No One Mourns the Wicked: The Female Emperor Wu Zhao

Empress Wu Zetian | Courtesy of Wikipedia

The Empress Wang cooed over her stepdaughter. With no children of her own, she spoiled the child, only days old, and already loved her husband’s daughter like her own blood. She spent hours of the day in the child’s nursery. But she had duties to attend to. Bidding the girl and her nursemaid goodbye, the empress made her way out of the nursery. Moments later, the girl’s mother entered the room. Smiling down at the child, she smothered the helpless infant to death and exited the room, nodding at the maid. Later, she entered the nursery cheerfully with her lover, the Emperor and father of her children. They gazed into the child’s bassinet only to find the newborn blue and cold. The Emperor quickly turned to the nurse, demanding who had come to visit his daughter. Upon the answer that Empress Wang was the visitor, the emperor stormed out of the room, accusations of jealousy and murder already on his tongue. His lover smiled. This was the last straw. Empress Wang would be put aside. Wu Zhou, beloved mistress, mother, and favorite of the emperor, would take her place.1 “Well-behaved women seldom make history.”2

It is unbelievable that any woman would go so far as to murder her own child to seize power. Wu Zhou was relentless in ambition to rule. She began as a lesser member of the Inner Court of Emperor Taizong, where she met and fell in love with the Crown Prince Gaozong.3

It had been a year since his father’s passing and the young Emperor Gaozong still felt the grief in his heart, mourning for his father and mentor. As he approached the Buddhist monastery to pay his respects, a beautiful, familiar face caught his eye. The young nun was Wu Zhou, the maiden that had cared for him during his father’s illness. He pulled her into an embrace, happy to know that she was once again there to help ease him in his grief. He knew he was in love with her and he soon began making frequent trips to visit her in secret. His ever observant wife, Empress Wang, let him. In the eyes of the Empress, Wu Zhou was no threat to the crown.4

Emperor Gaozong brought his beloved to court as soon as custom dictated she was purified. In only a few years, she gave the emperor three sons and the daughter murdered in her bed, while the Empress remained barren. Empress Wang felt her connections to the nobles were no longer enough to hold Gaozong’s interest. As she struggled to maintain her power, Wu Zhou made powerful alliances with those underestimated by the powerful nobility, the harem, and servants closest to court action. These ladies, the nursemaid among them, became her closest allies and spies, allowing her to best her rivals time and again.5

Court Ladies of the Tang | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Wu Zhou ascended the throne as Gaozong’s wife and Empress. She secured her place with four sons, each a viable heir to the throne. Her husband adored her. Behind the curtain that separated the outer court of men from the inner court of women, she learned the ways of the government. Under her husband’s watchful eye, she began to suggest political policies of her own. She convinced her husband to eliminate the nobles that supported the previous empress, consolidating her influence on the court. To replace them, the rulers established a policy where commoners were permitted to take civil examinations that would make them ministers, a role that beforehand was only filled by nobility.6 To the shock of the royal court, he allowed her participation in an ancient ceremony reserved for only the Emperor. They clearly operated as a team, calling themselves the “Two Sages.”7 This extended into the ailing final years of Gaozong’s reign, when the emperor proposed that Empress Wu rule in his stead during his prolonged illness. Outraged at the prospect of bringing a woman into the world of politics, the court rejected the proposal. Despite this, Empress Wu Zhou’s role in the Outer and Inner Courts had molded her into a shrewd, cunning, and outspoken political mind, surpassing her sons in experience and intellect.8

After the death of her husband, Dowager Empress Wu became regent for her son, Emperor Li Xian, before exiling and disposing of him only two months into his reign. She replaced him with Li Dan, her youngest and most obedient son, a “Momma’s boy.” With Li Dan as a figurehead, Dowager Empress Wu began to use her power honoring her ancestors, a traditional practice that emphasized filial duty and obedience. Through the elevation of her pedigree, Wu Zhou connected her lineage to the Zhou of antiquity, intent on creating her own dynasty.9

The ministers and nobility began to get extremely uncomfortable. They noticed how many of their colleagues that openly criticized the Dowager began to be appointed to stations far away from the capital. There were even tales of these minister encountering troubles in their travels, never arriving to their destination. They resented that this woman was essentially usurping their emperor. They feared the end of the Tang dynasty as more of the imperial Li family began to disappear to the various regions of the empire. So they began a plot to return the exiled Li Xian to the throne. The rebellion brought together the exiled supporters of the Li family, the sons of Gaozong. To the shock of the masterminds behind the plot, the common people did not care to rebel and the armies sided with the Empress. The rebellion was easily crushed.10

In the aftermath of this plot, masses of supporters gathered at the gates of the palace begging for the Dowager to become the Emperor. She refused. The next day the gates of the palace were again mobbed with supporters calling for Li Dan to abdicate in favor of his mother. But again, Wu Zhou refused to become Emperor. This continued for four days until finally, taking the show of popular support as a sign from Heaven itself, Wu Zhou crowned herself Emperor of China, founding a new Zhou dynasty.11

The most effective way Wu Zhao divided the loyalties of the elite under her was a bronze box for anonymous recommendations to the court. However, for fear of banishment or even death, it served to accuse other ministers of betraying the Emperor. Using the military to investigate these claims, most of the victims of these accusations were forced to commit suicide or were killed outright. Ruling with an uncompromising iron fist, no one dared to contest Emperor Wu Zhou’s authority aloud.12

Chinese Character for Zhou, literally meaning “the sun and moon in the sky above” | Courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons

Despite the chaos of a court divided, Wu Zhou proved her worthiness as a leader with the policy that as long as the working common people had their fill to eat, the state would remain strong. She supported farming specifically for the military, so the peasantry would not be forced to provide food for the army. Lastly, she implemented storehouses to be used in times of bad harvest or famine, which she had filled to capacity consistently. She supported many public works projects to improve her empire’s economy as well. She facilitated the rebuilding of canals and bridges to encourage trade and commerce. In addition, she funded the construction of improved irrigation systems across the empire.13

Throughout her reign, Wu Zhou was a great patron to the philosophies of Chinese culture. During her early time at court, Confucianism dominated the cultural practices of the elite. They had strict beliefs on gender roles. Under the codes of yin and yang, women were seen as personal and submissive with softness and gentleness, with no right to rule an empire. Men were seen to be public and dominant, displaying a firm and strong personality.14 Wu Zhou defied these traditional roles, so she was forced to legitimize her rule by alternate means. She proved faithful to tradition by displaying herself as the perfect daughter during her schemes to make her family worthy of a dynasty. She had the symbols of her name changed to include the symbols of the sun, representing yang, and moon, for yin. These were only a few of the traditions she employed to secure the throne.15

To soften the criticism she faced, Wu Zhou became a great proponent of Buddhism. She expanded the monasteries into great monuments and facilitated the building of new places of worship. She venerated Buddhist relics and elevated the religion over Daoism during her reign. A Buddhist prophecy had predicted that a female ruler and bodhisattva, an enlightened thinker, would come to rule over the empire. By linking Buddhism to her reign, Wu Zhou implied that she was this great saint sent to emulate the Buddha.16 However, in her old age Wu Zhou began to practice Daoism in an attempt to maintain her control as she became weaker and more feeble. She searched for the elixir of immortality, clinging to her position of power and wealth. She began showing disregard for the morality of court, inviting attractive young men to keep her company, stealing their youth to invigorate her and allowing her to remain on the throne.17

Buddhist Carvings from the Tang Dynasty | Courtesy of the Creative Commons

Wu Zhou is known among Confucian scholars for her reputation of ruthlessness and immorality. She was known to have had several affairs, especially in her old age, the stories of her undeniable and serene beauty followed her into her nineties. This sexual promiscuity was to the nobles’ greatest displeasure and they were sure to use this to slander her name. Her display of sexuality was so infamous, a novella was written about her indiscretion during the Ming dynasty a thousand years later.18 This was only one example of the slander of her name by Confucianists of her time. This continued well after her death, making it hard to tell what was truth and what was fiction. For example, there is no record of the murder of the newborn princess that aided Empress Wu in gaining the throne, only that her predecessor could not provide an heir. Every detail throughout Wu Zhou’s reign was carefully examined. All wrongs, whether it be rebellion or natural disaster, was a sign that the Emperor had lost the mandate of Heaven.19

Wu Zhou was a woman of extraordinary power, who forced the Chinese empire to kneel before her. She is the exception to the rule that women are not of the right constitution to rule. Her ways were wicked and cruel, a product of her gender and the traditions of her people. Ultimately, her intelligence, cunning, and tact in court made her an undeniably remarkable ruler in Chinese history.

  1. N. Harry Rothschild, Wu Zhao: China’s Only Woman Emperor (New York: Pearson Education, 2008), 31-32.
  2. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich.
  3. N. Harry Rothschild, Wu Zhao: China’s Only Woman Emperor (New York: Pearson Education, 2008), 27-28.
  4. N. Harry Rothschild, Wu Zhao: China’s Only Woman Emperor (New York: Pearson Education, 2008), 29.
  5. N. Harry Rothschild, Wu Zhao: China’s Only Woman Emperor (New York: Pearson Education, 2008), 29-35.
  6. N. Harry Rothschild, Wu Zhao: China’s Only Woman Emperor (New York: Pearson Education, 2008), 37-48.
  7. N. Harry Rothschild, Wu Zhao: China’s Only Woman Emperor (New York: Pearson Education, 2008), 49-64.
  8. Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia, 2002, s.v. “Wu Zetian,” by Jennifer W. Jay.
  9. N. Harry Rothschild, Wu Zhao: China’s Only Woman Emperor (New York: Pearson Education, 2008), 82-89.
  10. Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2004, s.v. “Wu Chao” by Paula K. Bryers and Suzanne Michele Bourgoin.
  11. N. Harry Rothschild, Wu Zhao: China’s Only Woman Emperor (New York: Pearson Education, 2008), 157-158.
  12. N. Harry Rothschild, Wu Zhao: China’s Only Woman Emperor (New York: Pearson Education, 2008), 125-136.
  13.  N. Harry Rothschild, Wu Zhao: China’s Only Woman Emperor (New York: Pearson Education, 2008), 172-173.
  14. Xianlin Song, “Re-gendering Chinese History: Zhao Mai’s Emperor Wu Zetian,” East Asia: An International Quarterly 27, no. 4 (December 2010): 365.
  15.  N. Harry Rothschild, Wu Zhao: China’s Only Woman Emperor (New York: Pearson Education, 2008), 120-124.
  16. N. Harry Rothschild, Wu Zhao: China’s Only Woman Emperor (New York: Pearson Education, 2008), 137-156.
  17. N. Harry Rothschild, Wu Zhao: China’s Only Woman Emperor (New York: Pearson Education, 2008), 181-204.
  18. Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia, 2002, s.v. “Wu Zetian,” by Jennifer W. Jay.
  19. Xianlin Song, “Re-gendering Chinese History: Zhao Mai’s Emperor Wu Zetian,” East Asia: An International Quarterly 27, no. 4 (December 2010): 367, 372.
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48 Comments

  • This article was very well written with the historical research on this unique topic. I can’t believe that the mistress murdered her own daughter to plan the emperor’s own wife so that she could replace the women. She bleed herself in each available space when Wu Zhou got to power and people would probably call her insane now because of everything she did. She did terrible things. But all to become great and create a long noble and rememberable blood line. That’s how the world was back then and it might seem completely strange to us but to them that is how they survived.

  • Wo Zhou sounds like a very intimidating woman, to say the least. However, with that said, there’s no doubt that Wo Zhou was very competent in her rulership. What says the most about her is that through her charm and ability alone she rose from a nun to an Emperess, going as far to found a dynasty in her own name. It’s simply incredible what she did in her lifetime.

  • Wu Zhou was a force to be reckoned with, she didn’t let anyone get in her way of ruling her empire. She made sure to break any kind of rebellion that stood in her way. It is a shame how her love died, but that he treated her as his equal instead of an inferior subject. He even left her his power to continue ruling in his place. In my opinion her ruling the empire was effective and she bowed down to no one.

  • Wow, this article was extremely well-written. Every single question I had, the author answered perfectly, and in more depth later on in the falling action. I loved how the author tied this into the dynasties. When I was taking courses in World History, we learned a lot about China. However, we didn’t learn about this female empress, which contradicts all the things I learned about Confucianism, and I didn’t know she was the result of the exams to become an official were being open to those of all social classes. I can tell how much research you put in the article due to all these tiny accumulating facts you put in there, how you relate it to the era, and how your article is extremely well structured. I can’t believe this article didn’t win an award. Amazing article, I think you did an amazing job creating a narrative arc and relating it to multiple eras in Chinese history.

  • Wu Zhou was a great leader who believed in tradition. But, there are so many stories written negatively about her because of her ruthlessness. She did do evil acts which helped her maintain her power. However, the country trusted her and she was able to run it even though she was a woman. She was smart and strategical about her taxation plan, irrigation system, and economy in the dynasty she created. Just like politicians today: you have to get dirty, to remain in power.

  • Wu Zhao was a revolutionary leader without a doubt. Her ruthlessness was both her strength and weakness and ultimately her downfall. On the other hand, her focus on China’s infrastructure elevated her country’s power and in turn her. This is one area in which she differs from other rulers. Other authorities just tax the people dry, while Zhao knew how to make a long-term plan. I also admire her goals to not only be a ruler herself but to create a dynasty in her name. Amazing!

  • It is uncommon to hear of women-identifying people playing an important role in Chinese history. With a history of extreme sexism, Chine does not and had not made much room for the accomplishments of women. To read a story of a woman who was not taking no for an answer, by whatever means necessary, is intriguing and , dare I say, refreshing. The introduction was what really made this article compelling. The opening story really set the tone for Wu Zhou’s later accomplishments and the way she approached success in her life.

  • While Wu Zhou did drastic things to maintain her power. She also did many amazing things for her country like improve the economy, irrigation, and much more. However, just like today, people in power are expected to be sexually confined to the societal normality. While she had strong sexual promiscuity, it only enabled her to be stronger as an individual despite the hatred she would receive because of it.

  • Reading this article, I find it very ironic that Wu Zhou was a murderer whose sexual promiscuity caused intense hatred towards her, yet she was a good leader that stayed in line with traditional beliefs and did many good things for China and the Chinese people. I hate the fact that there is so much written about her out of hatred that it is difficult to tell what is true because her character is destroyed by these stories about her which cover up her quality leadership. I am not trying to defend her evil actions, but I think that people need to look at the good she did as well as the bad.

  • Wu Zhou did a lot of inhumane things to maintain and grow the power she had managed to get. The way that this article highlighted both those things and then the strategical way she actually ran her country was really great. They didn’t just dehumanize her (even though it is completely understandable why they would), but they also talked about how she got her country to trust her and what it took her to run it.

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