The story of Wu Zetian, China's only crowned female empress

March 23, 2011 | Posted by Elisa

The only crowned female empress in Chinese history, Wu Zetian ruled from 655-683 during one of China's golden ages.

China's Tang Dynasty (618–907) is regarded as one of the golden ages of Chinese history. A time of invention and advancements in civil government and literature, the Tang Dynasty saw China's only crowned female empress ascend to the throne, Wu Zetian.

Her crowning as the first and only emperor in the history of China contradicts traditional Chinese Confucian attitudes about women, who are thought to belong at home doing housework and taking care of the family, and so her example has inspired diverging views throughout Chinese history.

Story of ascension

Born into a rich and noble family, Wu Zetian was recruited to the palace of Emperor Taizong at the age 13 for her beauty and intelligence. Although she did not become the emperor’s favorite concubine, she had eyes for his son, the later Emperor Gaozong. When Taizong died, Wu Zetian and other concubines were sent to a Buddhist temple. But she refused to accept the fate of spending the rest of her life as a Buddhist nun. Instead, she kept contact with Gaozong, the new emperor, and was brought back to the palace the second year.

She wasn’t satisfied with just being a concubine. Wu Zetian soon eliminated the empress and another favored concubine and was made the new empress. Then she progressively gained more and more influence over the governance through her husband. And toward the end of Emperor Gaozong’s reign, she took over the most administrative duties of the empire.

After Gaozong died, Wu Zetian managed to move her weakest son into power so she could rule the country by telling him what to do. In 690 AD, the puppet emperor removed himself from the office. And by cruelly squashing the opposition, Wu Zetian finally ascended the throne.

In spite of her ruthless climb to power, Wu Zetian's rule proved to be benign and successful. She allowed only the most qualified and intelligent people to help her run the government. She reduced the army’s size and replaced some aristocratic military men with scholars. Wu Zetian was also fair to peasants, lowering oppressive taxes and raising agricultural production. Moreover, she placed Buddhism over Daoism as the favored state religion and, during her reign, Chinese Buddhism achieved its highest development.

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