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Meet Wu Zetian1, first and only female Emperor of China — seen here poisoning her infant daughter.
Now, that’s actually a bit of a historical inaccuracy: the poison was used to knock off her other family members2. Her young daughter, she strangled, in order to frame her rival for the throne. It worked. Her rivals – the old queen and the old queen’s mother – were executed, and, as the histories say, they haunted her from that point forward.
Now, let’s be clear upfront: it’s impossible to know if any of that actually happened, because the historical sources on Wu are an absolute trainwreck. Although she’s documented by a surprisingly large number of histories, the recorders of said documents were, shall we say, not exactly paragons of impartiality. Some authors gleefully recorded her tales of torture and backstabbing, while others – ones she likely bankrolled – could not stop singing her praises. Getting to the bottom of Wu’s actual story has been an ongoing struggle for historians for over a thousand years. This entry will untangle it as best as possible at the end.
After bumping off her rivals, Wu ascended to the position of Emperor Gaozong’s main consort. This was unusual in the extreme – having started her political career as consort to Gaozong’s father3, she was supposed to have entered a convent after the late emperor’s death. But even after Gaozong’s father died, Gaozong kept her around. She shared power very equally with him, even running the government herself when he was sick (which was often). They were referred to as the Two Sages. She was, even by the most damning accounts, a good ruler, rooting out corruption and helping the commoners.
Once Gaozong died, she took charge, albeit after some drama around succession. Her oldest son took a swing at ruling, but drastically overstepped his authority and pissed off everyone, so she drubbed him out of office. She replaced him with her younger son, who really didn’t want to rule. So, claiming that he had a speech impediment, she proceeded to “speak for him.” Shockingly, she showed up to court in the open, as opposed to issuing decrees from behind a curtain.
And so we come to her “reign of terror.”
Reign of Terror
It all started with an attempted coup. As one might imagine, some government officials were not cool with taking orders from a woman – let alone one as bossy as Wu. Although she put down their uprising fairly easily, now faced with the reality that others were gunning for her, she set about rooting them out.
The next three years saw the complete rearrangement of dynastic succession, as she systematically wiped out any and all claimants to the throne. In one year alone, she destroyed fifteen family lines, mostly through executions, trumped-up treason charges, and enforced suicides – in which she summoned them to the throne room and made them kill themselves in front of her.
How did she drum up her accusations of treason, you may ask? By putting what was, essentially, an anonymous comment box (well, urn) out in the open. While its ostensible purpose was to help root out corruption, in practice, it became a repository for tattle-tale letters, often put there by her spies and secret police. Those who displeased her would inevitably be ratted out by the comment box, and be put to the sword — usually their own. This is almost undoubtedly the most hardcore use of an anonymous comment box in history.
Enforced suicide, however, was one of the better fates for those who crossed Wu. Her secret police were not shy about employing brutal torture. In fact, two of them, Lai Jungchen and Wan Gaojun, actually authored a how-to guide called the Manual of Entrapment. Among the poetically-named horrors contained therein were “piercing the hundred veins,” “dying swine’s melancholy,”4 and “begging for the slaughter of my entire family.”
Moral of the story: do not mess with Empress Wu.
A dynasty of one
She did not stay empress for long, though. After the three-year “reign of terror,” she declared a new dynasty, the Zhou dynasty5– and with it, she declared herself the emperor. She was largely able to do this because, despite the horrors she’d inflicted on the nobility, she’d been very good to the people. Her inquisition, in destroying thousands of lives, had rooted out a lot of institutional corruption, and she implemented standards to steer the government more towards a meritocracy thereafter. She opened up civil examinations to a wider variety of people, making for greater diversity in local and regional governments. From the viewpoint of the laypeople, she was actually a pretty good ruler.
Although she never remarried, she had dalliances with a number of colorful characters. One, described to her as a man of “unusual ability,” was monk6 Xue Huaiyi, who frustrated the aristocracy to no end with his casual vulgarity. An example: during a trial on his moral character, Huaiyi barged into the courtroom on horseback, stood around for a bit, then galloped off. While it’s uncertain that they were lovers, virtually every history at least heavily hints at it. She would have been in her sixties during their relationship (go Wu!).
The other quite literally colorful men with whom she famously spent her waning years were the 20-something Zhang brothers. Two flamboyant men who wore operatic makeup and flashy outfits, many histories depict them in a romantic relationship with by-then 70-year-old Wu. However, it seems more likely that they were gay (and/or possibly castrated). The Zhangs were party animals, taking full advantage of Wu’s good graces to run the government offices like a brothel. Finally, they infuriated others to the point where a group of nobles stormed Wu’s palace, cut off their heads, and took control of the government. Wu’s response? To gently chide the rebels and go back to bed.
By that point, Wu was tired, worn down from a lifetime of fighting. She renounced her title, forgave her enemies, and soon thereafter, died peacefully.
Untangling a Gordian Knot
As previously mentioned, when it comes to Wu, it’s nearly impossible to know what was true and what was not. Generations of scholars have done their best to untangle the histories, and the consensus one gets after synthesizing a lot of writing on her is that, while she was almost undeniably iron-fisted, she was not quite the monster she’s often made out to be.
Many of the most diabolical parts of her reign, such as murdering her own baby, are almost certainly fake. One of the more likely explanations was that the child died of monoxide poisoning, a serious danger due to charcoal braziers and poor ventilation. Whether she took advantage of the death for personal gain is hard to tell. Some histories sprinkle in more detail about her underhanded torture of the deposed queen and dowager queen, with Wu chopping off their limbs and tossing them in a stew. This is almost certainly untrue.
When it comes to the horrors perpetuated by her secret police, that’s more murky. Copies of the aforementioned torture manual apparently survive, although I couldn’t confirm its validity7. Modern historians tend to eye the claims with extreme suspicion. To the extent that the secret police did exist, it’s unsure how involved she was with their day-to-day operations. Some historians claim her bureaucratic purge was purely in self-interest, others say it was for the good of the people. The truth is likely a mix of the two.
At the foot of Wu’s undisturbed grave rests a large slate. Unlike the slate of her husband, which lists his many accomplishments, hers is blank. As tradition goes, her successor was to decide what to make of her. Nobody could find the words.
- Wu Zetian is her post-death name, while she was known as Wu Zhao in life. Zetian means “emulator of heaven,” a claim that, if true, would indicate that there’s a wild time going on behind the pearly gates. ↩
- Namely, her sister, her niece, and possibly her son Li Hong (although some historians maintain Li Hong died of natural causes). ↩
- According to one source, she caught the eye of Gaozong’s father early on. An anecdote about this period relates how, when she found that the emperor had a stubborn horse whom nobody could tame, she stepped up to the plate. Asking for an iron whip, an iron mace, and a dagger, she said that she would first whip the horse, then, if that didn’t work, hit in the head with the mace. If it still didn’t obey, she would slit its throat. The anecdote does not relay the fate of the horse.
According to another source, Gaozong’s father ignored her and she had to survive independent of his favor. She eventually developed a relationship with Gaozong, who seemed unlikely to take the throne. After many of his older brothers proved unsuitable, however, Gaozong ascended, and brought Wu with him. ↩
- This appears to have been conflated in numerous writeups with the “human swine” torture associated with Lu Zhi, another Chinese empress. The torture, enacted by Lu Zhi on Consort Qi, involved (gore warning!) cutting the victim’s arms and legs off, removing their tongue, and then force-feeding them and leaving them to wallow in their own excrement. ↩
- Shortest lived dynasty in Chinese history! 690-705. ↩
- One telling says that she made him become a monk so that he could be around her quarters without the need for castration. It would probably fit. ↩
- I believe there’s a version online here, but I only have Google Translate to rely on. ↩
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- The throne room here is based on ones in the Forbidden City, although Wu would have lived in Daming Palace.
- Her outfit, as well as that of Emperor Gaozong, is simplified, but fairly accurate.
- The two queen ghosts hovering around her head are also based off of historical representations.
- The baby bottle she has in her hand is also based off of the oldest Chinese baby bottle reference I could find.
- The characters on the baby bottle spell “gold silkworm,” a reference to the type of poison she possibly used — a slow-acting poison made from the bodies of silkworms. Another source claimed that the poison used was one called “gu,” but this was probably just slander, as the language used had connotations of wild sexuality and aphrodisiacs. Reader Jeanette Wu wrote in to say the poison was likely one called Zhen (鸩毒), said to be made from the feathers of a rare bird.
- Wu was probably much plumper than this, a fact realized too late for the illustration. The beauty standards of the Tang dynasty (which Wu’s Zhou dynasty interrupted) preferred full-figured women.