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“For those who want to achieve greatness, everything is expendable!”
Like most civilizations, China has been male-dominated throughout much of its history. In most of China's history, women were afforded few rights, and direct power was all but totally denied to them. For a woman to attain the rank of Emperor, to become the most powerful person in China, was almost unheard of. Wu Zetian became the first woman to do so in the entire history of China. She was one of the most remarkable rulers - female or male - the world has ever seen.
Empress Wu was born under the name Wu Zhao. When she ascended the throne she chose the name Zetian as her throne name, meaning "she who follows the heaven". As Empress regnant she was also known as Wu Zhou, Wu Meiniang, Mo Chak-tin and her temple name: Wu Shenglong. Wu Zetian's full title is:"Her Imperial Majesty Empress Wu Zetian, Sacred and Divine Empress regnant of China, she who causes the flowers to blossom and the rivers to flow".
Wu Zetian was born in 624 in Lizhou, during the Tang Dynasty as the daughter of a rich nobleman and noblewoman. She was well known in the city for her beauty and she was often called "Wu Meiniang". She was educated until the age of 13 when Emperor Taizong took her as a concubine when she visited the city.
Wu Zetian was unhappy and missed her parents much in the palace, and she did not have any children with Taizong. She was educated in etiquette, history and Chinese. When Emperor Taizong died, she would have spend the rest of her life as a Buddhist nun. She was fortunate in that Empress Wang, the wife and empress of Emperor Taizong's son and successor Emperor Gaozong wanted another beautiful concubine to divert Emperor Gaozong's favors from Consort Xiao, with whom Empress Wang was having a desperate struggle. Wang had Wu brought back to the palace and made her a concubine of Emperor Gaozong.
Emperor Gaozong immediately recognized her as that pretty girl that he saw in the palace when he was young. Empress Wang's plan succeeded, but not for long ... Consort Wu gained more and more influence in the court and was eventually made Empress in 655. Empress Wang saw that her plan backfired and she accused Empress Wu of witchcraft and treachery. When she was almost arrested, she grabbed a sword and single-handedly defeated all the guards. She then arrested Empress Wang and informed the Emperor that Empress Wang and Consort Xiao were evil witches. They were banished from China, but Empress Wu secretly executed them without telling the emperor. Nothing would stand in her way, and she was determined to change her destiny. In 660 Emperor Gaozong died under "mysterious circumstances", it was rumored that Wu Zetian poisoned him, but she did not, she was vilified because she was a woman. Now with the throne vacant, Empress Wu's sons could not succeed the emperor due to their age. It was not allowed for women to ascend to throne of China by the law. Wu Zetian changed the law and declared herself "Empress Regnant of China", founding her own dynasty, the Second Zhou Dynasty and becoming the first empress regnant in history of China. On 14 December 660 Wu Zetian was formally crowned Huangdi (Emperor) of China. She said that anyone who dared to oppose her would be punished by execution.
In the beginning of her reign Empress Wu was many times opposed by officials and ministers and she dealt with them by replacing them with other people that she favored and killed them. She installed her long time friend Shangguan Jing'er as her personal advisor and bodyguard. She began construction of the Weiyang Palace, which was destroyed by the Huns during their raid on Chang'an. More then one million people were working on it for ten years. It was and remains the largest palace ever built on Earth covering more then 4.8 sq km. The palace complex included the massive Shenglong Pagoda, which was more then 150 m high and a giant statue of the Maitreya Buddha modeled after Empress Wu herself, which was more then 80 m high.
During the beginning of her middle reign there were a number of small revolts that began to form a threat to the empress. The revolts eventually escalated in a large rebellion. The rebels took various cities and planned a coup against the Empress to overthrow her and re-establish the Tang Dynasty with a male emperor. They eventually marched to the capital and the Empress ordered to defend the capital while she called the army back for aid. The rebels eventually reached the palace and set it on fire. The leader of rebellion and his army entered the throne room and the palace court began to panic. Empress Wu killed the leader personally in a duel and the revolt was slayed. But the Maitreya Buddha collapsed and fell towards the throne room, destroying the main hall. After that she dealt with the revolt Empress Wu reconquered large parts of the empire that were lost during the reign of Emperor Gaozong. She also conquered much of Mongolia and Central Asia before she stopped at Nishapur and signed a peace treaty with the Persian Empire that recognized China as the dominant power in Asia. She changed the law so that women were from now on the equal of men and may now occupy high positions in the government. She installed Di Renjie as chancellor to help her with the administration. She built a lot of Buddhist pagodas and temples and made Buddhism the state religion. When Empress Khri ma lod attacked China, Empress Wu was strategic and smart and she destroyed the Tibetan army at Chengdu. She made peace with her in return for a large sum of tribute and she would hold North China.
During her late reign Empress Wu began to let her officials do most of the work and she enjoyed life much. The empire reached its zenith. The empire was the largest and richest empire on Earth. China traded with Europe and the Middle East. China would not reach such a golden age until the Ming Dynasty. In her last years Empress Wu was sad because most of her family and friends had passed away. She was too busy with her duties as empress to do something else or to remarry after Emperor Gaozong's death.
Empress Wu died from old age on 16 December 705 at the age of 81, beloved and venerated by her people. She was entombed in the Shenlong Mausoleum, one of the largest mausoleums in China.
The Empress was cruel, but she cared about her people and only wanted the best for her empire. She was the first woman in Chinese history to hold the title of "Emperor". She gave women the status of equal to men and her empire was one of the first to have equal rights for men and women. She reconquered parts of the empire, started large building projects and made her people happy and prosper and made a great empire. That's a record that any leader could be proud of. After her death the Chinese Empire never re-acquired lost territories and lost its dominant status over Asia. She was harshly criticized by the Ming and Qing Dynasties, but was later given the honor she really deserved. The current empress of China, Wu Zhou, was named after her and chose Shenglong as her temple name, reminiscent of Empress Wu.
In popular culture
The memory of Wu Zetian lives on through works of fiction, films, television shows and computer games.
- Empress Wu was a skilled swords woman and a skilled fighter.
- Empress Wu disliked cats and did not allow them in the palace.
- Wu Zetian is one of the few leaders in Chinese history that earned the title of "the Great". The others are Yu the Great and Shao the Great.
- Wu Zetian was one of the four only monogamous rulers of China (the others are Hongzhi, Shao Zhou and Wu Zhou Shenglong).
- Wu Zetian is a fine example of ancient feminism. She was a woman who had little and fought her way to power, becoming the most powerful person in the world and helping the women in her country.
|Empress consort of the Tang Dynasty|
None, dynasty abolished====
|Empress regnant of China|
None, dynasty founded
|Empress regnant of the Second Zhou Dynasty|