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Chinese empress. Credit: wichansumalee / Adobe Stock

The Reign of Wu Zetian: From Concubine to Empress to… Emperor!

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There are rarely any parts of our history more intriguing and interesting than the chronicles of ancient China . Full of unique cultural traits, obscure and colorful mythologies, and above all intrigues and power struggles, Chinese history is a real treasury filled with captivating tales . And the story we’re touching upon today is one of the most unique to come from China. It is the story of Wu Zetian – China’s first and only female emperor.

With one of the most ruthless and uncompromising biographies, Wu Zetian continues to captivate historians even today. Stopping at nothing to attain her goals and fulfill her ambitions, this influential woman filled her life with one thing – an unyielding thirst for power and influence. Her life and reign were set to reshape the history of China and reinvent the standards of ancient Chinese society. And this ambition is exactly what makes her story so one of a kind.

Chinese Empress Wu Zetian, from concubine to one of China’s most powerful rulers. Source: Archivist / Adobe Stock.

More Than a Concubine: The Early Life of Wu Zetian

On 17 th of February 624, Wu Zhao (武曌) was born in either Lizhou or Wenshui, in China – the daughter of a somewhat wealthy, aristocratic family. Her father, Wǔ Shìyuē, made his fortune through the timber business, growing wealthy, but never to the rank of a grand and influential family. Her mother was also a member of a powerful family of the era– the Yang family.

But it was in her early childhood, and thanks to the influence of her parents, that Wu Zhao, as she was known at that time, would be ushered into a path that would lead her to great heights, mostly because her parents were friendly with Li Yuan (李淵), a governor and the future great chancellor and the Emperor of the Tang dynasty.

Li Yuan would go on to overthrow the emperor and install a puppet ruler, eventually deposing him as well. And throughout all this time, he remained friendly to the family of Wu Zhao.

From early childhood, as is natural for a daughter of a wealthy family, Wu Zhao was well read and substantially educated. She proved to be a shrewd young woman, excelling in arts and literature, and enjoying the backing of her peers.

Wu Zetian as a young woman. (Cold Season / Public Domain )

At age 14, Wu Zhao was sent to the imperial palace, where she would serve as an imperial concubine to Emperor Taizong. A concubine was in effect a ‘lesser wife’, and thus Wu enjoyed many benefits and pursued her education even further, eventually rising to the rank of cairen (才人) – ‘talented’ – the fifth of nine ranks of China’s imperial consorts, also called the inner officials.

Wu Zetian’s Rise Through the Ranks

The emperor – Taizong - had 14 children and Wu Zetian had an affair with his ninth son Li Zhi, who would coincidentally become the next emperor – Gaozong of Tang. During his reign, she became a Zhaoyi (昭儀) – the highest ranking concubine of the jiupin ( 九嬪) – the second rank of imperial consorts, or the so-called ‘Nine Concubines’.

Emperor Gaozong of Tang - during his reign Wu Zetian became the highest ranking concubine. (Magnus Manske / Public Domain )

This was her ticket to influence, and she progressively became more and more influential in the court of Emperor Taizong, in the end effectively generating important decisions and furthering her unyielding struggle for power and influence.

She soon became the favorite concubine of the emperor and in 652 AD gave birth to her first son, followed by a second son the next year. In 654 AD she gave birth to a daughter, which she strangled in order to frame her rival – the Empress Wang. This goes to show just how vicious her ambitions were. But whether this was true or not is matter of much debate.

In the midst of that vicious power struggle, in which intrigue and accusations ran rampant, Wu managed to influence the deposing of Empress Wang, in turn becoming the new empress consort - húanghòu (皇后) - to the Emperor Gaozong of Tang. She would later order the murder of Empress Wang, completely removing one of her staunchest rivals. This, and many other murders of all those who opposed her, would earn her a fearsome reputation and a widespread fear later during her rule.

When the emperor died in 683 AD, she became a húangtàihòu (皇太后) – the empress dowager and regent to the new emperor, her son Li Zhe, or Zhongzong of Tang. But Emperor Zhongzong was not yet fully under her influence, and made his own wife an empress consort, and proposed to make her father a highly ranked official of the time. This came to the attention of Wu Zetian through her highly dense web of secret police, informants, and spies, and she in turn issued an edict deposing the emperor, reducing him to a title of prince – in exile.

An Iron Ambition for an Iron Maiden: The Empress Regnant

The other officials loyal to the deposed emperor were also exiled, or even executed, and she placed her youngest son, Li Dan, as the Emperor Ruizong. But, de facto , Li Dan only had the title, as he was literally under house arrest – it was Wu Zetian that ruled in every aspect of that word. And so, it was that, most likely under his mother’s influence, that in 690 AD, Emperor Ruizong yielded the throne to Wu Zetian, naming her the huangdi ( 皇帝) – the ruler, or empress regnant – of a new Zhou dynasty .

Wu Zetian placed her youngest son, Li Dan as de facto Emperor Ruizong. (Qazwsx34 / Public Domain )

This was the culmination of Wu Zetian’s years of meticulous political power struggle and vying for power. A female as an emperor was an unprecedented occurrence in the Chinese tradition of that time.

For many, it went against the laws of men and the heavens. Thus, Wu Zetian was often under a heavy barrage of negative currents, all of which she stubbornly fought against, remaining adamant in her ambitions and growing appetites. Most of this she fought with terror, shrewdly employing her secret police and placing her own, highly skilled people at official positions, fortifying her rule and claim. This tactic was largely admired in the later centuries.

One of her key developments as empress regnant had to do with state religion. She in a sense made Buddhism the official religion, raising its status above Taoism and building several temples . Two years into her reign, she ordered the attack against the neighboring Tibetan Empire and her forces managed to recapture four important garrisons in the empire’s western regions – an important achievement.

Wu Zetian made Buddhism the official religion. The Fengxian cave of the Longmen Grottoes was commissioned by Wu Zetian; the large, central Buddha is representative of the Vairocana. (G41rn8 / CC BY-SA 4.0)

This victory would be shadowed later in her reign when her armies would suffer several defeats. First of these was in the spring of 696 AD, when her two generals were thoroughly defeated by the Tibetans. In the summer of the same year, she faced a rebellion from the nomadic Khitan people of the Ying Prefecture.

This rebellion grew into a serious, year-long conflict. In the first part of that struggle, the forces of the Zhou Empire suffered devastating defeats and continued raids by the Khitans in their territory. This would later be resolved by the collapse of the Khitan armies and the death of their leader.

But all in all, during Wu Zetian’s rule China significantly expanded its borders into Middle Asia and the Korean peninsula. Her rule was also not entirely focused on terror – she was responsible for creating the civil service examination and making it a crucial part of the Chinese imperial bureaucracy.

This ensured that only the highly skilled and talented could efficiently rise into official, influential positions. This in turn gained her some favor with the commoners – as it meant that citizens of almost every caste could apply for a government position – if they passed a very difficult test, that is.

Wu Zetian was also instrumental in re-designing certain aspects of the Chinese society – she changed the relation between the state and Taoism, Buddhism, literature, and education. She wrote numerous poems and funded many works of art, such as the statues in the Longmen Grottoes (龍門石窟), one of the most astonishing examples of Chinese Buddhist art , as well as the Wordless Stele in the Qianling Mausoleum .

Wu Zetian’s Later Reign and Death

In the middle of her reign, Wu Zetian became quite close with two prominent officials of her court – the brothers Zhang Yizhi and Zhang Changzong. They became the empress’ lovers, and in time garnered many honors and the titles of dukes. These brothers would come to play a significant role in the last stages of Wu Zetian’s life and reign.

Sometime from year 700 AD and on, when Wu Zetian was 75, the two brothers, who were the closest consorts to her, de facto managed many of the important affairs of the empire, much to the anger of many key officials of the court.

Text from Wu Zetian-era stele, under the cosmology of Wu Zetian's reign, her lover Zhang Changzong was a reincarnation of Ji Jin; the text of the stele uses modified Chinese characters that she promulgated. (Jnlin / Public Domain )

Sometime after, in 705, the elderly empress Wu Zetian fell ill, and proclaimed that she would allow nobody in her quarters except the two brothers. This was the key factor that led the officials to suspect that the brothers were plotting to seize the throne for themselves.

And so, it was, even when the empress regained her health, that a coup was orchestrated in February of 705. Zhang Yizhi and Zhang Changzong were seized and decapitated, their heads hung from a bridge, and the residence of Wu Zetian was surrounded.

The empress was officially forced to yield the throne in favor of her son Li Xian, who retook his once lost title of Emperor Zhongzong. But even deposed, the elderly Wu Zetian was honored – she retained the title of Empress Regnant Zetian Dasheng (則天大聖皇帝).

But this was a short lived title – for with the coming of the winter snows Wu Zetian died, drawing her personal era of ruthless and ambitious rule to an end. Even if her rule was, safe to say, hated by many of her contemporaries, and her rise and reign included copious amounts of intrigues, struggles, treacheries, and deposing, she was still posthumously honored.

In the year after her death, her son, the emperor, had her interred with his father, and Wu Zetian’s one-time husband – the Emperor Gaozong. They lay in the sprawling Qianling Mausoleum perched atop the sacred Mount Liang. She was also given several posthumous empress titles, such as Tianhou Shengdi (天后聖帝) and Zetian Shunsheng Huanghou (則天順聖皇后).

Qianling Mausoleum – built to house the remains of Tang Gaozong, Empress Wu Zetian, and other royal members of the Chinese Tang dynasty.  (Xingsongyin / CC BY-SA 2.5)

Qianling Mausoleum – built to house the remains of Tang Gaozong, Empress Wu Zetian, and other royal members of the Chinese Tang dynasty.  (Xingsongyin / CC BY-SA 2.5 )

Final Thoughts on Wu Zetian

In the diverse history of the Chinese rulers and dynasties, the reign of Wu Zetian stands out in so many ways. The first and only female emperor in its entire history, she redefined many aspects of China’s society and bureaucracy. Hated by some, and praised by others, she nevertheless left behind her an astonishing period in history.

A period full of mind-boggling intrigue, of vicious power struggles, and early dictatorship. In an era when women were mostly concubines and consorts, she stood out – endlessly ambitious and hungry for influence, she rose in the court and established a dense web of spies, lovers, and secret police. And she didn’t just outwit and oust her opponents – she killed them. Her reign was based on terror and fear to secure obedience – an obedience she used to further the great Chinese empire.

And this tells us that we are in no way recounting the tale of an ordinary ruler. No – we are portraying the story of one of the world’s rare women leaders. A woman that rose from concubine to empress with the sheer power of her ambition and the strength of her will. In truth, Wu Zetian is the sole testament that a single person can command an empire of subjects – one against thousands.

Her iron rule is perhaps one of the most unique examples of how to rise through the ranks and defeat your rivals. The tale of Wu Zetian is a true story of a ‘ Game of Thrones ’ – set in Imperial China!

Top image: Chinese empress. Credit: wichansumalee / Adobe Stock

By Aleksa Vučković

References

Rothschild H. 2015. Emperor Wu Zhao, and Her Pantheon of Devis, Divinities, and Dynastic Mothers. Columbia University Press.

Szczepanski K. 2019. Empress Wu Zetian of Zhou China. ThoughtCo. [Online] Available at:
www.thoughtco.com/empress-wu-zetian-of-zhou-china-195119

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