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An Effective but Controversial Ruler

Wu Zhao (624–705), also known as Empress Wu Zetian, was the first and only woman emperor of China. With her exceptional intelligence, extraordinary competence in politics, and inordinate ambition, she ruled as the “Holy and Divine Emperor” of the Second Zhou Dynasty (690–705) for fifteen years. Her remarkable political leadership is recognized and is comparable in some ways to other notable women in later periods of world history, such as Joan of Arc, Queen Elizabeth I, and Catherine the Great. It must be noted, though, that whether completely deserved or not, Wu has a reputation of being one of the most cruel rulers in China’s history. She remains a controversial figure primarily because of stories about her personal actions against rivals. Male Confucian officials who were deeply prejudiced against strong and ambitious women undoubtedly exaggerated this aspect of Wu’s life in later accounts of her reign. Still, there is also substantial verifiable evidence of her ruthlessness toward powerful real or imagined opponents.

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The Tang Dynasty

The Tang Dynasty (618–907) is one of the golden ages of China’s history. World history scholar Samuel Adshead has adopted the term “world center” to describe China’s position in the world from 400 to 1000.1 The glory and brightness of Chinese culture during the Tang period was in stark contrast to the Dark Ages in Europe. The so-called “Golden Age” (712–755) emerged shortly following the death of Wu, and Tang China subsequently experienced substantial political, economic, social, and intellectual development.

The Tang was a unified empire, founded by the Li family who seized power during the collapse of the Sui Dynasty (581–618). Li Yuan (later Emperor Gaozu, r. 618–626) and his armies seized the capital, Chang’an, in 617. His son, Li Shimin (later Emperor Taizong, r. 626–649 and future husband of Wu), joined the rebellion. In 618, Li Yuan declared himself the emperor of the new Tang Dynasty. Tang China enjoyed far-reaching diplomatic relations, playing host to Persian princes, Jewish merchants, and Indian and Tibetan missionaries. The scope and sophistication of the Tang Empire’s political development during these golden years was greater than either India or the Byzantine Empire.

During the Tang, the Silk Roads were at their height of influence. During Wu’s life, overland trade routes brought massive entrepreneurial opportunities with the West and other parts of Eurasia, making the capital of the Tang Empire the most cosmopolitan of the world’s cities. Although merchants dealt for and traded many goods, commerce involving textiles, minerals, and spices was particularly prominent. With such avenues of contact, Tang China was ready for changes in society and culture.

Tang women were assertive, active, and more visible; they rode horses, donned male attire, and participated in politics.

Li Zhi cave at the Longmen Grottoes near Luoyang in Henan Province, China is the ancestor-worshipping cave, and the largest of all caves carved on the west hill. It was built between 672 and 676 for Empress Wu Zhao. It features a large Vairocana Buddha. Source: Wikimedia Commons at

The fourth achievement was Wu’s patronage of Buddhism. As a child, Wu was introduced to Buddhism by her parents, and, as noted earlier, she was briefly a Buddhist nun. After she gained power, Wu helped spread and consolidate Buddhism and supported the religion by erecting temples so priests could explain Buddhist texts. She thought highly of Huayan Buddhism, which regarded Vairocana Buddha as the center of the world, very similar to Wu’s desire to become the holy emperor. Wu’s Buddhist sect also encouraged its followers to regard their earthly ruler as the representative of Vairocana Buddha, a belief that Wu probably regarded quite favorably as Empress. Wu assumed herself a reborn Buddha and a descendent of the ancient Zhou kings. In 692, she issued an edict forbidding the butchery of pigs. In the eyes of Chinese Buddhists, Wu may have been a popular ruler. Her patronage of Buddhism paved the way for its spread during the reign of Emperor Ruizong, when voluminous Buddhist texts were translated, edited, and published.

The fifth achievement was Wu’s promotion of literature and art. She was a poetess and artist. Little is written in English concerning the artistic life of Wu, for scholars have put much weight on her ambitious political life. In Wu’s childhood, she had the opportunity to learn history, literature, poetry, and music. During her reign, she formed a group, “Scholars of the Northern Gate,” for the promotion of the associates’ literary pursuits. Both Emperor Gaozong and Wu were fond of literature and poems, and helped create a culture of literary pursuits that flourished in Tang China. Some prominent Tang poets such as Li Bai (701–762) and Du Fu (712–770) appeared after the death of Wu. Even many Tang courtesans were great singers and poetesses.

The final achievement was Wu’s support of women’s rights. She began a series of campaigns to uplift the position of women. She advised scholars to write and edit biographies of exemplary women to assist in the attainment of her political objectives. Wu asserted that the ideal ruler was one who ruled as a mother does over her children. Wu also extended the mourning period for a deceased mother to equal that of a deceased father and raised the position of her mother’s clan by offering her relatives high official posts. She may have thought that princesses were conducive to reconciling diplomatic conflicts, since she formed marriage alliances to aid her expansionist foreign policy.

Many Confucian scholars probably viewed Wu’s behavior as scandalous, immoral, and outrageous. Her gravestone was unmarked by any eulogy; it was deliberately left blank upon her request. She expected people of later periods to evaluate her achievements.


Historical evaluations of Wu are mixed. The most favorable assessments highlight her high intelligence and exceptional competence in many areas of governance. As briefly discussed earlier, the biggest critics of Wu focus upon her ambitious character and ruthless actions to gain and keep power. At least in China, it appears based on content in recent history textbooks that Wu is viewed more favorably than in the past. In the 1950s, history textbooks put no weight on Wu’s position in Chinese history because the Mao Era (1949–1976) emphasized a socialist revolution led by the masses rather than by “feudal rulers.” However, textbook author evaluations of Wu tended to be milder in the 1980s, the time when the policy of opening up to the outside world began, thus broadening people’s perspectives. In the 1990s, when Chinese patriarchy displayed a clear increase in tolerance for women, Wu Zhao was praised as China’s “only ruling empress” in history textbooks. By the twenty-first century, instead of minimizing Wu’s political achievements and extensively emphasizing her personal actions and ruthlessness, in various renditions of Wu there is more of a tendency to emphasize her successes in governance and her place in Tang China’s “Golden Age.” This tendency runs counter to the Confucian cultural tradition of minimizing female political accomplishments.6

A further legacy of Wu was women’s participation in politics. She was a vivid example; later, Princess Taiping (her daughter) and Empress Wei (her daughter-in-law) became involved in Imperial politics as well.

Controversies and shifting interpretations of her life notwithstanding, Wu did leave some legacies to Chinese history. Most notably, she substantially improved the civil service system and Imperial talent pool, initiated policies that strengthened the Tang economy, lowered taxes, apparently improved the life of common people, and protected China’s borders while maintaining Imperial prestige. These successes made it easier for successors, particularly Emperor Xuanzong (r. 712–756). Tang China scholar Charles Benn regards Xuanzong’s reign as the “Golden Age,” which was the longest, the most glorious, and the most prosperous epoch of the Tang Dynasty, and a period when the arts flourished.7

A further legacy of Wu was women’s participation in politics. She was a vivid example; later, Princess Taiping (her daughter) and Empress Wei (her daughter-in-law) became involved in Imperial politics as well. Empress Wei perhaps had pretensions of emulating Wu. In 710, she murdered her husband by poisoning him and then engineered a coup hoping to rule after him. However, her planned takeover failed and Empress Wei was executed. Princess Taiping, though wielding great power at the Imperial court, did no better in attempting to follow in her mother’s footsteps. In 713, she plotted to overthrow Emperor Xuanzong, but the Emperor and his loyalists discovered the coup and killed Princess Taiping. At least some women leaders in twentieth-century China looked on Wu as a model. Song Qingling (1893–1981), the wife of Sun Yatsen, regarded Wu as an effective political leader. Song was politically active in 1950s China and in 1981 was awarded the title Honorary President of the People’s Republic of China. Jiang Qing (1914–1991), the wife of Mao Zedong, identified with Wu. She may have tried to use the example of Wu as part of a propaganda campaign to claim herself the successor to Mao, but she eventually failed.

Wu also made her way into literary works. The fantasy/feminist Qing Dynasty novel Flowers in the Mirror by Li Ruzhen (1763–1830) takes place during Wu’s rule. The fictional Wu issued twelve decrees that were intended to bring benefits to women. Although the decrees are fictional, Wu’s life perhaps inspired Li and later authors who were pioneers of the emancipation of women in Qing China. Historian of Chinese women’s culture Dorothy Ko has observed that some women gentry in Qing China were far from oppressed or silenced and were well-known poetesses, singers, editors, and teachers who formed their own community networks.8

Wu Zhao possibly influenced attitudes about sexuality and women; her reputation for sexual promiscuity occurred during a relatively permissive period of Chinese history. Tang China allowed women some latitude regarding remarriage and sex. However, attitudes changed considerably after the Song period (960–1279). The influential Song philosopher Zhu Xi (1130–1200) formulated the concept of separate spheres and reemphasized the importance of women’s chastity. He believed that it was better for a woman to starve than be unchaste. Zhu was aware of Wu and her scandals, of course, and thought that the reign of Wu was unlawful; a woman’s proper place was at home. As Zhu was the founder of neo-Confucianism, his views on women’s chastity had a far-reaching impact on later scholars. Some Song historians used the case of Wu’s scandals in their writings about chaste women. The chastity cult survived to Qing China, but in present-day China, Wu receives a more favorable image than before, as Chinese patriarchy has increased its tolerance toward women.

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Even though Wu died over 1,300 years ago, she remains a well-known figure in China’s past and controversy still surrounds her. She has been the subject of a series of historical television drama in contemporary China, notably Hunan’s 2014–2015 dramatic series on Wumeiniang chuanqi (The Legend of the Charming Lady Wu or The Empress of China). The drama appealed to a vast audience as well as provoking state censorship, not just because of its extravagant budget and boldness in production, but also its scandalous depiction of the actress Fan Bingbing in the role of Wu and audience’s attitudes about sexuality and women. The drama first aired on commercial satellite station Hunan Television on December 21, 2014, but was canceled a week later because of government censors’ objections and resumed broadcasting on January 1, 2015, with almost all the breasts and cleavage of actresses cropped out. Some television viewers are furious about state censorship because the edited drama has lost its aesthetic values and is not historically accurate. Perhaps there is always a tension between the ruling class and people in their perceptions about sexuality and women, whether in Tang and Song China or in present times. At any rate, Wu Zhao remains an important historical figure from China’s Imperial period.