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Wu Zetian's Stele

Wu Zetian's Stele


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Wu Zetian: The Untold mystery of stele, the crack was not!

The new spring guide: Wu Zetian, "the only history China casts a thousand beams. Queen" in the title, can not be avoided. Has always been the emperor tree monument Li said that the merits and demerits of his comments, and the tomb of Wu Zetian's Monument chose the word no, and a a "first", thousands of years under different opinions. The new age for you to reveal the ultimate answer -

(no monument with a whole piece of stone carving and is the monument of China's ancient groups bankrolled, 753 meters high, 2.1 meters wide, 1.49 meters thick, weight up to 98.9 tons)

Qianling is the burial tomb of Tang Emperor Li Zhi and Empress Wu Zetian, is the ancient Chinese emperors' mausoleums of the only couple emperor he Zangmu, Tomb of two high monument, and to the west is the holy monuments, of articles by Empress Wu, Tang Zhongzong writing. The east Wu Zetian "monument with the words", monument by a huge whole stone into, it did not question the Beiming, only monument first carved eight Chi dragon, cleverly wrapped around together. The monument on both sides of a flying dragon. Beizuo adret lines are carved lion horses, horse hoof bent bow, lion head is angry. There are many flowers and plants on the monument, fine lines and smooth lines.

"Monument with the words" and "the holy monument" in Emperor Gaozong died by Empress Wu Zetian of, "monument with the words" in fact is Wu Zetian in advance to prepare for their "merit monument. But surprisingly, this is so tall stone was not a word, become the eternal mystery.

As for the "monument with the words" why wordless, thousands of years to all can be roughly summed up in two: knowing sinful inconvenience to say, can not say, so don't say that the second is originally the monument on the word, Zhongzong Lee significantly succeeded to the throne after the shovel. Xiao Bian believes that these two arguments are the descendants of the ancients on false assumptions. The little girl years of research that the monument would have no word, not later to shovel, and wordless is Wu Zetian deliberately, the reason is her highly confident, is born of woman's identity to the silent declaration of the patriarchal society.

One, Wu Zetian old age, and even after the death of a great control, and later to say not to be established.

16 years of the reign of Empress Wu, from Xian Qing five years (660 years) began to take part in politics, to Shenlong year (705 years) the first month was forced to abdicate, practical grasp at the helm of the world for 45 years, is dominated, hero. Even in his old age, still have absolute control of the political situation. Many people take the Tang room restoration of the thing, Wu Zetian is forced to think. In fact, this is not completely understand the history of the people give full play to imagination. Di Renjie is convinced Wu Zetian Li Xian, rather than simply do not have the ability to "Wu Sansi, force". Don't believe it:

"Gu Zhi and mother and child, or pro? Your majesty Li Luling king temple, often enjoy the long years think twice, not Fuji Gu temple." After feeling, now send Xu Yanbo Ying Lu Ling Wang in real state. To the king, the king after the anonymous account, called Lu Ling Renjie language. Please cut to apply Renjie, tears can not stop. Then the king went out and said, "you are still the prince!" - Zizhitongjian "

Wu Zetian agreed with Li Xian to the throne though unwilling, but most is to accept the recommendations of others, rather than passive acceptance. This is a political deal, 'I agree you reset, on condition that you must admit I place in history, but also to maintain the family Wushi security and status. Li Xian succeeded and Wushi forces continue to maintain Wu Sansi clan, about politics, is the most powerful verification. Lee although of Wu Zetian disgruntled, but dare not, not later will not, because from the blood, Wu Zetian is, after all, their grandmother. Li Tang Wu Zetian has expressed dissatisfaction with the public after the year of Kaiyuan Xuanzong Li Longji came to power things. Lilongji did indeed ordering the destruction of Wu Zetian built "Tianshu", that is because it at the deputy of Luoyang, in the palace will be able to see, too "eyesore". Shovel word so much trouble, if it is deliberately destroyed as revenge, "Tianshu" as a direct hit is not easy? Chinese history, smashing the monument, the tomb of the thing is not uncommon, but the shovel word has never.

Wu Zetian is the two exploits illustrious, extremely confident, not guilty, but not to blame.

Wu Zetian always crave for greatness and success, came to power, to repair the palace, temple built, nothing, until 70 years old still in Luoyang cost tens of billions of singing the praises of the construction of the "Tianshu": "Tianshu, high 150 feet, diameter of twelve feet, eight, the size of five feet. Tieshan, a hundred and seventy feet, copper pan Kirin around for Tengyun bearing dew dish, three feet in diameter, the four dragons stand holding fire beads, Joe. " It's Title: "big week million Guoshu de tianshu." ("mirror") and, with their appearance on a sculpture of Buddha, which is how much confidence? She would feel bad evaluation? This is completely ignorant of the descendants of the villain of the heart, the hero of the belly, I do not know the emperor of the mind. Moreover, from 683 emperor died.both to 705 years Wu Zetian died, Qianling in Wu Zetian personally planning and command built, consuming up to 22 years, she has enough time to do this thing.

Wu Zetian ruling during wenzhiwugong, the moment unparalleled. Don't let Li Shimin Zhenguan rule, after Kai Li Longji the Kaiyuan flourishing, economy, military affairs, diplomacy in China history not inferior to any spirit king. In the processing of complex situation before and after the death of Emperor Gaozong, she showed extraordinary talent "remonstrance" and "these two points, even with the orthodox feudal ideas to Litang people gasp in admiration. In the face of "Wan Yi to the" spirit of the power, if the evaluation of their own struggle for more than and 20 years, this is Wu Zetian? She would think that he and Tang Jian Zhou is treason and heresy? She even killed his own son, daughter's eyes are blinking she married Lao Tzu married son, she publicly to mianshou (Zhang Yizhi, pregnant with meaning monk) kept in the harem, vertical moving in the hall, she will not confident? Internal disease? "The sin is great. consciously"? What a joke, if so she can be a queen?

Third, the ultimate answer Wu beat all opponents, except to change a woman's identity, so the eternal merits to leave to posterity comment.

Wu Zetian, since the Three Sovereigns and five emperors, she was the first empress, life dominated, the twilight years of government in the son, to Dili, Emperor queen fame. This is like a victorious swordsman, sword in hand, defeated the best the world hero, Dugu, want to find opponents are rare. Twilight years back, only makes her solution is the identity of a woman, child, female, pass the nephew of the problem when it comes to home or because she is a woman without someone let her unable to overcome. If she makes a decision, whether to choose a son, a daughter or a nephew, she has three inches of gas in, no one can shake. However, she can make it live, can not make its dead. It is also difficult to change the historical fate of all historical figures, the number of heroes in old age to make the choice of ordinary people difficult to understand, the reason is that this. So she chose to compromise.

The Chiang Ching Kuo in his later years the selection problem is the same, as a "foreign power", if you choose to continue, "martial law", are not allowed free group party, regression police society, as long as he ordered to open grab arrests, he was able to do, but also in his lifetime is to maintain the stability of no problem. But after death? So there is no eternal ruling party to become his choice. Wu Zetian is the same, big young people kill cutting by heart, very decisively, but the party will thought their historical position, behind the national and historical thought, she can regardless of any person, but not for the national history and do a proper explanation. History proves that her choice is right.

History is the most ambitious and not a trace of the carpenter, the gander. After the Tang Dynasties to visitors towards the hills, facing the stele, heart feeling, there are many inscriptions are. Disseminated in the years to come, "monument with the words" turned out to be the monument there, censured and praise, as in today's era of freedom, the public that the public rational, the woman said rational po, contend, a matter of opinion. Towering wordless tablet, after the song, Jin, yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties, adds a lot of text, through the numerous pay homage, unexpectedly naturally formed on the evaluation of Wu Zetian and handwriting really, grass, scribe, seal characters, the eight available, are not available in the inscriptions of the emperors. Somewhere, perhaps this is Wu Zetian want results.

(more exciting, please pay attention to the public number of the same name WeChat: new age)

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Wu Zetian (Chinese History Documentary) | Timeline

She’s probably the most controversial woman in Chinese history - Wu Zetian, who rose from lowly concubine to become the only woman in all Chinese history to dare to take the title "Emperor"

As archaeologists investigate hidden tombs, spectacular pagodas, gigantic palaces and priceless treasures from her time, they are uncovering a very different story of China’s female Emperor, her skills and her empire. Wu Zetian’s China was a military, economic and cultural superpower, whose influence stretched from the edge of the Mediterranean to Japan and India. Recent discoveries reveal the wealth and stability of her reign de ella, and point to her skills de ella as a politician and a leader. But they also provide tantalizing new evidence of the cruelty and violence at her heart of her regime.


Tang dynasty's Wu Zetian: Was she a wise emperor or did she ruin the country?

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Heng Kim Song has been the freelance editorial cartoonist for Lianhe Zaobao since 1984. His cartoons are also featured in many major international publications including The New York Times, Asahi Shimbun, JoongAng Ilbo, South China Morning Post and Yazhou Zhoukan. His many awards include the Top Award in United Nations ESCAP's Cartoon Competition and the Grafica Internazionale Award presented by Italian Museum of Political Satire and Caricature.

Recently, a hit television series The Empress of China (《武则天》) was the subject of great interest among my friends and relatives. They started discussing Wu Zetian and the social ethos of the Tang dynasty, offering quite a few reflections and thought-provoking comments.

A lady said that Wu Zetian played by Fan Bingbing was really beautiful and that her heart fluttered whenever she saw her on-screen it was no wonder Emperor Taizong of Tang and his son were infatuated with her. Inevitably, the period went down in history as one ridden by scandalous courts and upheaval. The other actresses who played other members of the emperor’s harem were as pretty as peonies blooming at the end of spring, as passionate as pomegranate flowers in the early summer, as fragrant as peaches, and as sweet as the lo mai chi lychees of Lingnan.

Fan Bingbing as Wu Zetian in the drama, The Empress of China. (Internet)

Just to film a palace drama, so many beauties can already be rounded up. Imagine in ancient times when emperors chose their concubines from the general public to make up the emperor’s harem — the sheer selection of beauties available must have been enormous. In such a situation, can an emperor still remain upright and decent? Just think about it yourself: if you were the emperor and had so many goddesses around you all the time, would you still have the mood to govern the country? Would you be able to resist the temptation of beauties around you and not be bewitched by their sweet talk? Would you still look for truth and wisdom, remain righteous, guide and lead the nation to ensure stability and prosperity throughout the land? Strangely though, at the end of the day, why was Wu Zetian the only female emperor?

Someone asked: “What’s Wu Zetian’s real title?” Is it Empress Zetian, Emperor Zetian, or Empress Consort Zetian? Actually, this question has always troubled historians as it involves the code of ethics and the position of the Son of Heaven (a sacred imperial title of the Chinese emperor). Can names such as “emperor” or “son of heaven” be used so casually? The Bai Hu Tong (《白虎通》, a book compiled by court order during Eastern Han to explicate the meanings of the classics) gives a clear explanation: “Why is an emperor sometimes called the son of heaven and other times an emperor? When addressing the heavens, the emperor refers to himself as the son of heaven to demonstrate that he is serving the heavens under the heavenly mandate. When addressing his earthly subjects, he refers to himself as an emperor to proclaim his supreme title and the authority he has over them.”

And yet, the use of the title “empress” instead of “emperor”, as if leaving room for future generations to discuss it, betrays the historian’s reluctance and ambivalence towards naming her an “emperor”.

In other words, the emperor abides by the will of heaven the ruler of the world has been given the heavenly mandate to govern. If we say that Wu Zetian was an empress, it would seem as if we wanted to hide the fact that she had legitimately ascended the throne to become emperor. If we say that she was an emperor, it would be going against the traditional Chinese belief that an emperor should be a male. On the other hand, if we call her Empress Wu, we would be side-stepping the question and trying to find a way out.

In Chapter 6 of the section on the emperor’s biography in the Old Book of Tang (《旧唐书》), Wu Zetian was listed as “Empress Zetian Wu Zhao”. Her biography followed after the biographies of Emperor Gaozu of Tang (Biography 1), Emperor Taizong of Tang (Biography 2 and 3), and Emperor Gaozong of Tang (Biography 4 and 5) and came before the biographies of Emperor Zhongzong of Tang and Emperor Ruizong of Tang (both made up Biography 7), and Emperor Xuanzong of Tang (Biography 8 and 9). This was a clear acknowledgement that Wu Zetian was indeed an emperor. And yet, the use of the title “empress” instead of “emperor”, as if leaving room for future generations to discuss it, betrays the historian’s reluctance and ambivalence towards naming her an “emperor”.

Ouyang Xiu played a trick in his book New Book of Tang (《新唐书》) by rearranging the order of the emperors’ biographies. He first listed the biographies of Emperors Gaozu, Taizong, and Gaozong, and said in Biography 4: “Wu Zhao, also named Empress Consort Zetian Shunsheng (则天顺圣武皇后), and Emperor Zhongzong of Tang.” Clearly, he was even more reluctant to dedicate a full chapter to Wu Zetian, and unwilling to let her leave a mark in history as a legitimate emperor of the Tang dynasty.

As the saying goes: “The family is about to be destroyed when the hen is heard crowing at the break of dawn.” This implies that the country would come to ruins if a female leader comes to power. Yet, it is a historical fact that Wu Zetian was an emperor who enjoyed a long reign. You can’t possibly remove her biography, or try to tamper with the records after her biography has been recorded. So how should we go about doing this? An explanation has got to be given, right?

Thus, Ouyang wrote the following “eulogy” — not in the least bit a proper tribute — for Wu Zetian:

“When Confucius wrote the Spring and Autumn Annals (《春秋》) that bred great fear among the corrupt, he recorded the details of the people who had killed the emperors and usurped the throne. These people had committed great crimes by seizing the throne and Confucius did not hide these facts. Did he do so to disclose their crimes and not conceal historical facts?

“Sima Qian and Ban Gu had both written about Empress Gao of Han (Empress Lv, Emperor Gaozu of Han’s empress), who had dominated the political scene although she did not try to usurp the throne. This historical fact was faithfully recorded by both Sima Qian and Ban Gu — did they do so because they had the same mindset as the sage? Or was it a coincidental similarity with the Spring and Autumn Annals?

“The ancient history of the Tang dynasty had inherited this trend and given Empress Wu (Wu Zetian) a biographical record alongside other emperors. There is a longstanding historical basis behind this.”

Of all the terrible things that she has done, male emperors have done them all and were even more ruthless than her. Yet, few male emperors can match up to her strengths, beauty, intelligence, decisiveness, and ability to outsmart her opponents.

Wu Zetian's Wordless Stone Stele. (Internet)

The implication of this long paragraph is actually very simple: when one writes about history, one mustn't only write about good people. The deeds of bad people have to be documented as well to act as a warning to future generations. Empress Lv of the Han dynasty was also given a biographical chapter in historical texts. Although she did not seize the throne, she dominated the political scene and was thus a thief. Empress Wu was clearly worse — she usurped the throne and claimed herself the emperor. She stole the country and was a total villain.

It is perhaps very liberating for safe-keepers of ancient moral and ethical concepts from all around the world to chastise women and ask that they be accountable for ruining the country with their beauty. However, it is difficult to rebuke such an intelligent woman like Wu Zetian. Of all the terrible things that she has done, male emperors have done them all and were even more ruthless than her. Yet, few male emperors can match up to her strengths, beauty, intelligence, decisiveness, and ability to outsmart her opponents.

But Wu Zetian was not only a “wise female emperor” — she was a wise emperor in her own right, and a marvel in Chinese history at that.

While Zhao Yi wrote extensively about Wu Zetian’s misdeeds in his Accounts of the 22 Historical Records (《廿二史札记》), saying that she was a woman who brought about misfortune and who ruthlessly killed without batting an eyelid, he admitted in the end that Empress Wu was an outstanding talent and strategist who governed the country well. In his words, Wu Zetian was able to “place people in their most suitable positions, and hold sole authority over the land. It can be said that she was indeed a wise female emperor.”

But Wu Zetian was not only a “wise female emperor” — she was a wise emperor in her own right, and a marvel in Chinese history at that.


Wu Zetain, China’s Only Female Ruler, Killed Her Children To Secure Power But Later, Spiraled into Disgrace

A 17th-century Chinese depiction of Wu, from Empress Wu of the Zhou, published c.1690. Wikimedia.

Wu Zetian Began to Oppose Anyone Who Stood in Her Way

After her two sons were born, Wu Zetian had a daughter sadly, the infant died within a week. The exact causes of the infant&rsquos death are still a source of speculation for historians. What is known is that Wu accused Lady Wang of smothering or strangling the little girl, as Lady Wang was the last one to hold her and was known to have a particular disdain for Wu. Lady Wang had no alibi, so she was found guilty of the child&rsquos murder and banished from the harem. Wu also implicated Xiao in the death of her child, who joined Lady Wang in exile.

However, some later writers indicated that Wu might have killed the child herself to get rid of the other two women whom she may have seen as standing in her way. Soon after Lady Wang was sent into exile, the emperor divorced her and married Wu. She functionally became Empress and wielded a substantial degree of influence over her husband, particularly in matters of the state. Maybe the people who accused her of killing the child were those who opposed her rise to power, especially as it contradicted with Confucian ideals. Perhaps, however, there was some truth in the claim.

A depiction of Emperor Gaozong of Tang from An 18th century album of portraits of 86 emperors of China, with Chinese historical notes, who was in love with Wu Zetian and had children with her. Wikimedia.

Wu quickly won enemies in the imperial court. Advisors who had served under the emperor&rsquos father claimed that his marriage to his father&rsquos former concubine was considered incest. Many of them were exiled or executed. Wu came to hold even more power after the emperor suffered a stroke and functionally came to rule China for the next 23 years. One of the first things that she did as Empress was ordered that the hands and feed of Lady Wang and Xiao be cut off before they were thrown into a vat of wine to drown.

Still, some people still stood in her way, namely, her sons. One, the crowned prince, was believed to be poisoned after challenging the Empress. Another of them was sent into exile, where he was forced to take his own life. Her other son, Li Hong, became emperor after her husband died, but Wu didn&rsquot like how much he was pushing his own agenda instead of doing as she wanted. Wu charged them with treason, and they were both banished. Her youngest son finally became emperor however, he lived under house arrest, so Wu made all of his decisions for him before she forced him to abdicate.

At the point of her youngest son&rsquos abdication, Wu Zetian became China&rsquos only female emperor in history. She worked through a network of spies and secret police and even paid informants to come to the court and give accounts of anything that they knew. If she wanted to get rid of anyone, she had the means of gathering dirt on him or her and the necessary power to have that person exiled or executed. Any plot against her was quickly unearthed, and those who served as her spies were richly rewarded. No one dared to stand in her way.


How Empress Wu deposed her sons Emperors Zhongzong and Ruizong

After the death of Wu’s husband Emperor Gaozong in 683, Wu’s son Zhongzong was crowned emperor. Emperor Gaozong’s reign was marred by a lot of rivalry between his wife (of the Wei family) and his mother Empress Wu. In a similar fashion as she eliminated her husband’s advisors, Empress Wu clipped the wings of the new emperor and his wife, Empress Wei. In less than one month of Zhongzong’s reign, Empress Wu had amassed enough power to depose Zhongzong and crown her third son Li Dan (born 662 – died 716) as the new emperor of China.

Known as Emperor Ruizong, Li Dan was merely a puppet emperor, dancing to the tune of his mother Empress Wu. By this time, she made it no secret of who the real power behind the throne. She presided over all meetings – both civil and military. She prevented Emperor Ruizong from using the imperial quarters.

In spite of the carefully orchestrated revolt by some devout Tang loyalists (led by Li Jingye) to bring back deposed emperor Zhongzong to the throne, Empress Wu remained very popular both in the palace and the public. With unconditional support from top brass and commanders of the army, she was able to swiftly extinguish the flames of the revolt before it spread to other parts of the country.

Empress Wuhou’s thirst for power did not end with the overthrow of her first son. Six years into Emperor Ruizong’s reign, she overthrew him and crowned herself empress of China – China’s first ruling female monarch. By then Empress Wuhou, 65, had either killed or exiled every remnant of opposition from the empire.

She in effect had more political power than Emperor Gaozong, this was due to her sound political acumen and the Emperor’s worsening health.


Wu needed to get the current wife, Empress Wang, out of the way so she devised a harrowing plan to put Wang in an early grave and get herself on the throne.

She (allegedly) strangled her own infant daughter and framed the Empress for the crime.

We don’t really know if the child died at Wu’s hand or if Wu just took advantage of the death for her own gains.

But we do know that unbelievably it worked!

The Empress Wang AND her poor Mum (. ) were executed. Not long after that Wu and the Emperor got hitched.

Now when the Emperor passed away in 683 Wu saw her chance to take over.

Though Wu’s son became the Emperor Zhongzong, she kept power by being Empress Dowager.

Sadly for Zhongzhong, his reign only lasted 6 weeks, because he wouldn’t do as he was told. Wu was the real boss here, so she overthrew Zhongzhong and plonked another one of her sons on the throne.

This son behaved himself, butWu decided she was the one doing all the work so she should have the title.

In 690 Wu declared herself Emperor.

To make sure she kept the throne Wu set about destroying all families with any claim to it.

She executed dozens of people wiping out entire family lines. Then to keep control over the court Wu had a series of spies who reported all information and gossip back to her.

Empress Wu held onto her power for over half a century even before her 15 years as Empress (690-705 to be exact)

Her time as a ruler was marked by a period of economic growth and stability that rippled out into the next century. The Tang Dynasty (all of whom were her descendants) that came after her is seen as a golden period in China’s history.


With a young monk

When Gaozong died, the eldest of her four sons was granted the title of emperor, but she soon had him poisoned. The three others will follow one another according to the goodwill of their mother, who rules everything, exiling or beheading the mandarins who displease her while leading her armies, who have a hard time pushing back the Turks. She scandalizes, but does not care, by appearing with a young monk to whom she entrusts the management of a monastery in Luoyang, the capital.

At 66, Wu Zetian considers that the hour of pretense has lasted too long. She removed from power her fourth son, Ruizong, and was recognized as the founder of a new dynasty. Empress of China, therefore, but also queen of communication. Beforehand, she took care to have a stele engraved on which we can read “The wise mother came down to earth »… Which we find, as if by chance, on the edge of a sacred river. His supporters also identify many cases across the country of hens that spontaneously turned into roosters. In short, his celestial destiny could not be the slightest doubt.

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She ruled China like a badass, brought prosperity, and made women more equal to men

Her official rule as the Emperor of China began only in the 690s, but she had been the real power and brain of the dynasty since the 660s. As emperor, she reformed the government, decreased the spending, and reduced the bureaucracy. She created direct communication lines by creating “petition boxes” for citizens to file complaints and grievances, criticize court decisions, and recommend themselves as officials.

During her rule, she progressively further opened up the imperial examination system for selecting public servants for state offices regardless of social class and upbringing. She also reformed the education system to bring more qualified teachers and advanced teaching methods.

In agriculture, she reduced the taxation on peasants by awarding officers who managed to tax the least and obtain the most crops. She enabled the distribution of agriculture techniques by organizing manuals written by experts and building irrigations. The growth of agricultural output reached a rather high rate, and people were well fed.

She also changed laws to make bereaved children mourn their mothers equally as long as their fathers. Originally by tradition, fathers were to be mourned for three days after passing while mothers only one day. She also commissioned the writings of important women in history.


The Demonization of Empress Wu

A 17th-century Chinese depiction of Wu, from Empress Wu of the Zhou, published c.1690. No contemporary image of the empress exists.

Most nations of note have had at least one great female leader. Not the United States, of course, but one thinks readily enough of Hatshepsut of ancient Egypt, Russia’s astonishing Catherine the Great, or Trung Trac of Vietnam.

These women were rarely chosen by their people. They came to power, mostly, by default or stealth a king had no sons, or an intelligent queen usurped the powers of her useless husband. However they rose, though, it has always been harder for a woman to rule effectively than it was for a man–more so in the earlier periods of history, when monarchs were first and foremost military leaders, and power was often seized by force.

So queens and empresses regnant were forced to rule like men, and yet roundly criticized when they did so. Sweden’s fascinating Queen Christina was nearly as infamous for eschewing her sidesaddle and riding in breeches as she was for the more momentous decision that she took to convert to Catholicism–while mustering her troops in 1588 as the Spanish Armada sailed up the Channel, even Elizabeth I felt constrained to begin a morale-boosting address with a denial of her sex: “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and a king of England too.”

Of all these female rulers, though, none has aroused so much controversy, or wielded such great power, as a monarch whose real achievements and character remain obscured behind layers of obloquy. Her name was Wu Zetian, and in the seventh century A.D. she became the only woman in more than 3,000 years of Chinese history to rule in her own right.

The Tang emperor Taizong was the first to promote Wu, whom he gave the nickname “Fair Flatterer”–a reference not to her  personal qualities but to the lyrics of a popular song of the day.

Wu (she is always known by her surname) has every claim to be considered a great empress. She held power, in one guise or another, for more than half a century, first as consort of the ineffectual Gaozong Emperor, then as the power behind the throne held by her youngest son, and finally (from 690 until shortly before her death in 705) as monarch. Ruthless and decisive, she stabilized and consolidated the Tang dynasty at a time when it appeared to be crumbling–a significant achievement, since the Tang period is reckoned the golden age of Chinese civilization. T.H. Barrett’s recent book even suggests (on no firm evidence) that the empress was the most important early promoter of printing in the world.

Yet Wu has had a pretty bad press. For centuries she was excoriated by Chinese historians as an offender against a way of life. She was painted as a usurper who was both physically cruel and erotically wanton she first came to prominence, it was hinted, because she was willing to gratify certain of the Taizong emperor‘s more unusual sexual appetites. “With a heart like a serpent and a nature like that of a wolf,” one contemporary summed up, “she favored evil sycophants and destroyed good and loyal officials.” A small sampling of the empress’s other crimes followed: “She killed her sister, butchered her elder brothers, murdered the ruler, poisoned her mother. She is hated by gods and men alike.”

Just how accurate this picture of Wu is remains a matter of debate. One reason, as we have already had cause to note in this blog, is the official nature and lack of diversity among the sources that survive for early Chinese history another is that imperial history was written to provide lessons for future rulers, and as such tended to be weighted heavily against usurpers (which Wu was) and anyone who offended the Confucian sensibilities of the scholars who labored over them (which Wu did simply by being a woman). A third problem is that the empress, who was well aware of both these biases, was not averse to tampering with the record herself a fourth is that some other accounts of her reign were written by relatives who had good cause to loathe her. It is a challenge to recover real people from this morass of bias.

The most serious charges against Wu are handily summarized in Mary Anderson’s collection of imperial scuttlebutt, Hidden Power, which reports that she “wiped out twelve collateral branches of the Tang clan” and had the heads of two rebellious princes hacked off and brought to her in her palace. Among a raft of other allegations are the suggestions that she ordered the suicides of a grandson and granddaughter who had dared to criticize her and later poisoned her husband, who–very unusually for a Chinese emperor–died unobserved and alone, even though tradition held that the entire family should assemble around the imperial death bed to attest to any last words.

Wu–played here by Li Lihua–was depicted as powerful and sexually assertive in the Shaw Brothers’ 1963 Hong Kong movie Empress Wu Tse-Tien.

Even today, Wu remains infamous for the spectacularly ruthless way in which she supposedly disposed of Gaozong’s first wife, the empress Wang, and a senior and more favored consort known as the Pure Concubine. According to the histories of the period, Wu smothered her own week-old daughter by Gaozong and blamed the baby’s death on Wang, who was the last person to have held her. The emperor believed her story, and Wang was demoted and imprisoned in a distant part of the palace, soon to be joined by the Pure Concubine. Having risen to be empress in Wang’s stead, Wu ordered that both women’s hands and feet be lopped off and had their mutilated bodies tossed into a vat of wine, leaving them to drown with the comment: “Now these two witches can get drunk to their bones.”

As if infanticide, torture and murder were not scandalous enough, Wu was also believed to have ended her reign by enjoying a succession of erotic encounters which the historians of the day portrayed as all the more shocking for being the indulgences of a woman of advanced age. According to Anderson, servants

provided her with a string of virile lovers such as one lusty, big-limbed lout of a peddler, whom she allowed to frequent her private apartments…. In her seventies, Wu showered special favor on two smooth-cheeked brothers, the Zhang brothers, former boy singers, the nature of whose private relationship with their imperial mistress has never been precisely determined. One of the brothers, she declared, had “a face as beautiful as a lotus flower,” while it is said she valued the other for his talents in the bedchamber…. the empress, greatly weakened by infirmity and old age, would allow no one but the Zhang brothers by her side.

Determining the truth about this welter of innuendo is all but impossible, and matters are complicated by the fact that little is known of Wu’s earliest years. She was the daughter of a minor general called Duke Ding of Ying, and came to the palace as a concubine in about 636–an honor that suggests that she was very beautiful, since, as Jonathan Clements remarks, “admission to the ranks of palace concubines was equivalent to winning a beauty contest of the most gorgeous women in the medieval world.” But mere beauty was not sufficient to elevate the poorly connected teenage Wu past the fifth rank of palace women, a menial position whose duties were those of a maid, not a temptress.

Palace ladies of the Tang dynasty, from a contemporary wall painting in an imperial tomb in Shaanxi.

The odds that a girl of this low rank would ever come to an emperor’s attention were slim. True, Taizong–an old warrior-ruler so conscientious that he had official documents pasted onto his bedroom walls so that he would have something to work on if he woke in the night–had lost his empress shortly before Wu entered the palace. But 28 other consorts still stood between her and the throne.

Though Wu was unusually well-read and self-willed for a mere concubine, she had only one real advantage over her higher-ranked rivals: Her duties included changing the imperial sheets, which potentially gave her bedroom access to Taizong. Even if she took full advantage, however, she must have possessed not only looks but remarkable intelligence and determination to emerge, as she did two decades later, as empress.

Attaining that position first required Wu to engineer her escape from a nunnery after Taizong’s death–the concubines of all deceased emperors customarily had their heads shaved and were immured in convents for the rest of their lives, since it would have been an insult to the dead ruler had any other man sullied them–and to return to the palace under Gaozong’s protection before entrancing the new emperor, removing empress Wang and the Pure Concubine, promoting members of her own family to positions of power, and eventually establishing herself as fully her husband’s equal. By 666, the annals state, Wu was permitted to make offerings to the gods beside Gaozong and even to sit in audience with him–behind a screen, admittedly, but on a throne that was equal in elevation to his own.

The poet Luo Binwang–one of the “Four Greats of Early Tang” and best known for his “Ode to the Goose”–launched a virulent attack on the empress. Wu, characteristically, admired the virtuosity of Luo’s style and suggested he would be better employed at the imperial court.

Wu’s later life was one long illustration of the exceptional influence she had come to wield. After Gaozong’s death, in 683, she remained the power behind the throne as dowager empress, manipulating a succession of her sons before, in 690, ordering the last of them to abdicate and taking power herself. Not until 705, when she was more than 80 years old, was Wu finally overthrown by yet another son–one whom she had banished years before. Her one mistake had been to marry this boy to a concubine nearly as ruthless and ambitious as herself. Throughout 15 dismal years in exile, her son’s consort had talked him out of committing suicide and kept him ready to return to power.

So much for the supposed facts what about the interpretation? How did a woman with such limited expectations as Wu emerge triumphant in the cutthroat world of the Tang court? How did she hold on to power? And does she deserve the harsh verdict that history has passed on her?

One explanation for Wu’s success is that she listened. She installed a series of copper boxes in the capital in which citizens could post anonymous denunciations of one another, and passed legislation, R.W.L. Guisso says, that “empowered informers of any social class to travel at public expense.” She also maintained an efficient secret police and instituted a reign of terror among the imperial bureaucracy. A history known as the Comprehensive Mirror records that, during the 690s, 36 senior bureaucrats were executed or forced to commit suicide, and a thousand members of their families enslaved.

Yet contemporaries thought that there was more to her than this. One critic, the poet Luo Binwang, portrayed Wu as little short of an enchantress–”All fell before her moth brows. She whispered slander from behind her sleeves, and swayed her master with vixen flirting”– and insisted that she was the arch manipulator of an unprecedented series of scandals that, over two reigns and many years, cleared her path to the throne.

Most historians believe Wu became intimate with the future Gaozong emperor before his father’s death–a scandalous breach of etiquette that could have cost her her head, but which in fact saved her from life in a Buddhist nunnery.

What role, if any, the undeniably ambitious concubine played in the events of the early Tang period remains a matter of controversy. It is not likely Wu was involved in the disgrace of Taizong’s unpleasant eldest son,  Cheng-qian, whose teenage rebellion against his father had taken the form of the ostentatious embrace of life as lived by Mongol nomads. (“He would camp out in the palace grounds,” Clements notes, “barbecuing sheep.”) Cheng-qian was banished for attempted revolt, while a dissolute brother who had agreed to take part in the rebellion–”so long,” Clements adds, “as he was permitted sexual access to every musician and dancer in the palace, male or female”–was invited to commit suicide, and another of Taizong’s sons was disgraced for his involvement in a different plot. Yet it was this series of events that cleared the way for Gaozong’s, and hence Wu’s, accession.

It is easier to take seriously the suggestion that Wu arranged a series of murders within her own family. These began in 666 with the death by poison of a teenage niece who had attracted Gaozong’s admiring gaze, and continued in 674 with the suspicious demise of Wu’s able eldest son, crown prince Li Hong, and the discovery of several hundred suits of armor in the stables of a second son, who was promptly demoted to the rank of commoner on suspicion of treason. Historians remain divided as to how far Wu benefited from the removal of these potential obstacles what can be said is that her third son, who succeeded his father as Emperor Zhongzong in 684, lasted less than two months before being banished, at his mother’s instigation, in favor of the more tractable fourth, Ruizong. It is also generally accepted that Ruizong’s wife, Empress Liu, and chief consort, Dou, were executed at Wu’s behest in 693 on trumped-up charges of witchcraft.

Wu’s memorial tablet, which stands near her tomb, was erected during her years as empress in the expectation that her successors would compose a magnificent epitaph for it. Instead, it was left without any inscription–the only such example in more than 2,000 years of Chinese history.

There are abundant signs that Wu was viewed with deep suspicion by later generations of Chinese. Her giant stone memorial, placed at one side of the spirit road leading to her tomb, remains blank. It is the only known uncarved memorial tablet in more than 2,000 years of imperial history, its muteness chillingly reminiscent of the attempts made by Hatshepsut’s successors to obliterate her name from the stone records of pharaonic Egypt. And while China’s imperial chronicles were too rigidly run and too highly developed for Wu’s name to be simply wiped from their pages, the stern disapproval of the Confucian mandarins who compiled the records can still be read 1,500 years later.

How to evaluate such an unprecedented figure today? It may be helpful to consider that there were in effect two empresses–the one who maintained a reign of terror over the innermost circle of government, and the one who ruled more benignly over 50 million Chinese commoners. Seen from this perspective, Wu did in fact fulfill the fundamental duties of a ruler of imperial China Confucian philosophy held that, while an emperor should not be condemned for acts that would be crimes in a subject, he could be judged harshly for allowing the state to fall into anarchy. C.P. Fitzgerald–who reminds us that Tang China emerged from 400 years of discord and civil war–writes, “Without Wu there would have been no long enduring Tang dynasty and perhaps no lasting unity of China,” while in a generally favorable portrayal, Guisso argues that Wu was not so different from most emperors: “The empress was a woman of her times. Her social, economic and judicial views could hardly be termed advanced, and her politics differed from those of her predecessors chiefly in their greater pragmatism and ruthlessness.” Even the “terror” of the 680s, in this view, was a logical response to entrenched bureaucratic opposition to Wu’s rule. This opposition was formidable the annals of the period contain numerous examples of  criticisms leveled by civil servants mortified by the empress’s innovations. At one point, to the horror of her generals, Wu proposed raising a military corps from among China’s numerous eunuchs. (It was common for poor Chinese boys to voluntarily undergo emasculation in the hope of obtaining a prestigious and well-remunerated post in the imperial service). She was also the most important early supporter of the alien religion of Buddhism, which during her rule surpassed the native Confucian and Daoist faiths in influence within the Tang realm.

The Tang empire in 700, at the end of Wu’s reign. Her 50-year rule was marked by a successful foreign policy that saw only a few, victorious, wars but the considerable expansion of the influence of the Chinese state. Map: Wikicommons.

All in all, Wu’s policies seem less scandalous to us than they did to contemporaries, and her reputation has improved considerably in recent decades. Her reign was peaceful and prosperous she introduced the meritocratic system of entrance examinations for the imperial bureaucracy that survived into the 20th century, avoided wars and welcomed ambassadors from as far away as the Byzantine Empire. Moreover, Wu exhibited one important characteristic that suggests that, whatever her faults, she was no despot: She acknowledged and often acted on the criticisms of loyal ministers, one of whom dared to suggest, in 701, that it was time for her to abdicate. The empress even promoted what might loosely be termed women’s rights, publishing (albeit as part of her own legitimation campaign) Biographies of Famous Women and requiring children to mourn both parents, rather than merely their father, as had been the practice hitherto. The critical Anderson concedes that, under Wu, “military expenses were reduced, taxes cut, salaries of deserving officials raised, retirees given a viable pension, and vast royal lands near the capital turned over to husbandry.”

Explaining why the empress was so reviled, then, means acknowledging the double standard that existed–and still exists–when it comes to assessing male and female rulers. Wu probably did dispose of several members of her own family, and she ordered the deaths of a number of probably innocent ministers and bureaucrats. She also dealt ruthlessly with a succession of rivals, promoted members of her own family to high office, succumbed repeatedly to favoritism, and, in her old age, maintained what amounted to a harem of virile young men. None of these actions, though, would have attracted criticism had she been a man. Every Chinese emperor had concubines, and most had favorites few came to power, or stayed there, without the use of violence. Taizong forced the abdication of his own father and disposed of two older brothers in hand-to-hand combat before seizing the throne.

Empress Lu Zhi (241-180 B.C.) is held up in Chinese histories as the prototype of all that is wicked in a female ruler. Cold, ruthless, and ambitious, the Han dynasty dowager murdered her rival, the beautiful concubine Lady Qi, by amputating all her limbs, turning her into a “human swine” and leaving her to die in a cesspit.

There must also be some doubt as to whether Wu really was guilty of some of the most monstrous crimes that history has charged her with. The horrible deaths of empress Wang and the Pure Concubine, for example, are nowhere mentioned in Luo Binwang’s fearless contemporary denunciation, which suggests that Wu was not blamed for them during her lifetime. Her supposed method, moreover–amputating her victims’ hands and feet and leaving them to drown–suspiciously resembles that adopted by her most notorious predecessor, the Han-era empress Lu Zhi–a woman portrayed by Chinese historians as the epitome of all that was evil. It was Lu Zhi who, in 194 B.C., wreaked revenge on a rival by gouging out her eyes, amputating her arms and legs, and forcing her to drink acid that destroyed her vocal chords. The mute and limbless concubine was then tossed into a cesspit in the palace with the swine. It seems possible that the fate ascribed to Wang and the Pure Concubine was a chronicler’s invention, intended to link Wu to the worst monster in China’s history.

The “spirit road” causeway to Wu’s still-unopened tomb lies between two low rises, tipped by watchtowers, known as the “nipple hills.”

In death, as in life, then, Wu remains controversial. Even her gravesite is remarkable. When she died, she was laid to rest in an elaborate tomb in the countryside about 50 miles north of the then capital, Xi’an. It was approached via a mile-long causeway running between two low hills topped with watchtowers, known today as the “nipple hills” because Chinese tradition holds that the spot was selected because the hills reminded Gaozong of the young Wu’s breasts.

At the end of this “spirit road,” the tomb itself lies in a remarkably inaccessible spot, set into a mountain at the end of a winding forest path. No-one knows what secrets it holds, for like many of the tombs of the most celebrated Chinese rulers, including that of the First Emperor himself, it has never been plundered or opened by archaeologists.


Watch the video: The Only Empress Of China. Wu Zetian Chinese History Documentary. Timeline (July 2022).


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