|Wu Zetian |
|Empress regnant of the Zhou Dynasty|
|Reign||17 October 690[note 1] - 21 February 705[note 2]|
|Coronation||17 October 690|
(Emperor Ruizong as Emperor of the Tang dynasty)
(Emperor Zhongzong as Emperor of the Tang dynasty)
|Empress dowager of the Tang dynasty|
|Tenure||27 December 683 - 16 October 690|
|Predecessor||Empress He as Empress dowager of Northren Wei|
|Empress consort of the Tang dynasty|
|Tenure||2 December 655 - 27 December 683|
|Born||17 February 624|
Lizhou, Tang Dynasty
|Died||16 December 705 (aged 81)|
Luoyang, Tang Dynasty
|History of China|
|Neolithic c. 8500 - c. 2070 BCE|
|Xia c. 2070 - c. 1600 BCE|
|Shang c. 1600 - c. 1046 BCE|
|Zhou c. 1046 - 256 BCE|
|Spring and Autumn|
|Qin 221-207 BCE|
|Han 202 BCE - 220 CE|
|Three Kingdoms 220-280|
|Wei, Shu and Wu|
|Eastern Jin||Sixteen Kingdoms|
|Northern and Southern dynasties|
|(Wu Zhou 690-705)|
|Five Dynasties and
|Northern Song||Western Xia|
|Southern Song||Jin||Western Liao|
|Republic of China on mainland 1912-1949|
|People's Republic of China 1949-present|
|Republic of China on Taiwan 1949-present|
Wu Zhao, commonly known as Wu Zetian (17 February 624[note 8][note 9] - 16 December 705), alternatively Wu Hou, and during the later Tang dynasty as Tian Hou, was the de facto ruler of China, first through her husband the Emperor Gaozong and then through her sons the Emperors Zhongzong and Ruizong, from 665 to 690. She subsequently became empress regnant of the Zhou dynasty (?) of China, ruling from 690 to 705. She is notable for being the only female monarch in the history of China.
Wu was the concubine of Emperor Taizong. After his death, she married his successor--his ninth son, Emperor Gaozong, officially becoming Gaozong's huanghou (, empress consort, title for the reigning emperor's main consort) in 655, although having considerable political power prior to this. After Gaozong's debilitating stroke in 660, Wu Zetian became administrator of the court, a position equal to the emperor's until 705.
After her wedding to Emperor Gaozong in 655, Empress Wu's rise to power was swift. A strong, charismatic, and well-educated woman who enjoyed the absolute interest of her husband, Empress Wu was the most powerful and influential woman at court during a period when the Tang Empire was at the peak of its power and glory. She was more decisive and proactive than her husband, and she is considered by historians to have been the real power behind the throne and ruling figure for more than eighteen years. She was often present when the Emperor held court, and even held court independently when the Emperor was unwell. She was given charge of his Imperial Seal, implying that her perusal and consent were necessary before any document or order received legal validity. The Emperor Gaozong sought her views on all matters before issuing orders. Empress Wu was granted certain honors and privileges which were not enjoyed by any Chinese empresses before or after. After Gaozong's death, Empress Wu as Empress dowager and regent conquered power independently and uniquely, and seven years later, she seized the throne in the Zhou dynasty, becoming the only empress regnant in Chinese history. Because she ruled from 665 to 690 through her husband and sons, she was thus one of the longest-reigning de facto rulers in the history of the world. She also spent one of the brightest periods of history in China as emperor.
The importance to history of Wu Zetian's period of political and military leadership includes the major expansion of the Chinese empire, extending it far beyond its previous territorial limits, deep into Central Asia, and engaging in a series of wars on the Korean Peninsula, first allying with Silla against Goguryeo, and then against Silla over the occupation of former Goguryeo territory. Within China, besides the more direct consequences of her struggle to gain and maintain supreme power, Wu's leadership resulted in important effects regarding social class in Chinese society and in relation to state support for Taoism, Buddhism, education, and literature. Wu Zetian also had a monumental impact upon the statuary of the Longmen Grottoes and the "Wordless Stele" at the Qianling Mausoleum, as well as the construction of some major buildings and bronze castings that no longer survive.
Besides her career as a political leader, Wu Zetian also had an active family life. Although family relationships sometimes became problematic, Wu Zetian was the mother of four sons, three of whom also carried the title of emperor, although one held that title only as a posthumous honor. One of her grandsons became the renowned Emperor Xuanzong of Tang.
In Chinese history and literature, Wu Zetian (Mandarin pronunciation: [ù ts t?jn]) was known by various names and titles. Mention of her in the English language has only increased their number. A difficulty in English translations from Chinese is that English translations tend to specify gender (as in the case of "emperor" versus "empress" or "prince" versus "princess"); whereas, in Classical Chinese, words such as hou (?, "sovereign", "prince", "queen") or huangdi (, "imperial supreme ruler", "royal deity") are of a grammatically indeterminate gender.
It was rare for a woman to have a birth name at the time. She changed her name to Wu Zhao after rising to power, often written as , (? has also been written as ? on occasion, and both are derivatives of ?, which possibly is her original name), with ? being one of the invented characters by Wu. Wu was her patronymic surname, which she retained, according to traditional Chinese practice, after marriage to Gaozong, of the Li family. Emperor Taizong gave her the art name Wu Mei (), meaning "glamorous". (Thus, today Chinese people often refer to her as Wu Mei or Wu Meiniang () when they write about her youth, whereas they refer to her as Wu Hou () when referring to her as empress consort and empress dowager, and Wu Zetian () when referring to her reign as empress regnant.)
During her life, and posthumously, Wu Zetian was awarded various official titles. Both hou (?) and huangdi () are titles (modifications, or added characters to hou are of lesser importance). Born Wu Zhao, she is not properly known as "Wu Hou" (Empress consort Wu) until receiving this title in 655, nor is she properly known as "Wu Zetian", her regnal name, until 690, when she took the title huangdi.
Various Chinese titles have been translated into English as "empress", including "empress" in both the sense of empress consort and empress regnant. Generally, the monarch was male and his chief spouse was given a title such as huanghou (), often translated as "empress" or more specific "empress consort". Upon the death of the emperor, the surviving empress consort could become empress dowager, sometimes wielding considerable political power as regent during the minority of the (male) heir to the position of emperor.
Since the time of Qin Shi Huang (259-210 BC) the Emperor of China used the title huangdi (, translated as "emperor" or "empress (regnant)" as appropriate), Wu Zetian was the only woman in the history of China to assume the title of huangdi. Her tenure as de facto ruler of China and officially regent Tang dynasty (first through her husband and then through her sons, from 665 to 690) was not without precedent in Chinese history; however, she broke precedent when she founded her own dynasty in 690, the Zhou (?) (interrupting the Tang dynasty), ruling personally under the name Sacred and Divine Huangdi (?), and variations thereof, from 690 through 705.
Wu Zetian and Empress Dowager Liu of the Song Dynasty are said to be the only women in Chinese history to have worn a yellow robe, ordinarily reserved for the sole use of the emperor, as a monarch or co-ruler in their own right.
The Wu family clan originated in Wenshui County, Bingzhou (an ancient name of the city of Taiyuan, Shanxi). The birthplace of Wu Zetian is not documented in preserved historical literature and remains controversial. Some scholars argue that Wu Zetian was born in Wenshui, and some argue it's Lizhou () (modern-day Guangyuan in Sichuan), while some others insist she was born in the imperial capital of Chang'an (today known as Xi'an).
Wu Zetian was born in the seventh year of the reign of Emperor Gaozu of Tang. In the same year, a total eclipse of the sun was visible across China. Her father Wu Shiyue was engaged in the timber business and the family was relatively well off. Her mother was from the powerful Yang family. During the final years of Emperor Yang of Sui, Li Yuan () (who would go on to become Emperor Gaozu of Tang) stayed in the Wu household many times and became close to the Wu family, whilst holding appointments in both Hedong and Taiyuan. After Li Yuan overthrew Emperor Yang, he was generous to the Wu family, providing them with money, grain, land, and clothing. Once the Tang dynasty became established, Wu Shihou held a succession of senior ministerial posts including the governor of Yangzhou, Lizhou, and Jingzhou () (modern-day Jiangling County, Hubei).
Wu was from a wealthy family, and she was encouraged by her father to read books and pursue her education. He made sure that his daughter was well-educated, a trait that was not common among women, much less encouraged by their fathers. Wu read and learned about many different topics such as politics and other governmental affairs, writing, literature, and music. At age fourteen, she was taken to be an imperial concubine (lesser wife) of Emperor Taizong of Tang. It was there that she became a type of secretary. This opportunity allowed her to continue to pursue her education. She was given the title of cairen, the title for one of the consorts with the fifth rank in Tang's nine-rank system for imperial officials, nobles, and consorts. When she was summoned to the palace, her mother, the Lady Yang, wept bitterly when saying farewell to her, but she responded, "How do you know that it is not my fortune to meet the Son of Heaven?" Lady Yang reportedly then understood her ambitions, and therefore stopped crying.
Consort Wu, however, did not appear to be much favored by Emperor Taizong, although it appeared that she did have sexual relations with him at one point. According to her own account (given in a rebuke of the Chancellor Ji Xu during her reign), there was an occasion during the time she was concubine when she impressed Taizong with her fortitude:
Emperor Taizong had a horse with the name "Lion Stallion", and it was so large and strong that no one could get on its back. I was a lady in waiting attending Emperor Taizong, and I suggested to him, "I only need three things to subordinate it: an iron whip, an iron hammer, and a sharp dagger. I will whip it with the iron whip. If it does not submit, I will hammer its head with the iron hammer. If it still does not submit, I will cut its throat with the dagger." Emperor Taizong praised my bravery. Do you really believe that you are qualified to dirty my dagger?
Taizong had fourteen sons, including three to his beloved Empress Zhangsun (601-636), but none with Consort Wu. Thus, according to the custom by which consorts of deceased emperors who had not produced children were permanently confined to a monastic institution after the emperor's death, Wu was consigned to Ganye Temple (), with the expectation that she would serve as a Buddhist nun there for the remainder of her life. Wu was to defy expectations, however and left the convent for an alternative life. After Taizong's death Li Zhi came to visit her and, finding her more beautiful, intelligent, and intriguing than before, decided to bring her back as his own concubine.
By early 650, Consort Wu was a concubine of Emperor Gaozong, and she had the title Zhaoyi () (the highest ranking concubine of the nine concubines in the second rank). Wu progressively gained immeasurable influence over the governance of the empire throughout Emperor Gaozong's reign. Over time, she came to control most major decisions made. Even in the absence of Emperor Gaozong, she personally held the court to decide on the day-to-day running of civil or military responsibilities. After Emperor Gaozong's death in 683, Empress Wu became the Empress Dowager and Regent. She proceeded to depose Emperor Zhongzong, for displaying independence. She then had her youngest son Emperor Ruizong made emperor. Furthermore she was ruler not only in substance but in appearance as well. She presided over imperial gatherings and prevented Emperor Ruizong from taking an active role in governance. In 690, she had Emperor Ruizong yield the throne to her and established the Zhou Dynasty. She was regarded as ruthless in her endeavors to grab power, and was believed by traditional historians to have killed her own children. This was later proven false, as these rumors seem to have surfaced 400 years after her death. This was likely due to the belief in ancient China that a woman wasn't suited to hold the power of the emperor.
Gaozong became emperor at the age of 21. Gaozong was not the first choice as he was inexperienced and frequently incapacitated with a sickness that caused him spells of dizziness. Gaozong was only made heir to the empire due to the disgrace of his two older brothers. On or after the anniversary of Emperor Taizong's death,[note 10] Emperor Gaozong went to Ganye Temple to offer incense. When he and Consort Wu saw each other, both of them wept. This was seen by Emperor Gaozong's wife, Empress Wang. At that time, Emperor Gaozong did not favour Empress Wang. Instead, he favored his concubine Consort Xiao. Furthermore, Empress Wang did not have any children, and Consort Xiao had one son (Li Sujie) and two daughters (Princesses Yiyang and Xuancheng). Empress Wang, seeing that Emperor Gaozong was still impressed by Consort Wu's beauty, hoped that the arrival of a new concubine would divert the emperor from Consort Xiao. Therefore, Empress Wang secretly told Wu to stop shaving her hair and, at a later point, the Empress welcomed her to the palace. (Some modern historians dispute this traditional account. Some think that Consort Wu never left the imperial palace and might have had an affair with Emperor Gaozong while Emperor Taizong was still alive.)
Consort Wu soon overtook Consort Xiao as Emperor Gaozong's favourite. In 652, she gave birth to her first child, a son named Li Hong. In 653, she gave birth to another son, Li Xián. Neither one of these sons was in contention to be Emperor Gaozong's heir because Emperor Gaozong, at the request of officials influenced by Empress Wang and her uncle (the chancellor Liu Shi), had designated his eldest son Li Zhong as his heir. Li Zhong's mother, Consort Liu, was of lowly birth. Empress Wang did this in order to receive Consort Liu's gratitude.
By 654, both Empress Wang and Consort Xiao had lost favour with Emperor Gaozong, and these two former romantic rivals joined forces against Consort Wu, but to no avail. For example, as a sign of his love for Consort Wu, Emperor Gaozong conferred posthumous honors on her father Wu Shiyue in 654.
In the same year, Consort Wu gave birth to her daughter. However, shortly after birth, her daughter died with evidence suggesting deliberate strangulation. The evidence include allegations made by Consort Wu herself, and she accused Empress Wang of murder. Empress Wang was accused of having been seen near the child's room, with corroborating testimony by alleged eyewitnesses. Emperor Gaozong was led to believe that Empress Wang, motivated by jealousy, had most likely killed the child. Additionally, Empress Wang lacked an alibi and was unable to clear her name.
Scientifically credible forensic pathology information about the death of the Consort Wu's daughter does not exist, and scholars lack real, concrete evidence about her death. However, there are many theories and speculations made by scholars. Because traditional folklore tend to portray Wu as a power hungry woman with no care for whom she hurt or what she did, the most popular theory is that Wu killed her own child in order to implicate Empress Wang. Other schools of thought argue that Empress Wang indeed killed the child out of jealousy and hatred toward Consort Wu. The third argument is that the child died of asphyxiation or crib death. The ventilation systems of the time were non-existent or of poor quality, and the lack of ventilation combined with using coal as a heating method could have led to carbon monoxide poisoning due to a build up of fumes. No matter what caused the death of the child, Consort Wu blamed Empress Wang for it, and as a result, tried to find a way to remove Empress Wang from her position.
Because the death of the child, an angry Emperor Gaozong also wanted to depose Empress Wang and replace her with Consort Wu. But first, he needed to make sure that he had the support of the government chancellors. So, Gaozong met with his uncle Zhangsun Wuji, the head chancellor. During the meeting, Gaozong brought up the topic of Empress Wang's childlessness several times. Childlessness was a sufficient excuse to depose Empress Wang. However, Zhangsun repeatedly found ways to divert the conversation. Subsequent visits made by Consort Wu's mother, Lady Yang and an official allied with Consort Wu, Xu Jingzong to seek support from Zhangsun were met with disappointment.
In summer 655, Consort Wu accused Empress Wang and her mother, Lady Liu, of using witchcraft. In response, Emperor Gaozong barred Lady Liu from the palace and demoted Empress Wang's uncle, Liu Shi. Meanwhile, a faction of officials began to form around Consort Wu, including Li Yifu, Xu, Cui Yixuan (), and Yuan Gongyu (). On an occasion in the autumn of 655, Emperor Gaozong summoned the chancellors Zhangsun, Li Ji, Yu Zhining, and Chu Suiliang to the palace. Chu had deduced that the summoning was regarding changing the Empress. Li Ji claimed an illness and refused to attend. At the meeting, Chu vehemently opposed deposing Empress Wang, while Zhangsun and Yu showed their disapproval by silence. Meanwhile, other chancellors Han Yuan and Lai Ji also opposed the move. When Emperor Gaozong asked Li Ji again, Li Ji's response was, "This is your family matter, Your Imperial Majesty. Why ask anyone else?" Emperor Gaozong, therefore, became resolved. He demoted Chu to be a commandant at Tan Prefecture (roughly modern Changsha, Hunan), and then deposed both Empress Wang and Consort Xiao. He placed them both under arrest and making Consort Wu empress to replace Empress Wang. (Later that year, after Emperor Gaozong showed signs of considering their release. Because of this, Empress Wang and Consort Xiao were killed on orders by the new Empress Wu. After their deaths, Empress Wu was often haunted by them in her dreams.)
In 655, Wu became Tang Gaozong's new empress consort (, húanghòu).
In 656, on the advice of Xu Jingzong, Emperor Gaozong deposed Consort Liu's son Li Zhong from being his heir apparent. He changed Li Zhong's status to Prince of Liang and designated Empress Wu's son, Li Hong as the title of Prince of Dai and crown prince (that is, Heir Apparent).
In 657, Empress Wu and her allies began reprisals against officials who had opposed her ascension. She first had Xu and Li Yifu, who were by now chancellors, falsely accuse Han Yuan and Lai Ji of being complicit with Chu Suiliang in planning treason. The three of them, along with Liu Shi, were demoted to being prefects of remote prefectures, with provisions that they would never be allowed to return to Chang'an. In 659, she had Xu accuse Zhangsun Wuji of plotting treason with the low-level officials Wei Jifang () and Li Chao (). Zhangsun was exiled and, later in the year, was forced to commit suicide in exile. Xu further implicated Chu, Liu, Han, and Yu Zhining in the plot as well. Chu, who had died in 658, was posthumously stripped of his titles, and his sons Chu Yanfu () and Chu Yanchong () were executed. Orders were also issued to execute Liu and Han, although Han died before the execution order reached his location. It was said that after this time, no official dared to criticize the emperor.
In 660, Li Zhong, Gaozong's first-born son (to consort Liu) also was targeted. Li Zhong had feared that he would be next and had sought out advice of fortune tellers. Wu had him exiled and placed under house arrest.
In 660, Emperor Gaozong and Empress Wu toured Bian Prefecture (modern-day Taiyuan), and Empress Wu had the opportunity to invite her old neighbors and relatives to a feast. Later that year, Emperor Gaozong began to suffer from an illness that carried the symptoms of painful headaches and loss of vision, generally thought to be hypertension-related. He began to have Empress Wu make rulings on petitions made by officials. It was said that Empress Wu had quick reactions and understood both literature and history, and therefore, she made correct rulings. Thereafter, her authority rivaled Emperor Gaozong's, from this point on, Empress Wu became the undisputed power behind the throne for twenty-three years.
During these years, Li Yifu had been, due to favors from Emperor Gaozong and Empress Wu, exceedingly powerful, and he grew particularly corrupt. In 663, after reports of Li Yifu's corruption were made to Emperor Gaozong, Emperor Gaozong had Liu Xiangdao and Li Ji investigate, finding Li Yifu guilty. Li Yifu was removed from his post and exiled, and would never return to Chang'an.
During the years, Empress Wu had repeatedly, in her dreams, seen Empress Wang and Consort Xiao, in the states they were after their terrible deaths, and she came to believe that their spirits were after her. For that reason, Emperor Gaozong started remodeling a secondary palace, Daming Palace (), into Penglai Palace (), and when Penglai Palace's main hall, Hanyuan Hall (), was completed in 663, Emperor Gaozong and Empress Wu moved to the newly remodeled palace (which was itself later renamed to Hanyuan Palace). (However, Empress Wang and Consort Xiao continued to appear in her dreams even after this, and therefore, late in Emperor Gaozong's reign, he and Empress Wu were often at the eastern capital Luoyang, not at Chang'an.)
By 664, Empress Wu was said to be interfering so much in the day-to-day administration of the imperial governance that she was angering Emperor Gaozong. Furthermore, she had engaged the Taoist sorcerer Guo Xingzhen () in using witchcraft--an act that was prohibited by regulations and led to Empress Wang's downfall--and the eunuch Wang Fusheng () reported this to Emperor Gaozong which angered him even more. He consulted the chancellor Shangguan Yi, who suggested that he depose Empress Wu. He had Shangguan draft an edict. But as Shangguan was doing so, Empress Wu received news of what was happening. She went to the emperor to plead her case, just as he was holding the edict that Shangguan had drafted. Emperor Gaozong could not bear to depose her and blamed the episode on Shangguan. As both Shangguan and Wang had served on Li Zhong's staff, Empress Wu had Xu falsely accuse Shangguan, Wang, and Li Zhong of planning treason. Shangguan, Wang, and Shangguan's son Shangguan Tingzhi (?) were executed, while Li Zhong was forced to commit suicide. (Shangguan Tingzhi's daughter Shangguan Wan'er, then an infant, and her mother, Lady Zheng, became slaves in the inner palace. After Shangguan Wan'er grew up, she eventually became a trusted secretary for Empress Wu.)
For eighteen years, Empress Wu would sit behind a pearl screen behind Emperor Gaozong at imperial meetings. She heard all the reports and ruled on all the important matters of state, and since then Empress Wu became the actual power. Imperial powers often fell into her hands; she was effectively making the major decisions and even held court independently when the Emperor was unwell. In the absence of her husband, she gained vast powers and became a controversial and formidable figure with far-reaching influence. She and Emperor Gaozong were thereafter referred to as the "Two Saints." (, Er Sheng).
Meanwhile, on Empress Wu's account, her mother Lady Yang had been made the Lady of Rong, and her older sister, now widowed, the Lady of Han. Her half-brothers Wu Yuanqing and Wu Yuanshuang and cousins Wu Weiliang and Wu Huaiyun, despite the poor relationships that they had with Lady Yang, were promoted. But at a feast that Lady Yang held for them, Wu Weiliang offended Lady Yang by stating that they did not find it honorable for them to be promoted on account of Empress Wu. Empress Wu, therefore, requested to have them demoted to remote prefectures--outwardly to show modesty, but in reality to avenge the offense to her mother. Wu Yuanqing and Wu Yuanshuang died in effective exile. Meanwhile, in or before 666, Lady of Han died as well. After Lady of Han's death, Emperor Gaozong made her daughter the Lady of Wei and considered keeping her in the palace--possibly as a concubine. He did not immediately do so, as he feared that Empress Wu would be displeased. It was said that Empress Wu heard of this and was nevertheless displeased. She had her niece poisoned, by placing poison in food offerings that Wu Weiliang and Wu Huaiyun had made and then blaming them for the death of the Lady of Wei. Wu Weiliang and Wu Huaiyun were executed.
In 670, Wu's mother, Lady Yang, died and by Emperor Gaozong's orders, all of the imperial officials and their wives attended her wake and mourned her. Later that year, with the realm suffering from a major drought, Empress Wu offered to be deposed which Emperor Gaozong rejected. He further posthumously honored Wu Shiyue (who had previously been posthumously honored as the Duke of Zhou) and Lady Yang by giving them the titles of the Prince and Princess of Taiyuan.
Meanwhile, the son of Empress Wu's older sister, the Lady of Han, (Wu's nephew) Helan Minzhi (?) had been given the surname of Wu and allowed to inherit the title of Duke of Zhou. However, as it was becoming clear to Empress Wu that he suspected Empress Wu of murdering his sister, the Lady of Wei, Empress Wu began to take precautions against him. (Helan was also said to have had an incestuous relationship with his grandmother Lady Yang.) In 671, Helan Minzhi was accused of disobeying mourning regulations during the period of mourning for Lady Yang and raping the daughter of the official, Yang Sijian (), whom Emperor Gaozong and Empress Wu had previously selected to be the wife and crown princess for Li Hong. Helan Minzhi was exiled and either was executed in exile or committed suicide. In 674, Empress Wu had Wu Yuanshuang's son Wu Chengsi recalled from exile to inherit the title of Duke of Zhou.
In 675, as Emperor Gaozong's illness worsened, he considered having Empress Wu formally rule as regent. The chancellor Hao Chujun and the official Li Yiyan both opposed this, and he did not formally make her regent. However, Empress Wu had accrued more political power than the Emperor Gaozong due to his absence.
Also in 675, a number of people would fall victim to Empress Wu's ire. Empress Wu had been displeased at the favor that Emperor Gaozong had shown his aunt, Princess Changle. Princess Changle was married the general, Zhao Gui () and had a daughter who became the wife and princess consort of Wu's third son Li Xi?n, the Prince of Zhou. Princess Zhao was accused of unspecified crimes and placed under arrest, eventually starving to death. Zhao Gui and Princess Changle were exiled. Meanwhile, later that month, Li Hong, the Crown Prince--who urged Empress Wu not to exercise so much influence on Emperor Gaozong's governance and offended Empress Wu by requesting that his half-sisters, Consort Xiao's daughters, Princess Yiyang and Xuancheng (under house arrest) be allowed to marry--died suddenly. Traditional historians generally believed that Empress Wu poisoned Li Hong to death. Li Xián, then carrying the title of Prince of Yong, was created crown prince. Meanwhile, Consort Xiao's son Li Sujie and another son of Emperor Gaozong's, Li Shangjin (), were repeatedly accused of crimes by Empress Wu and were subsequently demoted.
Soon, Empress Wu's relationship with Li Xián also deteriorated because Li Xián had become unsettled after hearing rumors that he was not born to Empress Wu--but to her sister, the Lady of Han. When Empress Wu heard of his fearfulness, she became angry with him. Furthermore, the sorcerer Ming Chongyan (), whom both she and Emperor Gaozong respected, had stated that Li Xián was unsuitable to inherit the throne and was assassinated in 679. The assassins were not caught--causing Wu to suspect that Li Xián was behind the assassination. In 680, Li Xián was accused of crimes and during an investigation by the officials Xue Yuanchao, Pei Yan, and Gao Zhizhou, a large number of weaponry was found in Li Xián's palace. Empress Wu formally accused Li Xián of treason and the assassination of Ming. Li Xián was deposed and exiled.
After the exile of Li Xián, his younger brother Li Xi?n [similar-sounding name but different Chinese characters] (now renamed Li Zhe) was named crown prince.
In 681, Princess Taiping was married to Xue Shao (), the son of Emperor Gaozong's sister Princess Chengyang, in a grand ceremony. Empress Wu, initially unimpressed with the lineages of Xue Shao's brothers' wives, wanted to order his brothers to divorce their wives--stopping only after it was pointed out to her that Lady Xiao, the wife of Xue Shao's older brother Xue Yi (), was a grandniece of the deceased chancellor Xiao Yu.
Upon the death of her husband Emperor Gaozong, Wu became empress dowager (, húangtàihòu) and then regent and she automatically gained full power over the empire. She had the power to remove and install emperors. Just as before, government decisions were made by her. Wu had already poisoned the crown prince Li Hong and had enough other princes exiled that her third son, Li Zhe, was made heir apparent. Furthermore, Gaozong's will included provisions that Li Zhe should ascend immediately to the imperial throne, he should look to Empress Wu in regards to any important matter, either military or civil, and Empress Wu should claim the senior authority in the Empire for herself. In the second month of 684, Li Zhe ascended to the imperial throne, known as his temple name Zhongzong, for a short six weeks.
The new emperor was married to a woman of the Wei family. Because Zhongzong was as weak and incompetent as his father, the new Empress sought to place herself in the same position of great authority that Empress Wu had enjoyed.
Immediately, Emperor Zhongzong showed signs of disobeying Empress Dowager Wu. Emperor Zhongzong was under the thumb of his wife, Empress Wei. Under her influence, the Emperor, appointed his father-in-law as prime minister. He also tried to make his father-in-law Shizhong (, the head of the examination bureau of government, , Menxia Sheng, and a post considered one for a chancellor) and gave a mid-level office to his wet nurse's son--despite stern opposition by the chancellor Pei Yan, at one point remarking to Pei:
What would be wrong even if I gave the empire to Wei Xuanzhen? Why do you care about Shizhong so much?
Pei reported this to Empress Dowager Wu, and she, after planning with Pei, Liu Yizhi, and the generals Cheng Wuting () and Zhang Qianxu () deposed Emperor Zhongzong and replaced him with her youngest son Li Dan, the Prince of Yu (as Emperor Ruizong). Empress Dowager Wu had Zhongzong's father-in-law, Wei Xuanzhen (), brought up on charges of treason. Wei Xuanzhen was sent into seclusion. Emperor Zhongzong was reduced to the title of Prince of Luling and exiled. Empress Dowager Wu also sent the general, Qiu Shenji () to Li Xián's place in exile and forced Li Xián to commit suicide.
Wu had her youngest son Li Dan made emperor, known as his temple name Ruizong. She was the ruler, however, both in substance and appearance. Wu did not even follow the customary pretense of hiding behind a screen or curtain and, in whispers, issued commands for the nominal ruler to formally announce. Ruizong never moved into the imperial quarters, appeared at no imperial function, and remained a virtual prisoner in the inner quarters.
Although Emperor Ruizong held the title of emperor, Empress Dowager Wu firmly controlled the imperial court, and the officials were not allowed to meet with Emperor Ruizong, nor was he allowed to rule on matters of state. Rather, the matters of state were ruled on by Empress Dowager Wu. At the suggestion of her nephew Wu Chengsi, she also expanded the ancestral shrine of the Wu ancestors and gave them greater posthumous honours.
In 686, Empress Dowager Wu offered to return imperial authorities to Emperor Ruizong, but Emperor Ruizong, knowing that she did not truly intend to do so, declined, and she continued to exercise imperial authority.
Soon thereafter, Li Ji's grandson Li Jingye, the Duke of Ying, who had been disaffected by his own exile, started a rebellion at Yang Prefecture (, roughly modern Yangzhou, Jiangsu). The rebellion initially drew much popular support in the region, however, Li Jingye progressed slowly in his attack and did not take advantage of that popular support. Meanwhile, Pei suggested to Empress Dowager Wu that she return imperial authority to the Emperor and argued that doing so would cause the rebellion to collapse on its own. This offended her, and she accused him of being complicit with Li Jingye and had him executed; she also demoted, exiled, and killed a number of officials who, when Pei was arrested, tried to speak on his behalf. She sent a general, Li Xiaoyi (), to attack Li Jingye, and while Li Xiaoyi was initially unsuccessful, he pushed on at the urging of his assistant Wei Yuanzhong and eventually was able to crush Li Jingye's forces. Li Jingye fled and was killed in flight.
Meanwhile, she installed copper mailboxes outside the imperial government buildings to encourage the people of the realm to report secretly on others, as she suspected many officials of opposing her. Exploiting these beliefs of hers, secret police officials, including Suo Yuanli, Zhou Xing, and Lai Junchen, began to rise in power and to carry out systematic false accusations, tortures, and executions of individuals.
In 688, Empress Dowager Wu was set to make sacrifices to the deity of the Luo River (, flowing through the Henan province city of Luoyang, then the "Eastern Capital"). Wu summoned senior members of Tang's Li imperial clan to Luoyang. The imperial princes worried that she planned to slaughter them and secure the throne for herself: thus, they plotted to resist her. Before a rebellion could be comprehensively planned out, however, Li Zhen and his son Li Chong, the Prince of Langye rose first, at their respective posts as prefects of Yu Prefecture (, roughly modern Zhumadian, Henan) and Bo Prefecture (, roughly modern Liaocheng, Shandong). The other princes were not yet ready, however, and did not rise, and forces sent by Empress Dowager Wu and the local forces crushed Li Chong and Li Zhen's forces quickly. Empress Dowager Wu took this opportunity to arrest Emperor Gaozong's granduncles Li Yuanjia () the Prince of Han, Li Lingkui () the Prince of Lu, and Princess Changle, as well as many other members of the Li clan and she, forced them to commit suicide. Even Princess Taiping's husband Xue Shao was implicated and starved to death. In the subsequent years, there continued to be many politically motivated massacres of officials and Li clan members.
In 690, Wu took the final step to become the empress regnant of the newly proclaimed Zhou dynasty, and the title Huangdi. Traditional Chinese order of succession (akin to the Salic law in Europe) did not allow a woman to ascend the throne, but Wu Zetian was determined to quash the opposition and the use of the secret police did not subside, but continued, after her taking the throne. While her organization of the civil service system was criticized for its laxity of the promotion of officials, nonetheless, Wu Zetian was considered capable of evaluating the performance of the officials once they were in office. The Song dynasty historian Sima Guang, in his Zizhi Tongjian, commented:
Even though the Empress Dowager[note 11] excessively used official titles to cause people to submit to her, if she saw that someone was incompetent, she would immediately depose or even execute him. She grasped the powers of punishment and award, controlled the state, and made her own judgments as to policy decisions. She was observant and had good judgment, so the talented people of the time also were willing to be used by her.
In 690, Wu had Emperor Ruizong yield the throne to her and established the Zhou dynasty, with herself as the imperial ruler (Huangdi).
The early part of her reign was characterized by secret police terror, which moderated as the years went by. She was, on the other hand, recognized as a capable and attentive ruler even by traditional historians who despised her, and her ability at selecting capable men to serve as officials was admired throughout the rest of the Tang dynasty as well as in subsequent dynasties.[note 12]
Shortly after Wu Zetian took the throne, she elevated the status of Buddhism above that of Taoism, officially sanctioning Buddhism by building temples named Dayun Temple () in each prefecture belonging to the capital regions of the two capitals Luoyang and Chang'an, and created nine senior monks as dukes. She also enshrined seven generations of Wu ancestors at the imperial ancestral temple, although she also continued to offer sacrifices to the Tang emperors Gaozu, Taizong, and Gaozong.
She faced the issue of succession. At the time she took the throne, she created Li Dan, the former Emperor Ruizong, crown prince, and bestowed the name of Wu on him. The official Zhang Jiafu, however, convinced the commoner Wang Qingzhi () to start a petition drive to make her nephew Wu Chengsi crown prince, arguing that an emperor named Wu should pass the throne to a member of the Wu clan. Wu Zetian was tempted to do so, and when the chancellors Cen Changqian and Ge Fuyuan opposed sternly, they, along with fellow chancellor Ouyang Tong, were executed. Nevertheless, she declined Wang's request to make Wu Chengsi crown prince, but for a time allowed Wang to freely enter the palace to see her. On one occasion, however, when Wang angered her by coming to the palace too much, she asked the official Li Zhaode to batter Wang as punishment--but Li Zhaode exploited the opportunity to batter Wang to death, and his group of petitioners scattered. Li Zhaode then persuaded Wu Zetian to keep Li Dan as crown prince--pointing out that a son was closer in relations than a nephew, and also that if Wu Chengsi became emperor, Emperor Gaozong would never again be worshiped. Wu Zetian agreed, and for some time did not reconsider the matter. Further, at Li Zhaode's warning that Wu Chengsi was becoming too powerful, Wu Zetian stripped Wu Chengsi of his chancellor authority and bestowed on him largely honorific titles without authority.
Meanwhile, the power of the secret police officials continued to increase, until they appeared to be curbed starting in about 692, when Lai Junchen was foiled in his attempt to have the chancellors Ren Zhigu, Di Renjie, Pei Xingben, and other officials Cui Xuanli (), Lu Xian (), Wei Yuanzhong, and Li Sizhen () executed, as Di, under arrest, had hidden a secret petition inside a change of clothes and had it submitted by his son Di Guangyuan (). The seven still were exiled, but after this incident, particularly at the urging of Li Zhaode, Zhu Jingze, and Zhou Ju (), the waves of politically motivated massacres decreased, although they did not end entirely. Wu Zetian is famous for utilizing talents. She utilized imperial examination system to find talents from poor people or people without backgrounds. Hence, she could stablize her regime.
Also in 692, Wu Zetian commissioned the general Wang Xiaojie to attack the Tibetan Empire, and Wang recaptured the four garrisons of the Western Regions that had fallen to the Tibetan Empire in 670 - Kucha, Yutian, Kashgar, and Suyab.
In 693, after Wu Zetian's trusted lady-in-waiting Wei Tuan'er (), who hated Li Dan because he rejected her advances, falsely accused Li Dan's wife Crown Princess Liu and Consort Dou of using witchcraft, Wu Zetian had Crown Princess Liu and Consort Dou killed. Li Dan, fearful that he was to be next, did not dare to speak of them. When Wei further planned to falsely accuse Li Dan, however, someone else informed on her, and she was executed. Wu Zetian nevertheless had Li Dan's sons demoted in their princely titles, and when the officials Pei Feigong () and Fan Yunxian () were accused of secretly meeting Li Dan, she executed Pei and Fan and further, barred officials from meeting Li Dan. There were then accusations that Li Dan was plotting treason, and under Wu Zetian's direction, Lai launched an investigation. Lai arrested Li Dan's servants and tortured them--and the torture was such that many of them were ready to falsely implicate themselves and Li Dan. One of Li Dan's servants, An Jincang, however, proclaimed Li Dan's innocence and cut his own belly open to swear to that fact. When Wu Zetian heard of what An did, she had doctors attend to An and barely save his life, and then ordered Lai to end the investigation, thus saving Li Dan.
In 694, Li Zhaode, who had become powerful after Wu Chengsi's removal, was thought to be too powerful and Wu Zetian removed him. Also around this time, she became highly impressed with a group of mystic individuals--the hermit Wei Shifang (on whom she bestowed a chancellor title briefly), who claimed to be more than 350 years old; an old Buddhist nun who claimed to be a Buddha and capable of predicting the future; and a non-Han man who claimed to be 500 years old. During this time, Wu briefly claimed to be and adopted the cult imagery of Maitreya in order to build popular support for her reign.
In 695, however, after the imperial meeting hall () and the Heavenly Hall () were burned by Huaiyi (who was jealous at Wu Zetian's taking on another lover, the imperial physician Shen Nanqiu (), Wu Zetian became angry at these individuals for failing to predict the fire; the old nun and her students were arrested and made into slaves; Wei committed suicide; and the old non-Han man fled. Subsequently, she also put Huaiyi to death. After this incident, she appeared to pay less attention to mysticism and became even more dedicated than before to the affairs of state.
Wu Zetian's administration was soon in for various troubles on the western and then northern borders. In spring 696, an army she sent, commanded by Wang Xiaojie and Lou Shide against the Tibetan Empire, was soundly defeated by Tibetan generals, the brothers Gar Trinring Tsendro () and Gar Tsenba (), and as a result, she demoted Wang to commoner rank and Lou to be a low level prefectural official, although she eventually restored both of them to general positions. In April of the same year, Wu Zetian recast the Nine Tripod Cauldrons, the symbol of ultimate power in ancient China, to reinforce her authority.
A much more serious threat arose in summer 696. The Khitan chieftains Li Jinzhong and Sun Wanrong, brothers-in-law, angry over the mistreatment of the Khitan people by the Zhou official Zhao Wenhui (), the prefect of Ying Prefecture (, roughly Zhaoyang County, Liaoning), rebelled, with Li assuming the title of Wushang Khan (?). Armies that Wu Zetian sent to suppress Li and Sun's rebellion were defeated by Khitan forces, which in turn attacked Zhou proper. Meanwhile, Qapaghan Qaghan of the Second Turkic Khaganate offered to submit, and yet was also launching attacks against Zhou and Khitan. The attacks included one against the Khitan base of operations during the winter of 696, shortly after Li's death, which resulted in capturing Li's and Sun's families and temporarily halted Khitan operations against Zhou. Sun, after taking over as khan and reorganizing Khitan forces, again attacked Zhou territory and had many victories over Zhou forces, including a battle during which Wang Shijie was killed. Wu Zetian tried to allay the situation by making peace with Ashina Mochuo at fairly costly terms--the return of Tujue people who had previously submitted to Zhou and providing Ashina Mochuo with seeds, silk, tools, and iron. In summer 697, Ashina Mochuo launched another attack on Khitan's base of operations, and this time, after his attack, Khitan forces collapsed and Sun was killed in flight, ending the Khitan threat.
Meanwhile, also in 697, Lai Junchen, who had at one point lost power but then had returned to power, falsely accused Li Zhaode (who had been pardoned) of crimes, and then planned to falsely accuse Li Dan, Li Zhe, the Wu clan princes, and Princess Taiping, of treason. The Wu clan princes and Princess Taiping acted first against him, accusing him of crimes, and he and Li Zhaode were executed together. After Lai's death, the reign of the secret police largely ended. Gradually, many of the victims of Lai and the other secret police officials were exonerated posthumously. Meanwhile, around this time, Wu Zetian began relationships with two new lovers--the brothers Zhang Yizhi and Zhang Changzong, who became honored within the palace and were eventually created dukes.
Around 698, Wu Chengsi and another nephew of Wu Zetian's, Wu Sansi, the Prince of Liang, were repeatedly making attempts to have officials persuade Wu Zetian to create one of them crown prince--again citing the reason that an emperor should pass the throne to someone of the same clan. Di Renjie, who by now had become a trusted chancellor, was firmly against the idea, however, and proposed that Li Zhe be recalled instead. He was supported in this by fellow chancellors Wang Fangqing and Wang Jishan, as well as Wu Zetian's close advisor Ji Xu, who further persuaded the Zhang brothers to support the idea as well. In spring 698, Wu Zetian agreed and recalled Li Zhe from exile. Soon, Li Dan offered to yield the crown prince position to Li Zhe, and Wu Zetian created Li Zhe crown prince. She soon changed his name back to Li Xi?n and then Wu Xian.
Later, Ashina Mochuo demanded a Tang dynasty prince for marriage to his daughter, part of a plot to join his family with the Tang, displace the Zhou, and restore Tang rule over China (under his influence). When Wu Zetian sent a member of her own family, grandnephew Wu Yanxiu (), to marry Mochuo's daughter instead, he rejected him. Ashina Mochuo had no intention to cement the peace treaty with a marriage; instead, when Wu Yanxiu arrived, he detained Wu Yanxiu and then launched a major attack on Zhou, advancing as far south as Zhao Prefecture (, in modern Shijiazhuang, Hebei) before withdrawing.
In 699, however, at least the Tibetan threat would cease. Emperor Tridu Songtsen, unhappy that Gar Trinring was monopolizing power, took an opportunity when Trinring was away from the capital Lhasa to slaughter Trinring's associates. He then defeated Trinring in battle, and Trinring committed suicide. Gar Tsenba and Trinring's son, Lun Gongren (), surrendered to Zhou. After this, the Tibetan Empire was under internal turmoil for several years, and there was peace for Zhou on the border.
Also in 699, Wu Zetian, realizing that she was growing old, feared that after her death, Li Xian and the Wu clan princes would not be able to have peace with each other, and she made him, Li Dan, Princess Taiping, Princess Taiping's second husband Wu Youji (a nephew of hers), the Prince of Ding, and other Wu clan princes to swear an oath to each other.
As Wu Zetian grew older, Zhang Yizhi and Zhang Changzong became increasingly powerful, and even the princes of the Wu clan flattered them. She also increasingly relied on them to handle the affairs of state. This was secretly discussed and criticized by her grandson Li Chongrun, the Prince of Shao, (Li Xian's son), granddaughter Li Xianhui () the Lady Yongtai (Li Chongrun's sister), and Li Xianhui's husband Wu Yanji () the Prince of Wei (Wu Zetian's grandnephew and Wu Chengsi's son), but somehow the discussion was leaked, and Zhang Yizhi reported this to Wu Zetian. She ordered the three of them to commit suicide.[note 13][note 14]
Despite her old age, however, Wu Zetian continued to be interested in finding talented officials and promoting them. Individuals she promoted in her old age included, among others, Cui Xuanwei and Zhang Jiazhen.
By 703, Zhang Yizhi and Zhang Changzong had become resentful of Wei Yuanzhong, who by now was a senior chancellor, for dressing down their brother Zhang Changyi () and rejecting the promotion of another brother Zhang Changqi (). They also were fearful that if Wu Zetian died, Wei would find a way to execute them, and therefore accused Wei and Gao Jian (), an official favoured by Princess Taiping, of speculating on Wu Zetian's old age and death. They initially got Wei's subordinate Zhang Shuo to agree to corroborate the charges, but once Zhang Shuo was before Wu Zetian, he instead accused Zhang Yizhi and Zhang Changzong of forcing him to bear false witness. As a result, Wei, Gao, and Zhang Shuo were exiled, but escaped death.
In autumn of 704, there began to be accusations of corruption levied against Zhang Yizhi and Zhang Changzong, as well as their brothers Zhang Changqi, Zhang Changyi, and Zhang Tongxiu (). Zhang Tongxiu and Zhang Changyi were demoted, but even though the officials Li Chengjia () and Huan Yanfan advocated that Zhang Yizhi and Zhang Changzong be removed as well, Wu Zetian, taking the suggestion of the chancellor Yang Zaisi, did not remove them. Subsequently, charges of corruption against Zhang Yizhi and Zhang Changzong were renewed by the chancellor Wei Anshi.
In winter 704, Wu Zetian became seriously ill for a period, and only the Zhang brothers were allowed to see her; the chancellors were not. This led to speculation that Zhang Yizhi and Zhang Changzong were plotting to take over the throne, and there were repeated accusations of treason. Once her condition improved, Cui Xuanwei advocated that only Li Xian and Li Dan be allowed to attend to her--a suggestion that she did not accept. After further accusations against the Zhang brothers by Huan and Song Jing, Wu Zetian allowed Song to investigate, but before the investigation was completed, she issued a pardon for Zhang Yizhi, derailing Song's investigation.
By spring 705, Wu Zetian was seriously ill again. Zhang Jianzhi, Jing Hui, and Yuan Shuji, planned a coup to kill the Zhang brothers. They convinced the generals Li Duozuo, Li Dan (, note different character than the former emperor), and Yang Yuanyan () and another chancellor, Yao Yuanzhi, to be involved. With agreement from Li Xian as well, they acted on 20 February, killing Zhang Yizhi and Zhang Changzong, and then they had Changsheng Hall (), where Wu Zetian was residing, surrounded. They then reported to her that the Zhang brothers had been executed for treason, and they then forced her to yield the throne to Li Xian. On 21 February, an edict was issued in her name that made Li Xian regent, and on 22 February, an edict was issued in her name passing the throne to Li Xian. On 23 February, Li Xian formally retook the throne, and the next day, Wu Zetian, under heavy guard, was moved to the subsidiary palace, Shangyang Palace (), but was nevertheless honoured with the title of Empress Regnant Zetian Dasheng (). On 3 March, the Tang dynasty was restored, ending the Zhou.
She died on 16 December, and, pursuant to a final edict issued in her name, was no longer referred to as empress regnant, but instead as Empress Consort Zetian Dasheng (). In 706, Wu Zetian's son Emperor Zhongzong had Wu Zetian interred in a joint burial with his father Emperor Gaozong at the Qianling Mausoleum, located near the capital Chang'an on Mount Liang. Emperor Zhongzong also buried at Qianling his brother Li Xián, son Li Chongrun, and daughter Li Xianhui () the Lady Yongtai (posthumously honoured as the Princess Yongtai)--victims of Wu Zetian's wrath.
Wu Zetian proclaimed herself as the ruler of the "Zhou dynasty", named after the historical Zhou dynasty (1046-256 BC); and, thus, from 690 to 705 the Chinese Empire was known as the Zhou dynasty. The traditional historical view, however, is to discount Wu's "Zhou dynasty": dynasties by definition involve the succession of rulers from one family: Wu's "Zhou dynasty" was founded by her, and ended within her lifetime, with her abdication (705). This does not meet the traditional concept of a dynasty. The alternative, is to view Wu's "Zhou dynasty" as the revival of the generally historically-accepted historical Zhou dynasty, which had been ruled (at least nominally) by the Ji family, almost a thousand years before. Either way, Wu's Zhou dynasty is best viewed as a brief interruption of the Li family's Tang dynasty, rather than as a fully realized dynasty. Her claim of founding a new dynasty, however, was little opposed at the time (690). The fifteen-year period which Wu Zetian designated as her "Zhou Dynasty" considered in the context of nearly a half century of de facto and de jure rule (c. 654-705) reveals a remarkable and still debated period of history. In this context, designating a new dynasty, with her as its emperor can be seen as part of her power politics, and as the culmination of her period of ruling. Though the fifteen years of Wu Zetian's Zhou dynasty had its own notable characteristics, these are difficult to separate from Wu's reign of power, which lasted for about half of a century.
Wu Zetian's consolidation of power in part relied on a system of spies. She used informants to choose persons to eliminate, a process which peaked in 697, with the wholesale demotion, exile, or killing of various aristocratic families and scholars, furthermore prohibiting their sons from holding office.
One apparatus of government which fell into Wu's power was the imperial examination system: the basic theory and practice of which was to recruit into government service those men who were the best educated, talented, and having the best potential to perform their duties, and to do so by testing a pool of candidates in order to determine this objectively. This pool was male only, and the qualified pool of candidates and resulting placements into official positions was on a relatively small scale at the time of Wu's assuming control of government. The official tests examined such things considered important for functionaries of the highly developed, bureaucratic government structure of the current imperial government. The qualities sought in a candidate for government service included determining the potential official's level of literacy in terms of reading and writing as well as his possession of the specific knowledge considered necessary and desirable for a governmental official, such as Confucian precepts on the nature of virtue and theory on the proper ordering of and relationships within society. Wu Zetian continued to use the imperial examination system to recruit civil servants, and she introduced major changes in regard to the system that she inherited, including increasing the pool of candidates permitted to take the test, by allowing commoners and gentry, who were previously disqualified by their background, to take them. Another thing she did was to expand the governmental examination system and to greatly increase the importance of this method of recruiting government officials, which she did in 693. Wu provided increased opportunity for the representation within government to people of the North China Plain, versus people of the northwestern aristocratic families, (whom she decimated, anyway); and, the successful candidates who were recruited through the examination system became an elite group within her government. The historical details surrounding and the consequences of Wu Zetian's promoting a new group of people from previously disenfranchised backgrounds into prominence as powerful governmental officials as well as the role of the examination system in this regard, remains a matter of debate for scholars of this subject.
Wu Zetian eliminated many of her real, potential, or perceived rivals to power by means of death (including execution, suicide by command, and more-or-less directly killing people), demotion, and exile. Mostly this was carried out by her secret police, led by individuals like Wao Ganjun and Lai Junchen--who were known to have written a document called the Manual of Accusation, which detailed steps for interrogation and obtaining confessions by torture. One of these methods, the "Dying Swine's Melancholy" (), which merely indicated a level of pain inflicted by a torture device, seems to have been conflated in the years following Wu's death with the story of the "human swine" torture conducted by Empress Lü Zhi, in which the victim had limbs and tongue amputated, was force-fed, and left to wallow in his own excrement.
Wu targeted various individuals, including many in her own family and her extended family. In reaction to an attempt to remove her from power, in 684, she massacred twelve entire collateral branches of the imperial family. Besides this, she also altered the ancient balance of power in China, dating back to the Qin dynasty. The old area of the Qin state was later referred to as Guanzhong, literally, the area "within the fortified mountain passes". It was from this area of northwest China that the Ying family of Qin arose to conquer, unifying China into its first historical empire. During the Han dynasty, Sima Qian records in his Shiji that Guanzhong had three-tenths of China's population, but six-tenths of its wealth. Additionally, at the beginning of Wu Zetian's period of ascendency, Guanzhong was still the stronghold of the most nationally powerful aristocratic families, despite the fact that economic development in other parts of China had improved the lot of families in other regions. The Guangzhong aristocracy was not willing to relinquish their hold on the reins of government, however; while, at the same time, some of the more newly wealthy families in other areas, such as the North China Plain or Hubei were eager for a larger share of national power of their own. Most of the opposition to Wu was from the Guangzhong families of northwest China. Accordingly, she repressed them, instead favoring less privileged families, thus raising to the ranks of power many talented, but less aristocratic families, often recruited through the official examination system. Many of those so favored originated from the North China plain. Through a process of eliminating or diminishing the power of the established aristocracy, whom she perceived as disloyal to her, and establishing a reformed upper class in China loyal to her, Wu Zetian made major social changes which are still being evaluated by historians.
Wu Zetian used her power to increase or to attempt to increase her power by manipulating Buddhist, Daoist, and Confucianist practice, sometimes in reference to the idea of the Mandate of Heaven. There are also allegations of witchcraft or sorcery. Wu began to manipulate the symbolic aspects of religious and imperial power long before she became huangdi, one case being the Sacrifice on Mount Tai, in 666. When Emperor Gaozong offered sacrifices to the deities of heaven and earth at Mount Tai, Empress Wu, in an unprecedented action, offered sacrifices after him, with Princess Dowager Yan, mother of Emperor Gaozong's brother Li Zhen, Prince of Yue, offering sacrifices after her. Wu Zetian's procession of ladies up Mount Tai conspicuously linked Wu with the most sacred traditional rites of the Chinese empire.
Many of Wu Zetian's measures were of a popular nature, and helped her to gain support for her rule. Wu Zetian came to power during a time in China in which the people were fairly contented, the administration was run well, and the economy was characterized by rising living standards. Wu Zetian, as far as the masses were for the most part concerned, continued in this manner. She was determined that free, self-sufficient farmers would continue to work on their own farm land, so she periodically used the juntian, equal-field system, together with updated census figures to ensure fair land allocations, re-allocating as necessary. Much of her success was due to her various edicts (including those known as her "Acts of Grace") which helped to satisfy the needs of the lower classes through various acts of relief, her widening recruitment to government service to include previously excluded gentry and commoners, and by her generous promotions and pay raises for the lower ranks.
Wu Zetian used her military and diplomatic skills to enhance her position. The fubing system of self-supportive soldier-farmer colonies, which provided local militia and labor services for her government, allowed her to maintain her armed forces at reduced expense. She also pursued a policy of military action to expand the empire to its furthest extent ever up to that point in Central Asia. Expansion efforts against Tibet and to the northwest were less successful. Allying with the Korean kingdom of Silla against Goguryeo with the promise of ceding Goguryeo's territory to Silla, Chinese forces occupied Goguryeo after its defeat, and even began to occupy Silla territory. Silla resisted the imposition of Chinese rule, and by allying with Goguryeo and Baekche, was able to expel its former ally from the peninsula. Hong argues that Silla's success was in part due to a shift in Empress Wu's focus to Tibet and inadequate support for the forces in the Korean peninsula. Despite victories against Tibetans and Turks: however, in 694, Wu's forces decisively defeated the Tibetan-Western Turk alliance, and retook the Four Garrisons of Anxi, lost in 668.
Toward the end of Gaozong's life, Wu began engaging a number of mid-level officials who had literary talent, including Yuan Wanqing (), Liu Yizhi, Fan Lübing, Miao Chuke (), Zhou Simao (), and Han Chubin (), to write a number of works on her behalf, including the Biographies of Notable Women (), Guidelines for Imperial Subjects (), and New Teachings for Official Staff Members (?). Collectively, they became known as the "North Gate Scholars" (?), because they served inside the palace, which was to the north of the imperial government buildings, and Empress Wu sought advice from them to divert the powers of the chancellors.
Around the new year 675, Empress Wu submitted twelve suggestions. One was that the work of Laozi (whose family name was Li and to whom the Tang imperial clan traced its ancestry), Tao Te Ching, should be added to the required reading for imperial university students. Another was that a three-year mourning period should be observed for a mother's death in all cases, not only in those cases when the father was no longer alive. Emperor Gaozong praised her for her suggestions and adopted them.
In 690, Empress Dowager Wu's cousin's son Zong Qinke submitted a number of modified Chinese characters intended to showcase Empress Dowager Wu's greatness. She adopted them, and she took one of the modified characters, Zhao (?), to be her formal name (i.e., the name by which the people would exercise naming taboo on). ? was made from two other characters: Ming (?) on top, meaning "light" or "clarity", and Kong (?) on the bottom, meaning "sky." The implication appeared to be that she would be like the light shining from the sky. (Zhao (?), meaning "shine", from which ? was derived, might have been her original name, but evidence of that is inconclusive.)[note 3] Later that year, after successive petition drives, initially started by the low-level official Fu Youyi, began to occur in waves, asking her to take the throne, Emperor Ruizong offered to take the name of Wu as well. On 18 August 690, she approved of the requests. She changed the name of the state to Zhou, claiming ancestry from the Zhou dynasty, and took the throne as Empress Regnant (with the title of Empress Regnant Shengshen (?), literally "Divine and Sacred Emperor or Empress Regnant"). Emperor Ruizong was deposed and made crown prince with the atypical title of Huangsi (). This thus interrupted the Tang dynasty, and she became the first (and only) woman to reign over China as empress regnant.[note 15]
Beside her own literary work, Wu Zetian's court was a focus of literary creativity. Forty-six of Wu's poems are collected in the Quan Tangshi "Collected Tang Poems" and sixty-one essays under her name are recorded in the Quan Tangwen "Collected Tang Essays". Although a lot of those writings serve political ends, there is one poem in which she laments her mother after she died and expresses her despair at not being able to see her again.
During Wu Zetian's reign, the imperial court produced various works for which she was a sponsor, such as the anthology of the poetry of her court known as the Zhuying ji "Collection of Precious Glories", which contained poems by Cui Rong, Li Jiao, Zhang Yue, and others, arranged according to the official rank at the court of the individuals included. Among the literary developments that took place during the time of Wu Zetian (and partly at her court) was the final stylistic development of the "new style" poetry of the regulated verse (jintishi), by the poetic pair Song Zhiwen and Shen Quanqi.
Wu Zetian also engaged in patronage of scholars by founding an institute to produce the Collection of Biographies of Famous Women. The development of what is considered to be characteristic Tang poetry is traditionally ascribed to Chen Zi'ang, one of Wu's ministers.
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Considering the events of her life, literary allusions to Wu Zetian may carry several connotations: a woman who has inappropriately overstepped her bounds, the hypocrisy of preaching compassion while simultaneously engaging in a pattern of political corruption and vicious behavior and ruling by pulling strings in the background. For many centuries, Wu was used by the establishment as an example of what can go wrong when a woman is placed in charge.
Such sexist opposition to her was only lifted during the late 1960s when Mao Zedong's wife Jiang Qing rehabilitated Wu as part of a propaganda campaign to suggest she be considered as a successor to her ailing husband.
In his biography Wu, British author Jonathan Clements has pointed out that these wildly differing uses of a historical figure have often led to contradictory and even hysterical characterizations. Many alleged poisonings and other incidents, such as the premature death of her daughter, may have rational explanations that have been twisted by later opponents.
The traditional Chinese historical view on Wu Zetian generally was mixed--admiring her for her abilities in governing the state, but vilifying her for her actions in seizing imperial power. Luo Binwang even wrote along these lines in a declaration during her lifetime, in support of Li Jingye's rebellion. Typical was a commentary by the Later Jin dynasty historian Liu Xu, the lead editor of the Old Book of Tang:
The year that Lady Wu declared herself regent, heroic individuals were all mournful of the unfortunate turn of events, worried that the dynasty would fall, and concerned that they could not repay the grace of the deceased emperor [i.e., Emperor Gaozong] and protect his sons. Soon thereafter, great accusations arose, and many innocent people were falsely accused and stuck their necks out in waiting for execution. Heaven and earth became like a huge cage, and even if one could escape it, where could he go? That was lamentable. In the past, the trick of covering the nose[note 16] surprised the realm in its poisonousness, and the disaster of the human pig[note 17] caused the entire state to mourn. In order to take over as empress, Empress Wu strangled her own infant daughter; her willingness to crush her own flesh and blood showed how great her viciousness and vile nature was, although this is nothing more than what jealous individuals and evil women might do. However, she accepted the words of righteousness and honored the upright. Although she was like a hen that crowed, she eventually returned the rightful rule to her son. She quickly dispelled the accusation against Wei Yuanzhong, comforted Di Renjie with kind words, respected the will of the times and suppressed her favorites, and listened to honest words and ended the terror of the secret police officials. This was good, this was good.
Some of the diversity in terms of points of agreement and even outright divergences in modern evaluations of Wu Zetian can be seen in the following quotes by modern non-Chinese authors:
"Wu Zetian (690-705) was an extraordinary woman, attractive, exceptionally gifted, politically astute and an excellent judge of men. With single minded determination, she overcame the opposition of the Confucian establishment through her own efforts, unique among palace women by not using her own family. "Her rise to power was steeped in blood...." Ann Paludan
"To the horror of traditional Chinese historians, all members of the shih class, the continued success of the T'ang was in large measure due to an ex-concubine who finally usurped the throne itself....Though she was ruthless towards her enemies, the period of her ascendency was a good one for China. Government was sound, no rebellions occurred, abuses in the army and administration were stamped out and Korea was annexed, an achievement no previous Chinese had ever managed." Yong Yap Cotterell and Arthur Cotterell.
"China's only woman ruler, Empress Wu was a remarkably skilled and able politician, but her murderous and illicit methods of maintaining power gave her a bad reputation among male bureaucrats. It also fostered overstaffing and many kinds of corruption." John King Fairbank
Wu Zetian's rise and reign has been criticized harshly by Confucian historians, but has been viewed in a different and positive light after the 1950s.
In the early period of the Tang dynasty, because all the emperors were her direct descendants, the evaluation for Wu Zetian were relatively positive. Commentary in subsequent periods, however, especially the book Zizhi Tongjian compiled by Sima Guang, criticized Wu Zetian harshly. By the period of Southern Song dynasty, when Neo-Confucianism was firmly established as the mainstream political ideology of China, their ideology determined the evaluation for Wu Zetian.
|Zhou dynasty (690-705): Convention: use personal name|
|Temple names||Family name and first name||Period of reign||Era names and their associated dates|
Ti?nshòu (): 16 October 690 - 21 April 692 (18 months)
Wu Zetian had many chancellors during her reign as monarch of her self-proclaimed Zhou dynasty, many of them notable in their own right. (For full list see List of Chancellors of Wu Zetian).
|Ancestors of Wu Zetian|
Wu ZetianBorn: 624 Died: 16 December 705
|| Empress regnant of the Zhou Dynasty
16 October 690 - 22 February 705
|Tang Dynasty restored|
Li Dàn, Emperor Ruizong
| Empress regnant of China
16 October 690 - 22 February 705
Li Xian, Emperor Zhongzong
| Empress consort of the Tang dynasty
2 December 655 - 27 December 683
Title last held byLi Yuan, Emperor Gaozu
| Retired Empress regnant of China
22 February 705 - 16 December 705
Title next held byLi Dàn, Emperor Ruizong