MAY / JUNE 2017: BY SCARLETT GRANT
The Chinese Imperial Monarchy was one of the longest lasting political systems in history. It began in 221 BC with Qin Shi Huang, the first ruler of a unified China. Almost two thousand years later, the rule under the “Son of Heaven” came to an end under Emperor Puyi in 1912 after the Xinhai Revolution. This led to the formation of a Republic. But in all those years there was only one woman who actually ruled as an Empress Regnant—Wu Zetian.
Wu was born in 624 AD to a wealthy noble family. Due to her station, Wu did not need to learn how to perform domestic duties. Her father insisted she become well-educated, so she learnt about government, politics, literature and music. This was unusual for the period, and even more so for a father to encourage it.
At fourteen, she was selected to be a concubine for Emperor Taizong (reigned 626 – 649 AD). Although not favoured by Taizong, it is believed they had sexual relations and she served him in a position similar to a secretary. Wu had no children with Taizong, and according to tradition, any former Imperial concubines who had not produced children would be sent to a buddhist monastery. However, Wu had other ideas.
The new emperor was Taizong’s son, Gaozong (reigned 649 – 683 AD). Wu and Gaozong began a relationship even before Taizong’s death. It is believed Gaozong visited Wu in her monastery, and decided to make her one of his concubines. Gaozong became emperor at the young age of 21, and suffered bouts of dizziness. His inexperience and health condition meant Wu gradually became more involved in the running of the Empire.
Wu is often depicted has a power-hungry woman, who stops at nothing. It is suggested Wu even murdered her baby daughter to implicate her rival, Empress Wang. She accused Empress Wang and her mother of witchcraft to implicate them. Eventually, Wang and another rival, Consort Xiao, were arrested and Wu was raised to the title of Empress Consort. Wu was able to use her new influence to have the two women executed the next year.
In 655 AD, after becoming Empress, Wu consolidated her power. She made sure her son, Li Hong, was named heir apparent. With her husband frequently incapable, Wu gradually built up her power base. However, her rise was not without enemies and setbacks. Gaozong became annoyed at Wu’s interference and under the influence of his chancellor drafted an edict to remove her from power. Wu—who was tipped off—pleaded with the Gaozong, and managed to turn him around to blame the chancellor instead. The chancellor was later executed.
After this incident, Wu began to sit behind Gaozong, with a curtain separating them. That way she could whisper advice out of view of the rest of the court. Gaozong still respected Wu. During another bout of illness in 675 AD, he wanted to name her regent. While her relationship with her husband was mended, with her sons it was a different matter.
The Crown Prince, Li Hong, died suddenly after an argument with Wu. Although there is little evidence, traditional historians blame Wu. Her third son, Li Xian was named Crown Prince. He was distressed by rumors that he was not Wu’s son and an important sorcerer had proclaimed him an unsuitable heir. Shortly after, the sorcerer was assassinated. Although the assassins were not caught, Wu suspected Li Xian. Thus Li Xian was stripped of his title and exiled. The new Crown Prince was his younger brother, Li Zhe.
Emperor Gaozong died in 683 AD. Although Li Zhe was now Emperor Zhongzong, Wu still held the title of Empress Dowager and regent. But Zhongzong began to ignore Wu. Thus, Wu sent Zhongzong into exile—his reign lasted only six weeks. Her youngest son was installed as Emperor Ruizong. At this point, Wu was no longer hiding behind her curtain but issued commands and declarations for the whole court to hear. Ruizong never moved into the imperial palace, nor appeared publicly as Emperor. It was no surprise that Wu had him concede Imperial power to her in 690 AD.
Wu didn’t kill or exile Ruizong; she made him the Crown Prince again. Throughout her life, Wu was fascinated with mysticism and this continued into her reign. Her obsession ended when a lover became jealous and burnt areas of the Imperial residence. As the mystics could not predict this event, she disposed of them and dedicated even more of her time to the state.
Wu had two lovers who were also brothers. The Zhang brothers became close to Wu in her old age and many believed they were plotting to take the throne upon her death. When Wu became seriously ill a coup was staged against the Zhang brothers and who were then murdered. After this, she was forced to abdicate in favor of her exiled son, Zhongzong. Later that year she died eighty years old in 705 AD.
Wu Zetian was a truly remarkable woman. From concubine to nun to consort to empress, she was incredibly resourceful and intelligent, In spite of her troubled family life, she found success in her rule. This included extending the stunning Longmen Grottoes and expanding the Chinese empire into Central Asia, and providing state support with regards to education and literature. She was living proof that a woman could become the “Son” of Heaven.