The Rise of the Empress Wu
The history of China is fascinating one and full of strange and wonderful events. One of the strangest and most extraordinary is the story of the Empress Wu Zetian.
This story is not well known to the non-Chinese but it does have massive doses of sex and violence to say nothing of carpet chewing over the top plot and intrigue.
This story is about how not only did the Empress Wu Zetian became the de-facto ruler of China but decided to go for it all and make herself Emperor. To became the only women in Chinese history to make herself not just ruler of China but the official ruler of China.1
The Empress Wu Zetian or to give her name Wu Chao, had started out as a concubine in the harem of the second Tang Emperor and had gone on from that to make herself all powerful during the reign of the third Tang Emperor.
To give some background. In the late 6th century C.E., the Sui dynasty had reunified China after almost 400 years of division, civil war and chaos since the fall of the Han dynasty, (c. 220 C.E.)2
The second Sui Emperor, Yang Ti, had dissipated the good will created by his father Wen Ti with a series of brutal policies and wasteful extravagance.3 The result was widespread revolt. Eventually Yang Ti was overthrown by a coup and strangled.4
During this chaos Gaozu took the Chinese capital of Chang-an and established the Tang dynasty by proclaiming himself Emperor in 618 C.E. During all of this he was aided and apparently heavily prodded by his able and ruthless son Taizong. By 626 C.E. China was reunified.5
Taizong in a series of rather ruthless intrigues eliminated his two older brothers and then compelled his father Gaozu to abdicate in 626 C.E. Gaozu lived until 635 C.E. in retirement.
Taizong is considered to be one of the greatest if not the greatest of Chinese Emperors and his reign became a model for how a Chinese Emperor should rule.6
However despite the glory of his reign it was marred by the continual violent intrigues within the court including the usual interminable struggle of the succession.
During all of this Wu Chao entered the Imperial court as a concubine.
Wu Chao was born in the year 625 C.E., and we have the usual stories that were popular among Chinese writers and historians concerning alleged portents that indicated that she would rule. It is rather annoying that historians who should know better take these rather amusing stories concocted after the fact with any sort of seriousness. They are simply not to be taken as anything other than post-hoc concoctions.7
One story has it that a Chinese “face” reader, after examining her face and the way she walked when he examined her at the age of c. 3 years concluded that if she was a girl she would become Emperor of China. Given Chinese and official Confucian attitudes towards women this story can be dismissed as a post-hoc fantasy.8
Other stories like the alleged fact that she liked to wear boy’s clothes as a child and like to explore and go about un-supervised unlike the typical lives of aristocratic girls of the time are more substantial than fantasies concerning alleged prognostications of her future power. This is so because such reports make sense given the very forceful and independent personality Wu Chao would show as Empress. So it would not be a surprise if she exhibited such characteristics as a child.9
Wu Chao’s family, the Wu, although of impeccable aristocratic background and supporters of the Tang dynasty was not a particularity important family and they were to be of little importance or use to Wu Chao in her rise to power. In fact unlike virtually every other Empress who rose to power in Chinese history it was not Wu Chao’s family that was responsible for her rise to power but Wu Chao who was responsible for her families rise to power.10
At the age of 13 in 638 C. E., Wu Chao was selected to be a concubine for the harem of Taizong. She was selected mainly because of her beauty.
We have little idea of what the next decade was like for Wu Chao. It appears that she stayed a minor concubine and further she had no children which severely limited any chance that she could rise in the palace hierarchy. Again several stories are told about Wu Zetain during this time period but they are not really all that plausible but they do give a good idea of what people thought were her chief character traits. Included in these stories is the following which the Empress Wu Zetian allegedly told in later life.
Emperor Taizong had a horse with the name "Lion Stallion," and it was so large and strong that no one could get on its back. I was a lady in waiting attending Emperor Taizong, and I suggested to him, "I only need three things to subordinate it: an iron whip, an iron hammer, and a sharp dagger. I will whip it with the iron whip. If it does not submit, I will hammer its head with the iron hammer. If it still does not submit, I will cut its throat with the dagger." Emperor Taizong praised my bravery. Do you really believe that you are qualified to dirty my dagger.11Apparently the Emperor Taizong was a little taken aback by Wu Chao’s rather formidable nature and did not advance her in the palace hierarchy.
In the year 649 C.E., the Emperor Taizong died to be succeeded by his son Emperor Gaozong; considered a weak and rather spineless figure, who reigned until 683 C.E.
Now at the time the custom of the court was that the concubines of the old Emperor upon the Emperor’s death, who had not had children, would retire to live in Buddhist Nunneries.
Thus it appears that at the age of 24 the Wu Chao would live the rest of her life as a Buddhist Nun. That did not happen for the following reasons.12
It appears that Wu Chao had made the acquaintance of Gaozong before Taizong’s death. The story was that Wu Chao seduced him before his father’s death. Since sleeping with the Emperor’s wives and concubines was considered treason and could even get a Emperor’s son killed or disinherited this idea is at least doubtful. Further it fits the rather dull stereotype of the sexually insatiable strong women who gets ahead using sex, that is a common cliché in Chinese historical writing.13
It does appear to be the case though that Wu Chao and Gaozong knew each other and that Gaozong had a certain fondness for her even before his father’s death.
According to the writers what happened was that Gaozong’s Empress named Wang and the Emperor’s favourite concubine Hsiao were engaged in a serious power struggle and the Empress, who was childless, endeavoured to bring Wu Chao back as a rival to keep Hsiao at bay in the interminable game of palace politics.
However what seems to have actually happened is that Wu Chao kept in touch with both Emperor Gaozong and Empress Wang in an effort to cut short her retirement. Wu Chao apparently promised undying gratitude and loyalty to the Empress Wang if she arranged for her to be brought back or at least did not oppose it.
During her exile Wu Chao composed the following poem addressed to Gaozong:
Watching red turn to green, my thoughts are tangled and scattered,Whatever the actual details of the matter in the year 650 Emperor Gaozong visited the Convent Wu Chao was living at and brought her back to court as one of his concubines. An act which was considered incredibly scandalous, especially since sleeping with your father’s concubines was considered a form of incest.15
I am dishevelled and torn from my longing for you, my lord.
If you fail to believe that lately I have shed tears constantly,
Open my chest and look for the skirt of pomegranate-red.14
Now of course Chinese historians attribute boundless ambition to Wu Chao from the beginning. I rather suspect that what actually was going on was the simple desire of a young women to escape confinement and return to the excitement of court.
What happened next is probably what was decisive. Wu Chao found out that both the Empress Wang and Hsiao, Emperor Gaozong’s favourite concubine were very unpopular at court, further she found out that Gaozong needed help in actually running the Empire. Both those discoveries were decisive in the Empress Wu’s ascent to power.16
Gaozong has had, to put it mildly, an enormous amount of bad press for allegedly being a weakling, a sexual pervert, a stupid man and a complete tool in the hands of Wu Chao. There is room to question that verdict. It appears likely that he was actually fairly intelligent and further that he never became a complete tool in hands of Wu Chao. However it does appear that he was physically a very sickly man subject to blinding headaches and general serious physical weakness, and has he got older he got weaker. It also appears that unlike a lot of weak people he had enough sense to realize that he needed help. In other words Gaozong was simply not up to the demands of running the Empire. It appears that his wife Wang and his other concubines were of absolutely no help to him in terms of helping him rule. They seemed to be more interested in getting riches and favours for themselves and their families than helping him. Wu Chao almost from the moment she was released from confinement was involved in helping him administer and acting to as an advisor to him; that rather than her alleged submission to Gaozong’s supposed sexual perversions was the likely source of her rise to power. Also despite what the historians said later it should be considered at least plausible that Wu Chao, although ruthlessly ambitious genuinely loved her husband.
Wu Chao also shortly began to have children which made the position of the Empress Wang more precarious.
Within a few years Wu Chao began to intrigue against the Empress Wang and the concubine Hsiao. It was no contest. Not only were they both unpopular, they simply were not as bright or good at the game of court politics. Unlike Empress Wang and Hsiao, who dissipated it, Wu Chao used the favours and wealth she received to set up a network of spies in the palace along with a network of people who were loyal to her. The fact that, at least, face to face she exercised tact and modesty also helped. Further Wu Chao deliberately sought out and helped those that the Empress Wang and her family had offended. A high degree of ruthlessness also helped.
In one particularity grotesque incident after Wu Chao gave birth to a daughter. The Empress Wang visited the child. Shortly afterwards the child died. Wu Chao blamed the Empress. Some later Chinese Historians claimed that Wu Chao strangled the child in order to blame the Empress Wang for the death. Aside from indicating the degree of animosity against the Wu Chao by later historians the charge can be dismissed, given that it was a age of very high infant mortality. Although Wu Chao’s willingness to so accuse Empress Wang is a rather telling indication of ruthlessness.17
Wu Chao then introduced Gaozong to her sister, Ho-Lan further cementing her hold over him; given that Gaozong and Ho-Lan soon became lovers.
Wu Chao then began a series of rather complicated intrigues aimed at replacing Empress Wang with herself as Empress. As part of the game of court politics Empress Wang’s mother was banned from court for allegedly practicing sorcery against Wu Chao. Many of Gaozong’s advisors were adamantly opposed to making Wu Chao Empress and opposed the move. Wu Chao was livid, for by this time she had taken to listening to the Emperor’s advisers advising the Emperor from behind a screen. Given that this was very unusual this indicates the role that Wu Chao had already taken as an advisor to the Emperor.
It took a while but gradually Wu Chao got rid of the advisers who opposed her elevation to becoming Empress, by championing a court faction that supported her as a way of getting rid of the old guard and coming to power.
Eventually Empress Wang and Hsiao were accused of plotting to poison the Emperor and disposed and replaced by Wu Chao in 655 C.E. Not long after they were killed by having their hands and feet cut off and being left to bleed to death. The new Empress Wu Zetian punished those who had opposed her elevation to power and rewarded her allies. Her son Li Hung was made crown prince replacing Li Chung the Empress Wang’s adopted son who was not long for this world.18
The Empress Wang took her fall and death rather stoically. The concubine Hsiao was a lot less resigned. Hsiao allegedly said:
‘Wu is a deceitful fox, who had sealed my fate,’ she said. ‘I pray that in all my future lives I will come back as a cat, and she is a mouse. Then in each life I will tear her throat out’19The Empress Wu is said to have removed all the cats from the various Imperial palaces in response.
The next few years were an interminable wrangle of petty palace intrigues and vendettas as the Empress Wu Zetian consolidated her position with considerable bloodshed and ruthlessness, but on a more constructive note showed a extraordinary talent for selecting able men to help rule the empire. Among those eliminated were certain relatives of the Empress Wang who had blocked Wu Zetain’s ascent and who she considered threats to her position.
Two things marked the great turning point by which Wu Zetian became if the not the sole ruler of the Empire the main ruler with her husband Gaozong giving up most authority to her although he did not make her regent. In late 660 C.E. Gaozong got very seriously ill and the Empress Wu Zetian took over the day to day administration of the Empire. She very quickly proved to be remarkably able and had the stamina for the tedious time consuming work of day to day administration. Although the Emperor eventually recovered Wu Zetain remained active in the day to day administration of the empire from then on. It appears that from then on even when the Emperor was in good health most of the day to day administrative work remained in the hands of the Empress Wu Zetain.
A few years after this, in 663 C.E., a final attempt was made to dispose Wu Zetain. It appears that Wu Zetain had employed a certain Taoist priest who was alleged to have engaged in sorcery. Certain of the Emperor Gaozong’s advisors used this to get from him a degree ousting Wu Zetain as Empress. The fact that Wu Zetain had also been acting arrogantly had also enraged the Emperor. Unfortunately for the plotters the Empress had spies all over the palace who reported this too her. Wu Zetain rather than hide or beg went and confronted her husband Gaozong. The historians claim that Gaozong just gave in fearing her anger. Rather doubtful. It appears that Wu Zetain got rid of the Taoist priest and started acting more modestly and less arrogantly. No doubt she reminded her husband of her considerable political and administrative skills and her basic loyalty to him. The advisors and officials who advised Gaozong on this course of action were arrested and imprisoned. Wu Zetain was now securely position as if not ruler of China as at least co-ruler of China.20
The dynastic history records as follows concerning the aftermath of this final attempt to oust Wu Zetain:
From this event, whenever the Emperor attended to business, the Empress hung a curtain and listened from behind it. There was no matter of government, great or small, she did not hear. The whole sovereign power of the Empire passed into her hands. Life and death, reward or punishment were hers to decide. The Son of Heaven sat on the throne and folded his hands, that is all. In court and in the country, they were called the Two Sages.21At another time I will look at the process by which Wu Zetain made herself official ruler of China.
1. Dawson, Raymond, Imperial China, Penguin Books, London, 1972, pp. 88-89, Benn, Charles, China’s Golden Age, Oxford University Press, 2002, pp. 4-5.
2. IBID, pp. 52-65.
3. IBID, Benn, p. 1, Wen Ti reigned 581-604 C.E. Yang Ti 604-618 C.E. Executions, the brutal building of the Grand canal and incredible extravagance in the midst of famine and natural disaster were the back ground to revolt along with disastrous invasions of Korea.
4. Dawson, p. 64.
5. Yes that is where the orange drink got its name.
6. See Dawson, pp. 69-81, Fitzgerald, C. P., Son of Heaven, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1933, for a biography of this extraordinary man. Benn gives an excellent overview of what life was like during the Tang dynasty.
7. Both Fitzgerald, C. P., The Empress Wu, Second Edition, Cresset Press, London, 1968, and Cawthorne, Nigel, Daughter of Heaven, One World Pub., Oxford, 2007, take these stories too seriously.
8. See Cawthorne, pp. 18-19, Fitzgerald, 1968, repeats the story in his prologue.
9. IBID, pp. 16-18. See also Fitzgerald, 1968, pp. 1-15.
10. Both Cawthorne and Fitzgerald both make this quite clear. See also Dawson pp. 81-85.
11. Wikipedia, Wu Zetian Here. Quoting a Chinese Historian.
12. Cawthorne, pp. 66-71, Dawson, pp. 81-82.
13. IBID, pp. 44-61, 66-67, 70-73. See also Fitzgerald 1968.
14. Cawthrone p. 69.
15. IBID, 70-71, See also Fitzgerald, 1968.
16. IBID, p. 73. See also Dawson, pp. 81-83.
17. IBID, p. 74, Dawson, p. 82, Fitzgerald , 1968 is especially emphatic that it is unlikely that the Empress Wu murdered the child.
18. IBID, pp 76-78, 83-84, Dawson, pp. 81-83. See also Fitzgerald 1968.
19. IBID, p. 83. Quoting a Chinese Historian.
20. IBID, pp. 91-92, 94-95. See also Fitzgerald, 1968.
21. Cawthrone, p. 96. Quoting the Dynastic History. Part of quote also appears in Dawson, p. 82 and Fitzgerald, 1968.