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Wu Zetian Tang Empress (624-725)


Elisabetta Colla

Elisabetta Colla holds the following degrees: MA (Laurea) degree in Oriental languages and literatures, Ca’Foscari University of Venice; diploma in Chinese language and culture, former Beijing Languages Institute; MA degree in Asian studies, Faculty of Human Sciences of Oporto; and a PhD in Cultural Studies from the Faculty of Human Sciences of the Portuguese Catholic University, Lisbon. She is currently Assistant Professor at FLUL (School of Arts and Humanities, Lisbon University) and has written various articles and a dissertation on Macau. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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, Elena Woodacre

Elena Woodacre is a specialist in medieval and early modern queenship and a Senior Lecturer in Early Modern European history at the University of Winchester. She obtained an MA in Medieval Studies from the University of Reading and her PhD from Bath Spa University. Her publications include her monograph The Queens Regnant of Navarre: Succession, Politics, and Partnership, 1274–1512 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) and she has edited/co-edited several collections on queenship and royal studies. Elena is the organizer of the “Kings & Queens” conference series and the founder of the international Royal Studies Network (www.royalstudiesnetwork.org). She is also the Editor-in-Chief of the Royal Studies Journal (www.rsj.winchester.ac.uk or www.royalstudiesjournal.com), an academic, peer-reviewed, multilingual, and fully open-access publication. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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The Tang dynasty (618–907) is considered the Golden Age of Imperial China, a period that lasted almost three centuries, although interrupted by Wu Zetian Empress (Wu Zhao, 625–705, r. 690–705) who temporarily replaced the Tang with her own Zhou dynasty.

Tang territorial extension permitted the development of a huge network of connections across Eurasia while the maritime silk routes between the East China Sea and the Persian Gulf expanded. Both commerce and pilgrimages increased during this period, promoting not only economical, but also cultural exchange. Within the northern part of the Chinese empire, nomadic tribes were militarily superior to their Chinese neighbours and respected gender equality.

In traditional China, women were not outlawed from rule. Nevertheless, there was a silently observed prohibition on women emperors. The Chinese traditional bureaucratic structure was not conceived to be run by women. They could not participate directly in the political, economic, and social leadership of the empire. Chinese historiography and the official sources are full of negative examples of female rule, such as empresses were expected to keep their status as ruler’s wives and mothers of the heir apparent. However, during the Tang dynasty, powerful empresses and princesses were actually involved in politics. Empress Wu Zhao’s experience, especially, demonstrates that she lived in an age of great female prominence, resulting from northern influences where women were active participants in the political life of the empire.

The standard histories of the Tang dynasty provide an official insight to this period, however other sources such as essays, memorials, epitaphs, epigraphies, and poems should not be forgotten. Buddhist sutras, amongst others, are also a fruitful source for reconstructing Wu Zhao’s history, in particular.

Topic/event Description

During the Tang, imperial China was controlled by a ruling family subjected to tanistry, and who were supported by Altaic tribes. Thanks to the Sui dynasty (589–618) reunification of China that occurred in 589, the Tang empire reached its greatest size before the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912), and included much of the actual province of Xinjiang. The expansion of its territory stopped in 751 when the Tang army was defeated by the Abbasid Caliphate (750–1258) on the Talas River in today’s Kyrgyzstan. The Sui emperors and Tang rulers did not belong to the tiny group of prestigious families who claimed to be the “authentic” bearers of traditional Chinese culture, but were considered descendants of the nomads who settled in China during a period of political division between the fifth and the sixth centuries. Chang’an (today’s Xi’an) and Luoyang, the two imperial capitals of the Tang and Zhou dynasties respectively, received people from all parts of Asia. Chang’an architecture and urbanist plans were emulated outside China (i.e. Heian-kyo in Japan). Intermarriage between Chinese and non-Chinese people was quite common and, as a result, by the seventh century, the Tang became a cosmopolitan empire strongly influenced by a Sino-Altaic system, which provided them with a certain stability and security. By that time Chinese society was made up of an acculturation of barbarian and Chinese elements.

The Tang became a model for neighbour states, such as Korea, Japan, and Vietnam who adopted Chinese script and ideology. The Tang empire reached its height with Xuanzong Emperor (712–756). However, his love story with his favourite consort Yang Guifei marked a turning point in Tang dynasty. In fact, the general An Lushan/Rokshan (703–757), of Turkish and Sogdian origins, stoked a rebellion in 755 that led to the near-collapse of the dynasty. Starting from mid-eighth century, one sees the gradual decline of the political strength of the central government and the rise of military governors.

Context and Comparison

Before the third century BCE, during the Eastern Zhou period (770–256 BCE), China was divided into “guo 國,” territorial states ruled by monarchs, or “wang 王,” who were appointed by Heaven. In 221 BCE China was unified by the the Qin, the most western of these states. The Qin became the first dynasty (221–206 BCE) of a long imperial period that lasted up to 1912, when the Republic of China was proclaimed. To distinguish himself from previous rulers, the first Qin emperor bestowed himself with the new title of “Huangdi 皇帝,” which was used by all the monarchs of the twenty-five succeeding official dynasties.

The Chinese imperial family, or clan, kept as much power as possible within its realm. In fact, intermarriage with the same group of families was encouraged, for it was seen as a way to extend imperial power and— eventually—control rival clan groups. In general, in imperial China monogamy, concubinage and surname exogamy were the main rules of practise and the categorization of women at court was based on their marital status. Although it was forbidden to promote a concubine to the rank of wife, as well as demote a wife to the rank of concubine, if a concubine bore an emperor’s offspring, she could easily elevate her status. Generally, the title of empress could be held by the wife that the the emperor married before his accession to the throne and who became the mother of the heir apparent—although a few exceptions where empress was not the heir’s biological mother do exist. In the case of an emperor’s sudden death, and if the heir were too young to reign, the widow became empress dowager. She reigned on behalf of the heir apparent, and future emperor, with the support of her kin and allies, amongst whom were also eunuchs.

Eunuchs were important guardians of the emperor’s harem, their main task was to guarantee that all the children born at court were descendants of the emperor. Due to their proximity to the royal family, however, eunuchs became extremely powerful in assisting women’s ascent to queenship. In traditional China, society was based on Confucian ideals of hierarchy and sovereignty, males were the only ones who could grant the continuity of the family name. In this patrilineal structure, the practise of filiality was differentiated according to one’s role in society. The Confucian virtue of “filial piety” (xiao 孝), which implies the submission to the will of the father, was a central value originating in the great reverence paid to one’s ancestor. It underpined the family and the state and emerged as the basic organising principle of Chinese society. Not only an important concept which influenced the status of ruler’s wives, it also influenced the whole gender system that was informed by Confucianism.

Before Wu Zetian reign (690–705) no woman had ever dared to present herself as emperor. The emperor was considered the “Son of Heaven” (tianzi 天子). She was the first, and last, woman who not only played a patriarchal role, but who convinced her vassals that she deserved the “Mandate of Heaven” (tianming 天命). In China, the authority of an emperor was defined by a number of influences, including personal aspirations, wealth, governing talents, and the exploitation of various types of relationships. No doubt that, if Wu Zetian succeeded in subverting the Confucian social order of things, it was not just due to her extraordinary personality and the education provided by her mother, who belonged to the Yang clan (Sui imperial lineage). It was also down to the multicultural ambience which characterised this historical period. It is important to stress that, although, over the course of the Sui and Tang dynasties, the Yang and Li (Tang imperial lineage) families claimed to be legitimate successors of the Han Chinese imperial line, they were actually the result of the long-lasting interaction between the pastoral nomads of the steppe and the sedentary Chinese people. Steppe tribes were considered as “barbarians,” in contrast with the Chinese civilization that was represented at the centre of the world (i.e. the “Middle Kingdom”).

Wu Zetian’s father, Wu Shiyue 武士彠 (577–635), who during the Sui dynasty resided in the Shanxi province, was a merchant who rapidly became an eminent figure of his time when he joined the army. At the end of the Sui dynasty he took part in the foundation of the Tang dynasty, which was headed by the future Tang emperor [Tang] Gaozu [唐]高祖 (r. 618–626), né Li Yuan 李淵. The improvement of Wu Shiyue’s social status was very beneficial for his family, which increasingly became closer to the imperial entourage. Wu Zetian’s mother, Lady Yang (579–670), was the daughter of Yang Da 楊達, cousin of [Sui] Yangdi [隋]煬帝 (569–618), also known as Emperor Ming 明帝 (r. 604–618). Wu Zetian was the second of three daughters. She also had two half-brothers, who both died in exile, where they were sent by their father. As a result, Wu Zetian grew up in a family with powerful political connections on both the father’s and the mother’s side. She was a learned woman, for her mother conscientiously attended to the education of her children.

The interrelation within the network of clans linked to the imperial family (via maternal or paternal lines, or thanks to marriage policies) was crucial and helps with understanding the equilibrium of forces at the top level of the imperial bureaucracy. The influence of families directly affected the decision making. During Wu Zetian’s reign, the clans of Wu, Li, and Wei were amongst the families under constant struggle for power.

Wu Zetian was a teenager when, during the 640s, she first entered the imperial palace. She joined the Taizong’s seraglio (segregated living quarters for women) as a concubine. Emperor [Tang] Taizong [唐]太宗 (r. 626–649), né Li Shimin 李世民, was considered one of the paradigmatic emperors of the cosmopolitan Tang Empire. When Emperor Taizong died, in 649, Wu Zetian became a Buddhist nun. She was subsequently rescued from the Buddhist temple by [Tang] Gaozong [唐]高宗 (r. 649–683), born Li Zhi 李治, when he succeeded his father Taizong’s throne. In 654, although breaking the fulfilment of the Confucian funerary obligations, Wu Zetian was reintroduced in the imperial palace by the empress Wang, Gaozong’s wife. Empress Wang hoped that she could more easily control the influence that Gaozong’s favourite concubine had over him if Wu Zetian were to remain in the imperial palace. Empress Wang’s plan did not work, and her position was completely undermined by Wu Zetian’s intrigues. In a very short time, both Empress Wang and one of Gaozong’s other concubine’s, Xiao, were deposed, while Wu Zetian was promoted to the status of “Celestial Consort.” Soon afterwards Wu Zetian gave birth to a daughter, who died in mysterious circumstances. Empress Wang was charged with having murdered the baby princess, and Wu Zetian became Gaozong’s new empress. Within half a century, Wu Zetian first, as a simple concubine, then, as a mother of the heir-apparent, then as empress dowager and, finally, as “emperor,” succeeded in transgressing the traditional Confucian social order of things.

More than fifty biographies on Wu Zetian exist, which are mainly based on primary sources such as: Liu Xu 劉昫’s “Old Standard History of the Tang History,” or “Jiu Tangshu 舊唐書”(tenth century), Ouyang Xiu 歐陽修’s “New Standard History of the Tang History,” or “Xin Tangshu 新唐書”(eleventh century), and Sima Guang 司馬光’s “Comprehensive Mirror for Aid in Government,” or Zizhi tongjian 資治通鑑 (eleventh century). The “Outline of the Comprehensive Mirror for Aid in Government,” or “Zizhi tongjian gangmu zizhi 資治通鑑綱目” (thirteenth century) is a historical compilation coordinated by Zhu Xi 朱熹.

Chinese historiography is full of negative examples of female queenship, because it contradicts the Confucian gender influenced hierarchy and the ways that Wu Zetian appears in official sources, which were mainly compiled by Confucian literati, are extremely negative. She is depicted as an orchestrator of intricate plots aimed at influencing imperial power in her favour. To get a more balanced representation of Wu Zetian, one should check other sources, such as the local histories, imperial edicts, memorials (such as the “Collected grand edicts and decrees of the Tang dynasty,” Tang da zhaoling 唐大詔零集), and essays, amongst others, but also poems (e.g. the “Complete compilation of the Tang verse,” Quan Tang shi 全唐詩) and Buddhist suūtras (e.g. “Commentary on the Meaning of the Prophecy About the Divine Sovereign in the Great Cloud Suūtra,” Dayun jing shenhuang shouji yishu 大雲經神皇授記義疏).


Since the Han dynasty (202–220 BCE) women had strategically implemented different practises to maintain their foothold in government affairs. The study of Empress Wu involves an interplay of a number of diverse issues, among which power legitimation is probably the most important. Any woman of the imperial seraglio was an indispensable member of the court and member of a wider political network aimed to reinforce the emperor’s authority. On the other side, the power accumulated by a woman who entered the imperial court was also extended to the rest of the family.

Wu Zetian had the opportunity to exercise her influence by becoming intimate with the first Tang emperor, as concubine, and as a result of a combination of favourable elements, such as her father’s considerable proximity to the imperial court and her personal ambition. During the second Tang emperor rulership, she succeeded in accumulating considerable influence over court affairs in a way that, within a few years, she was upgraded to the status of empress. As the emperor’s main wife, she was a valid complement to his status and power, as happened in very often in Chinese imperial history. Wu Zetian became very active in state affairs and the emperor Gaozong had delegated so much of his power to the her that he gradually lost control over his empire. Once in power she eliminated any influence, little by little, of the imperial (Li) clan and organised a secret secretariat, a team of scholars who compiled many works in Wu Zetian’s name, as well as memorials on diverse political and economical issues. Moreover, she extended her patronage to religion, mainly Buddhism and Daoism, and surrounded herself with magicians.

Historiography and religion were particularly relevant in enforcing official policy. The power of any written text and its reliability was determined by its conformity to a ruler’s policies. Censorship in documents at variance with the emperor’s ideology was an effective way of granting a monarch’s legitimacy and allowing him to keep his “Mandate of Heaven.” Emperorships were heavily biased toward the corpus of Confucian classics which empowered members of the Chinese elite in both the political and cultural arenas. Confucian classics cultivated the ancient past and conveyed specific ethical patterns of social interaction believing that an individual’s moral knowledge, performance of rituals and maintenance of bureaucratic structure underpinned ideal government.

Although Confucian classics use a gender-neutral language, the state sponsored classicism particularly aimed to convey a male-centred world and promote a cultural assumption that women were subordinate to men. Gender was a matter of social roles, rather than a biological or sexual question, and, within the hierarchical structure of the society, genderization was conceived in relation to familial and kinship roles. The Tang court exerted a powerful influence over neighbouring kingdoms, like Korea and Japan, where this Confucian model was also exported. However Buddhism, as well as Daoism, grew in popularity. Thanks to the introduction of woodblock printing, both religion and literature gained a great prominence and books became a strong weapon to enhance one’s power.

The Chinese cosmological view emerged from a complex set of discursive relationships, among which were those based on the “yin 陰–yang 陽,” or female and male, dichotomy. The yin-yang relation, with its cyclical alternation grounded in parallel thinking, had a strong impact on individuals, their environment, and the cosmos. Since ancient times, and throughout the imperial period, Chinese society was organized according to a strict gender hierarchy regulated by a specific ritual, which in the case of women was based on the “threefold following” (sancong 三從). A woman was generally assoicated with the domestic realm (nei 內) and was dependent on man in the following order: first, in following her father; second, in following her husband; and, finally third, in following her son. This order of things was perceived as cosmic order, and, according to the “tianren heyi 天人合一 formula,” human beings were an integral part of nature. The emperor and the empress, who represented the Sun and the Moon respectively, thus had to keep a perfect balance of yang and yin within the imperial court; in this way they respected the heavenly patterns on Earth. When this order of things was unattended, the emperor, who was considered the “Son of Heaven” (tianzi 天子), lost his mandate (tianming 天命) to rule. In this complex set of relations, which was anthropocentric and where man and woman played codified roles regulated by “filial piety,” the idea of a female regent clashed with the idea of sovereign power of the emperor.

Although it is not clear how much original Confucianism fostered this idea, by the Han dynasty onwards, with the canonization of Confucius, a misogynistic position was promoted and further strengthened by political restrictions imposed on male agnates. In this context, particularly elite women and their relatives who aimed to influence court affairs, put diverse strategies into place. In imperial China, and especially during the Tang period, different clans, distinguishable by their surname, were enmeshed in the imperial system. Access to the bureaucratic structure of the empire was based on lineage membership, which granted the better postions to the prestigious families. Although the emperor tried to interfere in marriage policies by implementing land reforms and administrative regulations, this did not prevent the powerful landowning clans from enhancing their power both locally and centrally.

Imperial marriages were of the highest importance: they were not only a way to upgrade one woman’s status, whose privilegies were extended to all her family, but marriage was also an important factor in promoting her husband’s authority and success. In entering the imperial court, women could accumulate incredible influence in court affairs, especially if they gave birth to the next ruler. As the heir apparent’s mother, who ideally—but not necessarily—should be the empress, they could gain great advantages in government affairs. These advantages gave a woman of the court opportunity to place her male kin in strategic civilian or military administrative posts, which was a way of ensuring control over information circulated throughout the empire. The imperial widow, when not obliged to follow her husband to the afterlife upon his death, could obtain an even more influential position, for she could exert her power in selecting the heir. In turn, the selected heir could permit the empress dowager to maintain control over her late-husband’s government and manage the marriage processes of her descendants. These strategies became the standard means by which women at court (empresses, mothers, favourite concubines, and empress dowagers) tried to perpetuate their influence within and outside court.

The depiction of an ideal woman, as it emerges in traditional sources, is that of a honourable daughter, modelar wife and exemplary mother, whose role was framed within a socially gender-based hierarchical structure conveyed by Confucian orthodoxy. Relations between individuals were centred on the pivotal concept of “filial piety,” which generated a model where son was subordinated to father, younger brother was subordinated to elder brother, wife was subordinated to husband, younger friend subordinated to older friend and the subject subordinated to the ruler. Wu Zetian was aware of being a woman who claimed the power destined, by Chinese tradition, to men, and her greatest innovation was to look to the ancient Chinese past as a model, as well as religion (both Buddhism and Daoism), magic, and symbolism to legitimize her swift rise to the dragon throne. There she remained for almost fifty years. Arguably, Wu Zetian’s experience gives credence to the idea that during the Tang dynasty the status of women was more independent than is conveyed by official historiographical sources. Proof of this new position held by women during the Tang dynasty is provided in both sculpture and iconography (i.e. sculpture of women and murals in Dunhuang caves, amongst others).

Further Reading

The Cambridge History of China, vol. 3: Sui and T’ang China 589–906, part 1 . Edited by Denis Twitchett. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Seminal work on the history of Sui-Tang China.

Hansen, Valerie. The Silk Road: A New History with Documents . Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017. Comprehensive study on the “Silk Road” with a selection of primary sources.

Forte, Antonino. Political Propaganda and Ideology in China at the End of the Seventh Century: Inquiry into the Nature, Authors and Function of the Dunhuang Document S.6502, followed by an Annotated Translation . Kyoto: Scuola Italiana di Studi Sull’Asia Orientale, 2005.

Seminal work centred on the analysis of a Dunhuang manuscript related to Empress Wu and Buddhism under the Tang.

Guisso, W., and Stanley Johannesen. Women in China: Current Directions in Historical Scholarship . Youngstown: Philo Press, 1981.

Collection of essays on diverse topic related to womanhood in China.

Lee, Lily Xiao Hong, Agnes D. Syrokomla-Stefanowska, and Clara Wing-chung Ho, eds. Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women . Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, 2014.

Biographical dictionary devoted to Chinese women from antiquity up to the twentieth century.

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

Comprehensive discussions on religious strategies adopted by Wu Zetian to enhance her power.

Rothschild, Harry. Wu Zhao: China’s Only Woman Emperor . New York: Pearson Longman, 2008.

Focuses on the sole female Emperor in Chinese history.

Skaff, Karam. Sui-Tang China and its Turko-Mongol Neighbors: Culture, Power and Connections, 580–800 . Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Formative work on key themes related to Sui-Tang history.

Watson, S., and Patricia Buckley Ebrey, eds. Marriage and Inequality in Chinese Society . Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991. http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft6p3007p1/

Comprehensive work on marriage and inequality in China.