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The Curious Tale Of China’s Only Female Ruler

By Antonia Čirjak February 11 2020

Statue of Empress Wu Zetian at Huangze Temple. Credit: beibaoke / Shutterstock.com
Statue of Empress Wu Zetian at Huangze Temple. Credit: beibaoke / Shutterstock.com
  • Wu Zetian was born in 624, and started to rise to power when the Emperor Taizong took her as a concubine.
  • The two main reforms Wu Zetian is credited for are the agricultural reform, as well as the taxation systems.
  • Wu Zetian died in 705, when her son returned and made her step down because she was not performing her duties as an empress. After his ascension to the thone, Zetian died in 705.

China has always inspired an equal amount of fascination and wonder. The same can be said about the rulers that once led to this breathtaking country. And while there have been several powerful and even notorious male emperors, China also had one female emperor - Empress Wu Zetian. 

History is a witness to the fact that women and power never made an easy marriage. There is always controversy when a woman sits on the throne, just think of Elizabeth I, Catherine the Great, Hatshepsut or Cleopatra. Stories of these remarkable women are a medley of fact and fantasy where truth becomes an almost fluid notion and one that pales and almost becomes insignificant. 

This same curious blend is extended to Wu Zetian. 

The Only Female Ruler Of China

Born in 624, Wu Zetian was a daughter of a general, and her descent to power started when she became one of the concubines to the then Emperor Taizong. When he died, she became a concubine to his son, Emperor Gaozong. She soon became the Emperor’s favorite concubine and consequently managed to get rid of Gaozong’s wife, Empress Wang, as well as his Consort Xiao.

Statues of Wu Zetian and Emperor Gaozong at Huangze Temple.
Statues of Wu Zetian and Emperor Gaozong at Huangze Temple. Credit: beibaoke / Shutterstock.com

This is where the story turns rather sinister as historians claim that Wo Zetian strangled her infant daughter by the Emperor Gaozong and blamed Empress Wang for the deed. The Emperor believed her, and Wu became the new empress. The story gets another macabre twist as it is claimed that Wu Zetian ordered that the two cast-off women be drowned in vats of wine with their legs and hands being previously hacked off. 

A Powerful Woman Or An Abomination?

There is often a thin line between absolute power and ruthlessness, and in Wu Zetian’s case, it is hard to make a distinction. Historians of the time did not write favorably about her. One possible explanation could be that a woman in power was not seen before, and they found it to be unnatural, the other explanation is simply that there is at least some truth to what has been written. 

Know as the worst mother in history, Wu Zetian supposedly poisoned China’s crown prince and her eldest son and accused her second son of so many heinous crimes and transgressions that he was eventually exiled. After the death of Emperor Gaozong, she assumed the throne and the power and forced her youngest son to abdication. She proclaimed herself Emperor Zetian.

Empress Wu Zetian's tomb
Empress Wu Zetian's tomb. Credit: mary416 / Shutterstock.com 

The Traces Wu Zetian Left 

On the other hand, nobody can dispute that the Empress Zetian had done great things for China. Agricultural production experienced a reform under her rule as well as taxation systems. As a result, the Tang dynasty became more stable. She supported the printed word, and she introduced her own characters, the Zetian characters, and she re-opened the Silk Road, which had been closed because of the plague outbreak. She also, supposedly, had her own secret police, which spied on people, which helped her to hold on to her power.

As she grew older, stories of her erotic and sexual escapades started to circle. She supposedly had a slew of young, virile lovers. Zhang brothers are among her most famous lovers. It has been claimed they would shut themselves away in her private chambers to indulge her sexual appetites.

The End Of Wu Zetian 

Her exiled second son was, in the end, her downfall. He returned and forced his old and ailing mother to relinquish her power because she was neglecting her duties toward her kingdom. She died in 705, soon after he came to the throne. An enormous stone slab was erected in front of her tomb, as was the custom for monarchs of the time, and it was intended to be filled with words from historians that would describe her accomplishments. 

The slab of stone has been empty for more than 2,000 years. 

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