Empress Wu

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  • Reign: 690-705
  • Chinese/Japanese: 武則天 (Wǔ Zétiān / Busokuten)

Empress Wu, monarch of her self-proclaimed Zhou Dynasty[1] which briefly interrupted the Tang Dynasty, is known as the only woman to have ever ruled China in her own name, as Empress Regnant (that is, not as regent or empress dowager, on behalf of a son or husband).

Wu's father was a scholar-official; her mother was a descendant of the Imperial family of the Sui Dynasty. By age thirteen, Wu was a low-ranking concubine in the harem of Emperor Taizong of Tang. Following Taizong's death in 649, all of the other concubines who had not bore him children took the tonsure and became nuns; Wu somehow managed to remain at (or return to) Court, and bore Emperor Gaozong of Tang (Taizong's son & successor) an heir in 652.

Three years later, in 655, as the only one of Gaozong's wives to have given birth to a son, Wu managed to secure for herself the position of first (primary) wife, and the title of Empress. She then proceeded to eliminate the former empress, and another concubine who represented a threat to her; it is said she did so in a rather gruesome manner, having the two women's limbs cut off and their bodies disposed of in vats of wine.

Emperor Gaozong suffered a stroke in 660, and Empress Wu took over his duties as ruler; following his death in 683, she served as regent for their son, Emperor Ruizong, before seizing power for herself in 690, declaring the start of a new dynasty: the Zhou Dynasty, which she named after the era in which Confucius lived, in order to help evoke conceptions of legitimacy and virtue. As rule by a woman was contrary to many of the established norms, Empress Wu took a number of steps to bolster her legitimacy. She became an active patron of Buddhism, donating 20,000 strings of copper cash (the cost of her personal cosmetics for one year) to the Longmen Caves temple complex in 672 and funding various extensive projects there over the course of her reign. This extended, too, into a romantic affair in which she engaged with a trader of drugs & cosmetics in the 680s. She convinced the emperor to formally adopt the young man, and named him abbot of the White Horse Monastery outside Luoyang. The abbot then began, on behalf of his lover, Empress Wu, to construct a 295-foot-tall Mingtang, symbolically connecting Empress Wu to long traditions of virtuous rule; in 690, he composed a new commentary on the Great Cloud Sutra which highlighted a female deity or world ruler, again lending credence to Empress Wu's claims of legitimacy. The Empress then had a national network of temples re-established, and had them incorporate the Great Cloud Sutra into their sermons and lectures.

Under Wu Zetian, the bureaucracy was expanded, along with the exams system. In theory, the exams and the bureaucracy were opened up to people from a wider range of ethnic and economic status backgrounds, but in practice, since the final level of the exams was based on appearance, poise, and speech, the system still very much favored those from an elite upbringing. Further, many used family connections or bribes to help secure government positions.

The Tang (or, technically, the Zhou) reached its greatest geographic extent under Empress Wu. Numerous conflicts with Tibet allowed for gradual expansion of Tang territory, and in the east, though China did not seek to take over Korea, it lend aid to the kingdom of Silla in its efforts to dominate the peninsula.

In 693, the empress declared herself the traditional great ruler of Buddhism, and banned fishing and the slaughter of animals; the following year, she declared herself to be an incarnation of Maitreya. This was yet another action intended to help strengthen her claims of legitimacy as a female ruler, but may in fact represent the first of many rumors, or activities, associated with her lack of virtue as a ruler, eventually leading to her downfall. Following on the heels of various rumors about her sexual proclivities and activities, Empress Wu was overthrown in a palace coup in 705. Her son Emperor Zhongzong, for whom she had served as regent from 683-690, retook the throne and restored the Tang Dynasty to power.

Preceded by
Emperor Ruizong of Tang
Empress of the Zhou Dynasty
Succeeded by
Emperor Zhongzong of Tang


  • Valerie Hansen, The Open Empire, New York: W.W. Norton & Company (2000), 199-202.
  • Conrad Schirokauer, et al, A Brief History of Chinese and Japanese Civilizations, Fourth Edition, Cengage Learning (2012), 105-107.
  1. Not to be confused with the Zhou Dynasty, c. 1046–256 BCE.