When A Woman Ruled Ancient China

When A Woman Ruled Ancient China
History provides several examples where, given half a chance, some enterprising women have grabbed the opportunity to not only wrest the throne from their male rivals and reign in their own name, but also to hold on to it for considerable time and earn the admiration of their subjects. Razia Sultan of Delhi Sultanate, Begum Samru of north India during the Mughal breakdown, Queens Hatshepsut, Nefertiti and Cleopatra of Pharaonic Egypt, Elizabeth I of England, Catherine the Great of Russia and many more valiant women fall in this list of honour. This article brings to light the life of such a woman; Empress Wu Zetian – personal name Wu Zhao – of the Tang dynasty from 7th- and 8th-century China. In three thousand years of Chinese history, Wu is the only woman who reigned over China in her own right as the Empress. That is quite an achievement for a woman in the ruthless environment of ancient world.

Wu continues to interest researchers. Recent books on her include Wu Tse-T’ien and the politics of legitimation in Tang China by Guisso Richard W. L. (1978); Wu Zhao: China's Only Woman Emperor and Emperor Wu Zhao and Her Pantheon of Devis, Divinities, and Dynastic Mothers (2015) by Rothschild, N, Henry; The Woman Who Discovered Printing by Barrett, Timothy Hugh (2008); Wu: The Chinese Empress Who Schemed, Seduced and Murdered Her Way to Become a Living God by Clements, Jonathan (2007); Empress Wu Zetian in Fiction and in History by Shu-fang Dien, Dora (2003) and Empress of China: Wu Ze Tian by Jiang, Cheng An (1998). That is quite a bit of literature even after a millennium and a half of her death.

Wu Zhao or, as she is better known, Wu Zetian, was born in central China, most likely in Wen-Shui, in Sichuan area (Guisso, ibid). The year of her birth is certainly 624 AD because of the recorded total solar eclipse around her birth in that area. She died in 705 AD at the ripe old age of 81.

Wu’s father enjoyed the trust of the court and was appointed in official positions including as administrator/governor of an area, a responsibility that he discharged with distinction. He died in 635, when Wu was eleven years old. Around 640 A.D., she entered the emperor’s harem as a junior concubine; either because the emperor had heard about her exceptional beauty or through the recommendations of another concubine related to Wu. In that position, she seems to have escaped the close attention of the emperor, but drew the infatuation of his son Gao, the heir apparent.

In all probability, the two entered into a physical relationship; an incestuous affair that prevented her from facing a far worse irreversible fate. In 649, the Emperor died after a brief illness. Under the prevailing custom, all the women of the harem were assigned to a monastery for the rest of their lives. Soon after taking over the throne, however, Gao recalled Wu from the monastery and entered her in his harem as the seniormost of secondary concubines. She was junior only to two women; the Empress herself and the Chief Concubine. Wu had also grown wiser and resolved never to let her future be subordinated to the whims of the others.

Under the new Emperor Gao, the Empress and the Chief Concubine had a deep impact on running the palace affairs. Unfortunately for the Empress, she was barren. Wu had, in the meantime, given birth to a girl. To prepare grounds for her rise within the harem, Wu started spreading rumours about the treachery of the Empress and the Chief Concubine. She bribed the palace staff to have them vouch for her accusations. It is said that she had her own daughter strangled and put the blame of this death on her two rivals. The Emperor had by now been enchanted by Wu and also trusted her acumen in policy matters. He believed in her accusations and imprisoned the Empress and the Chief Concubine. Wu quickly had both the women murdered. Shortly thereafter, the Emperor, despite the opposition of the imperial council, officially married Wu and promoted her as Empress Consort in 655; a position that she held for next 28 years till the death of the Emperor. For much of this time, Wu co-ruled as a senior partner over a successful administration.
She declared herself Empress regent and founder of the Wu Zhou dynasty that lasted for 15 years from October 690 to February 705 till her abdication. She was the first and the last Empress in Chinese imperial history

Throughout her life, Wu remained ruthless and decisive. One of the first actions that she took on becoming the Empress, despite the opposition of her husband, was to overhaul the imperial council and fill it with her loyalists. The ousted members were disgraced and driven to death. This changed the entire political climate, making her the supreme authority. When the Emperor, her husband, took a liking to one of her real nieces, she had her killed. Two of her nephews, too, were executed – probably on her orders because of her dislike for them for seducing palace ladies.

Chinese actress Fan Bingbing plays Wu Zetian in Empress of China

It is reported that as Wu’s vengeance unfolded, the Emperor went in to a state of depression (Guisso, ibid). He would weep openly, complaining of bad luck. When one of his chief ministers charged Wu with sorcery, she had the official first removed, then imprisoned and finally executed. Wu now took interest in all matters of state. One of the chronicles reports that “Whenever the emperor attended to business, the empress hung a curtain [and listened from] behind. There was no matter of government, great or small, which she did not hear. The whole power of the empire passed into her hands; reward and punishment, life and death, she decided. The emperor folded his hands and that is all. In court and country, they were called the Two Sages.”

In early 675, Emperor Gao fell seriously ill. He suggested that he would retire and let Wu take over as the Empress. However, the court officials protested that “The Son of Heaven manages the external (affairs) whereas the empress manages the internal.” Wu’s son Li Hong was the crown prince. He was considered to be a humane and serious young man. However, Wu had a row with him. The prince wanted a pair of princesses, held as prisoners by his mother, released. Wu retaliated by finding them husbands of low status. The prince remonstrated with his father. A little later, the crown prince was poisoned to death with suspicion falling on his own mother.

Wu’s next son, a Buddhist scholar and a man interested in wine and women, became the heir apparent. He was reportedly to be illegitimate due to Wu’s amorous lifestyle. However, he too fell out with his mother and committed suicide; with suspicions falling on his mother for murdering him. The third son of Wu was then appointed the crown prince but, luckily for him, he was neither prepared nor fit for the role, and was content to let his mother rule the empire. Emperor Gao died in died in 683. Wu had her son, the crown prince, installed as the new Emperor and, in reality, herself became the ruler as the regent – in view of his adolescence. Seven years later, she had him removed too, and exiled. Wu then appointed her fourth son as the Emperor, but didn’t even allow him to hold court, effectively continuing to be the real Emperor herself.
Had Wu been a man, her ruthlessness and sanguinary behaviour would have been accepted as an essential part of ancient statecraft

By 684, the perceived complicity of Wu in the deposition and murder of her own sons, and the disgrace of scions of distinguished families, created unrest and rebellion broke out in North East China along the Grand Canal connecting the Yellow and the Yangtze rivers. The manifesto of the rebel leaders reads like a charge sheet against Wu. It ran as follows:

“The woman Wu, who has falsely usurped the throne, is by nature obdurate and unyielding, by origin truly obscure. […] she brought disorder to the palace of the crown prince […] She then plotted covertly to gain favour in the Inner Chambers […] and skillfully slandered other women. With cunning flattery and perverse artfulness, she deluded the ruler […] usurped the pheasant regalia of empress and entrapped our ruler in incest.

Then, with a heart like a serpent […] she destroyed her good and loyal officials. She has killed her elder sister, butchered her elder brothers, murdered the ruler, poisoned her mother […] She harbours calamitous intentions and plans [to steal] the sacred regalia [of the ruler]. The beloved son of the ruler she keeps in a separate palace, and she has given the most important offices [of state] to her own group of bandits.”

This was a powerful statement against Wu. Although the rebels had gathered about a hundred thousand soldiers, Wu acted quickly and decisively. The rebels were defeated within three months and dealt with harshly. Their leaders were executed and their sympathisers killed or incarcerated. Suspecting that some prominent persons in the capital had been supporting the rebels, she unleashed a reign of terror for the next six years. Prominent suspects were publicly executed. Thousands of others were killed and many more imprisoned. These were brutal actions for which she was universally condemned.

The final purges of terror occurred in 697, when 36 leaders were executed, their properties confiscated and thousands of their relatives exiled. By now, the feudal elite classes, who were not comfortable being ruled by a woman, and that too of non-royal birth, had either been eliminated or subdued. In the process, Wu had brought unity and peace within the realm. She refined the taxation system and the bureaucracy. In 685, soon after the death of her husband, and when she was 60 years of age, Wu also acquired a lover and her liaison with him continued for a long time.

In 688, prior to usurpation of throne, Wu, or one of her minions, plotted to legitimise her formal assumption of power. Her capital was located close to the confluence of the Lou and the Yellow rivers, on the banks of the former river in Henan province in central China. In the Lou, some farmers found a white stone with the inscription, "A Sage Mother shall come to [rule] mankind and eternally prosperous shall be her imperium."

Wu took a number of steps to follow up the discovery of the stone. Within two months, she had the prophecy known to everyone in the empire. She issued an act of grace and held a public ceremony to offer thanks. The River was declared sacred and fishing banned therein. She also took a new title as “Sage Mother, Sovereign Divine.” A grand festival was announced to formally venerate the omen. All notables, including the prefects, governors and Tang princes, were ordered to assemble to take part in the festivities. One branch of the Tang family rebelled against these steps and were extirpated completely. Wu now had no opposition left to her absolute rule, and no force stood between her and the throne. She declared herself Empress regent and founder of the Wu Zhou dynasty that lasted for 15 years from October 690 to February 705 till her abdication. She was the first and the last Empress in Chinese imperial history.

As Empress, Wu unwisely perpetrated a religious dispute. History shows that rulers at variance with their population on religious grounds lose their legitimacy rapidly. Since around 500 BC, China had been influenced by the teachings of Taoism and Confucianism. Taoism was characterised by romanticism (heart over head), emotions, mysticism, intuition and freedom from rules. Confucianism, on the other hand, practiced rationalism (head over heart), intellect, realism, logic, rules-based society and civilisation. Taoists believe in personal spirituality and rituals whereas Confucianists strive for education, work ethics and family values. In the meanwhile, Buddhism had been making steady inroads into China due to its peaceful humanistic appeal. Buddhism aims for enlightenment, self-denial, life after death and meditation. Coincidentally, Buddha (Nepal, North India), Confucius (Shandong, northeast China), and Laozi (Henan, central China), the three progenitors of these philosophies, were near contemporaries, having lived about five centuries before Christ.

Wu fell for Buddhism, allowing their monks extraordinary latitude to collect wealth. She also banned butchery. By 700 AD, the opulence of Buddhist monasteries had surpassed the elegance of royal palaces. Fearing unrest amongst the masses, she lifted the ban on animal slaughter and reduced taxes, but matters didn’t settle easily – as there were rumours, probably initiated by Buddhists themselves, that Buddha had appeared following the lifting of this ban. These steps not only alienated Buddhists, they failed to appease the Confucians.

T.H. Barrett, (ibid) argues that the spread of Buddhism at the behest of Wu led to the invention of printing. It is also well known that 50 years after the death of Wu, the Abbasids learnt the art of papermaking (and printing) from the Chinese prisoners captured after the Tang defeat in the watershed Battle of Talas in 750 AD on the banks of the River Jaxartes in Ferghana. The art of papermaking quickly spread through the Caliphate and onwards to Europe. The Abbasids’ quick acceptance in the 8th century of this art related to printing is in sharp contrast to the Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal rejection of printing press in the 15th century. It points to the fact that at the former juncture in time, Muslim civilisation was burgeoning and Muslims were eager to learn new technologies, whereas at the latter time, they were in decline and were intellectually skeptical of scientific developments.

In the beginning of the 8th century, Wu fell sick. She was already on the wrong side of her 70s and her lifelong struggles had started to take their toll. She began losing control of the military and bureaucracy.

Her fall from grace was perpetrated by her disregard of meritocracy in selection of high government functionaries. She had encouraged induction into bureaucracy for her loyalists. This encouraged nepotism that robbed the services of merit and led to massive corruption in selection and appointments at all levels. Her policy of sending inefficient central officers to provinces meant that the distant towns had poor administrators, adding to the misery of common people.

Wu has been much maligned for ruthless pursuit of power. She has been accused of murdering her rival queens, killing her sister, butchering her elder brothers, killing her own daughter, murdering her stepson and poisoning her mother. Even if true, this is no different from what many of the medieval and ancient rulers have been doing. Ottoman caliphs until the 17th century regularly killed all their male relatives on the assumption of the throne. Mughal emperors Shahjahan and Aurangzeb killed all male relatives during their lifetime. The later even got his son killed. Jahangir blinded his eldest son. Courts of Europe, ancient Egypt, Russia, Roman Empire and the Byzantines were no exception. Had Wu been a man, her ruthlessness and sanguinary behaviour would have been accepted as an essential part of ancient statecraft.

Tomb of Wu in Shaanxi province

In February 705, her opponents gathered force and plotted to have her overthrown. The conspirators recruited to their cause her elder son, who had previously been deposed as crown prince. The palace coup was successful and peaceful, except that her close advisors were beheaded. Her son took power as the Emperor and restored the Tang dynasty.

Wu was treated with respect and interred to another palace. It is reported that she remained popular with the masses. She breathed her last in December of that year, having achieved a status that no woman in China had attained, or has attained thereafter. She died in December of the same year, still titled as Empress Consort.

She was buried by her son in Qianling Mausoleum in Shaanxi province. Other tombs in the complex, including that of her husband Gao, have statues of horses, winged horses, horses with grooms, lions, ostriches, officials, and foreign envoys. However, that of Wu is a blank stone stele weighing 98 tons, with two small dragons – without any inscription. Perhaps, the later emperors wanted her memory to be forgotten or downgraded but, to the living legacy of Wu, her story continues to be of interest to historians.

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at: parvezmahmood53@gmail.com