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The Story of Wu Zetian: China’s First & Only Female Emperor

Wu Zetian is one of the most well known historical figures of Chinese history. She gained her fame as the first and only female emperor in a male dominant Chinese society. Without fighting a war, she established her own Second Zhou Dynasty (690-705 CE). The society enjoyed a stable era and thrived during her rule. If that’s not remarkable enough: She was also the longest living emperor passing at an age of 81.

Yet, Wu Zetian (pronounced like: Wu Tze Thi’en) has been the subject of much controversy and contradictory views. Why did she end the Tang Dynasty? How can she kill her own child in an attempt to gain power? What were her main achievements and contributions to society? And why was her tomb unwritten? In this article, you’ll learn about the spectacular rise and fall of Wu Zetian.

Wu Zetian Family

While Wu Zetian’s family originated in Wenshui, her place of birth remains unclear. Some scholars argue she was born in Wenshui, while others believe it could have been Lizhou. A minority of researchers think she could have been born in the capital of Chang’an (today known as Xian).

chinese tea

Wu Zetian was the second daughter of the Wu Shiyue. Because her father raised her, she believed that she was equal to men. Wu was curious, a fast learner, and read many books.

Note: The name ‘Wu Zetian’ became her official name once she became the ruling Empress. Except for her family name ‘Wu’, the full birth name of Wu Zetian before she became the ruling Empress isn’t known. Thus, in this publication we will refer to her as ‘Wu Zetian’, throughout the whole article.

Becoming a Concubine of Emperor Taizong

Wu Zetian entered the harem at the age of fourteen. She became a concubine during the reign of Emperor Taizong (Real name: Li Shimin). Her appearance and personality earned her the title “Wu Mei”. This means “beautiful and glamorous”.

After Emperor Taizong’s death, Wu Mei had to leave the imperial palace and enter a Buddhist nunnery. This was usual practice for concubines at that time. Concubines had their hair shaved and lived in solitude with other nuns.

Concubine of Emperor Gaozong

After the passing of emperor Taizong, his son Li Zhi ascended the throne as emperor Gaozong. Luckily for Wu Zetian, Gaozong had an interest in her. He often times visited the temple to offer incense and met Wu. As their love grew, Gaozong was planning to reintegrate she into the imperial palace.

Due to Gaozong’s marital status with Empress Wang, the relationship remained forbidden. But when Wu Zetian gave birth to a daughter, she cemented her position within the palace.

Historians argue that Empress Wang knew about the relationship between Gaozong and Wu Zetian. In fact, she likely helped Wu Zetian as she felt threatened by the rise of Concubine Xiao. Concubine Xiao gave birth to several children, while Empress Wang herself wasn’t fertile. With Wu entering the palace, she could divert attention away from Xiao. Wang likely recommended Wu not to shave her hair at the temple.

Some historians even think that Wu Zetian actually never left the palace. Instead, she had a secret relationship with Gaozong while his father was still alive.

Note: The real name of Emperor Gaozong is ‘Li Zhi’. As he is most often referred to as ‘Taizong’, we will use this name in the rest of the article.

Framing Empress Wang

Although Empress Wang wasn’t fertile, she loved the children. One month after the Wu Zetian’s daughter was born, she came to see the princess. After she left, Wu Zetian strangled her own daughter to death. She covered her dead body with a duvet, without the guards noticing her.

When Emperor Gaozong went to see his daughter, he found his daughter dead. Concubine Wu framed Wang for murder, and as a result she became less favourable in the eyes of the emperor.
After a long period of time, Gaozong (Gaozong) wanted to make Wu Zetian a first-class concubine. Yet, due to opposition from the prime minister Han Yuan and Lai Ji, he was at first unable to do so.

Abolishing Empress Wang

Finally, Gaozong decided to set in progress the abolishment of Empress Wang. He went to seek the opinions of three imperial advisors. The elder Maogong supported the abolishment. Zhangsun Wuji and Chu Suiliang opposed it. The final outcome was that the abolishment of Empress Wang wasn’t successful. And Wu Zetian’s path forward was thus full of hardships.
It is generally believed that the case of abolishing Empress Wang was part of a larger plan. During the reign of Gaozong, there was still significant amount of power in the hand of powerful clans. Those clans supported ministers inside the palace. Gaozong wanted to attack the power of minsters and rejuvenate the imperial power.

Becoming Empress Wu Zetian

In the sixth year of Yonghui (655 A.D.) Gaozong and Wu Zetian rewarded Maogong for his support of “Abolishing Wang Liwu”.

The veteran Maogong stated, “Why ask outsiders about your majesty’s family affairs?” Due to his view, some of the ministers later on also turned to support Wu Zetian. Seeing the tide turn, Gaozong renewed the intention of abolition.

On October 13th that year, Gaozong finally issued an edict. On the charge of “conspiracy to poison”, he deposed Empress Wang and Concubine Xiao Shu. The latter was also charged is because she joined forces with Wang counter the rise of Wu Zetian.

Gaozong imprisoned them in another courtyard. Their families were also deposed and stripped of any influence. Gaozong issued an edict to make Wu Zetian the empress. At the same time, he demoted Chu Suiliang, the prime minister who opposed this decision the most. On the 1st day of November 9655 A.D.), Gaozong held a ceremony to make Wu Zetian the Empress.

Centralising Imperial Power

Many internal battles for power followed in the years after.
Wu Zetian became Gaozong’s political “comrade-in-arms.” Together, they demoted Zhangsun Wuji and Yu Zhining from the Capital.

Aristocratic families had great power during the Wei, Jin and Southern and Northern Dynasties. Through Gaozong, imperial power improved during the Tang. The “Abolition of Wang Liwu” was one of the signs that aristocratic power was diminishing. Powerful groups such as the Guanlong Group also saw their influence fading. The process of political power returned to the imperial power had started.

Empress Wu Ascending the Throne

In October 660, the emperor fell ill and could not deal with major national issues. Wu Zetian, who was his most trusted person, oversaw his tasks. At first, Empress Wu role was to put in place Gaozong’s policies. She did exercise influence through advice. One well known example is that she persuaded him to give Taishan to Zen.

As the situation of her husband worsened, We Zetian started to make her own decisions. In December 674, Gaozong accepted all twelve proposals of Wu Zetian.

At this point, her political status was already without equal in Chinese history. Empresses and concubines sometimes managed to gain influential position within the palace. Yet, there was not a single women that achieved the stature of Wu Zetian.

In 675, Gaozong’s illness became severe. So he discussed with the ministers and prepared for Wu Zetian to reign. In December of that year, Gaozong passed away.

Four days later, Li Xian ascended the throne as Zhongzong of the Tang Dynasty. He respected Wu Zetian as the reigning Empress.Although she didn’t yet have the title of emperor, she had all the power.

In 690, Wu had her son step down as emperor. She replaced Zhongzong with her second son, who became Emperor Ruizong. She kept Ruizong under a kind of house arrest confining him to the Inner Palace. In the same year, she forced Ruizong to resign and proclaimed herself Emperor Zetian (Literally meaning “Obey the will of heaven”). She now took the official title of emperor. Thus, becoming the first and only female emperor of China.

Wu Zetian Achievements

Becoming the first female emperor isn’t the only thing that make Wu remarkable. Her policies in agriculture, military and other field allowed society thrive.

Establishing the Zhou Dynasty

As an emperor she changed the name of the state from Tang to Zhou (690–705). She created new characters for the Chinese writing system. Today, they are known as the “Chinese Characters of Empress Wu” or “Zetian Characters”.

Agriculture

Empress Wu placed great emphasis on agricultural production. She reformed agriculture practice and the system of taxation. She taxed officials who produced more crops the least. She commissioned the compilation of farming textbooks for better knowledge sharing. Local officials were also evaluated by the task of cultivating land.

To incentivise production, those who produced more enjoyed lower taxes and less corvee. And as peasants keep more of their produce, their lives improved. People benefited from considerable prosperity and peace during the Tang.

Religion

During Wu Zetian’s rule, her religious policy was to respect Buddhism. She ordered the construction of many Buddhist temples and famous “The Longmen Grottoes”. Today, these are some of the finest examples of Chinese Buddhist art.

Supporting Buddhism was an obvious choice for her. At that time, Confucianism philosophy didn’t allow women to rule. And her past relation with Gaozong also wasn’t allowed based on Confucianist rules. Buddhism was also more influential than Confucianism during the Tang dynasty. Many literary and visual art became engulfed with Buddhist elements. Confucianism enjoyed less popularity.

Military Reforms

She also made major military reforms. Military positions were no longer filled with members of important families. She appointed civil servants to command based on imperial examination. Thus, she assigned people who were the most capable to important army roles.

Wu’s success in campaigns against the Koreans earned her confidence from the generals. As a result, Wu’s military defence or expeditionary decisions were rarily challenged.

Spy Networks

She also developed a large system of spies who helped determine who were loyal to her. These spy networks proved to beneficial as they stopped the riots before they gained momentum. In this way, she expanded and secured the country’s borders. The spy networks also allowed the reopening of the Silk Road. This trading route was closed due to the plague of 682 and later raids by nomadic tribes.

Wu also reclaimed the lands occupied by the Göktürks during the Taizong era. She redistributed the land all to the people instead of the aristocrats.

Wu Zetian removed the northern part of the God Mountains from Anxi Province and founded Beiting Province. She believed the Western Regions (today’s Xinjiang) were ruled too widely.
In 686, the Tubo Principality captured the 4 strategic cities of Anxi province. But Wu Zetian recaptured the 4 cities in 692.

Wu Zetian & Literature

Wu Zetian also put great emphasis on the book compilation work. She also helped prepare a large number of books such as the “Millions of People’s Own Business”. This was an agricultural book that was shared worldwide, and had great influence on productivity in farming.

Wu Zetian Lovers

During Empress Wu’s later years, she started to suffer from paranoia. She feared that people were trying to deceive her. Thus, she somewhat recklessly started banishing and executing people she suspected.

She also began to indulge in enjoyment and overhauled palaces and Buddhist temples. She started spending with her young lovers, known as the ‘Zhang Brothers’. At that time, Wu Zetian was already in her twilight years. She was unable spend much time in court because of her age and health conditions. She regarded the two Zhang brothers as her ‘eyes and ears’ within the palace. Her control over the government started to declined.

Wu Zetian Quotes

Quotes of The Empress

Wu Zetian was really loyal to her homeland both as a person and as a ruler. Her famous quotes emphasised “patriotism” and “loyalty to the country”. Here’s a list of her most well known quotes:

  • If you want to settle down in your home, first settle down in your country. 欲安其家,先安其国.
  • Only the public spirit can serve the country, and only the public spirit can manage the family. 唯公心能够奉国,唯公心能够理家.
  • People rely on food and clothing, like fish need water; the country depends on people, like people rely on their feet, fish cannot live without water, and people cannot walk if they have no feet. 人诗衣食,犹鱼之诗水; 国之诗人,如人之倚足,鱼无水则不能够生,人无足则不能够步.

The fiercely ambitious Wu knew what she wants. In addition, the Empress, who had a cold-blooded nature, made her decisions in a logical and realistic way. Yet, they were sometimes on individual people. The following quotations are good examples regarding this personality of the Empress.

  • Human beings cannot be resurrected. This is all destiny. The important thing is that those who are alive must continue to live. 人死不可复生,这都是天命,重要的是,活着的人,要继续做下去.
  • Those who want to achieve great things can kill their loved ones. 欲成大事者,至亲亦可杀.

Wu often emphasised that agriculture is the key to developing a country. Below some related quotes:

  • The foundation of a nation must be farming. 建国之本,必在务农.
  • Farming means cultivating the fields, and cultivating the fields means more millet, and more millet means more wealthy people. 务农则田垦,田垦则粟多,粟多则人富.

Wu Zetian: Cause of Death

So how did the story of Empress Wu end? What was her cause of death?

When Wu Zetian was very ill, only the Zhang were brothers allowed to see her. Her chancellor recommended her to allow her sons to see her, but she declined.

Many ministers now contacted the commander of the imperial army (Li Duozhu) to start a rebellion. He led more than five hundred imperial troops into the palace. His army killed the two Zhang Brothers and surrounded Wu Zetian. The old and ill Wu Zetian surrendered and renounced her throne. Zhongzong ascended the throne thereby restoring the Tang Dynasty. Zhongzong reigned the Tang until 710.

Zhongzong restored the Tang Dynasty in February 705. All officials, flags, clothes, colours, and characters of the Tang were all reinstated. Wu retired to another palace and died there in December of that year.

The Unwritten Tombstone at the Qianling Mausoleum

Wu Zetian died at the age of 81 and was buried with her husband Gaozong in Qianling Mausoleum, Shanxi Province. Her tombstone was unwritten. Why did the tombstone become so famous for not having any inscriptions on it? This has led to different interpretations by historians.

Wu Zetian
Wu Zetian’s Unwritten Tombstone
wu zetian unwritten tomb

Some commentators believed the unwritten tombstone was to praise her. After all, Wu’s accomplishments can’t be expressed in writing. Historians believed Wu Zetian knew that future people would judge her differently. Short writings on the tombstone could not describe her life’s work. So she preferred a tombstone without writing on it.

Others saw it as a punishment. They found her guilty of overthrowing the traditional male dominated China. Not acting as according to Confucianist values.

Wu Zetian’s history is quite well documented. Yet, nobody knowns the real reason behind the unwritten tombstone. The story of Empress Wu is without doubt a fascinating one. And while some parts of her story remain a mystery, it’s up to you to fill the gaps with your imagination.

At last, here’s a recommended video documentary about Wu Zetian:

A List Important Figures

Wu Zetian: The first female emperor of China during the Tang Dynasty. As a concubine she was also known as “Wu Mei”.

Wu Shiyue: Father of Wu Zetian

Taizong (Li Shimin): An emperor of the Tang Dynasty at the time Wu Zetian entered the emporial palace.

Gaozong (Li Zhi): The son of Taizong, who ascended the throne after he passed away.

Wang Liwu: Empress and wife of Gaozong.

Han Yuan: A prime ministor during Gaozong’s reign, who opposed Wu Zetian becoming a first class concubine.

Lai Ji: Like Han Yuan, Lai Ji was also a prime ministor during Gaozong’s reigningh period,opposing Wu Zetian becoming a first class concubine.

Zhangsun Wuji: One of the 3 Tuogu ministers, opposing the abolishment of Empress Wang.

Chu Suiliang: One of the 3 Tuogu ministers, also opposing the abolishment of Empress Wang.

Maogong: One of the 3 Tuogu ministers, who approved the abolishment of Empress Wang.

Xiao Shu: Concubine of Gaozong also known as Consort Xiao.

Zhongzong (Li Xian): Son of Wu Zetian and Gaozong who ascended the through after Gaozong passed away.

References

We’ve used the below sources for this publication. They’re also excellent reads if you’re looking to learn more about Wu Zetian:

The Magnificent Emperor Wu: China’s Han Dynasty by Hung Hing Ming

Empress Wu The Great, Tang Dynasty China by X.L Wo

The Reunification of China and the Military Response to the Steppe Nomads (AD 581-626) by Julian Romane

Main image: cover image of the TV series about Wu Zetian by Fan Bingbing

Contributions

This article is written with excellent contributions and commentary by Caglanaz Kundakci, student of Sinology at Ankara University.

About Author

Active traveller with a love for Asian food and Japanese anime.