After writing the post about Detective Dee, I decided to combine the four-part series of Emperor Wu Zetian (624 – 705 AD), who was the only woman in China’s history to be an emperor.
Her rise and reign has been criticized harshly by Confucian historians but after the 1950s has been viewed in a better light.
Emperor Zetian ranks alongside Cleopatra—the last Pharaoh of Egypt, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen Isabella of Spain, Queen Elizabeth I of England, Catherine the Great and Queen Victoria.
However, In 637 AD at fourteen, Zetian did not have the official status of a court concubine. She was a serving girl in the Imperial palace.
The second and third emperors of the Tang Dynasty were her husbands and seventeen of the emperors that ruled after her second husband died were her children and their children. Empress Zetian gave birth to four sons and two daughters.
After her first husband Emperor Taizong died, she became a nun in Ganye (Buddhist) Temple where she stayed for several years before being chosen at the age of twenty-seven to be a low ranking wife of Emperor Gaozong, the second Tang emperor’s son.
Historical records say Zetian was a stunning beauty and that because of this Emperor Gaozong was attracted to her, but some scholars say it was her intelligence that won him over.
One year after being married to Gaozong, Zetian outperformed the other wives and concubines to become the Empress.
After becoming Empress, she advised Gaozong on many political issues, which benefited the empire. Eventually, she earned the title of “Queen of Heaven”.
When Emperor Gaozong became seriously ill, he named Zetian to deal with the affairs of state in his name. He died in 683 AD, and Zetian’s third son Lixian became emperor.
However, a month later, Zetian, as the Empress Dowager, removed Lixian from power. Then she turned to her fourth son, but at first, he refused and then eventually accepted the title and became known as Emperor Tang Ruizong.
Zetian believed her sons were weak, so she continued to control the affairs of state as the Dowager Empress.
After Gaozong’s death, she funded the carving of the 17 meter high (almost 56 feet) Lu Shena Buddha, the largest rock carved Buddha in the Longmen Grotto.
It is believed that the Buddha’s face is modeled after Zetian, since she funded the project.
Although there are rumors and gossip that Zetian had many lovers, it is obvious from her age when Emperor Gaozong died that the stories are exaggerations encouraged by her political enemies and the imaginations of future scholars of history texts and authors of fiction, such as the Detective Dee movie.
After eight years of ruling the empire without officially being the Emperor, Zetian made a shocking decision. In 690 AD, she changed the Tang Dynasty into the Zhou Dynasty and declared herself an Emperor when she was age sixty-seven.
While Zetian ruled the Tang Dynasty, the economy, culture, social and political affairs prospered. She was also a talented military leader who reformed the army. After the reforms, without leaving her palace, she managed military conflicts with rival states and defeated them.
Under her leadership, the empire expanded and grew stronger.
Near her death in 704 AD, Zetian returned the throne to her third son Lixian, who became Emperor again.
Some scholars claim that she became a Buddhist for political reasons, but she had many Buddhist temples built and sculptures of Buddha made, and these projects were expensive.
However, as far as affairs of state were concerned, she did not allow her Buddhist beliefs to influence her decisions. For example, she promoted officials that earned the right through merit. There is no evidence of favoritism. In fact, officials convicted of failing in their duties to the people were punished and often beheaded.
She also did not rule as a tyrant. Before making decisions, she listened to all opinions on an issue. Today, historians study her ruling style, and the evidence says her political decisions were wise ones.
During the fifty years that Zetian ruled the Tang Dynasty as Dowager Empress and then as an Emperor, China’s borders expanded north, south and west and she did not lose any of the territory gained.
She understood that with the people’s support, political stability was guaranteed. When there were tragedies such as floods, the dynasty quickly offered relief so recovery was swift.
Although imperial family members of the Tang Dynasty staged revolutions, most of the rebellions were suppressed in a few months.
While Zetian ruled China, the role of women in society changed drastically and due to her, feminism existed in China more than 1,300 years ago. Women didn’t have to worry about the clothing they wore. They were free to explore the arts such as writing poetry. Women rode horses, played Chinese chess, wrote and played music and practiced archery as men did.
Even after Zetian was forced to retire at age eighty, there were officials that called for her return. The historical records show that the Tang emperors that followed her were not as wise or trusting as she was.
There is a collection of fifty-eight of Zetian’s poems. Most of her poetry was written for temple ceremonies and some for travel.
She also wrote many books and collected art. For example, Zetian edited the Book of Agriculture, which influenced agricultural development during the Tang Dynasty.
In fact, there is evidence that Zetian respected decisive men such as her Prime Minister De Renji (represented by the fictional Detective Dee in the recent epic Chinese movie), and she often talked about Li Shimin, her first husband, with respect.
After her death in 705 AD, her third son, Lixian, was removed as emperor due to a plot.
In 710 AD, Zetian’s grandson, Li Longji, defeated a rebellion that intended to take over the dynasty and returned his father to the throne. Eventually, Longji would become Emperor Tang Xuanzong, and under his rule the Dynasty prospered again.
However, when Yuanzong grew old, he neglected his duties and spent too much time with his favorite concubine. During those years, the officials became corrupt and this led to the Shi Rebellion, which his son, the next emperor, suppressed.
After that, the eunuchs gained too much power, and the next fourteen emperors from 756 to 907 AD were weak leading to the eventual collapse of the Tang Dynasty.
The historical evidence says Emperor Wu Zetian, as an ancient feminist, should have earned praise since she did a better job as Emperor than most of the men that ruled the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 AD) did.
Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of the concubine saga, My Splendid Concubine & Our Hart. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too.
If you want to subscribe to iLook China, there is a “Subscribe” button at the top of the screen in the menu bar.
Note: This revised and edited post first appeared as a four part series starting with Wu Zetian, China’s Woman Emperor – Part 1 (of a four part series) on November 9, 2010.