There are few characters in the history of Imperial China that achieved as much in terms of growth and stability as Empress Wu Zetian did during her brief official reign. However, as it tends to happen with strong women who go against the patriarchy, most people only think of her as one of the most ruthless and bloodthirsty figures in China's history (not to mention the only official Empress). Throughout her life, she shattered many of the traditions and rules set for women, and made many enemies intending on destroying her. While there’s not much evidence supporting the terrible crimes attributed to her (although it’s very likely she did commit some), there’s proof of all the changes and reforms she introduced to help her country. So, here’s the story of the so-called “cruelest ruler in China”.
Wu Zetian was born in 624 A.D. She was the daughter of a court chancellor who cared a lot about her education. He raised her to believe that men and women were equally capable of doing things, and encouraged her to learn to read and write. She was proficient in music and poetry and, more importantly, she was a very cultivated young lady with a unique beauty. When she was only fourteen years old, Emperor Taizong spotted her and chose her to become one of his concubines. Aside from sleeping with the Emperor, concubines had other chores. One of them was doing the laundry, and since she was new, it was one of her main activities in the court. One day, while she was washing some clothes, the Emperor entered the room and she decided to talk to him (although she knew she could only speak if the monarch addressed her first). Her boldness made Taizong curious about this girl who proved to be extremely cultivated and intelligent. Soon, he named her his secretary and she took on the role of the main imperial concubine.
As a secretary, Wu had access to many important state documents and learned how politics worked. Also, the Emperor would constantly consult her on various state issues, which allowed her develop her political skills. While serving the Emperor, Wu and Prince Li Zhi had an affair, but the latter fell deeply in love with the young and smart concubine. When the emperor died, tradition asked for Wu’s head to be shaved and for her to be sent to a temple where she would lead a religious chaste life. But Li Zhi, now Emperor Gaozong, didn’t want to lose her, so he sent for her and made her his main concubine.
Gaozong was never able to conceive a child with his wife, Lady Wang, but in the meantime, he had had two sons with Wu. Soon, she bore another child, a baby girl who was found dead in her crib. Certain that Lady Wang was responsible for the murder of his child, the Emperor divorced her and banished her along with one of his other concubines who was thought to be her accomplice. Now, here’s where the story starts getting a little blurry. According to the historical accounts of the time, this entire story was in fact fabricated by Wu herself, who allegedly murdered her own daughter to get rid of the Empress and ascend to the throne. It’s also said that she had Lady Wang murdered in the most horrible way before she could leave for exile, hence the reputation.
Whether if it’s true or not, the fact is that she soon became Gaozong’s wife and consort Empress of China. At first, she presented herself in public as a devoted, obedient and shy wife, but it soon became clear that this was just a façade and that behind closed doors she was the one who really controlled and ruled the country. In order to secure her and her children's position, she got rid of all her enemies in court (she had a lot of those). In general, most people couldn't trust her because of the rumors they'd heard about the murder, but they were also scandalized to see how powerful she was getting and, worst of all, how much more important and dominant than her husband she'd become. The fact that she was going against nature by inverting traditional gender roles would bring nothing but misfortune and disgrace to the country.
When the Emperor died, she soon placed her eldest son in the throne. Emperor Zhongzong was reluctant to allow his mother to control him as she had done with his father, so he rebelled against her. But Wu wasn’t going to just disappear from the political scene and throw away everything she had worked for all this time. So, she accused her own son of treason and banished him and his wife. She then named her youngest son Emperor Ruizong. She imprisoned him in a chamber in the palace, but he really wasn’t fit to rule, not even as a puppet ruler, so she made him abdicate in her favor. And so it was that Wu became Empress Wu Zetian, the only legitimate ruler of China.
To understand the magnitude of her plans, we only need to look at her official Imperial name, Zetian, meaning “the heavens”. She claimed to be the Maitreya Buddha (the future Buddha), and she named a mountain after herself to make people realize her reign was divine. Yet, if we look beyond these religious connotations, we'll see how the fourteen years of her official reign were defined by innovative measures and reforms. She modernized the agricultural system and even created a ministry to make sure all the fields were being managed correctly. She improved the public education system, allowing women to study as her father had done with her. She reformed the army and made sure all the soldiers were capable of not only of using a weapon, but also that they were smart enough to make the best decisions. She even put boxes in designated places for people to give their complaints and opinions about her government, to tell the palace about any possible plots against the Empress, or even apply for a job in the government. She got rid of all the aristocrats who had important jobs only because of their connections and hired intellectuals and wise people as her ministers. In other words, she implemented reforms in every single aspect of life in China, which brought great economic and social stability.
One of her most important measures was the creation of a secret police force and a spy network that was so efficient that there wasn't single attempt to dethrone Wu. However, over time she became increasingly paranoid and would seclude herself in her chambers with her two lovers. This made her unpopular again to the point where she was forced to abdicate and name her exiled son Zhonzong Emperor again. So, he did become Emperor, but his reign didn't last very long. His wife had learned from the best, so after giving him a son, she murdered him and planned to hide the body until her son could be named Emperor. Her plan was foiled by Taiping (Wu’s youngest daughter), who got all her connections to support her other brother Ruizong so he could become Emperor. But he wasn’t really Emperor material and abdicated (yes, yet another abdication) in favor of his son. Taiping planned to control her nephew just as her mother had done with her father, but the new Emperor was stronger than she thought and forced her to kill herself. A rule was implemented that forbid all of Wu’s direct relatives from holding a political place in court. Still, the new Emperor stayed in power and even retained some of his grandmother’s reformations and political views.
And thus concludes the story of the most fearsome and ruthless woman in China’s history.