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. She has also 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 was 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 Kao-sung 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.
Now… We must consider that China was not fond of female rulers, so probably from the onset, Wu and her influence over Emperor Kao-sung was openly protested. Let’s also keep in mind that Kao-sungs other lady concubines entered the palace with high ranks, because their families were Chinese Nobility. Because of this, it is likely that the witchcraft rumors, as well as most of the other rumors in general have little if any truth to them at all. This is account is taken from Chinese sources (men sources too), so as a historian we must really take it as mostly biased and slander.
However, some of the facts still remain. Wu was the lowest rank (peasant) concubine of Kao-sung’s father, before he took her into his harem. Kao-sung was many years younger than Wu so he was probably easily controlled not just by Wu… but by his ministers of state too. Kao-sung chose Wu for his harem, he did not choose any of the other women. His first Empress and highest ranking concubine were related to some of his most powerful ministers of state. Wu’s children did die under very suspicious circumstances (most likely not by her own hand- at least the younger children)… Wu did become the next “Emperor” of China after Kao-sungs death by way of a palace coup and really held onto power way too long refusing to pass it on to her son. So although some events actually did take place and Wu may have made some cold, calculating, and ruthless decisions, she was actually quite a successful ruler and ruled until she was well into her 80s! There is no doubt that China’s most powerful men of that era really despised having to take orders from and bowing to a female. Culturally, it must have been unbearable for most of them. It is not surprising that she is attributed to so much wickedness and awful behavior. History is always full of half truths where friends and enemies alike always over exaggerate.
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)
There is a really good TV Series about Empress Wu Zetian subtitled in English called Empress of China. I watched it awhile ago on Drama Fever, but it seems that have removed it. Perhaps it can be found on YouTube.