Wu Zetian (武则天， 624 – December 16, 705), alternatively named Wu Zhao, Wu Hou, and during the later Tang dynasty as Tian Hou, also referred to in English as Empress Consort Wu or by the deprecated term “Empress Wu“, was a Chinese sovereign who ruled unofficially as empress consort and empress dowager and later, officially as empress regnant (皇帝) during the brief Zhou dynasty (周, 684–705), which interrupted the Tang dynasty (618–690 & 705–907). Wu was the sole officially recognized empress regnant of China in more than two millennia.
Wu was the concubine of Emperor Taizong. After his death, she married his successor—his ninth son, Emperor Gaozong, officially becoming Gaozong’s huanghou (皇后, variously translated as “empress”, “wife”, or “empress 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.
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.
Background and early life
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 argue that Wu Zetian was born in Lizhou (利州) (modern day Guangyuan in Sichuan), while some others insist she was born in the imperial capital of Chang’an.
She lived from 17 February 624– 16 December 705. 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 Shihuo 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 (李淵) (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 governor of Yangzhou, Lizhou, and Jingzhou (荊州) (modern day Jiangling County, Hubei).
Wu Zetian was born into a rich family. She had servants at her disposal to perform routine tasks for her, so there were not many domestic jobs that Wu would ever have to learn. Because of this, Wu 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 did not seem to be the type of child who would want to sit quietly and do needlework or sip tea all day. So Wu read and learned about many different topics such as politics and other governmental affairs, writing, literature, and music. Wu grew and continued to learn as much as she could, with her father backing her every step of the way. 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, 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 favoured 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?”
When the Emperor Taizong died in 649, his youngest son, Li Zhi (whose mother was main wife Wende), succeeded him as Emperor Gaozong of Tang. Li and Wu had an affair when Taizong was still alive.
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 (感業寺), 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.
Rise to power
By the early 650s Consort Wu was a concubine of Emperor Gaozong, and she had the title Zhaoyi (昭儀), which was the highest ranking of the nine concubines of the second rank. Wu progressively gained influence over the governance of the empire throughout Emperor Gaozong’s reign, and eventually she effectively was making the major decisions. She was regarded as ruthless in her endeavours to grab power and was believed by traditional historians even to have killed her own daughter to frame Empress Wang (and, later, her own eldest son Li Hong), in a power struggle.
Gaozong became emperor at the age of 21. 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, Emperor Gaozong went to Ganye Temple to offer incense, and when he and Consort Wu saw each other, both of them wept—and were seen by Emperor Gaozong’s wife, Empress Wang. At that time, Emperor Gaozong did not favour Empress Wang, and much favored his concubine Consort Xiao; further, 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, and therefore secretly told Consort Wu to stop shaving her hair and, at a later point, welcomed her to the palace. (Some modern historians dispute this traditional account, and some think that Consort Wu never had 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 of these sons were in contention to be Emperor Gaozong’s heir because Emperor Gaozong had, at the request of officials influenced by Empress Wang and her uncle, the chancellor Liu Shi, designated his oldest son Li Zhong as his heir. Li Zhong’s mother, Consort Liu, was of lowly birth and Empress Wang expected her 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. As a sign of his love for Consort Wu, in 654 Emperor Gaozong conferred posthumous honors on her father Wu Shihuo.
As the year 654 continued, shortly after Consort Wu had given birth to her daughter, the baby died, with some evidence suggesting deliberate strangulation, including allegations by Wu, the child’s mother. Consort Wu accused Wang of murder. Wu’s rival 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 Wang had the means to kill the child, and likely done so, motivated by jealousy. Wang lacked an alibi, and was unable to clear herself. Angry, Emperor Gaozong considered deposing Empress Wang and elevating Consort Wu to her position; but, first he wanted to make sure that the government chancellors would support this. So, Gaozong visited the house of his uncle Zhangsun Wuji, the head chancellor, together with Consort Wu (later Emperor Gaozong would award Chancellor Zhangsun with much treasure). During the meeting, Gaozong several times brought up the topic of Empress Wang’s childlessness, a topic easily leading to an excuse sufficient to depose her; however, Zhangsun repeatedly found ways to divert the conversation. Subsequent visits by Consort Wu’s mother Lady Yang and the official Xu Jingzong, who was allied with Consort Wu, to seek support from Zhangsun also were to no avail. Scientifically credible forensic pathology information about the death of the child does not exist, and scholars lack real, concrete evidence about her death. However, speculation seems to continue.
As traditional folklore tends to portray Wu as a power hungry woman with no care for who she hurt or what she did, the most popular theory is that Wu killed her own child in order to implicate Wang. Other schools of thought argue that Wang indeed killed the child out of jealousy and hatred toward Wu since Wang had no children of her own. The third argument is that the child died of asphyxiation or crib death, considering that the ventilation systems of the time were non-existent or of poor quality. Lack of ventilation combined with using coal as a heating method could lead to a build-up of fumes that would lead to carbon monoxide poisoning. No matter what caused the death of the child, Wu blamed Wang for it and Wang was removed from her position as Empress.
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 (崔義玄), and Yuan Gongyu (袁公瑜). On an occasion in the autumn of 655, Emperor Gaozong summoned the chancellors Zhangsun, Li Ji, Yu Zhining, and Chu Suiliang to the palace—which Chu deduced to be regarding the matter of changing who was 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 Jialso opposed the move, but 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, putting them under arrest and creating Consort Wu as empress to replace Empress Wang. (Later that year, Empress Wang and Consort Xiao were killed on orders by the new Empress Wu after Emperor Gaozong showed signs of considering their release. After their deaths, however, Empress Wu often was haunted by them in her dreams. For the rest of Emperor Gaozong’s reign, Emperor Gaozong and she often took up residence at the eastern capital Luoyang and only infrequently spent time in Chang’an.)
In 655, Wu became Tang Gaozong’s new empress consort (皇后, húanghòu).
In 656, on the advice of Xu Jingzong, Emperor Gaozong deposed Consort Liu’s son Li Zhong from being his heir apparent, changing his status to being the Prince of Liang, while designating Wu’s son Li Hong, then carrying the title of Prince of Dai, as 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 further had Xu accuse Zhangsun Wuji of plotting treason with the low-level officials Wei Jifang (韋季方) and Li Chao (李巢). 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 (褚彥甫) and Chu Yanchong (褚彥沖) were executed. Orders also were 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, and 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 was making correct rulings. Thereafter, her authority rivaled Emperor Gaozong’s.
By 664, Empress Wu was said to be interfering so much in the imperial governance that she was angering Emperor Gaozong. Further, she had engaged the Taoist sorcerer Guo Xingzhen (郭行真) in using witchcraft—an act that was prohibited by regulations and which had led to Empress Wang’s downfall—and the eunuch Wang Fusheng (王伏勝) reported this to Emperor Gaozong, further angering him. 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, blaming 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 (上官庭芝) 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.) Thereafter, at imperial meetings, Empress Wu would sit on the other side of a curtain behind Emperor Gaozong, and they became referred to by the public as the “Two Holy Ones” (二聖, Er Sheng).
Meanwhile, on Empress Wu’s account, her mother Lady Yang had been created the Lady of Rong, and her older sister, now widowed, the Lady of Han. Her 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. At a feast that Lady Yang held for them, however, 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, and after her death, Emperor Gaozong created her daughter the Lady of Wei and considered keeping her in the palace—possibly as a concubine—but 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, and she had the Lady of Wei poisoned, by placing poison in food offerings that Wu Weiliang and Wu Huaiyun had made and then blaming Wu Weiliang and Wu Huaiyun for the murder. 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, an offer Emperor Gaozong rejected. He further posthumously honored Wu Shihuo (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 Wu’s older sister, the Lady of Han, (Wu’s nephew) Helan Minzhi (賀蘭敏之) had been given the surname of Wu and allowed to inherit the title of Duke of Zhou. As it was becoming clear, however, that he was suspecting Empress Wu of having murdered his sister, Empress Wu began to take precautions against him, he also was said to have had an incestuous relationship with his grandmother Lady Yang. In 671, Helan Minzhi was accused of having disobeyed mourning regulations during the period of mourning for Lady Yang, and also of raping the daughter of the official Yang Sijian (楊思儉), 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, with Emperor Gaozong’s illness getting worse, 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.
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, who had married the general Zhao Gui (趙瓌) and whose daughter had become the wife and princess of Wu’s third son Li Xiǎn, the Prince of Zhou. Princess Zhao was therefore accused of unspecified crimes and put under arrest, eventually being starved to death. Zhao Gui and Princess Changle were exiled. Meanwhile, later that month, Li Hong, the Crown Prince—who had been urging Empress Wu not to exercise so much influence on Emperor Gaozong’s governance and who had offended Empress Wu by requesting that his half-sisters, Consort Xiao’s daughters, Princess Yiyang and Xuancheng, who had been 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 (李上金), were repeatedly accused of crimes by Empress Wu and were demoted.
Soon Empress Wu’s relationship with Li Xián also deteriorated, as Li Xián had become unsettled after hearing rumors that he was not born to Empress Wu—but to her sister, the Lady of Han—and when Empress Wu heard of his fearfulness, she became angry with him. Further, the sorcerer Ming Chongyan (明崇儼), whom both she and Emperor Gaozong respected and who had stated that Li Xián was unsuitable to inherit the throne, 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 arms were 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 Xiǎn [similar-sounding name but different Chinese characters] (who had by now been renamed Li Zhe) was created crown prince.
In 681, Princess Taiping was married to Xue Shao (薛紹), 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 (薛顗), was a grandniece of the deceased chancellor Xiao Yu.
In late 683, Emperor Gaozong died while at Luoyang. Li Zhe took the throne (as Emperor Zhongzong), but Empress Wu retained authority as empress dowager and regent.
Upon the death of her husband, the Emperor Gaozong, Wu became empress dowager (皇太后, húangtàihòu) and then regent. Wu already had poisoned the crown prince, Li Hong, and had enough other princes exiled, that her third son, Li Zhe, had been made Heir Apparent. Furthermore, Gaozong’s will included provisions that Li Zhe should ascend immediately to the imperial throne, and that he should look to Empress Wu in regard to any important matter, either military or civil.
In the second month of 684, Wu’s son, Li Zhe, the heir apparent ascended to the imperial throne, taking the regnal name of Zhongzong, for the short six weeks of his reign.
Immediately, Emperor Zhongzong showed signs of disobeying Empress Dowager Wu. Emperor Zhongzong was under the thumb of his wife, the empress Wei, even appointing his father-in-law prime minister. He also tried to make his father in law Shizhong (侍中, the head of the examination bureau of government, 門下省, Menxia Sheng, and a post considered one for a chancellor) and giving 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 (程務挺) and Zhang Qianxu (張虔勖), deposed him and replaced him with her youngest son Li Dan, the Prince of Yu (as Emperor Ruizong). Wu Zetian had Zhongzong’s father in law, Wei Xuanzhen (韋玄貞), brought up on charges of treason, and he 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 (丘神勣) to Li Xián’s place in exile and forced Li Xián to commit suicide.
Wu had her youngest son Li Dan made emperor, as Emperor Ruizong. She was the ruler, however, both in substance and appearance as well. 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. In 690, Wu had Emperor Ruizong yield the throne to her and established the Zhou dynasty, with her named as the 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 were admired throughout the rest of the Tang dynasty as well as in subsequent dynasties. (She would be overthrown in a coup in 705 and Emperor Zhongzong returned to the throne, but she would continue to carry the title of “emperor” until her death later in that year.)
Although Emperor Ruizong held the title of emperor, Empress Dowager Wu held onto power even more firmly, 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 (揚州, 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 (李孝逸), 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.
By 685, Empress Dowager Wu began to carry on an affair with the Buddhist monk Huaiyi and during the next few years, Huaiyi would be progressively bestowed with greater and greater honours.
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 (洛水, 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 (豫州, roughly modern Zhumadian, Henan) and Bo Prefecture (博州, 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 (李元嘉) the Prince of Han, Li Lingkui (李靈夔) 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 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.”
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 (大雲寺) 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 (王慶之) 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—and Li Zhaode took 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 (崔宣禮), Lu Xian (盧獻), Wei Yuanzhong, and Li Sizhen (李嗣眞) executed, as Di, under arrest, had hidden a secret petition inside a change of clothes and had it submitted by his son Di Guangyuan (狄光遠). The seven still were exiled, but after this incident, particularly at the urging of Li Zhaode, Zhu Jingze, and Zhou Ju (周矩), the waves of politically motivated massacres decreased, although they did not end entirely.
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 (韋團兒), who hated Li Dan (the reason why she did so is lost to history), 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 (裴匪躬) and Fan Yunxian (范雲仙) 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 (Chinese: 明堂) and the Heavenly Hall (Chinese: 天堂) were burned by Huaiyi (who was jealous at Wu Zetian’s taking on another lover, the imperial physician Shen Nanqiu (沈南璆)), 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.
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 (趙文翽), the prefect of Ying Prefecture (Chinese: 營州, roughly Zhaoyang County, Liaoning), rebelled, with Li assuming the title of Wushang Khan (無上可汗). 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—including an attack against Khitan base of operations during the winter of 696, shortly after Li’s death, that captured 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 honoured 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 Xiǎn 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 (武延秀), 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 (趙州, 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 (論弓仁), 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 (李仙蕙) the Lady Yongtai (Li Chongrun’s sister), and Li Xianhui’s husband Wu Yanji (武延基) 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.
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 (張昌儀) and rejecting the promotion of another brother Zhang Changqi (張昌期). They also were fearful that if Wu Zetian died, Wei would find a way to execute them, and therefore accused Wei and Gao Jian (高戩), 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.
Removal and 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 (張同休). Zhang Tongxiu and Zhang Changyi were demoted, but even though the officials Li Chengjia (李承嘉) 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 (李湛, note different character than the former emperor), and Yang Yuanyan (楊元琰) 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 (長生殿), 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 (上陽宮), but was nevertheless honoured with the title of Empress Regnant Zetian Dasheng (則天大聖皇帝). On 3 March, 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 (則天大聖皇后). 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 (李仙蕙) 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 rule (ca. 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” (死猪愁), 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 Lu Zhi, in which the victim had their limbs and tongue amputated and was force-fed and left to wallow in their 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 reigns 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, the mother of Emperor Gaozong’s brother Li Zhen the Prince of Yue, offering sacrifices after her. Wu Zetian’s procession of ladies up Taishan 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 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 occupying 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 resource allocated to forces on the Korean peninsula to engage in war. Despite victories against Tibetans and Turks: however, in 694, Wu’s forces decisively defeated the Tibetan-Western Turk alliance succeeded in retaking the Four Garrisons of Anxi, lost in 668.
Meanwhile, in 651, shortly after the Arab defeat of the Sassanid Empire, the first Arab ambassador to China had arrived there.
Wu Zetian’s rise and reign has been criticized harshly by Confucian historians, but has been viewed in a different 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.