|Fig.1: Original concubine recruitment
poster featuring Emperor Taizong,
circa AD 630.
While Wu did not become one of Taizong's favorites, he was reportedly once impressed by her fortitude when she claimed she could tame one of the Emperor's unmanageable horses with "an iron whip, an iron hammer, and a sharp dagger" (this philosophy was later used in regards to her future ministers, subjects, husbands, children, gerbils, etc.). Taizong died in 649, and was succeeded by his son Gaozong. As was custom, concubines of a deceased Emperor who did not bare him any children retired to a Buddhist monastery to devote the rest of their lives in prayer as a nun; of course, Wu's feelings on this tradition went something like, "Ain't nobody got time for that!" Somehow, and no one knows how, Wu escaped this fate and became the head mistress of Gaozong! Of course, the prevalent Confucian thought of the day saw sleeping with both father and son as incest, as well as just overall ewwww! Nonetheless, Gaozong sure seemed smitten with Wu's interest in his line of work (I wonder why that would be...), and she even gave birth to a daughter in 654.
|Fig.2: Wu is one bad mother...
With more power in her hands, Wu roundhouse kicked anyone who got in her way. She eliminated imperial minsters who opposed her ascension as Empress, whether it was through exile, imprisonment, execution, forced suicide, or an all-night Who's the Boss marathon. She told Gaozong's heir, one of his children through Wang, to leave now and never come back, replacing him with her own son. Later, when that son started disagreeing and "using that tone" with her, she even had him poisoned and replaced with another son! She was also a hit at family reunions: relatives from the Li clan (the ruling family who started the Tang Dynasty, of which Gaozong was a member) who tried to challenge her authority were often met with a sword to the throat right after the pick-up badminton match. It only got worse when Gaozong suffered a stroke in 660, leaving Wu in charge to make critical decisions, such as economic reforms and the color of the palace drapes, on his behalf. Even when the Emperor recovered, Wu insisted giving her input on imperial decisions while sitting behind a curtain in the throne room like she was a pushy Wizard of Oz! Gaozong was powerless against his ambitious wife: whenever he shared his feelings about how emasculated she made him feel, Wu would respond by making fake crying noises before slapping him and saying, "Get over it, you pansy!"
|Fig.3: Despite being the
"Son of Heaven,"
Emperor Ruizong still
made sure he was home
before 10pm to please
|Fig.4: If you squint a little bit, China under Wu Zetian looks like a large-headed dragon with tiny wings trying with all his might to get off the ground. You see it?
|Fig.5: Elderly Wu obviously
asked Joan Rivers for the
name of her plastic surgeon.
Unquestionably, Wu Zetian was the most powerful woman in Chinese history (all you Cixi fans can put that in your Baigong Pipe and smoke it). She used her skills and cunning to make her way to the top, and then actually did a pretty good job when she got there. Even those Confucian historians in the Tang and Song Dynasties, who ruthlessly berated Wu's ambition, use of terror, and overall lady-ness, couldn't help but admit that she was a capable ruler domestically and diplomatically. Nevertheless, it is her ruthlessness that makes her famous, which honestly isn't anything new when it comes to Chinese Emperors. I know I'd pay to see a cage match between Wu Zetian and Shi Huangdi (and bet that it's the latter that would be burned and buried this time).