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Wu Zetian: China’s kick-ass female Emperor

Chinese Characters is a new series of essays exploring Chinese history through the life stories of key personalities. Here, series presenter Rana Mitter tells the story of Wu Zetian, the female Emperor.

Only one woman has ever sat on China’s throne as Emperor in her own right. That woman was Wu Zetian (624-705) of the Tang dynasty. And to get there, she left behind a trail of bodies that even Cersei Lannister might have nodded at in respect.

How did she do it? She did so with ruthless determination – she killed her own newborn child – and then framed the Empress for the murder.

Wu Zetian (624-705) of the Tang dynasty

Wu Zetian started at court in a role not much better than that of a classy serving woman, and her chances of rising in the imperial household were pretty minimal; but she managed to get close to her Emperor, Taizong, by changing his bedsheets. When he died, she was sent to a Buddhist nunnery – but she escaped – and not only returned to court as a concubine, but also plotted to get rid of the enemies who stood between her and the new Emperor.

Her sister, brothers, the emperor, and her mother were all supposed to have been her victims

How? Well, this was one of the most horrific stories told about her: as the emperor’s concubine, she killed her own newborn child (the Emperor’s child too, of course), and then accused the Empress of having committed the murder.

The Empress was then exiled and Wu Zetian took her place. But she wasn’t satisfied – not until she’d ordered the limbs of her rivals to be cut off, and then left them to drown in a vat of wine. In 690, after the Emperor and his sons had died, she took the ultimate step and made herself Emperor.

This didn’t go down well with observers at the time. "The heart of a serpent and the nature of a wolf," spat one observer. Her hit-list on the way to power was pretty impressive, if rumour is true – her sister, brothers, the emperor, and her mother were all supposed to have been her victims.

Why did she get such a terrible reputation? Being a woman was a large part of it. She clearly was something of a megalomaniac. But that is also true of huge numbers of male emperors. Yet her contemporaries, and the men who wrote the histories later, had to portray her as a ghastly anomaly.

But if we step away from her reputation and instead look at what she achieved, the story changes. A map of the Tang empire under Wu Zetian covers a very impressive stretch of territory. Historians agree that it was a time when the empire was well run, and its people relatively content.