Women's History Month: Wu Zetian

Our second highlight of women’s history is Wu Zetian, Empress of China from 690-705CE, and has been the only female ruler in the country’s history, and the source of much controversy. When examining her life, one of power, subterfuge, and authority, it is important to consider how history tells Wu Zetian’s story.

Who Was She?

To say that Wu Zetian lived a colourful life would be as severe understatement. Beginning her political career as a concubine to the aging Emperor Taizong, Wu Zetian used her prowess to manoeuvre her way back into the palace upon his death.

In any other case, she would have been expected to retire to a monastery, however through successful manipulation, she was able to secure a position as the new emperor’s consort. Here begins the elements of murkiness.

Supposedly, Wu Zetian gave birth to a daughter, and within a week had poisoned her, before framing Empress Wang, and using this to have her executed and seize power. Once the emperor died, she used this opportunity to take power, becoming Empress herself.

Many however were unhappy with this succession – to see a woman on the throne was not something they had intended. An early coup was quickly suppressed by We Zetian, however she now faced the reality of facing heavy opposition.

And again, we enter into disputed territory. It is likely that the new Empress used a secret police as a form of quelling resistance, however the brutality of said police is subject to scrutiny. The targets of this force were, in her eyes, those who were corrupt, and posed a threat to China.

Despite this however, Wu Zetian was considered a generally benevolent ruler by the common people. She opened up much of the local and national government, allowing a vast diversification of occupants.

This meant that the Chinese government became significantly less about hereditary lines, and more about meritocracy. Alongside this, she set about dismantling many sexist elements of Confucianism, helping to chisel away at prejudices against women.

Whilst Wu Zetian never remarried, it is suspected that she took many partners, including the monk Xue Huaiyi, and the two Zhang brothers, both of whom were flamboyant party animals. Wu Zeitan renounced her title in her seventies, before passing away peacefully.


Monster, Or Misunderstood?

Throughout the examination of Wu Zetian’s life, we must ask ourselves questions around the framing of powerful women’s narratives. It is undeniable that this Empress was an exceptional woman, her skills at political intrigue allowing her to secure power until her own resignation.

And yet history paints her as a bloodthirsty nymphomaniac, having committed many atrocities in her life. The truth behind these is unknown, however many contemporary historians are extremely sceptical about many of these claims, such as the murder of her child. Why then, has Wu Zetian been consistently vilified throughout history?

Whilst many men have also been branded as ruthless (Genghis Khan, Ivan the Terrible, etc.) we see many men, who have been equally ruthless avoid such stereotypes. Wu Zetian’s depiction fulfils a purpose – it is a cautionary tale against female rulers. They are hyper sexual, unstable, and will bring about the deaths of thousands.

We know this now to be entirely untrue, yet how many times has a woman’s ability to govern been called into question because of her gender? How many times must menstruation, accusations of lesser brain functions, and pseudoscience be used to justify the denying of a position before action is taken?

This Women’s History Month, consider how your perception of female leaders may be marred by depictions of historical figures. Perhaps we are reaching a moment in history where female leaders are set on equal platforms to their male counterparts, however it is evident that we still have a long way to go.