Empress Wu

Empress Wu


Early life

Empress Wu before she became Empress, was called Wu Zetian and was born in 624 CE. Empress Wu was born from a prosperous and wealthy family, her father was Wu Shihuo, who became a chancellor during the early Tang Dynasty. Her father married her mother Lady Yang who came from the powerful Yang family. At a young age, Empress Wu was well educated and knew music, history, and politics, and could write poetry, and calligraphy. This was unusual for girl her age at the time, because most girls were not as well educated as she was. Wu Zetian was very beautiful and at the age of 14 she became Emperor Taizong’s concubine, which during that time was like winning a beauty contest. Wu Zetian was one of the 9 concubines Emperor Taizong had, and was the 5th rank compared to the others. Although Wu Zetian wasn’t the emperor’s favorite concubine, she was so beautiful that one time when Emperor Taizong got mad at her, he couldn’t kill her because she was too beautiful to die. Emperor Taizong did however enjoy Wu Zetian’s company and she would regularly go places with him as his servant. During the summer of 649 Emperor Taizong became seriously ill from pills that were given to him by alchemist, and he soon after died. Once Emperor Taizong died, Wu Zetian, like the other concubines was required to be sent to a Buddhist convent, until she was brought back to the palace to be Emperor Gaozong’s concubine who was Emperor Taizong’s son. During this time, there was much controversy that surrounded around Emperor Gaozong and Wu Zetian, because many people believed that even before Emperor Taizong’s death, Wu was having an affair with Emperor Gaozong. Emperor Gaozong was smitten with Wu, and soon she became his top concubine, but then later she became his Empress due to Wu telling Taizong that the Empress killed their baby girl. Although Wu blamed the current Empress, many believe that this was a lie and instead Wu killed her baby girl to blame it on the current Empress, but there is no true way of knowing is this is fact or fiction.

Reign of Empress Wu

Emperor Gaozong died in December 683 from a series of previous strokes he developed later in his life. During the time that he was still alive, but sick, Empress Wu began to gain authority over him and make important decisions in the last 23 years of his life. One example of Empress Wu’s power was during 666 C.E. when she lead a bunch of women to Mount Tai and instead of having men conduct rituals, she had the women conduct rituals in the ceremonial center of Mount Tai. Empress Wu believed that women were just as equal as men because that’s an important value that her father taught her earlier in her life, and so because of that she formed her own Secret Police and has personal spies incase opposition rose from people who believed the traditional view that women weren’t allowed to take the thrown. At times Empress Wu had to fire officials or had others executed who were believed to be plotting against her, she even had to be wary of his own family members from plotting against her. Empress Wu moved away from Confucianism because of the negative views the religion had against women’s positions, and instead favored Buddhism because she could use the scripture to justify her rule as an Empress. Because Buddhism because more important than Confucianism during the Tang dynasty, many literary arts, and visual arts became engulfed with Buddhism elements instead of Confucianism. Wu also had many stone caves and temples. Another thing that Empress Wu spent most of her time does was focusing on education, and she got rid undedicated teacher and replaced with dedicated teachers. Empress Wu cared a lot about common/ and poor people and she lowered taxes for the peasants so that they could be able to live more freely and happier. Another thing she did to help low class people gain a higher position, was fixing the way the government recruited people, which allowed low-class people to become high-class officials. One of the more influential things Empress Wu did in her Reign was improve agriculture by instituting reforms, and promoting research to agriculture to make the economy of her empire flourish. Empress Wu also decided to get rid of part of the military, because she felt it wasn’t beneficial to her empire, which helped bring in more money to the economy of the Tang dynasty. But even though she got rid of part of the military, this did not make the Tang dynasty’s military weaker, the Tang dynasty was arguably one of the strongest military dynasties and was able to expand and gain more land. One example of this is when Tang’s military reached to the north Mongolian Plateau.


During Empress Wu’s later years, she started to suffer from paranoia and feared that people were trying to deceive her, so she started banishing and executing many people she suspected to be plotting against her. The officials in the court couldn’t tolerated Empress Wu’s paranoia any longer and she was forced to give up her throne in favor to her son Zhongzong. A year later, Empress Wu died due to her poor health from the stress of her paranoia. Empress Wu made a long-lasting legacy, and was one of the most important figures in China. Not only did Empress Wu break the tradition of having a male emperor, she also influenced many women after her to try and take the throne themselves or move up the political latter. She expanded the recruitment system by fixing the way the government recruited people, so instead of people being chosen by hereditary status, now people who were lower class had the opportunity to become high ranking officials. Empress Wu also focused a lot of her reign on increasing agriculture which was successful for the most part, and helping the poor because she didn’t look down on them like previous emperors had. During Empress Wu’s reign, she was able to increase faming households from 3 million to a double 6 million, which showed that her agriculture policies had been very effective. Even though she was so successful, many people dispute her legacy due to claims by people during her time that portrayed her as evil, mean, and a cruel empress. The reason for these claims was because her son left her tomb blank, and jerks wrote hateful things on her tomb about her. These writings were purely sexist because she was the first (and only) women in china to become a powerful empress, which to many was unacceptable during that time. Also, another reason for why people wrote so badly about Empress Wu, was the fact that Confucianism was very strong in the beginning of her reign, and traditionally Confucianism didn’t support women holding powerful positions.

 By Ligeia Steadman