The nagging wife. The domineering mother. The aunt that forces you to commit suicide for dishonoring the family. These tried-and-true stereotypes have been around for ages, but the one who embodied it in force lived over 1300 years ago. Wu Zetian used these inherent talents to move up from being a concubine, to the wife of an Emperor, to becoming the only woman in Chinese history to take the title of Emperor herself! She successfully manipulated all of the men in her life, as well as scared the living daylights out of her subjects, just by giving that look (you know the one I'm talking about). Her ambition turned the powerful Tang Dynasty on its ear, and many consider her to be one of the most powerful rulers (regardless of sex) in all of history! You'd certainly make sure to "call when you get there" with this mother!
|Fig.1: Original concubine recruitment |
poster featuring Emperor Taizong,
circa AD 630.
There were some initial signs that Wu Zhao (as she was known before she got all famous) would become pretty influential. First, a total solar eclipse occurred in 624, the same year of her birth, demonstrating her ability to manipulate celestial bodies even as a little baby! As she grew older, she reportedly shied away from her home and needlework duties, and appeared more interested in ghastly things like politics and reading! Wu grew up during an exciting time in Chinese history: Emperor Gaozu established the Tang Dynasty in 618, the first long-term dynasty to rule a unified China in four centuries! Wu wanted a piece of that action, and when an imperial recruiter came to her grade school for an assembly on all the perks of becoming the Emperor's concubine, she was first in line to sign up. At age 13, she entered the harem of Emperor Taizong, which is one of those accepted instances in history that, unless you're Jerry Lee Lewis, we can't help but get the heebee-jeebees about.
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...|
As naturally when these sort of things happen, Gaozong's wife, the Empress Wang, was none too pleased about this arrangement. At first, the two resorted to name calling behind each other's backs, then to each other's faces, then slapping each other's faces, then Wang threw hot tea at Wu's back and
face. Wu decided it was time to sharpen her claws. One morning, the daughter that Wu bore the Emperor was found strangled to death. Wu immediately blamed Wang, leading to a series of events where Gaozong eventually deposed and imprisoned his own wife. Many Confucian historians (who were more openly hostile to Wu Zetian than hippies are to haircuts and bathing) believed that she killed her own daughter in order to pin the crime on the Empress! This malicious accusation takes further root when Wu ordered Wang's death following an episode where Gaozong got all teary-eyed after looking at the old prints of him and his wife from the photo booth at the mall back when they were young. Regardless of who actually killed the infant, Gaozong made Wu the new Empress, allowing her to reach a new rung on the corporate ladder.
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
After Gaozong's death in 683, nothing except traditional gender roles prevented Wu from taking power. Her oldest non-exiled non-poisoned son, Zhongzong, ascended to the throne, but he was quickly replaced by his unashamed momma's boy brother, Ruizong (fig.3). He allowed his mother dearest to make all the decisions (no curtain necessary), and didn't even put up a fight when she made the final break in the glass ceiling in 690 and proclaimed herself huangdi
, the full-out Emperor! She established a secret police to squash opposition to this move, and made it awkward by pulling out the sexist card on anyone who expressed doubts about her ability. In her defense, she was a pretty capable ruler! She sustained the booming economy inherited from her predecessors, she held her ministers accountable for their advice and decisions (much to their necks' chagrin), she promoted the dominant practice of Buddhism as the state religion, she approved popular measures that helped the lower classes and even opened up governmental positions to many of them, and she resisted invasions from the Khitans in the north and Tibetans in the west! Sounds like somebody stayed at a Holiday Inn Express last night!
|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?|
Of course, there were a couple of hiccups with Wu Zetian's rule. First, she had this bad habit of having affairs with various men (many of which were Missed Connections on Craigslist), and then allow them to wield undeserved power and influence in government. The most notorious were the Zhang brothers (let's call them Mario and Luigi), who used their charm and over-the-top accents to become high ranking officials. The public hated these mustached ministers, and didn't appreciate the level of corruption and head-stomping prevalent under their rule. The issue of succession also became an issue for Wu. Some believed her heir should naturally come from her children with Gaozong, continuing rule of the House of Li; others advocated that because her reign started a new dynasty (known as Zhou), the next emperor should be a nephew or third-cousin-twice-removed from the Wu clan; one crazy guy even advocated for the Chinese people to vote for the next emperor (that whack-job was deservedly stoned to death). Wu Zetian went back and forth between Li and Wu heirs, complete with the exiling and executing whenever she changed her mind, making Thanksgiving dinner even more awkward for everybody.
|Fig.5: Elderly Wu obviously |
asked Joan Rivers for the
name of her plastic surgeon.
In the end, this would be one of the few things that Wu was unable to meddle in. Her near-death illness in 705 frightened many officials, who feared one of those civil war things if she died without naming an heir. They were also worried that the Super Zhang Bros. would take over as well; a few ministers decided to take care of them with a Bob-omb, and they died in classic fashion
. Eventually Zhongzong, the original emperor after Gaozong's death, convinced his mother that she was too frail to be ruling alone ("What if you fall and can't get up?") and he moved back into the palace to take care of her imperial duties. She died soon thereafter, and was buried at the Qianling Mausoleum right next to Gaozong, who was probably enjoying the peace and quiet before then. Interestingly enough, Zhongzong's wife, Empress Wei, would use Wu Zetian's example to try and take the throne for herself, and allegedly poisoned the Emperor to achieve these aims. Somewhere Sigmund Freud is smiling (hopefully in his grave).
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).
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