Fun Facts about Chinese Culture and History

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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 name of the empire, but also further flourished the empire and improved people’s well being. She was another challenger of the Dominant Family System and the best representative of Feminism.

 

As the first woman who obtained the great centralized power of a powerful country, her love live was quite colorful as well.

 

She 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’s father was a businessman and had donated some money to support Tang’s first emperor to rebel the Sui Dynasty; he was given a political position and noble title after the Tang Dynasty was established.

 

Her father departed when she was 11; afterwards, 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 been appreciated; she had no kids with the emperor and never got promoted.

 

No one knew since when did Wu and the crown prince Li Zhi start their romantic relationship, and they had never been found out.

Emperor Li Shimin departed when Wu was 25 years old. 

According to 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 lives in the temple; 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 of the Emperor Li Shimin, already ascended to the throne and had a noble queen and some beautiful concubines.

 

From Widowed Concubine to the Queen of the New Emperor

One year later, Emperor Li Zhi, also respected as Tang Gao Zong, met Wu, his 4 years older former lover, in this imperial temple.

 

He was reminded of her charm and their good old times; he madly fell in love with her again, and decided to welcome her back.

 

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

 

Afterwards, Zhi and Wu wanted to banish 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 great Emperor Li Shimin; therefore, many important ministers strongly disagreed with this idea.

 

Then Zhi and Wu became political allies, based on their great love, and used this as an excuse to challenge those dominate families that the current queen represented.

 

They were both smart and strong monarchs; a few years later, they put the queen’s crown on Wu, banished those opponent ministers, and severely weakened those dominant clans of the Empire Tang. 

Wu Zetian Getting Involved in Politic and Obtaining Power

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

 

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

 

He wasn’t an innovative emperor, however, every section of the Empire Tang flourished under his ruling. As his father Li Shimin had expected, Li Zhi managed and developed their empire quite well. 

 

Unfortunately, Emperor Li Zhi frequently suffered headache since his 30s; so Wu gradually got involved in political decisions.

 

They also held a big sacrifice ceremony in Mount Tai, like some other great emperors did in the history of China.

 

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

 

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

 

Snatching the Throne From Her Own Sons

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

 

But soon, she found this son was too weak, and was irrationally obsessed to his queen, so Wu banished him and nominated her fourth son as the new emperor.

 

This change obviously didn't satisfy Wu 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; Wu sent 300,000 soldiers defeated them, and murdered large numbers of people from the royal Li clan, except her own kids. 

Six years later, Wu changed the empire's name to Zhou, and claimed herself the new emperor.

 

A smart minister Di Renjie persuaded Wu to nominate her own 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 Li’s clan again.

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

Empress Wu Zetian and Her Remarkable Governance 

Honestly, Empress Wu Zetian was quite a good monarch in the history of China.

 

She kept fighting with the dominant clans within her empire, by further refined the Imperial Examination System. More subjects and positions were added for people from humble families.

 

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

 

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

 

In order 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 may threaten her throne. 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Handsome Male Concubines of the Empress Wu Zetian

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

 

When she was old and sick, two of her favorite male concubines obtained lots of power and did many horrible, illegal things.

 

Later, some officers initiated a coup, killed those two male concubines, and forced Wu to give the throne back to her third son, the current crown prince.

 

Her son named the dynasty back to Tang and became the next emperor.

 

In the same year, Wu passed away and was buried with her second husband Emperor Li Zhi, the love of her life, using a queen’s ceremony.

 

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

A Devient 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 in 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, and stay away from politic and power, as other good queens in the history of China did; she, on the contrary, actively involved in governance and tried her best to be influential and powerful.

 

As an empress dowager, she didn’t assist or teach her sons to be good emperors; instead, she took the throne from them and made them always lived in unstable and nervous situations.

 

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, she was quite excellent, who made the empire further developed and reached prosperity.

 

This first and only female emperor in the history of China made all the 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 officer’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. 

 

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) was a noble and beautiful princess 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. 

 

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.”  

 

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.