Historical Figures

Wu Zetian, sole empress in Chinese history

Last updated:2022-07-25

Wu Zetian (武則天, 624-705) is the only empress in Chinese history, founding the Zhou dynasty of which she is the sole ruler.

Concubine of the Emperor

Wu Zetian was born on February 17, 624 in Xi'an (capital of the empire) or in the district of Lizhou (Sichuan), during the Tang dynasty; possibly as Wu Zhao. His mother, Yangda, is the daughter of a member of the Sui imperial family, which preceded the Tang. A non-commissioned officer, his father, Wu Shihuo, distinguished himself during a military campaign a few years earlier, until he became Duke of Taiyuan. As a child, she was introduced to arts and culture, including poetry, dance, music and painting.

Between the ages of 12 and 14, Wu Zhao became one of Emperor Tang Taizong's concubines under the name Mei. Noted for her great beauty as well as for her strong character, she quickly attracted the attention of the emperor as well as his son and heir Li Zhi. When Taizong died in 645, Wu Zhao and the other concubines were sent on retreat to a monastery. Then 25 years old, the young woman will stay there for three years.

The story goes that Li Zhi, who became emperor under the name of Gaozong, saw her again during a pilgrimage to the temple. Overcoming the objections of his advisers, notably to the idea of ​​a son making his father's concubine his own, Gaozong brought Wu Zhao to his gynaeceum. The emperor's wife, the barren Empress Wang, further favors the arrival of Wu Zetian in hopes of undermining the influence of Xiaoshufei, the second wife.

The reign behind the curtains

The emperor is very in love with his new concubine and Wu Zhao is gaining influence very quickly. She supplants the second wife and rivals the Empress, forging alliances in an effort to bring her down. His first child, a daughter, is found dead by the emperor just after the first wife visits her rival. Some historians believe that Wu Zhao would have smothered her child herself to accuse the Empress of it. In the absence of evidence, the emperor chooses to leave the tragedy unfinished. The concubine then accuses the first and second wives of witchcraft. Impressed by her accusations, Gaozong defers to his favorite and lets her decide the fate of the two women. Wu Zhao has her rivals arrested before having them put to death in terrible suffering. Against the advice of his advisers, the emperor made his concubine his first wife. The councilors give him the title of Zetian:"according to the will of heaven".

Wu Zetian attends all councils hidden behind a curtain. Through her husband, weak and chronically ill, it is she who exercises the reality of power. She refuses to confine herself to the limits imposed on women and does not hesitate to overthrow traditions to demonstrate her importance and influence. A link between Heaven and Earth, the emperor traditionally had to make a sacrifice to each other every year. Arguing that the sky, yang, is associated with the masculine but the earth with the feminine, Wu Zetian maintains that it is up to a woman to perform the sacrifice to the earth. The emperor agrees with her, and the empress obtains permission to perform the ceremony each year. Another proof of her social ascension, she had her family registered in the register of “Great Families”.

Wu Zetian makes many political proposals in favor of agriculture and the status of women. In particular, she advocates lower taxes, the creation of women's care centers, attention to the situation of widows and old women, or even increasing the period of mourning at the death of her mother to make it equivalent to that concerning the death of his father. She also opposes corvées, which she wants to ban. Although contested, she manages to have a certain number of her proposals accepted. Her reign was also marked by strong support for Buddhism, through which she turned away from Tang dynasty Taoism.

Emperor of the Zhou dynasty

Wu Zetian and the Emperor have four sons. Much appreciated by their father and his advisers, the two eldest are successively named crown princes but the first, Li Hong, dies poisoned and the second is assassinated. In 683, the emperor's chronic illness suddenly overwhelmed him and Gaozong, after surviving a first crisis, succumbed without witnesses. Some historians suspect Wu Zetian of the death of her husband as well as that of her first sons. His third son then takes the title of emperor under the name of Zhongzong, while leaving political power in the hands of his mother. Shortly after, she dismisses him and replaces him with his last son, Ruizong, more manageable than his elders. Preparing for her own coming to power, she stages the discovery of a stele on which it is engraved "The wise mother descended to earth", to grant herself a celestial investiture. She is given by her son the title of "holy mother and divine emperor" (and not empress). In 690, Wu Zetian demoted Ruizong to the title of crown prince and granted himself the title of "emperor of the Zhou dynasty", claiming kinship with the Zhou dynasty. She took the name Emperor Shengshen (Shengshen Huangdi) and had her father named Emperor Xiaoming posthumously.

Wu Zetian continues his authoritarian policy and manages the empire with an iron fist. In 692, it took over the four garrisons of the Tarim (Kartcha, Karachahr, Kachgar and Khotan), key points in the defense of the country. She tries to negotiate a truce with the khan of the Mongolian Turks, but he refuses to recognize her legitimacy. Wu Zetian sets up a recruitment system for civil servants based on merit and no longer on family origin. She creates an order of inquisitors responsible for interrogating and torturing her enemies, thus getting rid of her opponents in the great families. The institution being very criticized, it will end up getting rid of them in turn by having them executed. Despite the conditions of its accession to power and its lack of scruples, it contributes to making China an immense commercial and cultural power.

At the age of 74, Wu Zetian announces his decision to make his third son, the brief Emperor Zhongzong, the crown prince. In 704, an illness made her unfit to govern. The following year, conspirators, members of a revolt led by his prime minister, managed to enter his apartments and assassinate his favourites. Blade at his throat, Wu Zetian still tries to intimidate his son, but has no choice but to abdicate in his favor. She died shortly after, on December 16, 705. Her last will (on which there is some doubt regarding their authenticity), she would have asked that her title of "emperor" be reverted to "empress", and that she be buried in the Gaozong's side as a wife.