Wu Zetian: The Only Female Ruler in Chinese History

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Podcast Transcript

In the very long history of China, it has had exactly one female ruler. 

She was a woman who managed, against all odds, to inch her way closer to power over a period of years until she reached a point where she could claim power for herself. 

By all accounts, she was beautiful, brilliant, cunning, and absolutely ruthless. 

Learn more about Wu Zetian, China’s only female emperor, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

In the ancient world, there were very few female rulers. 

Rome had absolutely none. There were no women who ruled Persia, Babylon, Greece, or Assyria. 

Egypt did have a few, including Hatshepsut, who ruled in her own right, as did Cleopatria.  Celtic and Germanic tribes would sometimes be led by women, like Queen Boudicca in Britain.  Razia Sultana ruled the Delhi Sultanate in India in the 13th century. 

Usually, when a woman amassed a great deal of power in the ancient world, she wasn’t the power in name, only in fact. They exercised their power from behind the throne, not on it. They had husbands or sons who ruled, and then they controlled their men. 

So how was it that in a civilization like China, which had strict legal and cultural rules preventing women from ruling, that a woman managed to make it all the way to the imperial throne?  …and not just sit on the throne but actually be considered one of the greatest emperors in Chinese history.

It took an extremely talented and ambitious woman.

The story of Wu Zetian begins with her birth in 624 during the very early years of the Tang Dynasty. 

Zetian was born to a father who was a wealthy timber merchant and a chancellor under the Tang Dynasty. She was born in the Shanxi region of Northern China. 

I should address the issue of her name, but it can be confusing. Wu is the surname of her father, which always goes first in Chinese. Over the course of her life, she had several different names and titles that she went by.

To this extent, she is a lot like the Roman Emperor Augustus, who went by different names throughout his life. 

She is alternatively known as Wu Zhou and Wu Mei, which is how most Chinese might reference her. Wu Zetian was her imperial name which she took when she ascended to the throne. 

For the sake of simplicity, I’m simply going to refer to her as Zetian, her imperial name, for the entire episode. This is what she almost always referred to in English. 

Zetian was raised by her father in an untraditional manner for girls. Zetian was given an education that was normally reserved for boys. She was taught to read and write, and she was instructed in politics and history as well as public speaking.  She could play music and write poetry, both of which were prized skills at the time.

At the age of 14, she was selected by the Emperor Taizong to become an imperial concubine. Needless to say, Zetian’s mother was not thrilled at the idea of her daughter becoming a concubine, but Zetian eased her mother’s concerns by telling her, “How do you know that it is not my fortune to meet the Son of Heaven?”

In the case of the Chinese Imperial court, most concubines had other duties involved in the management of the Royal Household beyond marital ones. 

Zetian started out at the bottom rung of the concubine ladder doing laundry. 

However, one day while doing her chores, she came across the Emperor by himself, and she decided to shoot her shot. She dared to start a conversation with the Emperor about Chinese history.

The Emperor was astonished at the intelligence of his concubine. Not only was she beautiful, but she was intelligent, a witty conversationalist, and could read and write. 

He was so taken with her that he promoted her to his personal secretary, which was a significant promotion. As secretary, she was intimately involved with the affairs of state and the managing of the empire. 

In her position as secretary, she received the attention of many of the men at court. In particular, she began an affair with the son and heir of the Emperor Taizong, Li Zhi.

Li Zhi became infatuated with Zetian, but he was already married, and she was the emperor’s concubine. 

Zetian’s next big break came with the death of Emperor Taizong. Normally, when an emperor died, his wife and all of his concubines had their heads shaved and were taken to a convent for the rest of their lives. 

However, when Li Zhi ascended to the throne and became known as Emperor Gaozong, one of his first acts was to bring Zetian back to become his first concubine. Technically this was against the law, but it’s good to be the emperor. 

Zetian sudden rise to first concubine drew the ire of several other women in the imperial court. In particular, the wife of the Emperor, Lady Wang, and the former first concubine, Lady Xiao.

Lady Wang had not born a son for the Emperor and Lady Xiao had a son, but was now lower in status than Zetian was. 

Because Lady Wong had no son, the announced heir to the throne was the son of her uncle, who was the chancellor to the emperor. 

However, in 652, at the age of 28, Zetian had a son named Li Hong. The next year, she had another son. 

Now, with sons and potential heirs to the throne, Zetian became more of a threat. 

At this point in the story, you might think of Zetian as a smart, attractive woman who used her smarts to get to a high-ranking position in the imperial court. However, what happened next showed just how ruthless she could be in her pursuit of power. 

In 654, she had her third child, a daughter.  However, the baby died soon after birth. 

Infant mortality wasn’t something that was uncommon at that time, but in this case, there was evidence that the child was strangled to death in her crib. 

There is no evidence as to who actually committed the crime, but Zetian didn’t let the opportunity go to waste. She accused Lady Wang and Lady Xiao of the murder and accused them of witchcraft. 

The accusations stuck, and both Lady Wang and Xiao were placed under house arrest. The Emperor divorced Wang, and in 655, Zetian was elevated to the position of wife and Empress. 

For almost 1500 years, there has been speculation that Zetian killed her own daughter to consolidate her position with the Emperor.  

The emperor turned out to be weak and easily influenced by his new wife. Many court officials, sensing the power shift, aligned themselves with Zetian.

In 656, the Emperor formally changed his heir to Li Hong, the firstborn son of Zetian and the Emperor. 

She began purging any officials who had opposed her and eliminating possible claimants to the throne who could rival her son. 

In 660, the emperor became ill, and she began issuing orders and running the empire on behalf of her husband. She would wear a yellow robe, which was reserved for the emperor.

When the emperor held an audience, she would be right behind him behind a beaded curtain. 

When anyone met with the emperor, the first question he would ask is “Have you discussed this with Lady Wu?”

She had become the co-ruler of China and was the defacto ruling power in the country. 

She had her title changed to Empress of Heaven to match that of the Emperor’s title, Son of Heaven, implying that she, too, ruled by divine right.

In 675, her son and crown prince, Li Hong, suddenly died. Again, many people suspect that she poisoned her son. Her second son, Li Xián, was now named crown prince, but her relationship with him disintegrated to the point where she charged him with treason and had him exiled. 

The role of heir apparent now fell to her third son, Li Zhe.

This came to a head in 683 when Emperor Gaozong died.  A few months later, in February 684, Li Zhe ascended to the throne with the new imperial name, Emperor Zhongzong.

The new emperor was incredibly weak but was even more influenced by his wife than he was by his mother. His wife, Lady Wei, was heavily influenced by Zetian, which of course, made her a threat. 

Just six weeks after he took the throne, Emperor Zhongzong abdicated the throne and was replaced by his younger brother, the youngest son of Zetian, Li Dan, who was known as Emperor Ruizong.  She sent troops to her oldest surviving son, Li Xián, who had been exiled, and had him commit suicide. 

Ruizong was nothing more than a figurehead. She completely controlled all physical access to him. Court officials had to talk to her and couldn’t talk to the Emperor directly. 

She began carrying out and approving policies without even getting the Emperor’s rubber stamp. 

She was now the ruler of China in every way, except in name. 

That eventually changed in 690, when she forced her son to abdicate the throne and assumed it herself. 

She took the title of Huangdi. Huangdi doesn’t translate to English exactly as Emperor, as the term has no gender specificity like Emperor or Empress does. The closest translation might be ‘sovereign,’ which could be male or female. 

While Chinese law and tradition didn’t allow for women to obtain the title of Huangdi, by this point, it didn’t really matter because she had been the de facto ruler of the country for 30 years since her husband became ill. 

For the last six years as regent, she had literally been approving and administering everything. 

This last step simply ended the charade by giving her the formal title as well as the power she already held.

While the story of Wu Zetian involves a lot of palace intrigue, her rule resulted in many significant policy changes for China. 

She allowed citizens from every class of society to take the Imperial exams, so they could find the very best civil servants regardless of class. These new lower-class officials subsequently had a great deal of loyalty to her personally.

She proclaimed a new dynasty called the Wu Zhou Dynasty of which she would be the founding ruler, named after the ancient Zhou Dynasty of 1000 years earlier.

She reformed the system of taxation, which stabilized the coffers of the government.

She elevated Buddhism as a state religion over that of Taoism. 

She instituted pay raises for the lowest level of civil servants. 

She ordered the printing and distribution of farming manuals so that the best farming techniques would be widespread. 

She engaged in military campaigns against Korea and Tibet. 

She also reopened the Silk Road, which had been closed due to an epidemic. 

She even introduced new Chinese characters which became known as the Zetian characters. 

All of these policies made her very popular with the people of China. Many historians still consider her to be one of China’s greatest rulers. 

However, she also established a secret police force which she used to retain her grip on power and was responsible for the deaths of many high-ranking Chinese officials, including, possibly, three of her own children. She supposedly executed 12 entire branches of the Imperial family who threatened her rule. 

Wu Zetian’s rule came to an end in the year 705. At the age of 81, she resigned her post due to illness, passing the throne to her son, the Emperor Zhongzong, who had previously been removed after only six weeks. 

In the end, Wu Zetian ruled China for 15 years in her own name and a total of 45 years in some capacity, including that of co-ruler and regent. 

She managed to achieve all of this, which no woman has been able to do before or since, through a unique combination of beauty, intelligence, cunning, and ruthlessness.