28 Responses to “Wu Zetian”

  1. Brian McInnis

    Helpful Word of the Day: ‘Empress’

  2. Jason Porath

    Helpful, but an incorrect one. She declared herself emperor, not empress. Only female one in Chinese history. There is a distinction.

  3. Brian McInnis

    No, she declared herself ‘Huangdi’, a neutral title. English, as usual, has no neutral title for this position, leaving us poor Anglophons to use ’emperor’ for males and ’empress’ for females.

  4. Jason Porath

    Thanks for the information! From my research, it seemed to me that English convention was to use “empress” to refer to wives of the emperor. Given that she declared herself ruler in absence of a husband, using “emperor” was the convention to follow. Was there a separate word from huangdi used for wives of emperors?

  5. Skemono

    皇后, huánghòu, seems to be used for wives of emperors. And there’s 皇太后, húangtàihòu, for empress dowager.

  6. MengLing

    My teachers used ‘Emperor’ for Wu Zetian, mostly as a way to make it clear that she was in a different position than other Chinese empresses.

  7. Megan

    Her big change with the civil admin was that appointments were now made on merit based on exam results, as well as the widened pool of applicants. Objective measuring scale. This, of course, can be subverted, but it takes time. As usual, history did a hatchet job on her because she was female. I do wonder how much of what was written about her was true and how much was cooked up to bring down her memory. Or to what extent she acted just like other emperors but that behaviour was highlighted rather than ignored or airbrushed. Love this series. Really interesting. Keep going :)

  8. Lee

    There is another thing which interested and impressed me. She made her tombstone without any words on it (wordless stele). People say that she just let the others judge her contribution, or fault. Also, she didn’t kill or torture everyone who disagree with her. She did appreciate others who were talent, or offered great suggestions. In my opinion, she is a bad person, but a incredible and great emperor.

  9. Tiya

    She is actually one of my favourite people in history. I always read about how ‘evil’ she was, but I sort of thought that really, she just didn’t have very good posthumous PR. She was a woman who was audacious enough to actually take the throne and rule China better than a man – kind of like Hatsheput, who was an incredible pharaoh, but her successors tried to defame her and wipe her from history basically saying ‘look what happens when a woman gets too much power’.
    Anyways, she was originally married to Emperor Taizong; marrying him when she was only fourteen. She went into the palace with a respectable rank – a fifth rank concubine (her family helped establish the Tang dynasty, and were rather rich) He didn’t really like her, so she was never promoted to become an official consort. There’s a story, possibly even true, that the Emperor received a prophecy warning him that the Tang dynasty would fall at the hands of a woman named ‘Wu’, and therefore ignored her for the entire decade she was stuck in the palace, and actually left a secret imperial decree for his son (later emperor Gaozong) to kill her. He didn’t.
    My main point that being stuck in the imperial palace without the favour of the emperor was awful. With all the scheming going on, there is no chance she would have survived without being cruel; even if she was generally overlooked due to her lack of favour. However, the big plot of Taizong’s reign was the case of the Crown Prince. The Crown Prince is the one expected to be emperor after the current one dies, but when the emperor takes a little too long to die, or there’s a few prince unhappy about not getting to be emperor, then shit hits the fan.
    Wu Zetian supposedly had an affair with the emperor’s ninth son while she was still his concubine. This may have been fabricated – they could have just been friends. Understandable though – he was one of the emperor’s youngest sons, meaning he was actually about her age, whereas she was decades younger than her husband, whom she probably only saw a few times a year. But her close relationship with the ninth prince is a stroke of luck on her part, as it turns out.
    After the Crown Prince is deposed for rebelling, the main contender for the throne is the late empress’ second son, the fourth prince, who the emperor really likes. But then he finds out that had a hand in encouraging the Crown Prince to try and take the throne before his time, so he’s exiled. Now, the question is, who gets to be the new Crown Prince? The emperor has a ton of sons, but the wife he loved the most was his late empress. He never made any of his consorts empress after she died. He has a few older sons, but he decides that he likes the ninth one the best – yes, the one who’s super good ‘friends’ with his lowly fifth rank concubine Wu.
    So, after Taizong finally drops dead, his ninth son becomes emperor Gaozong. Yay for Wu Zetian!
    Or maybe not. Because she hadn’t given the emperor any children, she’s packed off to a convent to become a nun. Happy times.
    Luckily, the new emperor Gaozong coincidentally visits the same temple she’s at a few years later. He sees her, falls in love, and she’s taken back to the palace to become his new consort and later empress. So it’s a happy ending for her. Sort of.
    I do apologise for the distressingly long comment. I just really love her.

  10. Tiya

    All emperors left wordless steles after their death. The expectation was that their successor would carve records of their impact on history. Wu Zetian was left with an empty stele because quite literally no one could find words to describe her.

  11. Tiya

    Emperors had lots of wives of different degrees. Their main wife (usually one, but there are exceptions throughout history) was the empress: ‘huang hou’.
    The next few ranks below the empress were consorts, limited to a certain number. During Wu Zetian’s time, there were four main consorts (‘Fei’), with the titles ‘Gui’, ‘Shu’, ‘De’, and ‘Xian’. Lower ranked consorts didn’t have specific titles, just a general rank.
    Below consorts were concubines – entry level ranks for new girls – of which there were a few, limited in number (but the number was double figures, so there were a lot of places to go around). Wu Zetian entered the palace with quite a respectable rank – ‘Cairen’. As well as being rich, she was supposedly very beautiful. She was given the name ‘Mei Niang’ by the emperor, which means something along the lines of beauty. This gave substance to stories of a prophecy of her rise to power, as receiving a name from the emperor was quite a big thing so he must have actually really liked her – so why didn’t he raise her rank?
    Below official concubines were general palace girls, who were practically maids, bit were still officially married to the emperor. There were an unlimited number of these.
    This is only an outline of the palace structure in Wu Zetian’s time. It changed throughout history.

  12. Ivy

    I agree with you, she’s one of my favorite rulers in history. Honestly I don’t believe that she was that evil and how much I know “human pig” torture was done by 1st Han Empress who killed Emperor favorite concubine in that manner after Emperor death. To my knowledge it wasn’t Wu Zetian. When she become Emperor she changed dynasty name from Tang to Zhou. Her dynasty was short lived but under her rule poetry, calligraphy, Buddhism, architecture flourished. She stopped wars…she was successful ruler. She was demonized after her death like any other female with power in Chinese history. Check Empress Lu Zhi for “human pig” torture, first Empress of Han dynasty.

  13. Annjalee

    The drama is very off from actual truth to history I’m afraid. Makes me feel annoyed that they spend so much money (close to $50m USD) into it can’t even get the facts right.

  14. Scarlet

    The history was actually like this: the Queen came to visit the princess, and then Wu Zetian came after the Queen, a moment later the princess was dead, so no one really knows if Wu Zetian did kill her own daughter or not. People criticized her for being an Empress, has many “partners” and being evil, I mean, if she was a man then no one would say a thing. It’s kinda unfair.

  15. mei

    I agree. And honestly, even if she did what they said she did (which i’m pretty sure it’s not all true), she acted like any emperor of the time would have done. Taizong himself, when taking the throne, killed his two brothers. Wu zetian didn’t kill random people, only those who plotted to overthrow her or was a danger to her (which was literally what any competent emperor did at that time), and she broke tradition and valued talent regardless of bloodlines (which at that time was not done, and bloodline was very important and which family you were born in pretty much dictated how far you’ll go in the future), which was why there were a lot of people who supported her even with the sexist bs she had to deal with.

  16. Jeanette Wu

    Actually, the silkworm poison is a Southern Chinese minorities thing, the actual poison preferred by the royal court was known as “Zhen” (鸩毒), said to be made from the feathers of a rare bird. The old queen’s mother was not executed, but another wife of the emperor, Consort Xiao was. The legend of the ghost is correct though, a further detail is that Consort Xiao swore that she would reincarnate as a cat and Wu Zetian as a mouse, so that she would forever bite at her rival’s throat, so Wu Zetian forbade cats in her presence. She actually had 4 sons, the first two died before they could succeed to the throne. Legend say she bumped them off, but the truth is more complex. Her eldest was always sickly and died on a family trip, her second son was an early birth, so he suspected that he was not in fact her son, but the son of her sister, a widow who had been lover to the Emperor before Wu Zetian had her murdered in a jealous rage. Needless, to say, Wu Zetian was not amused at her son’s rebelliousness and had him removed from the succession, later ordering him killed after her third son climbed to the throne. Her third son wasn’t forced to kill himself on her order, but his eldest son was after an unfortunate dinner incident where he said some unkind words about Grandma.

    For the design, I’d like to nitpick that Wu Zetian should be one of your plumper princesses. She was described as a great beauty by the standards of the Tang Dynasty, which liked their women with very full figures, and historical records state that she had a very broad, majestic face. She should probably be shown with Buddhist imagery too, since she was really into that.

    Pics of her actual appearance



  17. WH

    She was an effective ruler, but the biggest issue in her rule was she appointed favorites. Men who were either her lovers or favorites had oppress the common people and framed any honest official that would stand up to them. Di Renji was one of those honest officials that went through all those hurdles and eventually stood on top of the kingdom as her second. He would question or advise against the empress decrees.

  18. WH

    They probably wanted to paint Wu Zetian in a better light.

  19. kamwick

    So, I’m reading the part about the “comment box”, after just having heard about the way Amazon employees are encouraged to report on each other. Brutal system, either way….

  20. Fiona

    The story told by the author is untrue & fabricated. I can’t believe such untruths can actually be posted & told as if it’s a fact. It is disgusting & misleading! It has completely misconstrued who Empress Wu Zetian truly is in history. Tiya’s story below has actually more credibility than the one told above by this ridiculous author. I can only imagine the other outrageous stories this author has shamelessly made up about the other ‘Rejected Princesses’. The author’s page is dedicated to sexism when it should really celebrate the successes of these women who’ve done so well in history. These women are clearly frowned upon & turned away by jealous or intimidated men who’ve in turn manipulated the facts & rewritten the truths about these beautiful, strong, & powerful women. Big thumbs down to the author for all the lies posted about these historical women. Please read Tiya’s story about Empress Wu Zetian instead. Thanks for taking the time to read. Love, light & peace..

  21. Jason Porath

    Thanks for sharing – this is one of the first 12 entries to go up on the site, and thus wasn’t as well sourced as the others, which I’ve denoted above. Work’s underway to get it updated (funnily enough, I was actually up until 4:30 am redoing it for the book, and this comment was the first thing I saw when I woke up, haha). If I may make a constructive criticism: please take this level of passion and apply it to correcting Wikipedia, as that’s where me-from-16-months-ago got this information over lunch when he was doing this project on a lark.

    Hope you’re having a nice day. I’m going to get back to working on corrections now, with the added bonus of feeling like crap. Thanks!

  22. Jeanette Wu

    There have been at least five or six Wu Zetian dramas based “strictly” off of history, which show her going from young woman to the end end of her life as Empress. The best one is probably the one made in 1996, starring Liu Xiaoqing (last name first). Not only is it a fairly accurate, well-acted portrayal of Wu Zetian’s life, but the actress is beautiful as well. Other ones of note are:
    1984 Empress Wu: The first season-long adaptation of Wu Zetian’s story. Very action and romance-oriented, but the acting is quite fine and the story is gripping. Stars Petrina Fung.
    1985 Empress of a Dynasty: The first adaptation of Wu Zetian to show her in a mostly positive light, which made it quite controversial in Taiwan at the time of initial broadcast. The beginning of the story is quite sappy and romantic, featuring Wu Zetian and Emperor Gaozong as an innocent young couple, but as the episodes progress, Wu Zetian turns into the ambitious, hard-hearted woman that modern audiences know her as. Stars Angela Pan.
    2004 Song of the Unmarked Stele: Again a series that shows Wu Zetian in a good light. However, it also shows her political machinations in great detail. Stars Wen Zhengrong (last name first) as young Wu Zhao and Siqin Gaowa as older Wu Zetian.
    2008 Sun and Moon Above: Unlike most series, this one starts when Wu Zetian is already queen. Liu Xiaoqing again takes up the role of the female sovereign. Unfortunately, events depart quite far from historical fact, and much of the plot is soap-operatic.
    2011 The Secret History of Wu Zetian: Siqin Gaowa and Liu Xiaoqing return as old and middle-aged Wu Zetian respectively, while young Wu Zhao’s performer is Yin Tao. Unfortunately, another series filled with sappy romance and soap opera twists.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tVaeMsCAOHY&list=PL8gJVdyrsuHkcBTR3zVQwb_mDngM8Yo9O All episodes of Liu XIaoqing’s Wu Zetian can be found here.

  23. Jeanette Wu

    The cleavage scandal even inspired “archaeologists” to deny that early Tang Dynasty women never showed cleavage. Which is pretty much bollocks. From the late Sui Dynasty onwards, the ratio of half-bared chests to well-covered ones were almost 50:50, and many of the well-dressed ones wore half-transparent silk, to which you can guess the effect. Only in the fairly conservative, and might I mention stingy early Sui dynasty were all women well-covered. However, they were also very much like Tudor Era English women in that they never bared so much as to seem crude, and most of the population was “flat” enough so as to not seem to have cleavage. And revealing clothing was also an upper-class thing. Women of lower classes only went as covered or bared only within the limits of what was practical for their constantly laboring lives.

    Really, the biggest scandal should be that the storyline departs fairly far from history. And that when Wu Zetian becomes queen, her hairstyle is that of a Japanese Oiran rather than a Chinese consort. Ancient Chinese ornaments were not so multicolored and flowery.

  24. Jeanette Wu

    Sadly, there have been few well-researched, serious historical dramas. Lots of it these days is soap-opera.I don’t object to putting Wu Zetian in a good light, but the story is plagiarized from Empress in the Palace. There’s too many scenes of her struggling in Taizong’s Court and not enough of her being a kickass Empress.

  25. Jeanette Wu

    True: Killing Empress Wang and Consort Xiao, putting down Xu Jingye and Luo Bin Wang’s rebellion, killing many members of the Imperial Li family, killing several imperial ministers for displeasing her by accusing them of trumped-up charges of betrayal, encouraging people to anonymously deposit information in her urn, promoting anyone who secretly reported “plots”, hiring secret police
    Most likely true: Contributing to the exile of several ministers who opposed her becoming Empress Consort, killing her sister, killing her niece, exiling her brothers which lead to their own deaths, killing her nephew, killing her second son, killing her grandchildren, killing her daughters-in-law, taking several lovers and killing the occasional one or two who displeased her, extravagant spending in the name of Buddhism
    Most likely false: Killing her daughter, plotting to usurp power from her husband, killing her eldest son, imprisoning her stepdaughters
    False: BEING A TYRANT, constantly being lustful

    Things to keep in mind: Wu Zetian was like any other emperor in that she got rid of anyone who threatened her rule. As she was a woman and violating Confucian ideals, she naturally had more people opposing her, and thus more people she needed to get rid of. Her initial struggle to become Empress Consort was less of a show of impulse than it was a prolonged struggle between the Emperor and powerful ministers left from his father’s time. While the ministers were all capable men, there is no doubt they kept the Emperor in an iron grip and the Emperor wanted to be free of their influence. Ultimately, it was Gaozong himself who exiled his ministers, but Wu Zetian also played a part in helping him be decisive and not getting cold feet at the last second. Her daughter’s death was likely infant cot death, while her accusation that Empress had done it, same as Gaozong’s agreement that the Empress was guilty, was likely just an outpouring of parental grief upon finding their child mysteriously dead. Considering that the young princess was monitored at all times and Wu Zetian would not have had the chance to commit the crime and not be suspected by anyone, as well as the fact that other consorts would be very quick to accuse her of wrongdoing if she carried any suspicion of complicity in her daughter’s death, it would be too much of a risk to try and cast blame on the Empress by murdering her own daughter. Indeed, when Gaozong did depose his Empress, he never mentioned anything about his dead daughter, not did Wu Zetian ever bring it up again. Not even her detractors, such as Luo Binwang, ever mentions the daughter-killing. Empress Wang and Consort Xiao were stripped of titles and imprisoned, and Wu Zetian, never one to leave loose ends, killed them to make sure they would never pose a threat again. However, her exaggerated method of execution was most certainly false. As for the matter of her stepdaughters, it must be remembered that Gaozong was also an Emperor, and thus also capable of cruelty. His fourth son Sujie had been his favorite son when Consort Xiao still had his favor, but now that Consort Xiao had been deposed, Sujie was brusquely sent off toward his fief and rarely saw his father much afterwards. Therefore, it was not strange that Gaozong would leave his now disfavored daughters languishing in the palace, until their younger brother Li Hong, who was now his favorite son, begged him to let the princesses be wed. They were not, as some sources would assume, given to lowly guards, as Imperial Guards actually had quite high social backgrounds, all being from the best families in China, but their husbands were given posts in provincial areas, keeping them far from the capital and the Emperor’s favor.

    As for Li Hong, he was idealistic, but like his father, weak-willed. Wu Zetian’s goal at the time was probably, like many women before and after her, to rule through her son as Empress Dowager, not to be reigning emperor. Thus, she had no reason to kill Li Hong, especially since he would be succeeded by his much stronger-willed brother Li Xian. Unfortunately, Li Hong always had a weak constitution and died on a family trip. Next up, Li Xian was deposed (likely with Wu Zetian’s involvement) because he suspected Wu Zetian was not his mother, and later killed when his brother ascended to the throne to secure his brother’s power. Wu Zetian’s craving for power finally came to a head after deposing her third son and taking more and more control of government. Then came the Xu Jingye rebellion, which wasn’t so much of a noble attempt to restore the Tang Emperor to power as it was a ploy for Xu to seize power for himself, as his figurehead Emperor was a Li Xian look-alike.

    After Wu Zetian seized power, she indeed killed many political enemies, hired secret police, overstaffed the government, and took lovers. However, she also brooked no fools. Any official who committed even a minor infraction under her watch could count on a harsh punishment, so those she recruited sometimes got swept back out very soon after. The men she trusted and listened to the most were the ones with actual talent, most of whom came in with the Imperial Examination system that she favored. Her secret police and lovers were not allowed to overstep. While her secret police were cruel, most of the worst ones overreached themselves and were executed, sometimes by their own former co-workers. Most of her victims were the upper-class, several of whom were members of the Li family, overly supportive of the Tang cause, or simply members of entrenched, powerful families (there were two major groups, the ethincally Han families of Shandong and the Xianbei descended families of Shaanxi). In short, people who actually posed a threat to her reign. There were also innocent people caught up in her purges, but if she could be convinced of their innocence, she would show some measure of regret. For example, Di Renjie was able to clear himself of a treason charge. Her lovers got off better than her secret police, but whenever they argued with actual officials, if Wu Zetian could not get the parties to compromise, she would favor her officials. While she had a hedonistic, grandiose side, there is no denying she was a competent ruler who helped guide the nation to the prosperity it would reach under Emperor Xuanzong.

    On her family issues, her two half-brothers were real pieces of work. Even the sources most biased against her admit that after her father’s death, they along with two paternal cousins openly disrespected her mother, even insulting her at a family banquet after Wu Zetian became Empress. Her relationship with them was always strained and this was the last straw, so she had them exiled. Wu Zetian’s relationship with her widowed sister was close, but her sister became the Emperor’s lover. Therefore, it seems highly probably her death was indeed the result of Wu Zetian having her assassinated in a jealous rage. After her death, Wu Zetian nevertheless felt more kinship for her children than her brothers and cousins, so she had her nephew Helan Minzhi inherit her father’s titles. However, the kids turned out to be disappointments. Her niece became the Emperor’s new lover, so Wu Zetian had her assassinated and the deed blamed on her cousins, who were executed. Helan Minzhi was a casanova who made advances on a potential wife of the Crown Prince and Princess Taiping’s handmaidens, so Wu Zetian had him exiled and possibly killed. Her saddest case of innocent victims were probably her two grandchildren and grandson-in-law. Because of an unfortunate dinner incident, her grandson and grandson-in-law were forced to kill themselves, while her granddaughter, who was pregnant at the time, went into shock and died from the complications of a miscarriage.

    In short, Wu Zetian was cruel and paranoid, but only to the extent of a normal Emperor. At least half of her cruel deeds were motivated by self-preservation, but cast in a negative light because of the biases of Confucian scholars.

  26. xingfenzhen

    I personally liked 大明宮詞 more, her death bed scene was so moving, it definitely a work of art rather than a commercial drama. Though the drama was focus on my daughter, Princess Taiping, rather than her