of seeds was accompanied by a painting of the flower. The young princess observed that the flowers were very pretty, but did not have a scent. She’d come to this conclusion because the artist had not painted bees or butterflies around the illustration.

Painting of three peonies in pink, lilac and white with Chinese text

17th Century Chinese painting of a Peony (source)

Whether or not this story is true, it was used in later years to demonstrate Seondeok’s clever mind and aptitude for logic and reason which made her fit to rule. Jinpyeong had no sons, and named Seondeok as his heir – a highly unusual move.

Seondeok ascended to the throne of Silla in 632 and ruled for fourteen years. Her reign was largely focused on power struggles with neighbouring kingdom Baekje and strengthening political ties with China. She sent selected Korean subjects to China – scholars on diplomatic missions and soldiers to learn Chinese martial arts.

These actions paved the way towards the unification of Korea, which happened only two decades after her death, thanks to the alliance with China.

Photograph of the star gazing tower - a tall conical building made from large grey bricks with a large square window at the centre and a square platform at the top.

17th Century Chinese painting of a Peony (source)

The queen’s reign marked Korea’s movement towards Buddhism as a national religion, and several Buddhist temples were built in Seondeok’s name. She also oversaw the construction of one of the earliest known observatories in the Far East, called Cheomseongdae; the ‘Star-Gazing Tower’.

Though Seondeok’s reign is generally regarded as successful and beneficial for the kingdom of Silla, the queen was not without her critics. Early in 647 she was faced with an uprising and attempt to overthrow her. Aided by one of Korea’s finest military minds, Kim Yushin, the rebellion was defeated.

Unfortunately, Seondeok did not live to see her enemies quashed. She died in February 647 and left the throne to her cousin, Jindeok, who became Korea’s second reigning queen.


In Fiction:

  • Lee Yo-won and Nam Ji-hyun both portrayed the empress in the Korean TV series Queen Seondeok in 2009.
  • Park Joo-mi and Hong Eun-hee played her in The King’s Dream (or Dream of the Emperor) which aired on KBS1 in 2012-2013.

References:

On Wikipedia:

Wu Zetian 武則天 – 624 – 705 – Chang’an, China

Ancient China, China

Wu Zetain

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.

Tang_Dynasty_circa_700_CE

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.


In fiction:

Wu Zetian has been portrayed across a range of media in films, novels, television and video games. A full list can be found here.


References:

On Wikipedia:

 

Kōgyoku 皇極天皇– 594 – 661 – Kyoto, Japan

Ancient Japan, Japan

Kogyoku

Kōgyoku was not only the second woman to ascend to Japan‘s chrysanthemum throne, but also the third.

Born Princess Takara, she was the great-great granddaughter of Emperor Bidatsu, and great-great grandniece to Empress Suiko – the first woman to rule Japan. She married her uncle, Emperor Jomei, and became his consort, bearing him three children.

When Jomei died in his late forties, it was Takara who succeeded him, rather than their teenaged son, Naka no Ōe. She took the name Kōgyoku and the title Sumeramikoto or Amenoshita Shiroshimesu Ōkimi (治天下大王), meaning “the great queen who rules all under heaven”. The throne was not stable, however, and Kōgyoku’s reign was beset by challenges from the powerful Soga clan.

To prevent them from seizing total power, Naka no Ōe and his friends staged a coup intended to destroy the most powerful branch of the Soga family, which was led by statesman Soga no Iruka . In July of 645, during a ceremony in the throne room, Naka no Ōe assassinated Soga no Iruka, right in front of his mother.

Kōgyoku was deeply shocked by the violence she had witnessed (later known as the Isshi Incident), and more than that, at the time it was believed that being present at a murder polluted the soul. No longer considering herself fit to rule, Kōgyoku wished to abdicate immediately in favour of her son. She was instead convinced to pass her title to her brother, who became Emperor Kōtoku.

Kōtoku ruled from 645 – 654 and died without a living heir. In 655, Kōgyoku re-ascended to the throne under the new name of Empress Saimei. As Saimei she ruled for seven more years, before dying on a military expedition to Korea.


References:

Women’s Studies Encyclopedia, Volume 2 – Helen Tierney

Japan Encyclopedia – Louis-Frédéric, Käthe Roth

On Wikipedia:

Suiko 推古天皇 – 554 – 628 – Kyoto, Japan

Ancient Japan, Japan

Suiko

In the history of Japan, there were eight women to rule as empress in their own right – Suiko was the first.

The third daughter of Emperor Kinmei, Suiko’s personal name was Mikekashiya-hime-no-mikoto.

She first took the role of royal consort (Ōkisaki) to her brother Emperor Bidatsu following the death of his wife. After Bidatsu himself died, he was followed by Suiko’s second brother, Yōmei, who only lived two more years.

Empress_Suiko

Suiko (source)

After this there was a power struggle between two clans – the Soga and the Mononobe. Prince Hatsusebe, supported by the Sogas was the victor and ruled as Emperor Sushun from 587 to 592 – when he was assassinated by the head of the Soga clan.

To prevent another struggle, the imperial throne was then offered to Suiko, who accepted and became the 33rd monarch of Japan from 593 to 628. Her title was Amenoshita Shiroshimesu Ōkimi (治天下大王) – ‘the great queen who rules all under heaven’.

Prince Shōtoku, Yōmei’s son, was appointed regent over Suiko in 594, but he did not stop her from exercising considerable power. She was one of the first Buddhist monarchs of Japan, and under her reign Buddhism was officially recognised.


References:

The Future and the Past: A Translation and Study of the GukanshōThe Future and the Past: A Translation and Study of the Gukanshō –  Jien, Delmer Myers Brown, Ichirō Ishida

Japan Encyclopedia – Nussbaum, Louis-Frédéric and Käthe Roth

On Wikipedia: