Empress Wu Zetian of Tang Dynasty

Wu Zetian
The Portrait of Wu Zetian
Emperor Wu Zetian was considered 'an excellent woman politician in Chinese feudal time' by Dr. Sun Yat-sen's wife Soong Ching-ling. She had many titles: the concubine of Emperor Taizong, the empress of Emperor Gaozong, the mother of Emperor Zhongzong and Emperor Ruizong, and a nun in the temple. But her most glorious title was that she was the only female emperor in Chinese history who actually ruled the whole country for almost half a century.

Wu Zetian was born in 624 in Wenshui county, Shanxi Province. Her father Wu Shihuo was one of the meritorious chancellors of the Tang Dynasty. When she was young, she read many books and received a good education from her father. At the age of 14, she was selected to be Emperor Taizong's Cai Ren (a kind of Tang concubine) because of her beauty and intelligence. During that period, her literary talents impressed Emperor Taizong who permitted her to assist as a secretary. This enlarged Wu's insight and knowledge of state affairs. It was also then that Wu began to attract the attention of Prince Li Zhi who later became Emperor Gaozong. In 649 when Emperor Taizong died, Wu was sent to Ganye Temple to be a nun. After Emperor Gaozong ascended the throne, his adoration of Wu remained. Just at that time, Empress Wang and concubine Xiao Shufei were struggling for the emperor's favor. During this time Wu Zetian was recalled to the palace and given the title Zhao Yi (a kind of Tang concubine). Ambitious Wu was not satisfied with this title. In order to get the position of empress, she killed her baby daughter with her own hands and imputed it to Empress Wang. In this way, she made Emperor Gaozong depose Empress Wang. In 655, Wu Zetian successfully became the empress, launching her political career.

After Wu Zetian became empress, many of the state affairs were up to her for final decision since Emperor Gaozong was weak-minded. In that period of time, Wu managed to remove a group of political enemies thus clearing away all the obstacles in her political career. Beginning in 660 when Emperor Gaozong caught an eye disease, Wu began to grasp all the real power in the guise of assisting the Emperor in dealing with state affairs. In 674, Emperor Gaozong changed his title into Tian Huang (Emperor of Heaven) while Empress Wu Zetian changed her title into Tian Hou (Empress of Heaven). Meanwhile, people in the street called them Er Sheng (two gods). In 683, Emperor Gaozong died. Successively, she put her two sons, Li Xian3 and Li Dan, onto the throne as Emperor Zhongzong and Emperor Ruizong. Actually, the real power always remained in Wu's hands. In 690, Wu deposed Emperor Ruizong and proclaimed herself Emperor Zetian. By changing the state title into Zhou, she realized her long-cherished imperial dream.
Qianling Mausoleum, the grave of Emperor Gaozong and his empress Wu Zetian
Qianling Mausoleum
Underground Palace of Qianling Mausoleum
Underground Palace of Qianling Mausoleum
As emperor, Wu Zetian's reign was regarded as an indispensable link between Emperor Taizong's Zhen Guan Reign and the Emperor Xuanzong's Heyday of Kaiyuan. Wu Zetian was a bold reformer of the educational and personnel selection systems. She developed and improved the Keju Educational System, which originated in the Sui Dynasty (581 - 618). She also appointed many talented people, regardless of their family status. Second, she attached great importance to agricultural production. By rewarding those local officials who developed agriculture well in their administrative areas and punishing those who imposed too much tax on peasants, Wu's measures greatly improved agriculture production. Additionally, she paid close attention to military defense and foreign relations, including setting up a military administration in the northwest area where the Silk Road was reopened after a period of interruption. Overall, in Wu  Zetian's reign, a powerful centralized regime was formed, with a prosperous national economy and stable social order. Nevertheless, she also had many faults. For example, she appointed many cruel officials whose behavior disturbed the normal order of the court and brought much hardship to the common people. What's more, Wu's personally killing her sons (Li Hong and Li Xian2) and her baby daughter only to achieve her political aims incurred much historical condemnation.

After 15 years of ruling, Wu Zetian was severely ill at the beginning of the year 705. Under pressure from many chancellors, Wu finally agreed to yield the throne to her son Li Xian3 who continued to be Emperor Zhongzong. In November of the same year, the female emperor of the times passed away. Later she was buried with her husband, Emperor Gaozong, in Qian county of Shaanxi Province. Their tomb was named Qianling Tomb.
- Last updated on Apr. 21, 2021 -
Questions & Answers on Empress Wu Zetian
Asked by dulce from TEXAS | Mar. 05, 2018 18:12Reply
What was Empress Wu's biggest accomplishment?
Answers (1)
Answered by Ryan from GERMANY | Mar. 05, 2018 20:31

Government was sound, no rebellions occurred, abuses in the army and administration were stamped out and Korea was annexed, an achievement no previous Chinese had ever managed. Hope helpful!
Asked by Michelle from CANADA | Dec. 23, 2015 07:22Reply
Who was the first person Wuzetian had killed?
Why did she kill the king ? And later killed her second husband as well ? No one ever knew about these story? Also why did she kill her niece ( Mei Yeak) her sister's daughter ?
Answers (3)
Answered by Heidi from DENMARK | Dec. 24, 2015 04:03

I think the first one should be her first daugther. It's said that she killed her first daughter to frame the empress up. She didn't kill the Emperor Taizong and Gaozong, her two husbands. He killed his niece because her niece tried to seduce Emperor Gaozong.
Answered by merissa from AUSTRALIA | Jun. 02, 2017 18:55

The king
Answered by Merissa from AUSTRALIA | Jun. 02, 2017 18:56

Hi there Michelle
Asked by Sophia from CANADA | Dec. 05, 2015 22:56Reply
Is Wu Zetian the very first female emperor to rule? If not, then who?
I love learning about history. And it's mysteries. I just finished watching a drama called, "The Empress of China." It was fascinating and I wanted to learn more. So I searched for the world's first female emperor and only she appeared. So my question is, if she is the first female emperor to rule.(?)
Answers (6)
Answered by Helen from CHINA | Dec. 06, 2015 02:58

No, she is not. Yuan Shi, the daughter of Emperor Xiaoming, Yuan Xu, during the Northern Wei Dynasty, was the first and she was under 2-month-old. She was dismissed the other of her reign actually. The second empress was Chen Shuozhen, Emperor Wenjia, who went to throne in the year of 653. And Wu was the third one.
Answered by Michelle from CANADA | Dec. 24, 2015 10:20

From what I know she started killing ways before she killed her daughter! She started off killing one concubine by pushing her into the pond then many more concubines after by poisoned and tricked them into suisideal !!
Yes she did kill Tang Taizong because and later his son which also her husband as well !!he didn't just got sick from poor health but by poisoning him slowly because he was not always on her side ! Her closest servant did that for her!
I understand that no one ever knew or found that out because it was only her and the servant knew about it!
She turn out the way she was because of the king Tang Taizong taught her that while she was his assistant and learn so much from him!! Sometimes you have to kill in order to get what you want that would included you family and close friends( he told her that)!
Answered by Victoria from CHINA | Feb. 12, 2016 12:54

Yes she is the first female empress and only one. There is another one called Ci Xi also ruled China once but she didn't get to name as a empress . What she did was she put her young age son in front of her and she sit at the back and conduct the whole China .
Answered by Jay Illut from PHILIPPINES | Jun. 01, 2016 22:21

Yes she is, the only female emperor ruled in the exitence.
Answered by merissa from AUSTRALIA | Jun. 02, 2017 18:58

Wu was one the first women leader of China
Answered by Queenie from PHILIPPINES | Apr. 23, 2020 16:26

Yes,ur right because cixi is empress consort not empress the ruler unline wu zetian
Asked by ashan shan from UNITED STATES | Nov. 19, 2015 20:53Reply
How was Empress Wu connected to democracy overall?
Answers (1)
Answered by Lee from MALAYSIA | Nov. 21, 2015 02:53

Ashan, I don't think democracy existed in ancient China. Emperor Shihuangdi created centralism after he unified China. Emperors in latter dynasties just developed Centralism into "autocratic monarchy". The emperors were the final decision makers.
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