We’ve all seen what happens when a woman rises to power. Everything she does is criticized, and her accomplishments are usually downplayed in favor of demonizing her. Many female rulers have suffered harsh judgment and cruel treatment during their reign, and long after their deaths, people will speak only of their heinousness as opposed to their political contributions. No woman exemplifies this dichotomy more than China’s only female emperor, Wu Zetian.
Mainstream history paints Wu Zetian as a cunning mastermind, a woman hell-bent on power and willing to do anything to get it, but that story isn’t all there is to her. When discussing her life, most scholars will ignore her contributions to women’s rights and her efforts to educate and raise many commoners’ status, and how China profited under her rule.
Her story starts in 638 when, at the age of 13, she was chosen to join Emperor Taizong’s concubines, where she slowly worked her way up the system through her intelligence and beauty. During this time, she gained favor with the Emperor’s son, the soon-to-be Emperor Gaozong. When Emperor Gaozong ascended the throne, Wu was made to join his concubines and rose quickly to become his favorite, later giving birth to two sons and a daughter.
When her daughter was found dead, and she accused the Empress at the time, Emporer Gaozong’s first wife, Lady Wang, of conspiring against her. In 655, Empress Wang and others associated with her were soon exiled, and Wu was chosen as the new empress consort. This secured her political power in the kingdom and allowed her to name her son as the heir apparent to the throne. But that was only the beginning of Wu Zetian’s reign over China.
What followed was a string of plots to eliminate all political opposition and several political scandals at every turn. In 660, Emperor Gaozong became ill and he left power and political decisions entirely to Empress Wu, which she used well to serve her goals, building allies within the court and daring to change the system. When Emperor Gaozong died, Wu’s third son took the throne, but he was later exiled from ruling as he refused to listen to his mother’s will. He was replaced with his younger brother, through whom Wu continued to rule until she forced him to abdicate and took the title of Emperor for herself in 690.
Her rule continued to be plagued with opposition, and she fought off every attempt made on her life with a keen sense of strategy and efficiency (that modern scholars are amazed by) before she finally abdicated the throne right before her death in 705.
Scholars at the time considered Wu Zetian a plague to the country and wrote many stories intended to discredit her. Many historians chose to believe that Wu killed her own daughter to further her goals. This has become one of the most infamous stories despite a staggering lack of evidence. Adding more fuel to the fire, were further rumors about her slow poisoning her husband to steal the throne and others that claimed that her actions led two of her sons into exile and death simply because they disagreed with her.
They say she exiled her brothers for talking ill of their mother but then went on to poison her mother as well. It was said that at one point she murdered all the members of the court who disagreed with her and then bribed newer members into serving her. Though many of these accusations are not rooted in hard historical fact but may have been a by-product of her political tenacity and the inherent misogynistic bias of history.
What is not remembered about her is this: she held power during China’s greatest era and revitalized the Tang Dynasty. Having chosen to study Buddhism, she pushed Buddism to the forefront of Chinese society at the time while forsaking traditional Confucianism. She cared about women and many of her actions could be considered proto-feminist. Most notably, in 665, she took a group of women with her to perform a Buddhist ceremony which until that point had only been allowed for men. She introduced laws to give women equal rights to men and believed strongly in education, so much so that when she eliminated the chancellors who disagreed with her, she replaced them with commoners whom she “bribed” with the promise of education and elevated status. She lowered taxes for the common folk as well, hoping to let them live easier lives.
She loved and promoted literature, much of which is still studied today. She helped cultivate new farming techniques, built new structures to help the people at the time. She showed great care for her people and refused to let shallow things like family name and status define any individual. She was known for her sharp mind and she put it to great use to expand China by conquering Korea, though this achievement is sometimes wrongly attributed to her late husband.
And really, even if all those rumors about her were true, what’s there to say that most of the people she punished didn’t deserve it? We have no proof other than works written by people who openly hated her and were absolutely willing to lie. We also don’t know the details of what discrimination she might have gone through before she finally claimed the throne.
And she would hardly be the first ruler of China to be considered merciless, in fact, many of the most well-known Emporers were tyrants. Take the first Emporer Qin Shi Huang for example. Yes, he united China but he did it by slaughtering the neighboring countries and then eliminating their native languages to unite his kingdom under a single language. His atrocities are many, including the needless killing of many scholars who simply disagreed with his opinions, yet he is celebrated by many where Wu Zetian is instead torn down and scrutinized.
Wu Zetian’s reign brought great wealth and power to the entire country while also bringing rights to the people. Yet, many still choose to ignore her ambitious intentions and instead focus on the scandals involved in her lifetime. Both versions of the story likely hold truth; she held power in some shape or form for 50 years during a time where women were loathed. She couldn’t have done that without some level of cruelty. But Wu Zetian was also an icon and a hero to the people; she used her power to better the country and not just serve herself. And for that, she should be more recognized.
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