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10 things you should know about Empress Wu Zetian

Do you know what is the most expensive television series in Chinese history? With 82 episodes, The Empress of China (2014) boasts a budget of almost USD50 million.

The drama circles around Wu Zetian, the only female emperor in the Chinese history.

The plot of the drama roughly follows the historical accounts of the empress. It is based on events in the 7th and 8th-century Tang dynasty when Wu Ruyi (Fan Bingbing) enters the palace as one of Emperor Taizong (Zhang Fengyi)’s consorts.

Fan Bingbing as Empress Wu Zetian. Credit: Youtube.

The emperor soon takes notice of her and falls in love with her, inciting many to grow jealous of her.

They set out to destroy her numerous times by falsely accusing her of theft, murder and treachery.

She survives by her wits and intelligence but is kept at arm’s length by Emperor Taizong due to a prophecy foretelling a woman of Wu stealing the Tang Dynasty.

When Emperor Taizong dies, she is sent to a monastery to become a nun.

However, the Emperor’s youngest son Li Zhi (Aarif Rahman), who later becomes the Emperor Gaozong, has been in love with her since he was a child. (Yes, the emperor fell in love with his father’s lover). He brings her back to the palace and makes her his concubine.

She helped Li Zhi take back power from his Regent, and herself into the position of Empress.

She co-ruled with Li Zhi until his death, after which she ruled the country in her own right taking the name Empress Wu Zetian.

While the drama is entertaining to watch, the historical accounts behind the Empress Wu Zetian are way more intriguing. How close these accounts are to the truth of what happened? No one really knows.

Nonetheless, here are 10 things you should know about Empress Wu Zetian:

1.Empress Wu Zetian grew up as an educated child

Growing up as an educated young girl in this 21st century might not be a huge deal, but being an educated young girl in 7th-century China is.

Historians are not sure where Wu Zetian was born. Nonetheless, she was born in the seventh year of the reign of Emperor Gaozu of Tang dynasty in 624.

Her father Wu Shihou was in the timber business before holding governor posts and her mother was from a powerful family.

Since she was born into a rich family, Wu Zetian did not grow up doing domestic jobs. Unlike fathers in those era, Wu Shihou encouraged his daughter to study.

Thanks to her father’s encouragement, Wu Zetian was able to read and write as well as learn about politics, governmental affairs, literature and music.

Image taken from An 18th century album of portraits of 86 emperors of China, with Chinese historical notes. Originally published/produced in China, 18th century.  Credit: Public Domain.

2.When Empress Wu Zetian first entered the palace

Just like in the drama, Wu Zetian became one of the concubines to Emperor Taizong when she was just 14 years old.

Unlike the drama, Emperor Taizong was not that in love with her. Emperor Taizong’s love and attention was for his Empress Zhangsun, with whom he had three sons. He had no children with Wu Zetian.

According to custom, consorts of a deceased emperor who had not produced children were permanently sent to a monastic institution after the emperor’s death.

When Emperor Taizong died in 649, Wu Zetian was sent to Ganye Temple to live the remainder of her life as a Buddhist nun.

She didn’t stay there long. After Emperor Taizong died, his youngest son Li Zhi succeeded him as Emperor Gaozong of Tang Dynasty.

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Once he was in power, Emperor Gaozong went to the temple allegedly to bring her back to the palace as his concubine.

There are several different accounts of what really happened between her and Emperor Gaozong. One account alleged that on the anniversary of Emperor Taizong’s death, Emperor Gaozong went to Ganye Temple to offer incense. That was when they saw each other after she had left the palace.

Emperor Gaozong did not favour his wife Empress Wang but favoured his concubine Consort Xiao. Seeing that Emperor Gaozong was still impressed by Wu Zetian at that temple, the empress invited her back to the temple with hope that an arrival of a new concubine would distract the emperor from Consort Xiao.

Another account pointed out that the Wu Zetian had never left the palace in the first place. Gaozong and Wu Zetian were already having an affair even when the late emperor was still alive.

3.She allegedly killed her own baby.

YouTuber Jack Rackam made a video about Wu Zetian in 2019, calling her “History’s Worst Mom”. But was she the worst mother of all time?

Once Wu Zetian entered the palace, she soon overtook Consort Xiao as Emperor Gaozong’s favorite and bore him four sons. By 654, Empress Wang and Consort Xiao were no longer deemed favourable to the Emperor.

So the two former rivals joined forces to go against Wu Zetian.

In the same year, Wu Zetian gave birth to a baby daughter. Some time after her birth, the infant died with reported evidence suggesting deliberate strangulation.

Wu Zetian immediately blamed the Empress of murder.

There are several theories what could have happened to the child. Since Chinese traditional folklore tends to portray Wu Zetian as a power hungry woman , naturally it was suggested that she strangled her own baby so that she could blame her rival.

Another theory is that the baby died due to carbon monoxide poisoning. This was possible as there was a lack of ventilation in those days combined with using coal as a heating method.

Besides that, it is possible that the baby died due to sudden infant death syndrome.

Regardless of what the cause of death might be, Wu Zetian blamed it on Wang, and the latter was removed from her position as Empress.

The peak of the rivalry between Wu Zetian and Wang took place in 655 when Wu Zetian accused Wang and her mother of using witchcraft.

Wang and Xiao were subsequently disposed from the palace.

When Wu Zetian heard that the Emperor was about to bring the two women back to the palace, she ordered them to be killed.

Wang and Xiao died in the most unimaginably cruel way; their limbs were cut off and they were both put in wine jars to drown to death.

She was alleged to have commented, “Now these two witches can get drunk to their bones.”

4.How she climbs to the throne

After the disposal of her rivals, Wu became Emperor Gaozong’s new empress consort in 655.

As she was a charismatic and well-educated woman, Wu Zetian rose to power becoming the most influential woman at court.

Emperor Gaozong was often sick and many historians believed she was the real power behind her husband’s throne. The emperor was just the puppet and Wu Zetian was the puppet master.

After Gaozong’s death in 683, she became the Empress dowager.

As her first son Li Hong grew older, he often came in conflict with Wu Zetian. It is believed that Wu Zetian poisoned Li Hong to his death in 675.

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After Li Hong’s death, Wu Zetian’s second son Li Xian became the crown prince. In 680, he was accused of treason and he was exiled.

When he thought he could be free from his mother, something happened four years later when Li Xian in exile. In 684 when Wu Zetian was the empress dowager, she had her associate visit Li Xian to force him to commit suicide.

Wu Zetian’s third son Emperor Zhongzong succeeded his father in 684. However, Wu Zetian deposed him less than two months later in favour of her fourth song Emperor Ruizong. Again, many believed that Wu Zetian was the real ruler behind her son’s reign.

Six years later, Emperor Ruizong in turn relinquished the throne to his mother. Did he do that voluntarily? It is a debatable question.

Hence, Emperor Dowager Wu officially seized the throne in the brief Zhou dynasty (690-705), becoming the only female emperor in Chinese history.

5.Wu Zetian’s legacy at Longmen Grottoes

There are 100,000 Buddhist images, 2800 inscribed tablets and 43 Buddhist pagodas found at Longmen Grottoes. Credits: Pixabay.

The only female Chinese emperor only took up the name Wu Zetian upon her coronation. She was previously known as Wu Zhao. She named her dynasty after the ancient Zhou Dynasty (1046 until 771 BC), from whom she believed herself to be descended.

While many records demonised Emperor Wu as the power-crazed ruler, no one could refute the legacy that she left behind.

One of them is located 12 kilometers from the ancient city of Luoyang called the Longmen Grottoes.

Statues at Longmen Groettoes. Credits: Pixabay

In the largest cave of Longmen Grottoes, there is a statue called the Grand Vairocana Buddha. Historical records revealed that the Buddha statue was modeled after the Empress Wu Zetian. She supported the construction of the statue with her own money. What better way to leave your legacy than by putting your own face on a Buddha statue?

Today, the statue is often referred as the Eastern Mona Lisa.

6.The rebuilding of Giant Wild Goose Pagoda

This Buddhist pagoda was built in 652 and originally had five stories. Fifty years later, the exterior facade of the pagoda collapsed.

When Empress Wu Zetian came into rule, she had the pagoda rebuilt and added five new stories by the year 704.

However, a massive earthquake took place in 1556 reducing it to its current height of seven stories.

7.Her legacy at Daming Palace

Daming Palace. Credits: Pixabay

Today, the Daming Palace is a national heritage site in China. This building once served as the imperial residence of the Tang emperors for more than 220 years.

Apparently in 634 Emperor Taizong ordered a summer palace to be built for his retired father, Emperor Gaozu.

However, Emperor Gaozu died in 635 before the completion of the palace and then the construction was halted.

In 660, Empress Wu took over the project, commissioning the court Yan Liben to design the palace.

The construction of the palace was completed under the reign of her husband Emperor Gaozong in 663.

Daming Palace. Credits: Pixabay

8.How Empress Wu Zetian changed the Imperial examination

The Chinese imperial examinations were a civil service examination system in Imperial China for selecting candidates for the state bureaucracy.

Historians could not deny that Wu Zetian’s reign was a pivotal moment for the imperial examination system.

Before she came into power, the examination was only opened to the male members of the Li family (the aristocrats). When she officially took the title of emperor in 690, she opened the examinations to the lower class.

On top of this, she specifically created the palace and military examinations during her reign.

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Furthermore, Wu Zetian started opening up opportunities to the wider population, including China’s then less prestigious area in the southeast.

A 17th-century Chinese depiction of Wu, from Empress Wu of the Zhou, published c.1690. Credits: Public Domain.

9.She created her own Chinese character but failed

As numerous figures and paintings revealed from Tang Dynasty, the women back then wore male clothes and fitted blouses with low necklines.

They also rode horseback, practiced archery and played polo. Some historians believed that it was due to Wu Zetian’s influence in changing what women could or could not do.

While she could change how women dressed, she was unable to change how people wrote.

Wu Zetian herself was a writer, having published many papers and poetry under her name. She also commissioned the biographies of influential women back then.

In December 689, she introduced the Zetian characters in order to demonstrate her power.

However, she did not create the characters but they were suggested by an official named Zong Qinke (the son of one of her cousins).

Wu Zetian forced her subjects to use them during her reign but they fell into disuse right after her death.

10.Her fall from grace, not because of one man, but two

It is common in history or legend to see the fall of a powerful man caused by one woman.

In the case of Empress Wu Zetian, her lust over two men caused her downfall.

In 697, Zhang Changzong was introduced to Wu Zetian by her own daughter Princess Taiping. The emperor was 73.

So what do you do when you have an emperor who is old enough to be your grandma as your lover? Follow what Zhang Changzong did, and introduce your brother.

Changzong’s brother Zhang Yizhi was reported to be good looking, “his skin was white and beautiful and that he was good at singing.”

Subsequently, both brothers became her lovers. Wu Zetian promoted them into higher positions in her court.

They became objects of hatred as Wu Zetian clearly favoured them. By early 705, Wu Zetian was slowly becoming ill.

Her chancellor Zhang Jianzhi entered into a coup with the other officials. After killing the Zhang brothers and their families, they forced Wu Zetian to yield the throne to her third son Emperor Zhongzong who previously only ruled for two months in 684.

The cycle continued of aaaaa woman ruling behind a man just like Wu Zetian did, since Emperor Zhongzong was a rather weak ruler.

The real power laid in the hands of his empress consort Empress Wu and her lover Wu Sansi who happened to be Wu Zetian’s nephew.

The end of Zhou Dynasty

On March 3, 705, the Tang Dynasty was restored with historians generally viewing the Zhou Dynasty as an interregnum of the Tang Dynasty.

As for Wu Zetian, she died months later on Dec 16, 705. She was interred with her husband Emperor Gaozong at the Qianling Mausoleum.

Mike Dash from the Smithsonian Magazine summarised Wu Zetian’s later life perfectly.

He wrote in 2012, “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, Wu was finally overthrown by yet another son – one whom she had banished years before.

Her mistake had been to marry this boy to a concubine nearly as ruthless and ambitious as herself.”

Patricia Hului
Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight. She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science. She worked for The Borneo Post SEEDS, which is now defunct. When she's not writing, you can find her in a studio taking belly dance classes, hiking up a hill or browsing through Pinterest. Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at Kajomag.com or Twitter at @patriciahului.

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