Empress Wu Zetian
© 1998 Women In World History Curriculum
Even though according to the Confucian beliefs having a woman rule would be as unnatural as having a "hen crow like a rooster at daybreak," during the most glorious years of the Tang dynasty a woman did rule, and ruled successfully. She was Wu Zetian, the only female in Chinese history to rule as emperor. To some she was an autocrat, ruthless in her desire to gain and keep power. To others she, as a woman doing a "man's job," merely did what she had to do, and acted no differently than most male emperors of her day. They also note that she managed to effectively rule China during one of its more peaceful and culturally diverse periods.
The Tang dynasty (618-906 AD) was a time of relative freedom for women. They did not bind their feet nor lead submissive lives. It was a time in which a number of exceptional women contributed in the areas of culture and politics. So it is no surprise that Wu, born into a rich and noble family, was taught to play music, write, and read the Chinese classics. By thirteen years of age she was known for her wit, intelligence, and beauty, and was recruited to the court of Emperor Tai Tsung. She soon became his favorite concubine. But she also had eyes for his son, Kao Tsung.
When the emperor died and Kao Tsung took over, Wu was now twenty seven years old. In time she became a favorite concubine of the new emperor, giving birth to the sons he wanted. As mother of the future emperor of China, she grew in power. She managed to eliminate Kao Tsung's wife, Empress Wang, by accusing her of killing Wu's newborn daughter. Kao Tsung believed Wu, and replaced Empress Wang to marry the up and coming Wu Zetian. Within five years of their marriage, Emperor Kao Tsung suffered a crippling stroke. The Empress Wu took over the administrative duties of the court, a position equal to the emperor. She created a secret police force to spy on her opposition, and cruelly jailed or killed anyone who stood in her way, including the unfortunate Empress Wang. With the death of Emperor Kao Tsung, Wu managed to outflank her eldest sons and moved her youngest, and much weaker son, into power. She in effect ruled, telling him what to do.
In order to challenge Confucian beliefs against rule by women, Wu began a campaign to elevate the position of women. She had scholars write biographies of famous women, and raised the position of her mother's clan by giving her relatives high political posts. She moved her court away from the seat of traditional male power and tried to establish a new dynasty. She said that the ideal ruler was one who ruled like a mother does over her children.
In 690, Wu's youngest son removed himself from office, and Wu Zetian was declared emperor of China. In spite of her ruthless climb to power, her rule proved to be benign. She found the best people she could to run the government, and treated those she trusted fairly. She reduced the army's size and stopped the influence of aristocratic military men on government by replacing them with scholars. Everyone had to compete for government positions by taking exams, thus setting the practice of government run by scholars. Wu also was fair to peasants, lowering oppressive taxes, raising agricultural production, and strengthening public works.
During her reign, Empress Wu placed Buddhism over Daoism as the favored state religion. She invited the most gifted scholars to China and built Buddhist temples and cave sculptures. Chinese Buddhism achieved its highest development under the reign of Wu Zetian.
As she grew older, Empress Wu lessened the power of her secret police. But she become increasingly superstitious and fearful. Sorcerers and corrupt court favorites flattered her. Finally, in 705, she was pressured to give up the throne in favor of her third son, who was waiting all these years in the wings. Wu Zetian died peacefully at age eighty the same year.
The Buddhist nun looked beautiful even with her hair shaved down to her scalp. A blue sheen glowed around her head. Her eyes, large and luminous, stared forward in forlorn melancholy.
I was a nine-year-old girl then, and as I watched the movie in a small-town theater in Taiwan, I couldn't help but feel Li Li-Hua was the most exquisite woman I'd ever laid my eyes on. Li, an actress, was playing the role of China's one and only woman emperor. In China, emperors were "Di", and empresses were "Hou". The last empress of Qing Dynasty was still a "Hou". But Wu Zetian was officially enthroned as a "Di", the Emperor.
The movie based on historic facts brought me back to the Tang Dynasty in 640's A.D.
A young girl named Mei-Niang (Sultry-Woman) had been chosen to become one of the Tang Emperor's hundreds of concubines in his court. She had been only 14 when she had entered his palace. Now the emperor lay dead. In the patriarchal society, once a woman had served an emperor--she could never marry another man again. All of his serving girls were sent to nunneries. The young woman was doomed to become a nun for the rest of her life.
What a horrible fate - as a nine-year-old girl, I felt empathy for the nun.
As she stood in a nunnery in gloom, a messenger from the crowned prince walked down a corridor to pay her a secret visit. The nun looked up at him, and her eyes brightened. The messenger whispered. The crowned prince had seen her once when he'd run into her in a corridor, and missed her. He would try to get her back into the palace in two months.
Her future hinged on his affection. She had two months to grow her back into a very short length. Mei-Niang worried, "What will he think of me in this ugly short hair?"
She bit her lip in determination to ensure the prince would still favor her. Working on her own fate. She designed means to cover her short hair with jewels and cloth.
The day of her re-entry into the palace came. As she took trembling steps along a path into the palace, the Emperor took one look at her, and smiled.
"I like your headdress. It's interesting and unique."
With that, she managed to become one of the young emperor's favorite concubines. But the Empress and another lady, Concubine Xiao, both vied for the Emperor's affection.
The court was a dangerous place. Mei-Niang quickly came to a conclusion: To survive, one must attain power.
In a darkened theater a reenactment of historical records showed a young woman who lived thirteen hundred years ago fought against a fate of nun-hood in a world of male dominance.
The lights gleamed dimly upon Mei-Niang's lovely face as she contemplated a baby in a crib. The Queen had just visited the newborn, a daughter that Mei-Niang had given birth to two months ago.
Mei-Niang clasped her hands around the infant's neck. A difficult decision: to strangle the baby, and blame the death on the Queen; or to let her own flesh and blood live.
In a moment of fierce decision, she picked up a pillow, and pushed it down into the crib over the baby's face.
Chaos broke out in her corner of the palace. The Emperor came to visit, and Mei-Niang broke down into tears.
"What happened? How did such a healthy baby die?"
Mei-Niang cried, tears rolling down her fine cheeks. One of the maids said, "The Queen was here, and sat with the baby alone for a while."
The angry Emperor sighed, "What am I going to do to the Empress?"
The helpless woman who had faced prospects of forced nun-hood was now taking her life into her own hands, and ruthless as she eliminated one enemy after another.
Step two of Mei-Niang's plan took place sometime later. In a massive search inside the palace for curses placed on the emperor, a male servant dragged out a small wooden doll with from beneath the Empress's bed. Others gasped at the sight of the doll, clad in the emperor's yellow robe, covered with pins.
Even though the Empress protested her innocence, she was eventually abolished, and Mei-Niang became the new Empress. One of the first things Mei-Niang did was to give an order to amputate the hands and feet of the ex-Empress, and of the Concubine Xiao. Those two women were then thrown into barrels of wine with their arms and legs tied together, and drowned.
Over the years, the new Empress read books, helped the Emperor decide how to rule their people for the prosperity of the people, and her power grew.
She treated ordinary people's lives with care, but any court officials who opposed her was eliminated.
When she was 59, the emperor died, the Empress came to rule in his place.
Under her rule, the people of China enjoyed one of their most prosperous periods. She established systems that were fair in recruiting and promoting officials, reduced taxes, encouraged education, and aided farmers. The population grew from 3.8 million households to 6.2 under her guidance.
"Mei-Niang" means "sultry woman". It had been her fate to please a man. In Chinese, most names have meanings to them, since they are made of words of meaning. She now gave herself a new name: "Zetian" - "Rule (of the) sky". Her last name "Wu" carries the meaning of "military", or "weapon", or "martial force".
After having ruled for some years, she employed religion and spread word that she was really a reincarnated Buddha; therefore she was meant to be the emperor.
Wise men of the court bowed and knelt before her as her subjects. But age became her new enemy. In her 70's, she longed for her youth back, and kept two handsome young men as her favorite companions.
Yet, when she was 81, a plot by some court officials ended in the execution of her lovers. Months later, Wu Zetian abdicated her throne to her third son. She was dying of old age. As she lay in her death bed, visions came back to her of her life as a young girl standing in a nun's temple. The faces of men and women she had murdered revolved in her mind. As she fought for her last breath, fear again crept onto her face.
It was a heavy movie for a 9-year-old girl to watch. Yet everyone in China knew the life of Wu Zetian well. As a young girl, I learned from her legend that even though the Chinese system sometimes enslaved women, it was possible for a woman to fight back against that system.
Wu was ruthless, but she had determination.
The movie based on Wu Zetian's life won acclaim for Li Li-Hua, one of the foremost Shanghai-born Hong Kong actresses from the '40's through the '60's.
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