Wu Zetian: Biography, Facts & Quotes

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

This lesson goes over the absolutely fascinating life of Wu Zetian. Find out who this person was, why they were important, and what they accomplished during their life.

Wu Zetian

How many female emperors did China have in its history? 0, 1, 2, or 3? The answer is 1. And this lesson is going to go over the life and rule of the one and only female emperor of China, Wu Zetian, also known as Wu Hou and Wu Zhao.

Early Life

Wu was born in 624 CE in Wenshui (Shanxi), China. She was born into a family of wealth and privilege as her father was Wu Shihuo, a chancellor. Her dad was a bit atypical for his time as he actually encouraged his daughter to read, write, and become intelligent in general. This was unusual for, during this time, reading, writing, and overall intellectual activities were seen as something boys and men would be involved in, not women.

On top of that, Wu learned everything from public speaking to how to play music. At the young age of 14, she was chosen to be Emperor Taizong's concubine (one of many). Because of her beauty, Taizong nicknamed Wu ''Mei-Niang,'' which meant beautiful girl.

She was first tasked with doing the laundry, but Taizong quickly learned that, unlike the other concubines, Wu was quite intelligent and witty in conversation. So, Taizong made Wu his secretary instead.

After becoming secretary, and thus immersing herself in and learning about state affairs, she began an affair with Prince Li Zhi, who was Taizong's son and the future emperor of China. This had to be kept secret as Wu was Taizong's concubine and Li Zhi was married. This would've been seen as an incestuous relationship as a result.

Once Taizong died, Wu had her head shaved, and she was sent to a temple to live as a nun, as were his other concubines. This was normal practice back in the day since it wasn't permitted for concubines of one emperor to be passed down, so to speak, to the next emperor.

Rise to Power

However, Prince Li Zhi (now Emperor Gaozong) was so fascinated by Wu that he broke this law and had her brought back to be his first among all other concubines. This was a position of privilege for concubines and thus Wu. And, as you can imagine, this made Gaozong's wife, Lady Wang, and his former first concubine, Xiao Shufei, very jealous.

In 652 CE, Wu gave birth to a son and then another son in 653 CE. In 654 CE she gave birth to a daughter who was killed, perhaps by Lady Wang (as Wu accused), soon after birth. Wu also accused Lady Xiao of witchcraft. As a consequence, Gaozong divorced Lady Wang and exiled her and Lady Xiao from the royal palace.

This, in effect, also ensured that the line of succession would pass on to Wu's sons as Wu was made Gaozong's 'first wife' and all other lines of succession were eliminated or barred.

You may not be surprised to learn that many historians later began to believe that Wu actually killed her own daughter to frame Wang and Xiao (who were later killed as well). The real truth is lost to history, and both sides of the story are possible. What is certain, however, is that Wu definitely used her wits to battle it out with competing factions in order to wield as much power as possible. Whether she went as far as killing her own daughter for it has been the subject of a lot of argument with valid points on either side.

And while Wu played the role of doting wife in public, she really wielded great power behind the scenes, eventually becoming de-facto emperor by 660 AD thanks, in part, to her clever (and scheming) ways. But Wu didn't see it as scheming, her father taught her that she was equal among men, and Wu believed it wholeheartedly.

Wu's rise to power was probably helped by the fact that Gaozong at some point actually became incapacitated, maybe as a result of a stroke, which really disabled his ability to rule. And then in 683 CE, he passed away.

Emperor of China & Collapse

Afterwards, Wu made her first son emperor. But he, and his wife were trying to take too much power for Wu's liking, so she banished them. Wu then made her second son emperor, but actually kept him under a sort of house arrest. However, her second son proved to be a disappointment to her, so she made him abdicate the throne and made herself Emperor Zetian, the founder of the Zhou (Tianzhou) dynasty. Not long after, as many power-hungry rulers throughout history have done, she elevated herself to the status of a divine ruler, now called Empress Shengsen (Holy Spirit).

Wu Zetian
Wu Zetian

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