Sunday, July 07, 2013


The Empress Wu
Chief Advisor and Co-Ruler

Empress Wu Zetian

In a previous posting I discussed the ascension of the Empress Wu to supreme power in China.1 Here I will examine part of the process by which she made herself the only woman to rule China not just in fact but in her own name.


By 660 C.E., the Empress Wu had disposed of her rivals and had made her position has her husband Kao-tsung’s chief and most important advisor. She had secured her position by giving birth to 3 children of which two  were sons. And just has importantly she had secured into her hands much of the day to day administrative management of China. Her husband Kao-tsung would live another 23 years but his health remained precarious and day to day management of the empire remained in the Empresses hands.2

With her new power the Empress decided to invade Korea and incorporate it into the empire. It had been part of the Chinese empire of the Han dynasty but had not been part of China for over 500 years by the time of the Empress Wu. Previous Chinese rulers of the Tang dynasty, including the illustrious T’ai-tsung, main founder of the Tang dynasty, had failed despite considerable effort to conquer Korea.

The Empress Wu deliberately set out to conquer Korea both to cement her authority and to bring prestige to her husband’s reign. It was apparently her idea to invade Korea, not by land but by sea. At this time Korea was divided into three kingdoms and one of those kingdoms Silla was an ally of China and fought for China. The resulting campaign lasted 8 years but the strategy of fighting on two fronts worked and Korea was subjugated by 668 C.E.3

As mentioned in the previous posting it is likely that later Chinese writers exaggerated the extent to which the Empress Wu’s husband Emperor Kao-tsung was set aside by the Empress and the degree to which she controlled the government at this time was exaggerated. However it does appear to be the case that Kao-tsung was indeed an ill man and dependent on the advice and support of the Empress Wu. Who almost certainly did take up much of the day to day administration of the empire. However the stories of the Emperor being in terror of the Empress and being a totally weak willed puppet in her hands seem at the very least exaggerated. 

Finally all the stories of the Empress Wu controlling Emperor Kao-tsung by indulging in his alleged sexual perversions are probably just so much poppycock.

It is important to remember that in the conventional Confucian view of the “proper” way the world “should” operate was that women were not suited to govern; that was the sole prerogative of men. So a woman holding and using power was usually ascribed to her being in some sense unnatural, depraved etc. Powerful woman were conceived of as being oversexed, sadistically cruel and being unnatural.  Almost invariably such women were conceived of gaining power by sexual means. And of course they were as unnatural sexually as they were in so much else in this view. The result is that the later histories and other records of the Empress Wu and her reign are filled with Confucian clichés about, unnatural, immoral licentious women. As a quote sums up old attitudes about the Empress:

All the records of the period were composed and edited by men who were not only her political enemies but who regarded her entire career as a perversion of nature. Even modern historians, fully aware of the unreliability of the documentary record, still cannot escape this polemical web of enmity. The venerable Cambridge History of China, after pointing out the bias of the record, accepts unchallenged Wu’s supposed murder of her own child in a plot to supplant a rival, her mutilation of the people she supposedly executed (already a cliché about female rulers in her own day), her sexual liaisons with leading supporters (another hoary cliché), her superstitious nature and manipulation by necromantic frauds (a tendency conventionally attributed to all women), and many other such slanders.

While it cannot be demonstrated that some of these events did not happen (how could one prove a negative?), historians have no evidence that should lead them to trust any of these accounts in the slightest. Unfortunately, this means that six decades of events at the Tang court are virtually a blank slate.12 The one thing the records do demonstrate is the extraordinary level of animosity aimed at Empress Wu. That she held the reins of power as long as she did speaks highly of her intelligence and resolve, and suggests that whatever savage acts she may have committed were likely necessary to survive in a world of enemies who would stop at nothing.4

I would not go so far has accept the notion that we don’t know anything about court politics etc., during this time period. And frankly the struggle for power and over the succession at the Chinese court was often bloody and ruthless. So I suspect that the main outlines of the story of the rise of the Empress Wu are in fact reliable. I do however suspect that touches and calumnies were added to the Empress Wu’s story to make her into the typical caricature of the licentious, power hungry and unnatural female power holder. The statement historians “have no evidence” is mere hyperbole, not to be taken seriously in the slightest.

So if you read about the Empress Wu being a licentious old women. You can perhaps dismiss the story as a pornographic fantasy. There is to give one example the story that she installed mirrors in her husband Emperor Kao-tsung’s bed room so he could watch and have sex at the same time with her.5

To get back to our story. Has mentioned in the other posting. The Empress Wu owed her rise to power largely to her own abilities and skill at intrigue and frankly to her quite genuine abilities in administration and policy, not to her family. In fact her family was of little importance among the aristocracy of the empire. So that unlike most Empresses who attained positions of power in China, the Empress Wu did not owe it to her family but to herself. Not being beholden to her family did not mean that she was uninterested in advancing her family in the imperial hierarchy or any less anxious to help them; it did mean that she was responsible for their rise not they for her rise.

The years in which after the last threat to her was dealt with are in terms of intrigue fairly uneventful. In terms of administration and policy the empire appears to have been well governed and Empress Wu was publicly associated with her husband. In effect it was recognized that the empire was being co-ruled. This was probably done in order to formalize the Empresses position. Although the idea that the Empress Wu had complete control over the state and her husband a complete weakling is somewhat undermined by the fact that the suggestion by Emperor Kao-Tsung that the Empress Wu be made official regent, during one of Emperor Kao-tsung’s bouts of illness was opposed by the Emperor’s advisers. The suggestion was withdrawn apparently with little rancor by the Emperor and Empress.

A sign of the growing power of the Empress Wu and an indication of her importance was the Feng-Shan ceremony of 665-666 C.E. This was a rite designed to commemorate the establishment of peace in the Empire and it involved a pilgrimage to the holy mountain of T’ai-Shan. During this rite assorted Foreign dignitaries from as far away as Japan and Persia were present. This was also the first time a woman had taken part in the ceremony. If anyone objected to the Empress Wu’s presence they kept their tongues still. Of course another sign of the power of Empress was the fact that the Capital was moved for a time to Lo-yang which the Empress preferred.6

After the Empress Wu’s death a sage would, (safely), say that a sacrilege had been committed in allowing the Empress to participate.7

The dynastic chronicles lay on a story of violence and court intrigues, accusing Wu of poisoning her rivals at banquets etc.8 Such salacious stories while no doubt entertaining to read about cannot be taken seriously. However later Chinese historians at a loss to explain the hold of Wu over Kao-tsung fell back on the Confucian cliché’s of the unnatural, sexually perverted power hungry woman. Frankly it would appear that the source of the Wu’s power was her role as Empress, her children and last but not least her virtually indispensable role as Kao-tsung’s chief advisor.

The rather tedious story of excess and corruption and intrigue will not be repeated here. Suffice to say the stories would appear to indicate that the Empress Wu was perfectly willing to punish members of her own family who behaved badly or were viewed as undermining her position.9

If the intrigues are basically just amusing stories, what is far more germane is that the Empress Wu cultivated and became the patron of scholars and officials creating within the Imperial bureaucracy a faction that supported her and her position.10 The Empress also went on an anti-corruption campaign against high officials and further was generous with the peasantry and the middle and working classes in the cities. Thus in the year 674 she issued the following degree:

(1) To encourage agriculture and sericulture and reduce taxes and labour services.

(2) To grant remission of taxes to the metropolitan districts.

(3) To cease military operations, and to transform the empire by the virtue of the Way.

(4) The departments of public works (Chung-shang) in charge of palace buildings were forbidden to indulge in extravagantly fine workmanship.

(5) To reduce wasteful employment of corvee labour.

(6) To increase the opportunities for the expression of opinions to the throne.

(7) To suppress slander.

(8) To ensure that everyone from the princes and dukes down were to study the Tao-te ching.

(9) To ensure that even when the father was still alive, mourning was to be observed for the full three-year period in respect of the mother

(10) All honorific officials who had received their documents of appointment before 674 were not to have their cases re-examined (and could thus retain their titles, however earned).

(11) The salaries of all metropolitan officials of the eighth rank and above were to be increased.

(12) All long-serving officials whose talent was greater than their rank were to be promoted.11

The above was quite obviously a bid for public acclaim and support and it was made very clear that the above was the doing of not just the Emperor Kao-tsung but also of the Empress Wu. The Empress was very conscious of her public position and aware of how publicity gained and cemented support.

It is noted that despite Wu’s fervid Buddhist beliefs she was perfectly willing to limit expenditure on Buddhist buildings. It is to be noted that the Empress Wu quite openly gave support of the Buddhist faithful and actively cultivated their support.

In the year 675 the Empresses Wu’s son the Crown Prince Li-Hung, then 25 years old, supposedly had a falling out with her and he died after visiting his mother. Supposedly the Empress Wu had him poisoned. This is unlikely but fits the caricature created by later Confucian scholars and historians about the unnatural etc., woman that Wu supposedly was.12

There can be little doubt that if Li-Hung had lived the Empress Wu would not have even thought about making herself “Emperor”, and as such Li-Hung’s death was of great importance.

However other children of Kao-tsung by other members of his harem were not safe from the Empress Wu’s ambition and it is perfectly believable that she had them exiled for various trumped up reasons. It is also perfectly conceivable that after the death of her eldest son she decided that her surviving eldest son Li Che was now married to an unsuitable woman, who being a niece of the Emperor and not a relative to Wu was deemed a threat so she was exiled and died in exile. Kao-tsung’s sister and family was exiled soon after.13

The new Crown Prince Li-Hsien, 21 years old, was apparently a son of the Empress Wu’s sister. The Empress supervised his education and seemed to accept that he would probably become Emperor when Kao-tsung died. Certainly when in 679 Kao-tsung became ill the Crown prince stepped in and carried many of his father’s duties no serious disputes seem to have arisen. This also indicates that the Empress Wu didn’t completely dominate the government and probably that she felt no animosity towards the Crown Prince.

The Empress Wu had four other children, Li Che, mentioned above, another son Li Tan and two daughters Yi Feng and Tai-ping.

It is of interest that the Empress Wu cultivated, despite her Buddhist beliefs, Taoism and this could be related to the fact that in Taoist cosmology there were great ruling female deities, including but not limited to Hai-wang Mu, the Great Mother of the West. No doubt this sort of thing was used by the Empress Wu has a way of justifying by religious propaganda her great political power and influence.14.

Crown Prince Li-Hsien was accused of plotting a coup against the Emperor and exiled and a few years later forced to commit suicide. The later historians accuse Wu of concocting the whole thing to get rid of him. However it appears from the fact that it was found that he had stockpiled arms in various places and was likely involved in the murder of one of the Empress Wu’s religious advisers, that the charge was not baseless.15

Then in 680 C.E. Li Che became Crown Prince. And shortly thereafter the Emperor Kao-tsung was subject to recurring bouts of illness. He died on December 27th 683 C.E.

Supposedly the Emperor Kao-tsung declared that the new Emperor should decide everything except:

…when matters of defence and administration cannot be decided, the course of action recommended by the Celestial Empress shall be adopted.16

Despite the statements of some modern historians the above was not a hope that the Empress Wu would retire from politics but an active statement that she should continue to be involved. And it is abundantly clear that the Empress expected to be involved.

The new Emperor Li Che, who called himself as Emperor Chung-tsung, proved to be a tool in the hands of his wife the new Empress Wei. He proceeded to cavalierly raise up his favorites to positions of authority and to promote members of his wife’s family in a capricious fashion. In this way he alienated many including many of his own supporters. Li Che stated on one occasion to the First Minister P’ei Yen:

What is to stop Us handing the whole of the Empire to him?’ ( Li Che is referring to a relative of the Empress Wei.)

So why should I not make him President of the chancellery? Of what concern to Us is your opinion?17

The Empress Wu promptly disposed of her son and sent him and his family into exile where they survived. Chung-tsung, ne Li Che, proved when he ruled again to be as singularly incompetent has he did the first time he ruled. He had only reigned slightly more than 2 months when he was deposed. (February 26th 684 C.E.)

That several of Li-Che own advisors and supporters supported the Empress Wu indicates that more was going on than just the Empresses intrigues. Also supporting the Empress were her patronized collection of scholars and the Imperial guard.18

The Empress Wu then made her other surviving son Li Tan Emperor, with the name Jui-Tsung. But no one was fooled; the Empress Wu made sure that authority remained in her hands and that her son was only a figure head, For has one writer said:

Political affairs were decided by the Dowager Empress. She had Jui-tsung installed in a detached palace and he had no chance to participate.19

The Empress Wu started wearing full imperial regalia and further no longer hid behind curtains in the audience chamber has in her husband’s reign. In fact the Empress Wu officiated at all sorts of Imperial events and rituals and her son Jui-tsung remained in his palace kept firmly away from the levers of power.

The Empress Wu was now at the height of power ruling China fully and no longer dependent on anyone but herself. At this moment she was 58 years old and it is probably true that she had at the time no plans to became an official Emperor. The reality of power, rather than the surface features of such power satisfied her. It is probable that she intended to reign in fact until she died, but the idea of becoming Emperor was not there yet.

Certainly she had used the various tools of propaganda, publicity and the creation of her own party to further her ambitions and destroy those opposed to her. Wu had carefully used propaganda involving Taoism and Buddhism to justify female political authority and power, as against the Confucian near total disapproval of it. She had used her administrative and policy creation skills to both create her own party and has propaganda for her continued influence and direction of the state. In the future she would use such propaganda to justify the unprecedented accession of a woman to the status of Emperor. But it is simply not likely that she had any ambitions at this time to replace her younger son has Emperor.

How and why the Empress Wu became Emperor will be the subject of a future posting.

Tang Dynasty China

1. Here.

2. Fitzgerald, C. P., The Empress Wu, Second Edition, Cresset Press, London, 1968, Cawthorne, Nigel, Daughter of Heaven, One World Pub., Oxford, 2007, pp. 90-92, Dawson, Imperial China, Penguin Books, London, 1972, pp. 81-88,  Twitchett, Denis, & Weschsler, Howard J., Kao-tsung (reign 649-83) and the Empress Wu, in Twitchett, Denis, The Cambridge History of China, v. 3, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1979, pp. 242- 289, at pp. 252-279, Woo, X. L., Empress Wu the Great, Algora Publishing, New York, 2008, pp. 68-99.

3. IBID, Cawthorne, 92-95, Fitzgerald, Twitchett

4. Lewis, Mark Edward, China’s Cosmopolitan Empire, Harvard University Press London, 2009, p. 36.

5. Cawthorne, p. 99.

6. IBID, pp. 96-97, Twitchett, pp. 252-260, Lewis, pp. 36-38, Dawson, pp. 81-88, Woo, pp. 68-98.

7. Cawthorne, pp. 96-97.

8. IBID, pp. 99, and Fitzgerald.

9. Twitchett, pp. 252-279, Cawthorne, pp. 99-101, Fitzgerald, Dawson, pp. 81-88, Woo, pp. 68-98.

10. Lewis, p. 36, Fitzgerald, Cawthorne, pp. 103-104, Twitchett, pp. 252-260,  Woo, pp. 68-98.

11. Twitchett, pp. 268.

12. Cawthorne, p. 106. Fitzgerald, Twitchett, pp. 260-270, Dawson, pp. 81-88, Woo, pp. 68-98.

13. Fitzgerald, Twitchett, pp. 260-270, Cawthorne, 106-110.

14.  Cawthorne, p. 108, Dawson, pp. 80-88. See also, Marlowe, Britt, Empress Wu Zhao, Son of Heaven: Uses of Religious Patronage and Propaganda to Secure Support and Quell Dissension During the Tang Dynasty, MA Thesis, University of North Carolina, 2008. I will send a copy to anyone who requests it.

15, Fitzgerald, Cawthorne, pp. 108-109.

16. Cawthorne, p. 112, quoting the document. Also in Fitzgerald.

17. Cawthorne, pp. 114. Also in Fitzgerald.

18.  Twitchett, pp. 270-279, Cawthorne, pp. 114-115, Fitzgerald, Dawson, pp. 81-88, Woo, pp. 68-98.

19. Cawthorne, p. 115.

Pierre Cloutier

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