Empress Wu
China’s Only Female “Emperor”

Empress Wu with Attendants
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Tang Dynasty capital Chang'an
Tang Dynasty
The Tang dynasty is equaled only by the Han as a time of power and culture on which the Chinese people look back with pride, awe, and delight. It was especially to the reign of the second emperor of the Tang, Taizong, who reigned from 626 to 649, that later Chinese turned for examples of splendor, effective power, and high principle. ...
Changan City Map
The great ministers of Taizong were almost all members of great aristocratic families that had produced high officials for generations. When they confronted the emperor in court they were supported not only by the prestige of their offices and by their own abilities and convictions, but also by the prestige, wealth, and connections of their families. In the sixth century in both north and south China, the courts were dominated by these great families, which supported or overthrew imperial families whom they regarded as simply first among equals among the aristocracy. (MOF, 130-131)
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Tang Taizong with Ministers
[The Zhen’guan reign period (626-649)] became for many later Chinese a symbol of effective and morally proper government, in particular for a nearly ideal realization of the Confucian “Way of the Ruler and Minister.” All major issues were debated among a large group of high ministers meeting in the emperor’s presence. The best of them did not fear to speak out in opposition to the emperor’s wishes, and although he was a great warrior with a towering temper he sometimes listened and backed down in the face of principled ministerial opposition. The emperor also was a generous patron of classical and historical scholarship and made great efforts to control corruption in the bureaucracy and to encourage officials to take the less popular provincial posts. This conscientious pursuit of good government was all the more amazing because everyone knew that Taizong had come to power in 626 in a bloody coup, the famous “Incident at the Xuanwu Gate,” in which he and his supporters killed two of his brothers, one of them the heir apparent, as they approached one of the gates of the palace. The shocked father almost at once relinquished control of the government to the victor, and he abdicated before the end of the year. (MOF, 130)
The Xuan Wu Gate Incident
The Tang Emperor’s
Journey to Hell

Tang Dynasty Image of HellTang TaizongA legend arose that the emperor was summoned before Yama, king of the Dead, who then assigned a lower official to conduct his case. That official explained that the emperor had been charged by his two younger brothers and that he could return to the living if he answered one question:
His Majesty Taizong, Emperor of Tang, is asked why, in the seventh year of Wude, 626, he slew his brothers in front of the Palace and imprisoned his loving father in the women’s apartments? An answer is requested.
The emperor was appropriately terrified. The story ends with his interrogator composing a concise answer for him: “A great Sage will destroy his family in order to save the kingdom.” In other words, he sacrificed his family for the good of the empire. Even though the emperor was allowed to go free, this tale shows that the jurisdiction of the courts of the dead — and norms of justice — extended even to him. At the end of this tale, the emperor returns to the world of the living after being urged to publish copies of Buddhist texts and to do good deeds. (OE, 179)
  • Why was Taizong regarded as a "great Sage" despite the fact that he killed two of his brothers in a bloody coup?
  • What is the historical value of this legend? Does it support the claim that Taizong was in fact a virtuous ruler? Why or why not?
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Image of Empress Wu

Image of Empress Wu

Image of Empress Wu

Empress Wu
A Multifaceted Ruler
The will to power was nowhere more directly seen than in the personality and career of the person who ruled the Chinese Empire in 700. Governing very effectively, strengthening the powers of the throne and of the central bureaucracy, this ruler was an astonishing anomaly, a living affront to some deeply rooted proprieties, for the simple reason that she was a woman, the only woman ever to occupy the position of emperor, huangdi, in her own name. She deserves her place in this collection of great exemplary stories because of all the wonderfully shocking stories about her that have made her one of the most fascinating in the Chinese tradition’s rich gallery of bad examples, and because of what we can learn about traditional gender roles and palace sexual politics. At least as important, in her struggle to keep power in violation of tradition she contributed significantly to a long trend toward concentration of power in the hands of the ruler, to the perverse interdependence of scholar-bureaucrats and sovereigns of doubtful morality or legitimacy, which is encountered at a number of points later in Chinese history. ...Among all the crimes of which she was accused, the ordering of the death of two of her own sons may be the most shocking to us, but it was not so to the Chinese historians who elaborated her black legend. They made less of this than of her brutal suppression of opposition in the 680s or the interference of her favorites in government. It is almost as if brutality within the imperial household was expected, and not too much made of it unless it interfered with orderly government. ( MOF, 128-137)
Empress Wu with Emperor Gaozong
Rise to Power
Wu Zetian in the NunneryWu Zhao had come into the palace of Taizong about 640, in her early teens. ... Stories were told of her sexual involvement with the heir apparent, the future Gaozong, while she still was a member of Taizong’s household. Even though it is not certain that she ever shared Taizong’s bed, he had exclusive rights to her, and accusations of his son’s involvement with her were accusations of incest.
       After Taizong’s death in 649, all the women of his household were expected to spend the rest of their lives in nunneries praying for the repose of his soul. It was said that when Gaozong visited a Buddhist nunnery on the anniversary of his father’s death he saw Wu Zhao, and her brown robe and shaved head did not keep the flame from leaping up again. ... Soon Gaozong was ignoring both Empress Wang and [another palace lady] Xiao Shufei, and by the end of 652 Wu Zhao had borne him a son and been promoted in the hierarchy of palace ladies. ... The childless empress often came to her quarters to play with the baby. One day Wu smothered her own infant, and when the emperor came to see the child she went to the cradle, “found” the baby dead, and explained amid mock hysterics that the empress had just been playing with it and must have killed it. ...

Empress Wu Smothers Her Own Baby

Empress Wu Blaming Empress Wang for Killing Her Baby

Empress Wu Thows Empress Wang and Xiao Shufei in a Vat of Alcohol
In the winter of 655-56, Empress Wang and Xiao Shufei were accused of plotting to poison Gaozong. The empress was deposed, Wu Zhao was named empress, and Wu’s son was named heir apparent. The former empress and Xiao Shufei were confined in miserable quarters. Gaozong visited them and pitied them, and Empress Wu in a rage ordered that their hands and feet be cut off and that they be thrown in a wine vat. “Let those witches get drunk to the bone!” They died after several days, and their corpses were decapitated. Or so the story went; but a somewhat similar story had been told of the savage vengeance of the Empress Lü, widow of Emperor Gao of the Han, on her late husband’s favorite concubine in 194 B.C.E. (MOF, 133-134)
How reliable are these legends?
Do they have the same historical value as the legend of Taizong's "Journey to Hell"?
Why or why not?
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Empress Behind the Screen
Late in 660 Gaozong suffered the first of many strokes or seizures that left him dizzy, partially blind, and unable to deal with the affairs of the empire. Soon Empress Wu was making all the decisions for him, and even the hostile traditional histories acknowledge that she did so with great intelligence. The proprieties of female nonparticipation in public affairs were preserved, as they had been in many periods when empresses or empress dowager were politically powerful, by having the lady “listen to government affairs from behind a screen,” where officials could at least pretend not to see her and she could hear everything and tell her husband what to say or have a eunuch transmit her decisions to the officials. (MOF, 134)
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Feng and Shan Sacrifices at Mount Tai
The most interesting of all Empress Wu’s efforts at symbolic innovation was that of the  ceremonies at Mount Tai in 666. These were the ceremonies that had been so much discussed at the court of Emperor Wu of the Han, and which Sima Tan had hoped to witness. They had been performed not more than six times in all of China’s previous history, the last time in 56 C.E. ...
Mount Tai
According to the regulations that had been worked out on Han precedents, the feng ceremony took place in two phases, the second on the peak of Mount Tai. An elaborate prayer and announcement by the emperor to Sovereign Heaven of the achievements of the dynasty and its current sovereign was prepared on strips of jade bound by gold cords and at the end of the ceremony was buried on the summit in a great stone coffer secured by more gold cords and sealing materials. The shan was a similar ceremony to Sovereign Earth on a lower hill to the south of Mount Tai.
Empress Wu Performing the Feng and Shan Sacrifices
The feng ceremony was yang, on a mountain, to Heaven, on a round altar. The shan was yin, in a lower place, to Earth, on a square altar. Here Empress Wu found a perfect opportunity to glorify herself and the whole women’s world of the inner palace by exploiting the contradiction between the theoretical equality and complementarity of yin and yang and the actual monopolization of the public and ceremonial spheres by males. She convinced Gaozong that while he should offer the primary homage to the Earth, it was not appropriate for male princes and officials to perform the later phases of the ceremony; these should be done by the empress and her palace ladies. (MOF, 134-135)
Dragon and Phoenix / Emperor and Empress
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Qianling Mausoleum (Gaozong and Wu Zetian)
The Death of GaozongGaozong died on December 27, 683. The seventeen-year-old heir apparent, known posthumously as Zhongzong, was enthroned three days later. The late emperor’s will had ordered that Wu Zhao, now the dowager empress, be consulted on matters of war and other basic decisions. On the recommendation of Pei Yan, the senior minister who had been entrusted with the will, she actually retained broad decision-making powers. But the young emperor was not completely under her control .... The emperor repeatedly proposed his father-in-law for very high posts in the bureaucracy, but was opposed by Empress Wu and Pei Yan. Finally he burst out to Pei Yan, “If we wished to hand over the empire itself to Our father-in-law, could We not do so? How much more may We make him President of the Chancellery!” ... Empress Wu had administered the empire conscientiously and effectively for most of the preceding twenty years. Now she could present herself as defender of the integrity of the imperial administration and of the Tang dynasty itself against an irresponsible teenager who was threatening to give away his entire patrimony. The next day, about six weeks after the emperor ascended the throne, Pei Yan and other high officials, acting on the empress’s orders, ordered Zhongzong to descend from the throne and proclaimed his deposition. ... He was led away to prison.
       The next day another son of the late Gaozong and Empress Wu was proclaimed emperor. Known posthumously as Ruizong, he was kept out of the way in a separate palace and allowed to play no part in government. The empress now moved closer to playing the full imperial role, no longer staying behind a screen at audiences, and using the imperial “We.”
Empress Wu Enthroned
Late in 690 the high ministers repeatedly requested the empress to assume full imperial powers. The captive Ruizong [i.e. her son, the reigning emperor] joined the chorus, seeking to abdicate in her favor. Finally the ministers reported that a phoenix had been seen flying from the Bright Hall into the palace, and thousands of red birds had perched on the audience hall. Finally she agreed, naming her new dynasty Zhou (the same character as the ancient Zhou) and taking for herself the title sage and divine emperor (sheng shen huangdi). Ruizong abdicated and was named her successor. (MOF, 138-143)
Phoenix and Red Birds
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Empress Wu: Legalist Tyrant?
Legalist Tyrant?
The heir apparent, Li Hong, was thought to be intelligent and capable and had filled this role effectively during several of Gaozong’s illnesses. He frequently opposed the empress’s wishes, and in 675, not long after he had argued with her publicly about her savage treatment of two daughters of Xiao Shufei who still were locked in the palace, he died suddenly under mysterious circumstances. Many at the time, and many later historians, thought that his mother had him poisoned.
       The new heir apparent, Li Xian, was not as promising or widely admired as his late brother. ... Finally in 680 she accused him of plotting to rebel against his father and mother, and after several hundred sets of armor were discovered in his palace he was degraded to commoner status, banished to a distant province, and later forced to commit suicide.
       Between 675 and 680 the empress had four other princes exiled to distant provinces. (MOF, 137)
Legalism Icon
[Empress Wu] began offering generous rewards and appointments or promotions to anyone who would inform the authorities of anyone who spoke or plotted action against her power. Soon a vast system of informers sprang up, as all kinds of people from all levels of society took the opportunity to advance themselves and do in their enemies. ... Some old families were ruined by this reign of terror. If they were not entirely wiped out as relatives of traitors, they were exiled to remote regions or entirely excluded from office until the empress’s death. Surely others learned to keep quiet and to forget the ideal ministerial fearlessness of the Zhen’guan period. (MOF, 140)
How should we evaluate the evidence against Empress Wu?
Was she any worse than Taizong?
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Empress Wu: Confucian Sage?
Confucian Sage?
Tang Image of a Civil OfficialAs the decades of peace and unity passed, more people outside the aristocracy had the wealth and leisure to study and to aspire to office. From the 660s on, the empress already had favored recruiting larger numbers of men into the bureaucracy, frequently ordering provincial officials to recommend virtuous and competent men for appointment. She apparently supported reforms in 669 that, among other things, reduced the influence of family connections on the examination process by concealing the names of paper-writers from the examiners. Another set of reforms in 681 increased the difficulty and prestige of the examination called jinshi, “presented scholar,” which became a challenging test of ability to write coherently about political and moral problems and to write exacting formal styles of prose and poetry. Very gradually, this examination would become the main route to high office in imperial China. ... High officials tended to oppose the expansion of the bureaucracy because Confucian principles counseled a government that kept its burdens on the people as light as possible and because of aristocratic prejudice against the appointment of men of lower-class backgrounds. But the gradual rise of an elite selected by examination continued and was accelerated by the decline of the old aristocracy; the empress contributed to that side of the change by her savage repression of her opponents during the 680s. (MOF, 138)
The sources, which report everything negative they can about her, give no indication that there was any broad opposition to her rule among the officials or the common people. To be sure, she had made it clear that terrible things would happen to anyone who did seek to oppose her. But she also turned out to be quite an effective ruler. Ever since her Twelve-Point Memorial she had made a point of seeking out men of talent and giving them office. Few officials avoided service under her out of loyalty to the Tang. Many capable men served her, and some of them occasionally argued successfully against a policy or a sentence. (MOF, 143)
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Empress Wu: Lascivious Old Woman?
Lascivious Old Woman?
Of all the new people who rose by attaching themselves to Empress Wu’s drive to power, none was stranger or more powerful than a peddler of cosmetics and medicines, probably including aphrodisiacs, named Xue Huaiyi. First introduced to the palace by the empress’s daughter and other great ladies, he soon was summoned by the empress. Every nasty story heard about the empress had been told and retold in the previous decades, but nothing has come down to us to suggest that she ever had been unfaithful to her husband. Now he was gone, and something happened. Soon the empress’s intimacy with Xue was an open scandal. Men were not supposed to be present in the inner quarters of the palace, but sometimes exceptions could be made for relatives of palace ladies and for monks. The empress ordered her son-in-law Xue Shao to adopt her lover, and also ordered that he be made a monk and installed as abbot of the famous and venerable White Horse Monastery outside Luoyang. ... Early in 695 he overreached himself badly in a number of bizarre “No Bounds Gatherings” at the Bright Hall. At one, his men threw ten cartloads of coins to the crowd; people were trampled to death in the rush to pick them up. At another, a big Buddhist figure was raised from a pit as if it was rising from the earth. The empress could not tolerate these wild public displays. She had found a new lover, one of the imperial physicians. Shunned by the empress, Xue Huaiyi set fire to the Heavenly Hall; the fire spread, and the Bright Hall was destroyed as well. The empress ordered one of her Wu relatives to ambush and murder Xue. (MOF, 141-144)
Empress Wu with Lover
Two brothers, Zhang Yizhi and Zhang Changzong, entered her service about 697. They were young and very handsome, and one was an excellent singer. Soon they both became the empress’s lovers. The historians assert this tersely, without undue expressions of horror or gamy details like those of Lao Ai and the dowager queen of Qin; presumably for them the bare assertion was horrible enough. For an aging male ruler to enjoy himself as far as he was able with the young women of his household was normal, even admirable; a lascivious old woman was another matter. (MOF, 146)
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Empress Wu as Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future
Buddha of the Future?
Xue Huaiyi added another strand to the complex of symbolism surrounding [Empress Wu’s] rise to power with his commentary on a Buddhist work called the Great Cloud Sutra. This sutra prophesied the reincarnation of the bodhisattva Maitreya as a woman, ushering in an era of peace and plenty. “At that time all her subjects will give their allegiance to this woman as the successor to the imperial throne. Once she has taken the Right Way, the world will be awed into submission.” It was obvious, wrote Xue, that this was a prophecy of the rise of Empress Wu. In 690 the empress ordered the establishment and rich endowment of a Great Cloud Temple in every prefecture of the empire. (MOF, 142-143)
Empress Wu at the Longmen Grottoes

In the largest cave of Longmen Grottoes, the Fengxian Temple, which is 35 meters wide and 39 meters high, there is a statue called the Grand Vairocana Buddha. Some historical records reveal that it was modeled after the face of Empress Wu Zetian, the only empress in Chinese history, who gained popular support by advocacy of Buddhism and reigned during the Tang Dynasty 1,309 years ago. People also call it Empress Wu Zetian’s Statue. About 17.14 meters tall with the head 4 meters long and the ear 1.9 meters wide each, the statue of Empress Wu is believed the most extraordinary masterpiece of the Longmen Grottoes. According to historical records, Empress Wu supported the construction of the statue with her own money and headed officials to the Buddhist ceremony when it was completed. (China.org)


Fengxian Temple Vairocana

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Many modern readers will not share the Confucian historian’s horror at the sexual appetites of the Empress Wu and some of the women who surrounded her and followed her example. Few will be horrified by the idea of a woman involved in government. But most will be appalled by (and reasonably skeptical of) the stories of her smothering of her infant daughter and causing the deaths of her two crown prince sons. Many people who seek great power have a little bit of monster in their makeup. Those who are drawn to power and believe themselves competent to wield it but are excluded by custom and prejudice, as all women were in traditional China, sometimes will become more monstrous as they thrust themselves forward. (MOF, 148)
Empress Wu Stele at Qianling Mausoleum
So in the end, was Empress Wu
a hero ... a villain ... both ... neither?