Friday, January 31, 2014

Wu Zetian: Only Woman Emperor of China

Empress Wu Zetian
Today, many countries accepts the role of women in ruling a country. Several nations elected a woman to the position of either President or Prime Minister. Names like Angela Merkel of Germany, Christina Kirchner of Argentina, Dilma Rousseff of Brazil takes the everyday affairs of their respective countries. It shows the changes in time and in the mindset of the people. In East Asia, however, it is difficult to attain such level. It was lucky that President Park Geun-Hye managed to win in Korea. It is because of strong Confucian thinking and ideals that made it difficult for women to attain the highest office in their countries. In China, the home of Confucian, one such woman in the past defied the social norms and became the Emperor of all China.

Wu Zetian was the Emperor of China from 690 to 705 and founder of the short lived Zhou Dynasty. She took the reins of power to sit on the dragon throne. Her brilliance and ruthlessness allowed her to be on the top. Under her hegemony, the empire took a path to continuous prosperity amidst of political instability.

Wu Zetian was a product of her time. Her father was a wealthy government official and supported the founding of the Tang Dynasty. She was lucky to have been born during the Tang. Under the dynasty, woman were not subjugated harshly to the Confucian ideals and social norms. They were not placed on the burdensome tradition of foot binding. Most of all they were allowed to be educated, unlike the ideas that women should only do household chores. She, therefore, received education and became a learned woman. She liked music, literature, and read wide range of books. From her youth, her fondness of books would prepare her for her future role. At the age of thirteen, she was sent to the Imperial Palace and became a concubine of the Emperor Taizong.

She proved to be a remarkable concubine. The emperor took notice of her wit. Some princes also sowed admiration for Wu Zetian. One of the princes that took notice of her was Prince Li Zhi. In 649, Emperor Taizhong passed away leaving his empire to his sons. Wu Zetian, however, was sent to a convent and live the rest of her life as a Buddhist nun. During her time in the temple, she learned more about the religion and appreciated it more. Meanwhile, Prince Li Zhi became the emperor and given the name Gaozong. Gaozong remembered Wu Zentian and ordered her back to the imperial palace.

Wu Zentian return to the palace was marked by cruelty. As Wu came back in 655, the Gaozong expelled from the palace his Empress Wang and made Wu as his new empress and wife. She gave him 4 sons and 2 daughters. Later on, to eliminate her only rival, Wu ordered the death of Empress Wang.

The rise of Wu came unexpected. Gaozong proved to be a psychologically and physically weak for the position of emperor. The strain of his job took a toll on him. He later developed hypertension. This hypertension then took a physical manifestation in form of blindness. Very ill, he allowed her empress to take the everyday state affairs. Wu had her first taste of power. Later on, she became officially regent for the Gaozong Emperor. Then in 683, Emperor Gaozong succumb to his illness and passed away.

After the death of the emperor, Wu Zentian moved to take power even at the cause of her own children. A decade ago, a year after becoming regent, Wu had his first son, Li Hong, poisoned. Then he had crown prince and his second son, Li Xian, commit suicide. The next Emperor Zhongzong, her third son, was brought under her influenced and later deposed and sent to exile. She then made his fourth son, Li Dan, to be Emperor Ruizong. After few months, she launched a coup against him and placed him in house arrest (he would be emperor again in 710). Then in 690, she officially placed herself to the dragon throne and established a new dynasty, the Zhou. 

Many officials, denounced the new dynasty and Wu Zetian. She, brave enough to kill some of her own children, did not hesitate to take down her opponents. She had some of her enemies killed ruthlessly. Some of them were exiled but many were jailed. To keep dissent at bay, she established her own secret police. This secret police deterred anyone from plotting against the Empress Wu.

While her secret police handle any opposition, the Empress focused her attention to domestic matters. She took over a vast and wealthy empire. It had over a million of citizens and lands that that were thousands of miles. Some officials might had reservations on her for she deviates from the Confucian norm, talented officials celebrated her reign. She had the wisdom from her years of reading that merit and talent should be the basis of having a position in government. She appointed well talented men to ministerial positions. She had her also discerning Prime Minister, Di Renjie, to help her look for talented individuals to be in government. To boost having good quality government officials, she improved the civil service exams and made sure that the best would enter. In addition, she lowered the influence of military officers in administrative affairs in order to allow her officials to take the right steps without any interference.

Besides administrative affairs, she also took a stand in improving women status in society. She made ceremonies that were reserved for women as public ceremonies. She also allowed women to hold some government offices.

In the agriculture, she made improvements that resulted to bountiful harvests. She lowered land taxes and punished officials that would continue to enforce high taxes against peasants. She increased the level of public works that would benefit the agricultural sector of the empire. She also placed quota that local units should meet or face consequences. For the farmers, she promoted the spread of new agricultural techniques to increase production. She championed the cause of the peasants and as a reward, the agriculture of China blossomed. 

In the military front, she also showed her concern. She expanded China’s territories to the northeast. She ordered her troops to secure the borders that laid the ground work for the reopening of the lucrative Silk Road.

She also favored Buddhism more than Daoism. She supported the spread of Buddhism to China. She built structures that would honor the religion. For instance, she ordered the carving of a statue of a Buddha Vairocana or the Lord of the Universe in the Longmen Caves. 

Her health however took a down turn by the turn of the 8th century. She became weak and ill. Her keen instinct became weak. As her body declines, she succumb to the influence of unscrupulous men, like the brothers Zhang Changzong and Zhang Yizhi. These men were more interested in raising their statures and used Empress Wu to their advantage. The two took charge of the day to day affairs of the state as the Empress Wu weakened further.

In the year 705, the two wasn’t able to detect a plot that would bring the Zhou Dynasty down. Prime Minister Zhang Jianzhi, rivals of the Zhang brothers, plotted with the son and heir of Empress Wu, the exiled Emperor Zhongzong. In 705 they launched a coup that toppled down the Zhang brothers and Wu Zetian. The Zhang brothers were executed for treason and empress Wu was forced to abdicate in favor of her son, Emperor Zhongzong. The new emperor then re-established the Tang Dynasty and the Zhou dynasty finally ended. Eventually, Empress Wu Zetian succumb to her weakness and died at the same year, 705, at the age of 81. She was granted honor to be buried along her husband Emperor Gaozong.

For several centuries, no one managed to take the same feet of Empress Wu. Although many other women acquired powerful influenced, like the infamous Empress Dowager Cixi, no one else became a women ruler of China. Wu Zetian was regarded as an extraordinary figure in world history.

Asiapac Editorial. Chinese History: Ancient China to 1911. Singapore: Asiapac Books Pte Ltd, 2006. 

Huang, R. China: A Macro History. New York: M.E. Sharpe, Inc., 1997. 

Tanner, H. China: A History. Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company Inc., 2009. 

"Empress Wu Zetian." Biography: Female Heroes of Asia - China. Accessed January 31, 2014.

"Tang Empress Wu Zetian." Travel China Guide. Accessed January 31, 2014.

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