A Woman’s History: Wu Zetian, China's First Female Emperor

Very few historical cultures were accepting of powerful women. Men have tried everything from public humiliation to beheading to witch burning to try to suppress them. With this in mind, it’s interesting to note that while we’ve come a long way as a society, men are still very uneasy with the idea of women in positions of power (see Clinton, Hillary). The tale of the evil woman in power is one that transcends cultural boundaries.

Here’s where Wu Zetian comes in. From a cloud of historical mystery, a clearer picture emerges: a shrewd politician, ruthless murderer and sexual deviant. Classical historians would tell you that Wu poisoned her baby daughter to score political points, authored a torture manual for her secret police and chopped and boiled the limbs of a rival empress.

Allow me to paint a more accurate picture of the life of Wu Zetian, better known as China’s only female empress. Her birthplace is disputed, but she was born in the year 624 to a wealthy merchant family. Unlike most women of her era and class, Wu was educated and fluent in history, politics and literature. She quickly worked her way up the corporate ladder and became CEO of her own company.

Just kidding. This was still a man’s world, so Wu became a concubine (sex slave) to the emperor at the ripe old age of 14. Wu remained in the palace for several years but never produced a child. After his death, it was expected that she would disappear to a nunnery for the rest of her life. Instead, Wu caught the eye of Li Zhi, the emperor’s successor, and stayed on as a concubine to him.

However, there was real opportunity for advancement in this job. Wu’s intelligence won over Li, and she eventually achieved the highest honor for someone of her stature. This allowed her to hold considerable influence over imperial decisions and even run the government when Li Zhi was absent. Obviously, this didn’t sit well with a lot of noblemen.

Li died not long after becoming emperor.

Wu’s son then rose to power, but she deposed him, believing he was not strong enough for the job. She replaced him with her second son, whom she could easily control. This was enough to set off a coup within the government, but Wu squashed it quickly and brutally forcing some of the perpetrators to commit suicide. She created a culture of intrigue in her court and encouraged people to accuse others of treason or disloyalty. She then made a plan to eliminate other aristocratic lines through murder or forced suicide, stamping out 15 families. This allowed her to destroy all other dynastic claims to the throne.

Wu eventually declared herself emperor of the newly-founded Zhou dynasty. Her brutal campaigns among the nobility incidentally also rooted out corruption in the government, and she was already pretty popular among her subjects. She proved to be a capable leader and implemented several reforms which significantly reshaped Chinese society: Buddhism was elevated to the official state religion, and the Chinese empire stretched from the steppes of Central Asia to the Korean peninsula. Wu instituted a bureaucracy based on merit, and offered examinations for common people to enter the government. She allowed farmers greater freedom over their land, offered relief to the peasantry and raised living standards for her subjects.

During her reign, she found time between winning major military victories and improving the economy to have several lovers. In short, she was living her best life.

Wu officially ruled for 15 years and died an old woman in 705. During that time, she made significant advances for her people but also killed thousands. Debate still exists over whether Wu was an opportunist or a ruthless schemer.

Still, becoming China’s only female ruler was no easy feat. The obstacles in her path to power were unlike any the men who came before and after her faced. In her life, Wu was accused of incest, witchcraft, dark seductive arts, murder, mutilation and torture. These accusations aren’t unique among famous historical women. While we tend to imagine that Western and Eastern cultures were totally different, their misogyny is remarkably similar. While a thousand years and a few thousand miles separate them, Catherine the Great was accused of bizarre sexual acts involving horses. Anne Boleyn was accused of being a sex witch bent on destroying the Catholic Church. Eleanor of Aquitaine was accused of incestuous relationship with her uncle. These accusations came from the Church afraid of women having sway over their policies or from aristocratic men trying to discredit females’ claim to power and reduce them to their sexuality. But if you’ve ever watched TV, read the Internet or existed as a woman literally anywhere ever, you probably know that this strategy didn’t die in the Victorian era.

The lesson I take from Wu Zetian’s life, as well as the historical image of her legacy, is this: it’s perfectly fair to judge Wu, as well as any other powerful woman, by their actions. Anyone in power is subject to criticism, and Wu is no exception; she perpetrated a lot of violence to gain her status as emperor. However, we should consider powerful women to be multidimensional human beings. It’s necessary to remind ourselves that women in history are often represented in a light that is less than true, and it’s up to us to make sure that today’s powerful women are remembered fairly and truly and are not reduced to sexist tropes.

Historian Ann Paludan describes Wu’s contradictory legacy best: "Wu Zetian (690–705) was an extraordinary woman, attractive, exceptionally gifted, politically astute and an excellent judge of men. With unwavering determination, she overcame the opposition of the Confucian establishment through her own efforts, unique among palace women by not using her own family. Her rise to power was steeped in blood...."