The Life of Wu Zetian

China's Only Female Emperor

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A painting of Wu Zetian. Unknown

In the history of China, only one woman has ever sat in the imperial throne, and that was Wu Zetian (武则天). Zetian ruled the self-proclaimed “Zhou Dynasty” from 690 C.E. until her death in 705 C.E., in what ultimately became an interlude during the much lengthier Tang dynasty that preceded and followed it. Here's a brief overview of the life of the infamous female emperor, and the legacy she left behind.

A Brief Biography of Wu Zetian

Wu Zetian was born into a well-to-do merchant family in the waning days of the reign of the first Tang emperor. Historians say she was a stubborn child who reportedly spurned traditional women's pursuits, instead preferring to read and learn about politics. As a teenager, she became a consort to the emperor, but she did not bear him any sons. As a result, she was confined to a convent upon his death, as was the tradition for the consorts of dead emperors.

But somehow—how exactly isn’t clear, though her methods appear to have been quite ruthless—Zetian made it out of the convent and became a consort of the next emperor. She gave birth to a daughter, who was then killed by strangulation, and Zetian accused the empress of murder. However, many historians believe that Wu actually killed her daughter herself to frame the empress. The empress was ultimately deposed, which paved the way for Zetian to become the emperor’s empress consort.

Rise to Power

Zetian later gave birth to a son, and began working to eliminate rivals. Eventually, her son was named heir to the throne, and when the emperor began to fall ill (some historians have accused Wu of poisoning him) Zetian was increasingly put in charge of making political decisions in his place.

This angered many, and a series of struggles ensued in which Wu and her rivals attempted to eliminate each other. Ultimately, Wu won out, and although her first son was exiled, Zetian was named regent after the emperor's death and another of her sons ultimately took the throne.

This son, however, failed to follow Zetian's wishes, and she had him quickly deposed and replaced with another son, Li Dan. But Li Dan was young, and Zetian essentially began to rule as emperor herself; Li Dan never even made an appearance at official functions. In 690 C.E., Zetian forced Li Dan to abdicate the throne to her, and declared herself the founding empress of the Zhou dynasty.

Wu’s rise to power was ruthless and her reign no less so, as she continued to eliminate rivals and opponents using tactics that were sometimes brutal. However, she also broadened the system of civil service exams, elevated the status of Buddhism in Chinese society, and waged a series of wars that saw China’s empire expand further West than ever before.

In the early 8th century, Zetian fell ill, and shortly before her death in 705 C.E., political maneuvering and fighting amongst her rivals forced her to abdicate the throne to Li Xian, thus ending her Zhou dynasty and restoring the Tang.

She died soon after.

The Legacy of Wu Zetian

Like that of most brutal-but-successful emperors, Zetian’s historical legacy is mixed, and she is generally viewed as having been an effective governor, but also as having been overly ambitious and ruthless in attaining her power. Needless to say, her character has certainly captured China’s imagination. In the modern era, she has been the subject of a wide variety of books, films, and television shows. She also produced a fair amount of literature herself, some of which is still studied.

Zetian also appears in earlier Chinese literature and art. In fact, the face of the largest Buddha statue at the world-famous Longmen Grottoes is supposedly based on her face, so if you want to gaze into the giant stone eyes of China’s only empress, all you have to do is take a trip to Luoyang in Henan province.