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Empress Wu

From Academic Kids

Template:Chinese Emperor 1

Wu Zetian (武則天) (625 - December 16, 705), personal name Wu Zhao (武曌), was the only female emperor in the history of China, founding her own dynasty, the Zhou (周), and ruling under the name Emperor Shengshen (聖神皇帝) from 690 to 705. Her rise and reign has been criticized harshly by Confucian historians but has been viewed under a different light after the 1950s.

Her family was from Wenshui (文水), depending from Bingzhou (幷州) prefecture (now called Taiyuan in Shanxi province). Wenshui is now a county (文水县) inside L? prefecture (吕梁地区) and located 80 km.(50 miles) southwest of Taiyuan. Her father was Wu Shihuo (武士彠) (577-635), a member of a renowned aristocratic family of Shanxi, and an ally of Li Yuan, the founder of the Tang Dynasty, in his conquest of power (Li Yuan was himself from a renowned aristocratic family of Shanxi). Her mother was Lady Yang (楊氏) (579-670), a woman from the Sui imperial family. Wu Zetian was not born in Wenshui, as her father was a high ranking civil servant serving in various posts and locations along his life. The most serious claimant for her birth place is Lizhou (利州) prefecture, now the prefecture-level city of Guangyuan (广元市), in the north of Sichuan province, some 800 km.(500 miles) southwest of Wenshui, but other places have been proposed, including the capital Chang'an.

She entered Emperor Taizong's harem most probably in 638 (other possible date: 636), and was made a cairen (才人), i.e. one of the nine concubines of the fifth rank. Emperor Taizong gave her the name Mei (媚), meaning "charming, beautiful", and the young empress is generally known inside China as Wu Meiniang (武媚娘, i.e. "Miss Wu Mei").

In 649, Taizong died, and as was customary for concubines Wu Meiniang had to leave the imperial palace and enter a Buddhist nunnery where she had her hair shaved. Not long afterwards, most probably in 651, she was reintegrated into the imperial palace by Emperor Gaozong, son of Taizong, who had been struck by her beauty while visiting and worshipping in the nunnery. Gaozong's empress consort, from the Wang (王) family, played a key role in the reintegration of Wu Meiniang in the imperial palace. The emperor at the time was greatly attached to a concubine from the Xiao (蕭) family, and the empress hoped that the arrival of a new beautiful concubine would divert the emperor from the concubine [[n饝] Xiao. Modern historians dispute this traditional history, and some think that the young Wu Zetian never actually left the imperial palace, and that she was probably already having an affair with the crown prince (who became Emperor Gaozong) while Emperor Taizong was still alive. Wherever the truth lies, it remains certain that by the early 650s Wu Zetian was a concubine of Emperor Gaozong, and she was titled zhaoyi (昭儀), i.e. the highest ranking of the nine concubines of the second rank. The fact that the emperor had taken one of the concubines of his father as a concubine, and what's more a nun if traditional history is to be believed, was found utterly shocking by Confucian moralists.

Wu Zetian soon revealed her talent at manipulation and intrigue. She first had the concubine n饠Xiao out of the way, and then her next target was the empress consort herself. In the year 654, Wu Zetian's baby child was killed, her rival was identified as the murderer and was then persecuted. It is still a mystery what really happened in the night the murder took place. Legend has it that Wu Zetian actually killed her own son, but the theory could have been made up by her enemies or Confucian historians. Soon after that, she succeeded in having the emperor creating for her the extraordinary title of chenfei (宸妃), which was ranking her above the four concubines of the first rank and immediately below the empress consort. Then eventually, in November 655, the empress n饠Wang was demoted and Wu Zetian was made empress consort.

After Gaozong started to suffer from strokes from November 660, she began to govern China from behind the scenes. She was even more in absolute control of power after she had Shangguan Yi (上官儀) and Li Zhong (李忠) executed in January 665, and henceforth she sat behind to the now silent emperor during court audiences (most probably, she sat behind a screen at the rear of the throne) and took decisions. She reigned in his name and then after his death in the name of subsequent puppet emperors (her son Emperor Zhongzong and then her younger son Emperor Ruizong), only assuming power herself in October 690, when she declared the Zhou Dynasty, named after her father's nominal posthumous fief as well as in reference to the illustrious Zhou Dynasty of Chinese Antiquity from which she claimed the Wu family was descended. In December 689, ten months before she officially ascended the throne, she had the government create the character Zhao (曌), an entirely new invention created along with 11 other characters in order to show her absolute power, and she chose this new character as her given name, which became her taboo name when she ascended the throne ten months later. On ascending the throne, she proclaimed herself Emperor Shengshen, the first woman ever to use the title emperor (皇帝) which had been created 900 years before by the first emperor of China Qin Shi Huang. Indeed she was the only woman in the 2100 years of imperial China ever to use the title emperor, and this again utterly shocked Confucian elites.

Her regime was characterized by Machiavellian cleverness and brutal despotism. She gained popular support by advocacy of Buddhism but ruthlessly persecuted her opponents within the royal family and the nobility. Traditional Chinese political theory did not allow a woman to ascend the throne and Empress Wu was determined to quash the opposition and promote loyal officials within the bureaucracy (see also the similar Salic law). In October 695, after several additions of characters, her imperial name was definitely set as Emperor Tiance Jinlun Shengshen (天冊金輪聖神皇帝), a name which did not undergo further changes until the end of her reign.

On February 20, 705, now in her early 80s and ailing, she was unable to thwart a coup whose result was the murder of her two lovers, the Zhang brothers (Zhang Yizhi, 張易之, and his younger brother Zhang Changzong 張昌宗), whose corruption and bullying had become unbearable in the imperial court. Her power ended that day, and she had to step down while Emperor Zhongzong was restored, allowing the Tang Dynasty to resume on March 3, 705. She died nine months later, perhaps consoled by the fact that her nephew Wu Sansi (武三思), son of her half-brother, and as ambitious and intriguing as her, had managed to become the real master behind the scenes, controlling the restored emperor through his empress consort with whom he was having an affair.

Although it was short-lived, some historians consider the establishment of this Zhou dynasty the result of better equality between the sexes during the succeeding Tang Dynasty.

Considering the events of her life literary allusions to Empress Wu can carry several connotations: a woman who has inappropriately overstepped her bounds, the hypocrisy of preaching compassion while simultaneously engaging in a pattern of corrupt and vicious behavior, and ruling by pulling strings in the background.

History of China
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Zhou Dynasty (690 - 705)

Convention: use personal name
Temple names Family name and first name Period of reign Era name and their according ranges of years
None Wǔ Zh௨武曌) 690-705
  • Tiānsh򵠨天授): Oct. 16, 690 - Apr. 21, 692
    (18 months)

  • R?如意): Apr. 22 - Oct. 22, 692
    (6 months)

  • Chᮧsh򵠨長壽): Oct. 23, 692 - Jun. 8, 694
    (19 months ?)

  • Yᮺ੠(延載): Jun. 9, 694 - Jan. 21, 695
    (7 months ?)

  • Zh讧sh讧 (證聖): Jan. 22 - Oct. 21, 695
    (9 months)

  • Tiānc跠nsu젨天冊萬歲): Oct. 22, 695 - Jan. 19, 696
    (3 months)

  • Wளu줦amp;#275;ngfēng (萬歲登封): Jan. 20 - Apr. 21, 696
    (3 months)

  • Wளu촦amp;#333;ngtiān (萬歲通天): Apr. 22, 696 - Sept. 28, 697
    (17 months)

  • Sh鮧ōng (神功): Sept. 29 - Dec. 19, 697
    (2 months ?)

  • Sh讧l젨聖曆): Dec. 20, 697 - May 26, 700
    (29 months)

  • Jiǔsh젨久視): May 27, 700 - Feb. 14, 701
    (8 months ?)

  • D຺ (大足): Feb. 15 - Nov. 25, 701
    (9 months ?)

  • Chᮧ'ān (長安): Nov. 26, 701 - Jan. 29, 705
    (38 months)

  • Sh鮬󮧠(神龍): Jan. 30 - Mar. 3, 705
    (Zhou dynasty was abolished on March 3, 705, and the Tang Dynasty was restored that same day, but the Shenlong era continued to be used until 707)

Related Articles


Preceded by:
(Dynasty established)
Emperor of the Zhou Dynasty Succeeded by:
(Dynasty abolished)
Preceded by:
Emperor Ruizong of the Tang
Emperor of China Succeeded by:
Emperor Zhongzong of the Tang

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