Empress Wu Zetian — The Only Female Emperor in the History of China 

Wu Zetian (624 — 705), also named Wu Zhao, was the only legitimate female emperor in the history of China.

She not only put the crown on herself and changed the name of the empire, but also further flourished the empire and improved civilians’ well-being.

 

She was a challenger of the System of Military Aristocracy Clans and one of the best representatives of Feminism.

As the first and only woman who obtained great centralized power and sovereignty, her love life was quite colorful as well.

Wu Zetian was never a moral model and had failed many people, but she had never let herself down.

Portrait of Empress Wu Zetian

Cheating on the Emperor with the Crown Prince

Wu Zetian’s father was a businessman that had donated some money to support a general in rebelling against the Sui Dynasty. After this general won and established the Tang Dynasty, Wu Zetian’s father was awarded a political position and a noble title.

Her father departed when she was 11; afterward, she and her mother were treated badly by other family members. 

When Wu was 13 years old, she was selected as Emperor Li Shimin’s imperial concubine, because of her beauty. 

However, she wasn't quite appreciated by the emperor. A few years later, she still had no kids and had never gotten promoted.

No one knew since when Wu Zetian and the crown prince Li Zhi started their romantic relationship that had never been found out.

Young Empress Wu Zetian of Tang Dynasty in History of China

Life in A Temple as A Widow

 

Emperor Li Shimin departed when Wu Zetian was 25 years old. 

According to Empire Tang’s tradition, the late emperor’s concubines would be sent to an imperial temple, if they never had kids. 

So Wu started her simple life in the temple named Gan Ye, where she was supposed to spend the rest of her life reading and writing scriptures in peace.

At that time, her former lover Li Zhi, the favorite son and crown prince of Emperor Li Shimin, already ascended to the throne and had a noble queen, Empress Wang, and some beautiful concubines.

Li Zhi (628 — 683), now the Emperor Gaozong of Tang, was young and ambitious; as one of the best emperors of the Tang Dynasty, he governed the empire well and lived a happy life.

Portrait of Li Zhi, the Emperor Gaozong of Tang

Portrait of Li Zhi, the Emperor Gaozong of Tang

Snatching the Throne from the Current Queen

One year later, when Emperor Li Zhi was paying a visit to this imperial temple, he saw Wu Zetian, his former lover again.

During this meeting, Li Zhi was reminded of her charm and their good old times. Wu Zetian made the new emperor madly fall in love with her again and decided to welcome her back to the royal palace.

Very soon, she gave birth to her first son and got promoted. Then she made Emperor Li Zhi get tired of his decent queen and other beautiful concubines, those who were strictly selected by his remarkable parents.

Building Complex of Daming Palace

Building Complex of Daming Palace the Royal Palace of the Tang Dynasty, based on Architectural Historian Yang Hongxun's Restored Model.

Afterward, the emperor and Wu began to plan to abolish Empress Wang and gave the queen's crown to Wu, for both political and personal reasons.

However, the current queen, a decent and beautiful girl from an honorable clan, was chosen by the great Emperor Li Shimin; therefore, many powerful officials strongly disagreed with this idea.

Since then, Li Zhi and Wu Zetian became political allies, based on their love, and used this as an excuse to challenge tho military aristocratic families that the current queen represented.

A few years later, this smart and determined couple finally put the queen’s crown on Wu Zetian, banished those opponent ministers, and severely weakened the dominant clans of the Tang Empire. 

Vairocana Buddha of Longmen Grottoes, built from 672 to 675, was supported by and modeled on Queen Wu Zetian.

Vairocana Buddha of Longmen Grottoes, built from 672 to 675, was supported by and modeled on Queen Wu Zetian., Photo by Wuye.

Getting Involved in Politics and Obtaining Power

Wu Zetian’s husband, Emperor Li Zhi, was a remarkable monarch in history.

Besides having restrained the powerful clans, he further extended the territory of the Tang Empire, by defeating the western part of Turkic Khanates and other nearby regions.

He wasn’t quite an innovative emperor, however, every section of the Empire Tang flourished under his reign.

 

As his father Li Shimin had expected, Li Zhi well managed and developed their kingdom exceptionally. 

Unfortunately, Emperor Li Zhi frequently suffered headaches since his 30s; therefore, as his great love and sincere political ally, Empress Wu gradually got involved in political decisions.

They also held a big worship ceremony (Feng Chan) on Mount Tai together, like some other great emperors in the history of China.

Li Zhi and Wu Zetian had four sons and two daughters. Their first son, a very smart and elegant prince, passed away at a young age.

The second son, a decent prince, and an excellent artist was banished to a remote city and then forced to suicide after he had displeased Wu.

Unearthed Gilding Copper Knocker (Fu Shou) From Mausoleum of Li Xian (the Second Son of Empress Wu Zetian and Emperor Li Zhi)

Unearthed Gilding Copper Knocker (Fu Shou) From Mausoleum of Li Xian (the Second Son of Empress Wu Zetian and Emperor Li Zhi) — Qianling Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Snatching the Imperial Throne From Her Sons

When Empress Wu was 59, her husband Emperor Li Zhi passed away, and their third son ascended to the throne.

But soon, she found this son was too timid and irrationally obsessed with his queen. So Wu abolished him and nominated her fourth son as the new emperor.

This decision didn't satisfy her either.

Then, she half-imprisoned the new emperor in his palace and was in actual charge of everything herself.

This made many people from the royal clan unsatisfied and started to rebel. Empress Wu Zetian sent 300,000 soldiers to defeat them and murdered large numbers of people from the royal Li clan, except her kids. 

Unearthed Gold Card in the Mount Song, Writing that Emperor Wu Zetian Prays for the Forgiveness from Deities about All the Sins that She had Committed

Unearthed Gold Card in the Mount Song, Writing that Emperor Wu Prays for the Forgiveness from Deities about All the Sins that She had Committed — Henan Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Six years later, Empress Wu changed the empire's name from Tang to Zhou Dynasty and claimed herself as the new emperor.

Her smart prime minister Di Renjie (630 — 700) persuaded Wu to nominate her son as the crown prince, instead of her nephew who only shares the same family name with her. 

This made sure that after Empress Wu passed away, the throne would go back to the royal Li clan again.

Therefore, her fourth son was nominated as the crown prince; but soon, he abdicated it to his older brother, the third son of Empress Wu.

Unearthed Epitaph from mausoleum of Yuan Gongyu, Wrote by Remarkable Prime Minister Di Renjie of the Tang Dynasty

Epitaph of Yuan Gongyu Written by Di Renjie — Qian Tang Zhi Zhai Museum in Luoyang City (Photo by Dongmaiying) 

Empress Wu and Her Remarkable Governance 

Despite the means that she used to snatch the throne, honestly, Empress Wu Zetian was quite a good monarch.

  • She kept fighting against the military aristocratic clans within her empire, by further refining the Imperial Examination System that added many subjects and positions to include more people from humble families.

During her reign, many intelligent people were selected into the ruling class, no matter whether they were men or women, or if they came from poverty or even her political enemies’ families; they were given power as long as they were capable and loyal.

She also recruited many intelligent women to be involved in politics, including the first and only female prime minister Shangguan Wan'er

Unearthed Painted Figurine of Women Riding Horse, Which was Quite Popular Under Empress Wu Zetian's Reign

Unearthed Painted Figurine of Women Riding Horse, Which was Quite Popular Under Empress Wu's Reign — Art Institute of Chicago (Photo by Dongmaiying)

  • Empress Wu lowered taxes and paid attention to agriculture; farmers with good production would be awarded.

  • To maintain her dominance, Wu used secret police officials to strictly apply the laws and gather information against opponents; she also established an efficient system for people to inform against her potential enemies or those that may threaten her throne. 

  • Moreover, she extended the empire's territory by defeating and managing powerful nomadic regimes near the borders, which further flourished the business trades on Silk Road

There were some wars against neighbors and some uprising armies within the nation, however, the agriculture, handicraft, and commerce sections of her empire were all well developed, and the population nearly doubled during her reign.

Besides being beautiful, powerful, and decisive, Empress Wu was a good poet and calligrapher as well, who even invented some Chinese characters on her own. 

Calligraphy Work of Empress Wu Zetian

Calligraphy Work of Empress Wu Zetian

Handsome Male Concubines of Empress Wu

Empress Wu also kept some young and handsome male imperial concubines; she even set up an office to manage and organize them.

When she was old and sick, two of her favorite male concubines, the Zhang brothers, obtained lots of power and committed many horrible crimes.

Hence, some officials allied with Wu's two sons and only daughter, Princess Taiping, initiated a coup, killed the Zhang brothers, and seized this opportunity to force Empress Wu to give the throne back to her third son, the current crown prince.

Her son named the dynasty back to Tang again and became the next emperor, the Emperor Zhongzong of Tang.

In the same year, Wu Zetian passed away and was buried with her second husband Emperor Li Zhi, the love of her life.

However, her funeral was a queen's ceremony, instead of an emperor's.

As she commanded, a blank tombstone was established in front of her cemetery, meaning that people could say whatever they want to comment about her.

Blank Tombstone of Empress Wu Zetian

The Blank Tombstone of Empress Wu Zetian

A Deviant Woman and An Exceptional Emperor


Empress Wu Zetian was frequently criticized for her deviant behaviors, because she barely did what a "good" woman would do, based on virtue standards of more than 1000 years ago.

As a concubine of great Emperor Li Shimin, she wasn’t faithful nor appreciated; instead, she had an affair with the emperor’s beloved son and slaughtered lots of princes of his royal clan years later.

As the queen of her second husband Emperor Li Zhi, she did not behave nor stay away from politics and power, like other moral Chinese empresses in history; she, on the contrary, had been actively involved in governance and tried her best to be influential and to seize power.

As an empress dowager, she didn’t assist or teach her sons to be good emperors; instead, she took over the throne from them, and sometimes even imprisoned them, which made her kids stay in unstable and nervous situations frequently.

As a lover, she never covered up for her handsome male concubines; whoever endangered her ruling or broke the law would be executed as long as they were found out. 

Painting of Queen Wu Zetian Patrolling in the Royal Palace, by Court Artist Zhang Xuan of the Tang Dynasty

Painting of Empress Wu Patrolling in the Royal Palace, by Court Artist Zhang Xuan of the Tang Dynasty — National Museum of China

As an emperor, however, Wu Zetian was quite excellent and made the empire further develop and reached prosperity.

This first and only female emperor in Chinese history made all men kneel to her and respect her as the most honorable monarch, using her exceptional governance skills and outstanding achievements.

As a woman born into an ordinary official’s family, she was a much better monarch than many male emperors who were better educated and ascended to the throne legitimately.

Unlike all the other emperors in the history of China, she was the only one with a blank tombstone; after all her legendary experiences and accomplishments, she chose silence. 

The Mausoleum of Emperor Li Zhi and Empress Wu Zetian — Qianling Mausoleum in Xianyang City, Shaanxi Province

The Mausoleum of Emperor Li Zhi and Empress Wu Zetian — Qianling Mausoleum in Xianyang City, Shaanxi Province