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Wu Zetian: The Ancient Feminist



It was the 17th of February, Year 624. A lady by the name of Yang had been sweating it out for hours. Yang wasn’t at the gym. In fact, she was delivering China’s first female contender in the Game of Emperors into existence.

In the same year, a total eclipse of the sun was visible across China, as if prophesying the astronomical figure Wu was going to become, overshadowing her male peers.

Wu was one of those kids from an affluent background and a rather impressive lineage. Remarkably, she was nothing like the other girls her age of similar class. Although she was expected to be feminine and mild, skilled only in activities fit for a lady her status, she was nothing of that sort. In fact, she would be deemed a ‘tomboy’ in modern terms. She was well-educated and versed in masculine-labelled topics such as politics, writing and literature.  

Ironically at the age of fourteen, Wu was enlisted into the court of Taizong (the then Emperor of Tang) as a concubine. This was a common practice in the ancient Chinese times, whereby young girls were often summoned, or offered by their families as wives for the Emperor.

Her career as a concubine of Emperor Taizong never really took flight. Besides being under the Emperor’s favour for a brief period of time and getting bequeathed the title ‘Meiniang’ (meaning ‘charming lady’), she attained nothing else. She remained childless, which was considered an inferior position to be in as a concubine of the Emperor. However, this proved to be a blessing in disguise for Wu after the Emperor passed on.  

Unlike other concubines who bore children, she was sent to a monastic institution to serve as a Buddhist nun for the remainder of her life when the Emperor died. From there, she grew closer to the late Emperor’s son, Gaozong, whom she was acquainted to prior moving to the nunnery. Emperor Gaozong, enraptured by her beauty, quickly fell for her. It was then Empress Wang decided to bring Wu back to the palace in order to divert the Emperor’s attention from her rival, Consort Xiao who was greatly favoured by the Emperor.

Unfortunately for Empress Wang, her plan backfired and Wu quickly overtook Consort Xiao as the Emperor’s favourite. She rapidly rose through the ranks in the imperial palace, and became involved even in political affairs, something women in the past would never be associated with. An ambitious woman, Wu slowly, but surely, managed to wield sufficient power to overthrow both Consort Xiao and Empress Wang , using the death of her own daughter whom people believed she killed before pushing the blame to Empress Wang, then eventually crowned Empress by none other than Emperor Gaozong himself.

According to traditional governing rules, this would have been the highest status a woman could attain, but Wu would have none of it. With a keen eye for talented politicians and a level of shrewdness no man could second, she would then proceed to become one of the greatest woman in the history of China.

In 683, Emperor Gaozong passed away from a disease and Wu successfully managed to put both of her son onto the throne, only to have both of them deposed one after another by 690. She made herself the first female emperor of China. She changed the state title into Zhou, making Buddhism the favoured state religion, placing it above Taoism.

Even before her time of reign, Wu was known for having her own secret police force which was in charge of spying, arresting and cruelly dealing with any opposition against her. Being female, her title of emperor was against the belief of Confucius that having a woman as a ruler was unacceptable, hence, causing many people to be unhappy with her being the emperor. As the secret police force gained more power after she turned emperor, they mercilessly got rid of her rivals and corruptions with torture methods, executions and enforced suicide.

However, despite being cruel on nobility, Wu was good to the people. Rooting out corruption gave them a better life. According to a Song Dynasty historian, Sima Guang, Wu would effectively depose or execute any incompetent officials, proving her incredible judgment and observance for talent.

Using this judgement, Wu gathered the best people she could to run the government, allowing everyone to compete for positions in court by going for exams. She wanted the government to be run by scholars instead of aristocratic military men. Disregarding family backgrounds, she gave many talented scholars a position in the court to help run the government. Throughout her reign, Wu was famously known for utilizing the imperial examination system to sieve out talented people to assist her in ruling the Zhou dynasty.

She placed great importance to agriculture production, awarding those officials that developed agriculture well in their areas and dealing those that imposed too much tax on the people with punishment. During her reign, Wu improved agriculture production, lowered oppressive taxes and demolished corruption. Though a ruthless ruler who executed anyone in her way, including family members, no one could deny the fact that she surpassed any males at her job. Her reign witnessed prosperous national economy, firm social order and great military defence. Under her ruling, China became a dynamic centralized regime.

After Emperor Gaozong’s death Wu did not marry, but her notorious affairs with a monk, Huaiyi and the Zhang brothers (Zhang YiZhi and Zhang Changzong) was infamously an open secret.

Wu fell seriously ill in the winter of 704. The people who were allowed to see her were the Zhang brothers, who were soon executed by a coup that overthrew Wu Zetian in 705. The coup was formed by officials, Zhang Jianzhi, Jing Hui and Yuan Shuji in an attempt to dethrone Wu and restore Li Xian, Wu’s third son, also known as Emperor ZhongZhong, who was deposed by Wu when she tried to fend the throne for herself.

After getting rid of the Zhang brothers, they surrounded the area Wu was residing at when her condition took a turn for the worse and forced her to pass the throne to Li Xian. On February 22, an edict under the name of Wu was issued, claiming that she has passed the throne to Li Xian. She passed away on the 16 December of 705.

Even after her death, debates on the way she ruled her country still occurred. Nonetheless, her contributions to the prosperity of the nation proved Confucius wrong: Women are able to rule the country well, and maybe even better.