Quick Facts about Empress Wu Zetian
- She was born around 625 CE.
- Her name at birth was Wu Zhao.
- Her father, Wu Shihou, was a merchant and a supporter of the Tang dynasty emperor, Gaozu.
- Her mother was Lady Yang.
- After her son, Emperor Ruizong, was removed from the throne in 690 CE, Wu Zhao became the sixth emperor of the Tang dynasty.
- She is also known as Empress Wu and Empress Consort Wu.
How Wu Zhao became Empress Wu Zetian
Wu Zhao first came to prominence in the history of China during the reign of the Tang dynasty emperor, Gaozong. She was a concubine of Emperor Gaozong. She murdered her infant daughter and blamed the murder on Emperor Gaozong’s wife, Empress Wang.
After Empress Wang was removed as wife to the emperor, Wu Zhao became Empress Wu Zetian. To assure there were would no further issues with ex-empress Wang, Wu Zetian had Wang killed. Wang and another concubine, were punished with amputations and their bodies were thrown into vats of wine and left to die.
Other opponents to Wu’s position as empress were murdered or removed from office.
After Emperor Gaozong suffered a stroke, leaving him paralyzed, Empress Wu Zetian, ran the government by declaring herself de facto ruler.
China Under Empress Wu Zetian
Under her rule, the empire continued to expand with forays into the Arab world and a successful invasion into northern Koguryo (Korea) and the subjugation of its people and its land into Chinese territory.
Empress Wu Zetian made Luoyang a second capital in 657 CE. Although having Luoyang as a capital may have been political as it was located in the northeast where Wu Zetian came from, it was also a good move to assure the continuous flow of much needed food into the first capital at Chang’an.
After Emperor Gaozong’s death in 683 CE, Wu Zetian continued to influence the court as the dowager empress.
Soon after Gaozong’s death, an attempt to remove Wu Zetian failed. Many members of the imperial family, government officials, and members of the aristocracy were killed. Wu Zetian established a secret police who used informants to supply names of opponents who were then summarily killed. At the same time more powerful people were being eliminated, Wu Zetian gave advances to commoners and landowners.
After Emperor Gaozong’s death, his son, Zhongzong was made emperor. Wu Zetian charged Emperor Zhongzong, who was her son as well, with treason.
Another of Wu Zetian’s sons, Ruizong, replaced Emperor Zhongzong. During Emperor Ruizong’s reign he was kept prisoner in the palace and his mother ran the government.
How Empress Wu Overcame Restrictions on Women
At this time in China’s history, women, no matter their position, were not allowed to be seen by others at court. Wu Zetian ruled as an emperor by receiving officials in person rather than hiding behind screens.
Where others used family connections to secure their power at court, Wu Zetian used her cunning and her knowledge to build her position at court and to rule over the empire.
Empress Wu’s Religious Alignment
She aligned herself with Buddhist scholars since Buddhism has a more favorable view of women than does Confucianism. She contributed money to have a large Buddha statue erected of Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future, at Longmen. Her lover, Xue Huaiyi, was installed as abbot of the prestige Buddhist temple, White Horse.
She also aligned herself with Daoism and took the title “Sage Mother”. After abbot Xue Huaiyi was no longer in her favor, he burned down the White Horse temple and Wu Zetian turned back to Confucianism.
The Zhou Dynasty and the Fall of Empress Wu
In 690 CE, Wu Zetian finally began ruling alone, without a husband or a puppet-emperor son on the throne. She declared herself emperor of the Zhou dynasty.
Starting in 695 CE, invasions from many groups began. The Qidan, who were Manchurian nomads, began rebelling. Their lands had been pulled into Chinese territory in 605 CE when they lost an earlier invasion. The new rebellion, due to poor administration by the Chinese government, was victorious over the Chinese army near modern day Beijing.
Because this rebellion was successful, other areas of the empire began to see new attacks by those peoples that had earlier come under Chinese rule. The Turks invaded Gansu. The Tibetans encroached onto Chinese territory in Central Asia.
To stop further invasions, Wu Zetian made a marriage alliance with the Turks and eventually, defeated the Qidan in another battle.
Empress Wu Zetian used a lot of government money for building and expanding her empire. She raised taxes, but it was not enough to save her government. The Turks invaded again in 698 CE and it was difficult for her to raise public and government support to send armies to the north once again.
To continue the Tang dynasty and to have her offspring in power, she agreed to have her son Zhongzong come back as emperor.
Before Zhongzong took office again, she took two young Zhang brothers as her lovers in 697 CE. These two young men ruled the court. They spent much of the treasury on gambling, drinking, and parties. The Zhang brothers were assassinated in 705 CE.
Emperor Wu Zetian abdicated the throne in 705 CE and died later in the year.
Empress Wu’s Death
Emperor Wu Zetian had several children.
She died in 705 CE.
Her son, Emperor Zhongzong, succeeded her as the seventh emperor of the Tang dynasty.
Her tomb is in Qianling, Qian county, Shaanxi.
* Image of Empress Wu Zetian is a public domain image from Wikimedia Commons