We have our very own modern Iron Lady - Margaret Thatcher but do you know who is the Iron Lady of the ancient times?!?
For over 5000 years of China’s history, Empress Wu Ze Tian (武則天) remains the only female ruler that has sat on the Imperial Throne. She held absolute power and authority of the Tang dynasty which is widely regarded to be the dynasty that changed freedom for women.
Wu was born on 17 February 642 AD in Guang Yuan, China. She was born into a relatively rich family with her father in the timber business and mother from a powerful family which had close relations to future Emperor Li Yuan. Since Wu was young, she had the privilege to do many things other young girls and women could not. One of these privileges was to be able to study and be educated, which surprisingly, was encouraged by her father. By the age of 13, she had already become known to then Emperor Tai Zong for her intelligence which led to her becoming one of his concubines. Wu however, was not favored much by Emperor Tai Zong which explains why Wu was unable to bear any children for him. After Emperor Tai Zong passed away, his youngest son succeeded him as an emperor with the name Emperor Gao Zong. Due to the rules and custom of the palace, Wu, who did not bear any children for the deceased emperor had to be consigned to a temple where she was expected to practice Buddhism as a nun for the rest of her life. However, Wu had an affair with Gao Zong before Emperor Tai Zong’s death which subsequently allowed her to go back to the palace and becoming a concubine of Emperor Gao Zong.
Even though Wu was recalled out from the temple and back to the palace, she was unsatisfied with her new position as a concubine to Emperor Gao Zong. Wu coveted the position of an Empress, which equates to the highest ranking wife amongst the Emperor’s wives. In no time, she soon gained favor and love from the Emperor Gao Zong. Wu further secured her position as a favorite by bearing him two sons and a daughter. With that, it gave her extra audacity to fight for the role of Empress.
The power struggle
Historians hypothesized that in order to gain power, Wu went to the extreme of strangling her own baby daughter to death and shifting the blame to Empress Wang. The following year she accused both Empress Wang and Consort Xiao of witchcraft against Emperor Gao Zong and Wu herself. Under the influence of Wu, Emperor Gao Zong finally had enough of Empress Wang and Consort Xiao’s “antics” and have them both demoted to maidservants and imprisoned. Wu on the other hand was then named the new Empress. With her new position, Wu took this chance to demote and execute any supporters of former Empress Wang, filling the court with her supporters instead. An interesting story that historians mentioned is that, when she discovered that Emperor Gao Zong visited and showed compassion towards the deposed Empress Wang and Consort Xiao, Wu had their limbs amputated and their bodies thrown into wine vats to be tortured to death, despite their desperate pleas. Wu was merciless towards those who stood in her way.
At this point of history, Wu had already killed countless of people. Any imminent threat was dealt with promptly. Even her own family was not an exception. During her Reign as Empress after the death of Emperor Gao Zong, she continued to rule through her sons, controlling them like a puppet. When her sons, showed signs of speaking up, she would have them removed from office. This cycle repeated itself till she forcibly made Emperor Rui Zong abdicate the throne in favor of herself, Empress Dowager Wu. It was only then that she managed to name herself Emperor Wu, the first and only female Emperor of China.
While Wu may have been heavy handed in the method she chose to rise to power, she was ultimately a good leader. Wu encouraged reforms mainly in the educational and personnel selection departments. She was a meritocratic leader, regardless of family backgrounds, government officials were elected solely based on how well they scored on the civil service exams. This act led to a greater emphasis placed on education, further developing and improving the Keju Educational System which originated from the Sui Dynasty. Government officials were then tasked with improving agricultural productions. Those who developed agriculture well in their administrative areas were duly rewarded. Wu understood that people’s support was important for political stability, she was hence kind to the peasants, lowering the tax and punishing officials who exploited them.
Wu also kept a particularly close eye on military defense and foreign relations. She set up a military administration in the northwest area of China where the Silk Road was. Wu also initiated a chain of wars that led to the expansion of China further West under her rule compared to any of her predecessors.
In her final years, Wu was forced to abdicate as Emperor, returning the throne to her son, Emperor Rui Zong. Her Zhou dynasty though short-lived was considered to be an “indispensable link between Emperor Tai Zong’s Zhen Guan Reign and the Emperor Xuan Zong’s Heyday of Kaiyuan”. Ruling the country for more than half a decade, it is inarguable that Wu had greatly influenced Ancient China. Whether Wu was a good or bad ruler, however, remains debatable and has been a great source of contention amongst historians for many years. What do you think?