10 Facts About Wu Zetian: The Only Empress of China

Léonie Chao-Fong

5 mins

22 Jan 2020

The only woman in more than three millennia to rule China in her own right, Wu Zetian (624-705) was also one of the most controversial monarchs in Chinese history.

Renowned for her beauty, political acumen and tenacity, she was also manipulative, ruthless and outright murderous. Her ascendancy and reign were steeped in blood and terror, yet she remained overwhelmingly popular.

Empress Wu was without a doubt an extraordinary leader and woman – one who took every rule book and tore it to shreds. Here are 10 facts about the legendary ruler.

1. She started out as an imperial concubine

A 17th-century Chinese depiction of Empress Wu, c. 1690 (Credit: Dash, Mike).

Wu Zetian was born into a rich family. Her father Wu Shiyue made sure that she was well-educated – a trait that was uncommon among women. She was encouraged to read and learn about governmental affairs, writing, literature and music.

At age 14, she was taken in to be an imperial concubine to Emperor Taizong (598-649). She began life at court in the laundry, but her beauty and intelligence inspired the emperor to make her his secretary.

Emperor Tang Taizong

At age 14, Wu was taken in to be an imperial concubine to Emperor Taizong (Credit: National Palace Museum, Taipei).

She was given the title of cairen, 5th ranked imperial consort. As concubine, she had sexual relations with the emperor in addition to serving as his secretary, playing music and reading poetry.

2. She had an affair with the emperor’s son

While Emperor Taizong was still alive, Wu had an affair with his youngest son, Li Zhu (628-683). When Taizong died in 649, Li succeeded him as Emperor Gaozong.

As common practice after an emperor’s death, Wu and the other concubines had their heads shaved and were confined to a monastic temple to live out their lives in chastity.

However once Li Zhi became emperor, one of the first things he did was to send for Wu and have her brought back to court, even though he had a wife and other concubines.

 Emperor Gaozong of Tang

After Emperor Taizong died, Wu became concubine to his son, Emperor Gaozong (Credit: British Library).

By the early 650s Wu was the official concubine of Emperor Gaozong, and held the title of zhaoyi – the highest ranking of the 9 concubines of the second rank.

3. She may have murdered her own baby

In 654, shortly after she gave birth to a daughter, the baby died. Wu accused Empress Wang – the wife of Emperor Gaozong – of murder.

The emperor was convinced Wang had strangled the baby out of jealousy, and she was eventually deposed. In 655, Wu became Gaozong’s new empress consort.

Traditional folklore and historians believe Wu may have killed her own child to frame Empress Wang in a power struggle.

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4. She deposed her sons to become empress

Upon the death of Emperor Gaozong in 683, Wu became empress dowager and her son Li Zhe (656-710) took the throne as Emperor Zhongzong.

The new emperor immediately showed signs of disobeying his mother, so Empress Dowager Wu and her allies deposed him and sent him into exile.

Wu replaced him with her youngest son Li Dan, who became Emperor Ruizong (662-716). Ruizong remained a virtual prisoner, appearing at no imperial functions and was never moved into the imperial quarters.

In 690, Wu deposed her son and declared herself huangdi or “Empress Regnant”.

5. She established her own dynasty

Wu Zhou dynasty

Wu’s “Zhou dynasty”, c. 700 (Credit: Ian Kiu / CC).

Having forced her son to yield his throne, Empress Regnant Wu proclaimed herself as the ruler of the new “Zhou dynasty”, named after the historical Zhou dynasty (1046-256 BC).

From 690 to 705, the Chinese Empire was known as the Zhou dynasty. However the traditional historical view is to discount Wu’s “Zhou dynasty”.

Since by definition dynasties involve the succession of rulers from one family, and Wu’s “Zhou dynasty” began and ended with her, it does not meet the traditional concept of a dynasty.

6. She was ruthless within and outside her family

Wu eliminated many of her rivals – real, potential or perceived – by means of death. Her methods included execution, suicide and more-or-less direct murder.

She organised a series of murders within her own family and ordered the suicides of her grandson and granddaughter, and later poisoned her own husband.

The legend goes that when Empress Wang was demoted for allegedly killing Wu’s baby, Wu ordered her hands and feet to be cut off and her mutilated body to be thrown into a vat of wine.

During her reign, various aristocratic families, scholars and senior bureaucrats were executed or forced to commit suicide, and thousands of members of their families enslaved.

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7. She set up a secret police force and spies

Wu’s consolidation of power relied on a system of spies, which she continued to develop during her reign in the court and throughout the country, so she would be given early warning of any plots to threaten her position.

She also installed copper mailboxes outside imperial government buildings to encourage the people of the realm to report secretly on others.

8. She was a popular and beloved monarch

Giant Wild Goose Pagoda, re-built during Wu’s “Zhou dynasty” (Credit: Alex Kwok / CC).

Wu came to power at a time in China of rising living standards, a stable economy and a generally high level of contentment.

Many of her public reforms were popular because the suggestions came from the people themselves. This helped her gain, and maintain, support for her rule.

Wu eliminated all the bureaucracy by establishing a direct line of communication between the people and herself.

She used various edicts to provide acts of relief for the lower classes, including widening recruitment to government service to include commoners, and generous promotions and pay rises for the lower ranks.

9. She was a successful military leader

Wu used her military and diplomatic skills to enhance her position. Her network of spies and secret police allowed her to stop potential rebellions before they had a chance to start.

She pursued a military strategy to expand the empire to its furthest extent in Central Asia and recaptured the 4 garrisons of the Western Regions that had fallen to the Tibetan Empire in 670.

She was also able to re-open the Silk Road, which had been closed because of a devastating plague in 682 and raids by nomads.

Longmen Grottoes

Wu contributed greatly to the Longmen Grottoes in Luoyang, Henan (Credit: Anagoria / CC).

10. She was forced to abdicate

Towards the late 690s, Wu’s grip on power began to slip as she spent less time on ruling China and more time with her young lovers.

Her relationship with her two favourites – a pair of young brothers known as the Zhang brothers – caused some scandal and she became addicted to a range of exotic aphrodisiacs.

In 704, court officials could no longer tolerate her behaviour and ordered the murder of the Zhang brothers.

She was forced to abdicate the throne in favour of her exiled son and former emperor Zhongzong and his wife Wei. Wu died a year later.

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