What's up with Wu Ze Tian?

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One may ask: what is the big deal about Wu Zetian, and why was she such a legend? It is because she was the only woman in China to be hailed emperor - not simply empress. She single-handedly created for herself a dynasty called the Zhou dynasty (although there is still debate as to whether this fits the traditional definition of a dynasty), and was a great ruler according to numerous historians. Her rise to fame and power, unfortunately came with a cost. Anyone who was a threat to her throne was eliminated, either immediately or sometime down the road. Today, we have come to discuss: why is Wu Zetian viewed the way she is - someone we love to hate and hate to love?

The Good

As Wu was born into a royal family, she did not have to perform many domestic tasks. However, she did not like to do what were typically “girly” activities, such as sipping tea and idling. Instead, with the support of her father, Wu educated herself through reading literature, making music and writing. Needless to say, she became very adept at political affairs.

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This first-crowned female empress encompassed everything required of a good ruler - having good judgment, being visionary, and being strong-headed; hence talented officials were still willing to curry favour and be used by her.

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During her reign, China was peaceful and prosperous. The national economy was very well taken care of, agriculture was good, unknown religions like Buddhism flourished, and there was stable social order. Local officials who imposed too much tax on peasants were punished, while those who helped to improve agriculture were generously rewarded. Wu proved to be capable of effective governance, not only through managing internal affairs, but also by building external relations with Middle Asia as their core trading partner. By paying close attention to military affairs, military administrations were built near the Silk Road when it reopened, yet expenses were drastically reduced.

See the examinations that most students are made to go through today? Wu was the one who actually reinforced the excellent idea of entrance examinations, implemented to sieve out outstanding scholars from a variety of backgrounds with differing competencies who could one day become her most qualified and intelligent officials. This imperial examination system also promoted fairness and meritocracy among the populace, for any man could participate regardless of his family status. This could be the reason why this system survives in the world even till today!

The Bad

In the words of a historian, “She killed her sister, butchered her elder brothers, murdered the ruler, poisoned her mother. She is hated by gods and men alike.” Wu could have been a superior leader, but sources also tell otherwise about her character.

Wu was notorious for wiping out anyone standing in her way without the blink of an eye. Those who so much speak a word against her would find themselves on the wrong side of Wu. This includes her own two sons, crown princes Li Hong and Li Xian. In her earlier years, Wu had allegedly poisoned her infant daughter - her own flesh and blood - in a bid to carry on her role as emperor. Some explanations point to carbon monoxide poisoning due to lots of charcoal burning and poor ventilation in the palace. Was this a well-planned coincidence? It could be that she took advantage of the situation.

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Wu had an anonymous comment box used to seek out her ‘enemies’. Originally intended to help root out corruption, it became more of a ‘tell-tale letter’, where those who crossed Wu eventually found themselves being rattled out by the comment box. Thereafter, she had them eliminated through various methods. One of the better fates was enforced suicide: victims would be ‘asked’ to take their lives with their own sword. The not-so-lucky were subjected to the “Manual of Accusation”, which authors the ABCs for interrogating the accused through torture, employed by her army of “secret police”. Within the span of a year, she actually eliminated about fifteen family lines. Talk about ruthless!

Morale of the story: do NOT step on Emperor Wu's toes, ever.

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Our Verdict

Alas, Wu Zetian’s reign was but short-lived for about 5 decades. Can her morality be justified by her good sense of vision and effective governance of the country? If she was a visionary leader, her reign would have continued for decades or even centuries, but it was quickly regained by the Tang dynasty after her death. According to historical text, she was deemed as a ruthless utilitarian filled with selfish ambition and blinded by power. However, the accuracy of this printed picture still remains as a matter of debate. A reason is to note the lack of written records and primary sources from Early China that is able to survive till today. Another noteworthy reason was that some accounts were written by her relatives and other officials that loathed her. Hence, there is difficulty in sieving out the credibility and genuineness of sources, and we should always hold on to the thought that there may be some sort of bias.

That being said, it would appear that Wu’s good sense of vision and effective governance of the country is sufficient to justify her bad sense of morality. Overall, she did in fact fulfill her role as an Emperor of imperial China by improving the welfare of the people, and brought stability and unity to the nation amidst 400 years of discord and civil wars!

Yes, some of the things she did was unacceptable by our standards, but it was deemed necessary as opposition were strong and powerful. After all, Wu was the first female to be crowned Emperor in the history of China. Had Wu been a man, none of her actions or rule would have attracted much criticism and been so adamantly brought up into the spotlight. If not, are we ready to admit to the double standard that existed - and still exists - when it comes to gender equality? One thing is for sure - her legacy is unprecedented.

Done by: Crystal Tan Leong Jiang Maan Lim Zi Ying