Wu Zetian

Image of Empress Wu (18th century), from An 18th century album of portraits of 86 emperors of China, with Chinese historical notes. Image Credit: WikiCommons.

By Gabby Storey

Wu Zetian (624-705) was empress consort of China through her marriage to Emperor Gaozong, and later became empress dowager and regent for her sons Zhongzong and Ruizong. She later became the first empress regnant of China.

Born in the Sichuan province of Lizhou to Wu Shiyue and Lady Yang on 17 February 624, we have no record of Wu’s birth name. During the 640s, as a teenager Wu Zetian entered the imperial palace as a concubine of the fifth rank.

After the death of the Emperor Taizong, Wu Zetian became a nun of the Buddhist Ganye temple. However, Empress Wang, the wife of the succeeding Emperor Gaozong, encouraged Gaozong’s affections for Wu Zetian in hopes of displacing a favourite concubine, Xiao Shufei.

Empress Wang’s plan failed, with both herself and Xiao Shufei being deposed shortly after Wu Zetian’s return to the imperial palace. Wu Zetian was promoted to the status of “celestial consort”, and later became the new empress.

The new empress expanded her networks, gaining support from scholars and men of religion from the Buddhist and Daoist branches. In 683, Gaozong died of an illness and was succeeded by his third son with Wu Zetian, Emperor Zhongzong, however he was shortly deposed.

Another son, known as Emperor Ruizong (r. 684-690), succeeded him. Ruizong held little power, with Wu taking full control of the imperial court. In 690, Ruizong yielded power to Wu, and she established herself as empress regnant of the Zhou dynasty.

Wu’s reign was marked by her use of secret police, imperial intrigues, and her employment of art and symbolism, alongside her religious devotion, to showcase her authority and rule. Her illness in her later years saw factional intrigue for the successor to the throne.

On 21 February 705, Wu named Zhongzong as regent, and the following day she agreed to pass the throne to Zhongzong. The day after this agreement saw Zhongzong formally retake the throne, with Wu moved to Shangyang palace.

Wu died on 16 December 705, and was buried with Emperor Gaozong at Qianling Mausoleum under Zhongzong’s orders. Although Wu founded the Zhou dynasty, it began and ended with her, as Zhongzong’s accession reinstated the Tang dynasty.

Recommended Reading

Elisabetta Colla, “When The Emperor is A Woman: The Case of Wu Zetian 武則天 (624-705), The “Emulator of Heaven,” in A Companion to Global Queenship, ed., Elena Woodacre, 13-25 (Amsterdam: Arc Humanities Press, 2018)

N. Harry Rothschild, Wu Zhao: China’s Only Woman Emperor (London: Pearson, 2008)

N. Harry Rothschild, Emperor Wu Zhao and Her Pantheon of Deis, Divinities, and Dynastic Mothers (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015).

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