Empress Wu: Concubine to Conqueror

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Imperial China’s millennia-long history was littered with powerful women, yet only one woman ever ruled the Empire in her own right. Empress Wu (r. 690 – 705, de facto 665 – 705) rose from the position of an imperial concubine to the ruler of arguably the greatest Empire of the Middle Ages. Much maligned by traditionalists at the time who mistrusted women, Wu proved to be a highly capable and successful politician who left an enduring legacy.

Wu Zhao (her personal name) was born in 624 to the well-off Wu family. In contrast to the norms of the time, even for wealthy women, Wu’s father insisted on her becoming well-educated, undoubtedly a great influence in her conduct later in her life.

The Wu family was connected to the imperial Li family, the rulers of the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 AD), and at the age of 14 Wu Zhao was taken away to become a concubine (a form of lesser wife) to the Emperor Taizong (r. 626 – 649). As a concubine of the fifth rank (out of the nine-rank system for nobles and courtiers), her function was more as a maid or lady-in-waiting than a sexual companion to the emperor. Despite any designs she may have had on greater power, her influence was limited.

However, it was rumoured that she was having an affair with Li Zhi, the fourth son of the Emperor Taizong and future Emperor Gaozong (r.649 – 683). While rumours about Wu at court were abundant and require careful interrogation due to the biases of both contemporaries and historians who propagated them, the events following Taizong’s death do seem to suggest that Li Zhi shared a close relationship with Wu. On the death of Taizong in 649, all concubines that had not borne him children, including Wu, were banished to a Buddhist monastery (as was customary). However, the new Emperor – Gaozong – visited her there, returning her to the court to be his concubine.

While she was still not the Empress Consort, by 650 Wu was the third most-favoured lady at court, behind only the Empress Wang and Consort Xiao, who were bitter rivals with each other. Wu, despite her lower station, became Gaozong’s favourite as he was reportedly enamoured by her beauty. She bore Gaozong two sons in 652 and 653, followed by a daughter the next year.

Tragically, Wu’s daughter died, seemingly of strangulation, in 654. Wu accused Empress Wang of killing her daughter out of jealousy, and eyewitnesses confirmed that she was seen near the baby around the time of death – though the accuracy of this testimony is impossible to know. An alternative, more chilling theory, exists. Wu was traditionally perceived as a power-hungry woman willing to do anything to further her political ambitions, so some have maintained that Wu killed her own daughter to frame Wang and depose her as empress. A third, more recent, theory is that Wu’s daughter died of asphyxiation due to poor air quality, not strangulation, because their poorly ventilated homes were heated using coal.

While it is impossible to prove that Wu was innocent now, it is equally difficult to prove any guilt. The early historians who propagated this theory of Wu as a murderer have many reasons to be questioned on their objectivity. The records of the period were all composed by Confucian officials who regarded Wu’s political influence as a perversion, since men were seen as having natural authority over women, not to mention that they thought only classically-trained officials were qualified to advise the emperor or dictate state affairs. Furthermore, the later historians during the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279) that compiled and wrote new histories of previous dynasties (including the Tang), also Confucian bureaucrats, were writing history to teach lessons about conduct and governance. Wu was both a woman and a usurper – distasteful since usurpers represented the antithesis of the Confucian ideal of stability – and so needed to be portrayed negatively to teach men to guard against these twin evils.

Regardless of the precise events, Wu’s position was greatly advanced by the death of her daughter. Gaozong was incensed by the issue and determined to depose Empress Wang, citing her childlessness, although the timing of the action makes it clear that his motivation was the death of Wu’s daughter. While Wang, from a noble family, had many allies, both in government and the high nobility, in the summer of 655, Li Ji, one of the four Chancellors (highest Confucian officials), said that the issue related only to Gaozong’s family, and not to the state, and thus only Gaozong’s opinion mattered.

Thus, Empress Wang was demoted, as was Consort Xiao, while Wu was finally promoted to Empress Consort, as Gaozong had long tried to do. The new Empress Wu then used her position to demand the execution of the two women.

Once in power, Wu exercised the same ruthlessness against the officials who had opposed her rise, consolidating her grip on power. She framed many high-ranking officials – including two Chancellors – for treason in 657 and 659, leading to their demotion, exile and, in some cases, execution. By 660, Wu had replaced many of her most prominent opponents from political power.

Around this time, Gaozong started to suffer from a series of strokes. While Wu had the emperor’s ear already, as he became ill, she effectively became the sovereign, even wearing the yellow robes typically reserved for the emperor.

With her power consolidated, Wu set about the governance of the state. Much of the history surrounding Empress Wu was firmly court-centric; this was partly because the historians were often based in the capital – indeed, the first historical records of Empress Wu were imperially commissioned – but also because her record in managing the wider affairs of state was largely a great success, which did not fit the narrative of the orthodox Confucians who attempted to disparage her.

Her first major political action, in 657, then in conjunction with Gaozong but for her personal interest, was to split the Tang empire in two. The west would be ruled from Chang’an, the existing capital, and the east from Luoyang, another city rich in imperial history. Later in Gaozong’s reign, the imperial couple spent most of their time in Luoyang, and the capital was relocated there entirely once Wu founded her own dynasty in 690.

There were many reasons for this. Luoyang, in the northeast, was in a strategically superior location to Chang’an in the northwest for governing the nation, with better communication and trade networks and more fertile farmland surrounding it. Wu also had a personal motivation, as the Li family and their allied great families were from the northwest and so Wu could remove herself and the court from their powerbase when it suited her, since they were often hostile.

Buddhism became more prevalent throughout China during Empress Wu’s reign, not only due to her personal faith, but also as a political tool. The Li family had claimed their lineage traced back to Laozi, the founder of Daoism, to give legitimacy to their family as it fought for supremacy, and so by promoting Buddhism – already the most popular religion in China at the time – Wu was able to undermine the popular basis for Tang dynastic control.

Wu also altered the structure of government through modifications to the examination and recruitment system to remove the dominance of the aforementioned ‘great families’ in the imperial bureaucracy. For the first time, men of lower classes were allowed to take the exams, while the jinshi degree, the top degree in the examination system, was made more important in recruiting for high-level government posts, reducing nepotism and corruption. While this too served her personal interests – diminishing the influence of her enemies at the upper echelons of the civil service – it also fostered the nascent meritocracy within the examination system that later blossomed and spread to other institutions, while improving the competency and reducing the corruption of officials, which was in the interest of all Chinese people.

Nonetheless, such modifications to the recruitment of bureaucrats were only of limited use. The Confucian education of such administrators led to enmity with the Empress, and so Wu often relied upon extra-governmental advisors – the Scholars of the Northern Gate – to carry out her edicts.

Whilst such reforms suggest that Wu was an efficient and savvy ruler, she was also, at times, a ruthless despot. As many as 80% of her Chancellors and high-ranking ministers were dismissed during her reign, a marked increase on her predecessors, suggesting she preferred ministers that did her bidding rather than acted independently. Nevertheless, she faced a far more hostile civil service than previous emperors, which partially explains the higher turnover.

These institutional changes were primarily implemented early in Empress Wu’s de facto reign, allowing her to wield her power in the affairs of state more effectively. All of these reforms consolidated Wu’s power, which does suggests they were largely implemented to be self-serving, but in doing so Wu unified the country behind herself and prevented rebellion, a strong possibility given the weakness of the emperors and the initial attitude towards her.

Having installed so many of her allies in positions of power in over two decades in effective control of the court and country, Wu was well prepared to continue to rule even once Emperor Gaozong died in 683. She initially installed her third son as Emperor Zhongzong, while she served as regent. However, Zhongzong and his wife, Empress Wei, in particular were often disobedient to her will, so she deposed him within the year and replaced him with her fourth son, Emperor Ruizong.

Ruizong did not even pretend to hold any semblance of power. He attended no imperial functions nor passed any edicts: complete power resided with Wu.

Thus, it was both entirely unsurprising and of no particular consequence when Wu asked Ruizong to step aside as emperor in 690, allowing her to establish the new Zhou Dynasty. While there was dissent as the line of succession did not allow for female emperors, this was quieted by the use of the secret police. Furthermore, she had proved herself competent enough in her time as de facto ruler that few key officials had serious objections.

It was only as Empress Wu’s health started to fade that she lost her grip on power. In 704, she became seriously ill, allowing only the Zhang twins – her closest advisors and possibly lovers – to see her. Their close relationship with the Empress led to suspicion from the rest of the court, and when Wu fell ill again in spring of 705, senior generals and officials plotted to kill these Zhang twins with the support of the former Emperor Zhongzong. The coup was successful, restoring Emperor Zhongzong to the throne and the Tang Dynasty with it. Wu died only a few months later.

The affair of the Zhang twins, both their influence and likely sexual involvement with Wu, is also often used to disparage Wu as morally corrupt. However, there is a clear double standard: Chinese emperors had potentially hundreds of concubines within their courts, yet Wu’s sexual liaisons during her reign made her immoral and licentious. In this way, Wu is an informative example of the misogyny faced by female rulers, particularly of the more distant past, in historical memory.

The success of Wu’s reign was not only demonstrated in her bureaucratic reforms, but also in the growing power of the Empire. China finally conquered the largest state of the Korean peninsula – Goguryeo – under her stewardship in 668. Similarly, she warded off the Khitans to the north and the Tibetan Empire to the west as China secured her borders.

From around 670, Tibet had started seizing strategic locations around the Tarim Basin, while the Khitans, former vassals, rebelled to the north in 695, creating a war on multiple fronts. The response was ingenious, as Wu’s government devised a strategy of fomenting internal dissent in Tibet and among the Khitans, leading to their weakness and withdrawal, since China was not strong enough to confront them militarily.

Following this, the military was reorganised from a centralised imperial force into permanent regional garrisons in the north and northeast under military governors. This ensured any future foreign incursions were defeated swiftly and effectively.

Another commendable accomplishment for Wu in managing the state was that her reign was a time of internal peace. Of course, the wars on the frontiers could hardly be described as peaceful, but, given the frequency of internal unrest and civil wars in China to that time and the devastation that they caused, maintaining internal political cohesion over 40 years, especially when considering the turmoil surrounding Wu’s position, was difficult and a substantial achievement.

Some may cite the An Lushan Rebellion (755 – 763), responsible for between 13 and 36 million deaths (the lower figure being the more likely), as a long-term failing of Empress Wu’s military and governmental strategy, since the aforementioned establishment of regional military forces in the northeast of China led to regional consolidation of power by their governors. There was historical precedent for such regional commands being hotbeds of rebellion (take Dong Zhuo). However, the strategy was effective in the short term, as was required, and the resultant issues of power consolidation in the hands of said governors, such as An Lushan, could have been dealt with by any emperor in the intervening period that noticed the issue. To blame Empress Wu for a rebellion 50 years after her deposition, while not entirely inaccurate, is using hindsight to an extreme degree.

The common image of Wu as an ambitious woman and ruthless ruler is not unfounded, though many of the specific allegations are unsupportable. However, her success in keeping peace at home while increasing the strength and size of the empire over forty years of rule make her one of China’s great rulers. That she was able to achieve so much despite all the obstacles she faced once in power, not to mention her politically brilliant ascent, mark her as one of history’s most extraordinary women and a figure in need of re-evaluation and extrication from the Confucian historical orthodoxy that vilified her.

Fairbank, J.K., Reischauer, E.O., 1989. China: Tradition and Transformation. Allen & Unwin.

Levy, H.S., The Journal of Asian Studies 17, no. 4 (1958): 617–19. https://doi.org/10.2307/2941193.

Lewis, M.E., 2009. China’s Cosmopolitan Empire: The Tang Dynasty. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.