As controversial figures go there are few more divisive than Wu Zetian, the first and only female Emperor in the history of China. She was the concubine that rose to power, but her legacy is one of wickedness. Was one of the most powerful women in history a callous tyrant, or just another victim of the patriarchal vilification of successful women? Wu’s story is a perfect example of why the re-contextualisation of women is important. We tend to view the fight for gender equality as a straight line from extreme oppression to the modern day, but if we view history from a more balanced perspective we see that there have been many ups and downs. Wu Zetian was not only Emperor, but recent archaeological finds suggest she also appointed a female prime minister, and that women were more free under her reign, depicted riding horses and wearing men’s clothing – representations of freedom that are surprising considering the centuries of systematic oppression that followed her reign.
Wu Zetian was born around 624. There are some arguments as to her exact birth year as only important births were really documented at the time. For all intents and purposes, Wu’s birth was not seen as particularly important. She wasn’t of noble birth and was not likely going to be mentioned in the pages of Chinese history. Well fuck, did she prove them wrong. Living a sort of middle class childhood, she was educated and very intelligent, but that didn’t matter shit because most importantly she was beautiful, which meant that she was granted the highest honour for a girl at the time: to be the Emperor’s concubine. Side note – doesn’t it feel amazing as a woman to know that much of your gender’s history can be boiled down to what man she had to be owned by? Anyway, I’m sure she was happy about her ‘great honour’ and was sent off to live in the palace at around age 14.
Emperors at the time had a harem of women at their disposal, from their actual wife to the official consorts and all the other concubines. Most history of Wu Zetian focuses on her working her way up the ranks to get closer to Emperor Taizong, but her upward trajectory was cut off when the he died. Tradition at the time denoted that all the Emperor’s concubines must be sent to live out the rest of their lives in a monastery. Luckily for Wu she had struck up a relationship with the Emperor’s son, Gaozong who had become Emperor and brought her back to the palace. Unfortunately for Wu it wasn’t smooth sailing from there as he already had a wife, Empress Wang, and the official concubine Xiaoshu. For the time, this wasn’t particularly problematic, until Wu did the unthinkable and gave birth to the Emperor’s first son. This gave Wu much more sway with the him and painted a huge target on her back.
Soon after the birth of her son came a daughter who would live a tragically short life. Most likely the true cause of her infant daughter’s death was suffocation from coal fumes in the poorly ventilated palace, which was pretty common, but history would impart something far more horrifying onto the infant’s death. Upon discovering her daughter, Wu would accuse her enemies Empress Wang and concubine Xiaoshu of the murder of the child. The Emperor believed her and sentenced them both to death. It’s unclear if Wu actually took advantage of her child’s passing for political gain, but there are some historians that even accuse her of the actual murder. Like most things relating to Wu the records are inaccurate, so while there may be truth to it, what more perfect a propaganda piece could there be about a powerful woman than her doing the most unthinkable thing a mother can do, killing her own child?
With his wife and concubine gone the Emperor was free to marry Wu, and the ‘two sages’ would rule in harmony for many years – that was until the Emperor fell into ill health. A sickly man all his life, it soon became apparent that the real power was in Wu’s hands. China was a Confucian society which did not look kindly on female rulers, viewing them as unnatural. Within Confucian society a woman’s main duty was to produce male heirs and historians claim it is these beliefs that contributed to her image as a cruel, calculating and power-hungry woman. She represented everything which the Confucian scholars opposed, and the very first historical records of her were hugely hostile and undoubtedly biased.
In 683 her husband passed away. Traditionally the throne would pass to the eldest son, but he was passed over, as was her middle son, leaving the youngest and easiest to manipulate son as the new Emperor. Again, the truth is sketchy, but rumour has it one of her sons was exiled to Mongolia and the other was either killed or stripped of his titles and made a peasant. While it was technically her youngest son on the throne it was clear who the decision maker was. Fearing a backlash, she created her secret police, called the ‘secret secretariat’ to provide protection and squeeze any uprisings against her. This played out for a few years until in 690 her son abdicated the throne, officially making her the Emperor of China – a role that she carried out in some capacity, in total, over five decades.
Reasons for Wu’s omission are twofold – firstly, her gender, and secondly, her refusal to maintain the status quo. She focused on bettering the lives of her people rather than maintaining the unearned privilege of the upper classes, making her despised by the bourgeoisie. She moved away from a military culture and towards a scholarly one, cut taxes for workers, cut military expenses, raised wages, introduced pensions, improved education, reformed the department of agriculture, created farming manuals, redistributed farmland equally, opposed political kinship, granted opportunities to non-aristocratic scholars, offered relief to the poor, rooted out institutional corruption, distributed biographies of famous women to increase the standing of women at the time and ruled over one of the most peaceful and culturally diverse periods of Chinese history. Wu is also seen as problematic, and herein lies the difficulty with the representation of powerful women. Undermined are their achievements and overemphasized are their horrible acts. This complete focus on the morality of the individual is a concept we generally only use when discussing the broadly accepted evil men of history, like Hitler or Pol Pot, whereas almost all the ‘great’ men of history have huge amounts of blood on their hands, which almost always goes overlooked in lieu of their achievements – men like Winston Churchill, or Alexander the Great, whose atrocities are underplayed or worse, justified as a means for greatness. Why is this something we don’t consider for great women? A woman in a much more vulnerable position has more reason for drastic action, including violence.
When considering Wu, part of me wants to believe that she wasn’t the villain history has portrayed her to be, especially when we as women have so few truly powerful role models – to think that one of them was perhaps a monster? It’s a little heart-breaking. But we can never know the truth of Wu: her story, the real one, has been lost to history. We must push aside claims of authoritarianism and murder and focus firstly on the context of her rule. To view her acts with a modern perspective would be wrong. Whether directly or indirectly, the sad truth is that assentation to power is always dirty. To truly look back upon the history of the world you will find a succession of war criminals and individuals willing to sacrifice others for their own gains, so rather than vilifying Wu we should instead view all our leaders objectively.
This narrative may seem irrelevant. Some may even see this dialogue bordering on conspiratorial or apologist. The idea that history is wrong could seem like a shocking claim, but academic practice will always be coloured by the biases and prejudices of the individuals presenting it. Wu’s policies, while aiming to serve her people, undermined the desires of Chinese elite – the very elite that would document her reign. Because of institutionalised misogyny and existing prejudices, claims of infanticide and tyranny were effective tools in scapegoating her. This omission of her achievements is not just important for women, but for men too. It’s not surprising that men can so easily fall into misogyny. In effect men have been informed that every world achievement, every success, every great event, was their doing and theirs alone. It can be difficult to understand this extremely grandiose way of thinking, but perhaps when you have been given the impression that your gender is inherently superior, that level of delusion isn’t that far of a leap. Who knew that the modern male identity shared so much with Confucian scholars.