One of the more extraordinary figures of Chinese history, Wu Zetian was the only female to rule as emperor of China, rising to power in the time of the Tang dynasty, (618 to 903) a period of comparative peace and freedom for women.
Wu’s rise to power was a long and difficult one, using skillful manoeuvring and the manipulation of people in high places with whom she established significant relationships. She was ruthless in her pursuit of power and was disliked by a large proportion of the population but was also responsible for a progressive rule that produced significant benefits for the country.
Born in the year 625, into a “rich and noble” family, she became a concubine of Emperor Taizong and then the new Emperor Gaozong, following Taizong’s death in 649. During this period her influence grew and she increasingly clashed with Confucian philosophy that held that a ruling woman was “unnatural”.
She gave birth to several children by Gaozong, and following a stroke that crippled him in 665, she took over much of the administration of the court, becoming the most influential woman in China. Following Gaozong’s death in 683, her youngest son Ruizong became the new ruler, but in 690 she wrested this position from him and was declared emperor of China.
Her reign was one of contrasts where she held power through the extensive and ruthless usage of secret police but was also innovative and progressive, in particular elevating the position of women in Chinese society. She also reduced the military and aristocratic influence in the Government by requiring applicants for high positions to take formal examinations, thereby increasing the intellectual profile of her rule. She also assisted in the rise of Buddhism in China replacing Daoism as the favoured state religion.
She finally relinquished her position as emperor in 705, dying later in the same year at the age of 80.
A quote commonly attributed to her perhaps reveals some of her philosophy on power:
“Remember, when one’s aim is to achieve greatness… everyone is expendable.”
Image: Empress Wu (Wu Zetian) – an 18th century portrait, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.