She seduced princes, seized the imperial throne, and partied with a harem of hunky men. Meet the most powerful woman in Chinese history.
An ancient Confucian saying held that a woman on the throne was as unnatural as “a hen crowing like a rooster.”
And although talented women rose, at various points in China’s four-thousand-year history, to become noted astronomers, Shaolin kung-fu masters, and even infamous pirates—
Only one woman ever ruled as empress of China.
She was born around 624 CE, in the early days of the Tang Dynasty.
Following a tumult of short-lived dynastic reigns, the Tang rulers had at last brought stability, along with a blossoming of art and leisure culture, to China’s growing class of silver-spoon aristocrats.
Writers and painters of later eras would forever look back in awe on Tang-Dynasty feasts and festivals, where thousands of men and women were entertained in the gardens of the imperial palace, at the royal city of Chang’an (长安, “Perpetual Peace”).
State-funded education raised the literacy rate — and newly invented printing presses churned out novels, encyclopedias, travelogues, poems and short story collections. For the first time in world history, reading for pleasure became a popular pastime.
Into this world was born a girl named Wu (武).
By all accounts, Wu was a child of stunning beauty and intelligence.
Impressed by her eagerness to learn, her wealthy father bucked convention and taught her many skills traditionally reserved for men. From a young age, she learned not only to read and write, but also to play music, compose poetry, and even engage in intellectual debate.
The emperor Taizong couldn’t help but notice this astonishing talent flowering at his court.
When Wu was 13, Taizong appointed her his personal concubine, giving her the title “Beautiful Girl” (梅娘, Mei-Niang).
Though we tend to associate the word “concubine” with sex, the role of a royal concubine (妾, qiè) in Tang China was far more complex. Wu would have been expected to engage in stimulating conversation with the emperor, compose and recite poetry, and play beautiful music.
But Emperor Taizong quickly recognized that Wu was far more than just a beautiful singer.
Stunned by the young woman’s skill with pen and paper — not to mention her knowledge of Chinese history and her rapid-fire wit — the emperor appointed Wu his personal secretary. By her early twenties, Wu found herself deeply involved in the highest matters of state.
However, Emperor Taizong was not the only man at court to be captivated by Wu’s beauty and intellect. Her most ardent admirer was Prince Li Zhi, the emperor’s son — a young man close to Wu’s age. Even as Wu continued to serve as the emperor’s concubine, she and Li Zhi kept sneaking out to meet — and over the years, the two of them fell deeply in love.
Their passion, of course, was forbidden. As long as Wu remained the emperor’s concubine, another lover — royal prince or not — was out of the question. So Wu and Li Zhi cultivated their romance in secret, waiting for the day when they might be free to declare it openly.
In the end, the emperor set Wu free — though not in the way she’d hoped.
Emperor Taizong died in 649 CE, when Wu was about 24. When an emperor was buried, Tang-Dynasty custom demanded that all his concubines shave their heads, depart for a distant temple, and live out the rest of their lives in chaste piety, as Buddhist nuns.
But as fate would have it, Prince Li Zhi was the emperor’s appointed heir. As soon as Wu’s young lover was crowned (taking the throne-name Emperor Gaozong), he summoned her straight back to court, as his own concubine — much to the chagrin of her fellow nuns, no doubt.
Life was far from idyllic for the new emperor and his beloved concubine. Gaozong had his own wife, Lady Wang, along with other concubines — one of whom, Xiao Shufei, had gone to great lengths to place herself in the center of the emperor’s affections. But Wu was not to be outsmarted so easily.
Wu returned to court, and began laying her own plans for the imperial throne.
Over the next few years, Wu gave birth to two sons in quick succession. Though a concubine’s son could never rightfully inherit the throne, the emperor still doted on both boys. He also made no secret of his love for the concubine who’d borne him two sons in a row — a fact that only further inflamed the anger of Lady Wang and Xiao Shufei.
The stakes couldn’t have been any higher. Wu knew she must act first, before her rivals found a chance to unseat her from her place at court — or worse.
In 654, Wu gave birth to a daughter — and mere weeks later, the baby was strangled in its crib.
Wu pointed the finger at Lady Wang, who’d been the last person seen in the room with the baby. Wang had no alibi, and quickly fell under suspicion. And could Xiao Shufei have been involved, too? Wu accused the concubine of witchcraft, and of co-conspiring in the murder.
History does not record how Wu argued her case to the emperor. She undoubtedly brought every ounce of her wit and cleverness to bear, and wielded her silver tongue like never before — because against all odds, the emperor accepted her accusations as fact. Lady Wang and Xiao Shufei were executed as co-conspirators in the murder of Wu’s daughter.
With the murderesses out of the way, Wu received a promotion to the role of Empress Consort (皇后配偶, Huánghòu Pèi’ǒu).
But Lady Wu well knew how fragile her power truly was. She moved quickly and cleverly, making deals and forging alliances with court officials who had the power to protect her — and having those who opposed her demoted, exiled or killed.
Meanwhile, Wu groomed her son Zhongzong for the throne, even as she moved ever deeper into the emperor’s trust, offering such sage advice that, behind the scenes, she began to take primary responsibility for imperial policy-making.
As the emperor aged and grew ill, Wu also began to handle the day-to-day administration of the empire — a task at which, despite murmurs of discontent, she demonstrated striking talent. She personally appointed generals for a campaign against Korea, which proved a resounding success, reducing the small kingdom to a vassal state of the empire.
By the time Emperor Gaozong died in 683, Wu ruled as empress in all but name.
Even so, her son Zhongzong was showing worrying signs of being a less-than-pliable puppet emperor. Soon after taking the throne, he began appointing his friends to high-ranking posts without consulting his mother. As Wu’s carefully cultivated system of courtly allies evaporated before her eyes, she leaned on those who remained — and managed to get her son deposed and exiled.
The next legal heir was Wu’s second son, Ruizong. This time, Wu took no chances. She kept the young boy insulated from the day-to-day business of court. For his part, young Ruizong felt (understandably) nervous about angering his mother, and gladly left the running of the empire in her hands.
By now, Wu was the most powerful person in China — but even this was not enough.
In 690, she finally took the step she’d been preparing for all her adult life. She reduced her son Ruizong to the title of “Crown Prince” (皇太子, Huáng Tàizǐ) and took the throne for herself, becoming the first and only woman in all Chinese history to reign as Divine Sovereign Emperor (皇帝, Huángdì).
For scholars and sages, this topsy-turvy arrangement clearly signalled disaster. A woman on the throne “was an abomination, an aberration of natural and human order.” Reports of ill omens rang out from every corner of the empire: hens were transformed into roosters; an earthquake shook the imperial city; a new mountain rose out of the earth. The universe itself seemed to be crumbling.
But Wu had come too far to be outdone by a few omens. She sent word that the newly arisen mountain was to be named “Mount Felicity.” One of her ministers wrote in response, “Your subject feels there is nothing to celebrate. To respond properly to Heaven’s censure, it is suitable that you lead the quiet life of a widow and cultivate virtue, otherwise I fear further disasters will befall us.”
Empress Wu had the man exiled.
Soon after Wu ascended the throne, she proclaimed herself an incarnation of the Maitreya Buddha. She bestowed on herself the title “Divine Emperor of the Holy Spirit” (聖神皇帝, Shèngshén Huángdì) and commissioning statues of the Maitreya with her own face.
She even went so far as to announce the end of the Tang period, and the beginning of her own Zhou Dynasty — and to commission a new alphabet, known as the Zetian Characters.
Still, for all the panic her reign sparked, Empress Wu proved to be undeniably talented at governing.
Wu sponsored reforms in public education, raising talented teachers to important posts. She rewarded landowners for high crop production, and even compensated them for lowering taxes on their farmers.
She commissioned land surveys and irrigation systems, raising crop production to an all-time high. She mandated competency exams for military commanders, ensuring they were appointed based on skill rather than on their family name.
Another of Empress Wu’s reforms was the creation of an empire-wide spy network — and although she frequently used her informants to dispose of her personal and political rivals, she also used them to eliminate inept bureaucrats, and replace them with more skilled officials. Even Wu’s harshest critics had to admit that her government was a stunningly efficient one.
And perhaps most excitingly of all, she reopened the Silk Road for the first time in more than 500 years.
This flourishing trade route brought an influx of new arts, ideas and peoples from all across Asia, sparking innovations in science, technology, literature and philosophy.
Wu also freely flouted convention in her personal life as empress. She took a number of young male lovers — sparking scandal, despite the fact that all emperors took concubines — and reportedly became addicted to a range of exotic aphrodisiacs. As she aged, the empress also grew increasingly paranoid, imprisoning or executing anyone she suspected of the slightest disloyalty.
By the time she’d reached her late seventies, much of her support at court had eroded, and her popularity among the nobility had reached an all-time low. Officials conspired to put her exiled son Zhongzong back on the throne — and by this time, Wu’s health and energy had deteriorated past the point of resistance. She abdicated without much of a fight, and died a year later, at the age of 80.
Wu was buried in an enormous tomb in Shanxi Province, as befit an emperor.
A towering stone stele was erected to mark the place — but, unlike the memorials of most emperors, Wu’s gravestone remains blank, without an inscription. Perhaps, after all, this is the most fitting memorial for a woman who achieved such towering deeds, yet remains such a mystery as a human being.
Did Wu ever truly love Prince Li Zhi, or did she simply recognize him as a stepping stone to glory?
Did she actually suspect that Xiao Shufei and Lady Wang conspired to murder her daughter, or did she spot an opportunity and seize it — or, as some historians have speculated, did she strangle the child herself?
Did she genuinely believe she was an incarnation of the Maitreya, or was she just an extraordinarily talented myth-maker?
Wu took all these secrets, and many more, to her grave with her.
Benevolent to her people, ruthless against her enemies, brilliant in administration, bloodthirsty at court, repressive and open-minded all at once, Empress Wu remains one of the most complex and inscrutable conquerors in all history.
She might well smile silently from her uninscribed tomb — mysterious to the very end.