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 woman who obtained the great centralized power of a powerful country, 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.

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 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 got promoted.

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

Wu Zetian’s 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 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

Snatching the Throne of the 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 fell in love with her again, and decided to welcome her back to the royal palace.

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

Afterward, Zhi and Wu wanted to abolish the current queen and gave the crown to Wu. 

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 those 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 those dominant clans of the Tang Empire. 

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

Wu Zetian Getting Involved in Politics and Obtaining Power

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

Besides having restrained the powerful clans, he further extended the territory of the Tang Empire, by defeating the west 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, Wu Zetian gradually got involved in political decisions.

They also held a big worship ceremony (Feng Chan) in 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, an excellent artist, was banished to a remote city and then forced to suicide, after he had displeased Wu Zetian.  

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 Wu Zetian 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 was 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, Wu Zetian 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. Wu Zetian sent 300,000 soldiers defeated 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 — Henan Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Six years later, Wu Zetian changed the empire's name from Tang to Zhou and claimed herself 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 that only shares the same family name with her. 

This made sure that after Empress Wu Zetian 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 Zetian.

Empress Wu Zetian and Her Remarkable Governance 

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

  • She kept fighting against the military aristocratic clans within her empire, by having further refined 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 they were men or women, or if they came from poverty or even her political enemies’ family; they were given power as long as they were capable and loyal.

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

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

  • To maintain her dominance, Wu used some cruel and strict officers to strictly apply laws; she also established an efficient system for people to inform against her potential enemies or those that may threaten her throne. 

  • Moreover, she successfully extended the empire's territory by defeating and managing powerful nomadic regimes near the border.

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

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

Calligraphy Work of Empress Wu Zetian

Handsome Male Concubines of Empress Wu Zetian

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

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

Hence, some officials initiated a coup, killed those two male concubines, and seized this opportunity to force Wu Zetian 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.

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.

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 being appreciated; instead, she had an affair with the emperor’s beloved son and slaughtered lots of princes of his royal clan years later.

As a queen of her second husband Emperor Li Zhi, she did not behave nor stay away from politics and power, like other moral queens in the history of China; she, on the contrary, 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, sometimes even imprisoned them, which made her kids stayed 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 were executed as long as they were found out. 

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

This first and only female emperor in Chinese history made all men kneeled to her and respected 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 lots of 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 of the legendary experiences and accomplishments, she chose the silence. 

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

 

Li Guoer — An Ungrateful and Spoiled Princess

Empress Wu Zetian’s success had set an example for many ambitious women, however, not everyone was that unique and capable.

 

Some other female members of the royal family of the Tang Dynasty tried to manipulate the empire, but all failed.

Li Guoer (684 — 710), also respected as Princess Anle, was one of the most beautiful princesses of the wealthy Tang Dynasty.

 

Blessed with a doting father, free choice of marital prospects, and a promising future, she was destined to lead an ideal life. However, she chose a less noble path and met with a tragic end. 

From Daughter of A Deported King to the Princess

Her father was Empress Wu Zetian’s third son, who was an emperor but got dismissed, and then became emperor again after his mother gave up the throne in a coup.

Born during her father’s banishment, Li Guoer suffered many hardships with her parents.

When her father later ascended to the throne after that coup, he indulged her desires both out of a sense of love and a means of compensating her for their difficult years together.

Li Guoer repaid her father’s indulgence by getting pregnant before she was married, cheating on her first husband, and living a life of luxury.

She also sold political positions, murdered officials who opposed her, wrongfully occupied lands belonging to others and engaged in other illegal activities. Although her father was aware of these indiscretions, he refused to reprimand her. 

Li Guoer’s secret ambition was to become the second female emperor in the history of China, just as her grandmother Wu Zetian had done before.

To achieve this end, she insulted and falsely accused the crown prince of wrongdoing in an attempt to steal his title and be designated as “crown princess.”  

Failed Coup and Tragic Ending of Princess Anle

However, the title of the crown princess was one thing her father would not allow.

Her father’s patience with her misdeeds finally wore out when she and her husband murdered an important imperial censor.

Realizing that the emperor’s attitude had changed towards her, she and her mother poisoned the emperor and tried to seize political power.

Before they could obtain the throne, the deceased emperor’s nephew named Li Longji and favorite daughter of Empress Wu Zetain initiated a counter-coup and stopped them.  

Li Guoer was exiled from the royal family, sentenced to death, and executed at the young age of 25 years old.

Her mother and her experiences showed that not every woman in the royal palace had the ability to wear the crown. After them, the popularization of women in politics dramatically decreased in the Tang Dynasty. 

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