Wu Zetian (c. 625 – 705) – House of Zhou – Emperor of China



Wu Zetian

Wu Zetian, councubine to Emperor Taizong of Tang Dynasty, and then Empress Consort to his son, Emperor Gaozong, began her Femme Fatale career as a common royal concubine. However, she is the only female reigning sovereign in the long history of China, who has has been accused of murdering three of her own children, as well as most of her husband’s relatives, to get to the throne. (It makes you wonder why China did not have other female sovereigns.)

Wu Ruyi (later given the name Meiniang) was the daughter of a general in the service of the first Tang emperor, Tai-sung. She joined the emperor’s household at fourteen and eventually became one of the twenty-seven Cairen (the lowest ranking official concubines). When Tai-sung died in 649, Wu and the other concubines were sent to a Buddhist convent, as was the custom. The new empress consort, Wang, brought Wu back to court to distract Emperor Kao-sung, who has lavishing too much attention on his favorite, Lady Xiao. Kao-sung was enchanted with Wu, though the court was horrified. Since Wu had been his father’s concubine, Kao-sung was committing incest. Wu’s first child by the Emperor was a daughter, born in 651. Wu  was accused of strangling the infant in order to frame Empress Wang. Kao-sung believed that his Empress Consort committed this great atrocity, since he couldn’t imagine Wu would kill her own child.. The Emperor withdrew his favor from Empress Wang, and Wu bid her time. In 655 a wooden figure with a nail through its chest was found under Empress Wang’s bed. Kao-sung divorced Empress Wang, and imprisoned her (along with Lady Xaio for good measure) on a charge of practicing black magic against the emperor. Wang and Xiao were executed by forced suicide. Eventually he married Wu and made her the new Empress Consort.

In 664, the Emperor had the first in a long series of paralytic strokes. He was only 36. As he grew weaker, Wu asserted herself more and more in affairs of state. He died in 683, but long before that she was the real ruler of China.

Wu had four sons by Kao-sung. Li Hong, the eldest, was intelligent and benevolent. When he objected to the treatment of his brother Jer’s wife, it was rumored that Wu had her locked in a small house and starved to death. Li Hong died suddenly after a banquet with his parents in 672. Li Xien, the second son was a brave and courageous prince. He supposedly complained about his mother’s affair with a palace astrologer in 680, so she stripped him of his titles and exiled him to far-away Szechuan.

Li Jer become emperor when Kao-sung passed away. Jer proved stubborn and inept, so Wu, as regent, deposed him after a reign of fifty-four days and enthroned Dan, the youngest son. Jer was banished to Hopei and Dan was allowed to be emperor in name only and some said, kept prisoner in an isolated part of the vast palace. After completing these arrangements, Wu sent a captain of the guard to Szechuan to “protect” the former crown prince. Xien was was said to have been forced to hang himself. Others believe he committed suicide after being ashamed of being deposed.

Ruling in the name her son Dan, Wu started a purge of the late Emperor’s family. Her corrupt judges convicted dozens of Tang princes of treason, using confessions extorted by torture, and then executed or exiled them. (The exiled ones died anyway, either murdered or forced to commit suicide.) Their families were also killed or sold into slavery. By 690, after eliminating any possible competition, the Empress Wu declared herself sole ruler of China and founder of the Zhou dynasty.

The Empress took great care of her public image. She had written two books before her marriage, “Lives of Model Women,” and “Domestic Duties of Women.” She chose Wu Certien, which means “Wu Modeled-After-Heaven,” as her coronation name. By 688, she had become Shengmu Shenhuang (Holy Mother Divine Sovereign) and in 690 she had herself declared a reincarnation of Buddha Maitreya, graciously descending from heaven to rule the fortunate Chinese people. When she formally came to the throne, she changed her title again, this time to Shengshen Huangdi (Holy Spirit Emperor) and raised her ancestors for seven generations to imperial rank, thus getting her dynasty off to a good start.

While she was making this public parade of virtue, she was supposedly scandalizing the court by her open liaison with enormous former wrestler named Feng, known as “Little Precious.” Wu renamed him Embracing Righteousness and made him abbot of the huge Buddhist White Horse Temple. Their affair lasted from 684-694, and the Abbot became one of the most powerful men in China. Supposedly He grew tired of her in time and stopped satisfying her “private” demands. She in turn took a new lover and slighted Feng in public. He took his revenge by setting fire to the great temple within the palace that Wu had built for him. In return she had him killed. She also dropped Buddhism for Confucianism and changed all her titles again.

She spent her last years with the Jang brothers, two beautiful young men who became her favorites in 697. Worn out by carousing, she was unable to resist a palace coup in 705 which put Jer back on the throne as Emperor Chung-tsung and restored the T’ang dynasty. This delicate flower died after eighty long years, of natural causes amazingly enough, despite her many enemies and opposition upon her throughout her lifetime.

Wu’s progeny:

Emperor Xiaojing/Li Hong (652-675) – Emperor was only courtesy title, he was actually only crown prince. His mother usurped his throne and really ruled.

Minjyun/Li Xian (653-684) – Also crown prince instead of Emperor

Princess Si of Anding (possibly as a daughter, DOB and DOD not recorded, or died in infancy/childhood.)

Emperor Zhongzong of Tang/Li Xian (656-710)

Emperor of Ruizong of Tang/Li Dan (662-716)


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