She, the Emperor

Chiew-Siah TeiChiew-Siah Tei’s work ranges from prose fiction to scripts for screen and stage. She is author of two novels. The first, Little Hut of Leaping Fishes (Picador, 2008), was listed for the inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize and Best Scottish Fiction, and won Malaysia’s Readers’ Choice Award. Her second book, The Mouse Deer Kingdom (Picador, 2013), came third in the same award. The short film she wrote the script for, Night Swimmer, won Best Short Film at Vendome International Film Festival.

Chiew came to Scotland in 2002 to study, which led to a doctorate in creative writing and film from the University of Glasgow. She divides her time between Glasgow and Malaysia, her home country.

The woman, Wu, who has falsely usurped the throne, is by nature obdurate and unyielding, by origin truly obscure… With her mouth concealed behind her sleeve, she skilfully slandered other women; with crafty flattery and perverse talents she deluded the ruler. She then usurped the pheasant regalia of empress and entrapped our ruler into an incestuous relationship.

And then with a heart like a serpent and a nature like that of a wolf, she favoured evil sycophants while destroying her loyal and good officials. She has killed her own children, butchered her elder brothers, murdered the ruler, poisoned her mother…[1]

The woman in question is Wu Zetian (also named Wu Zhao; 625-705AD) – of the Tang Dynasty – the first and only woman emperor in the history of China. In 690AD she declared herself ‘Emperor’ and started a new dynasty – Chou (690-701AD) – at a time when aristocrat men were the only respected voice in the Confucian society, when a ‘woman’s greatest duty is to produce a son.’[2]

Wu first entered the court as the emperor Taizong’s (599-649AD) concubine in her early teens and, after his death, taken by his son and successor, Gaozong (628-83AD), to become his consort. Wu’s rise from a lowly concubine to assuming the highest position in one of the most splendid periods in Chinese history has created interests, not only within the academia but also the creative industry, with theatre, films and television dramas depicting different accounts of her life from different perspectives: some sympathetic, but mostly critical. Today, thirteen hundred years after her death, Wu remains a controversial figure, dividing opinions among researchers.

Most arguments in regard to Wu, predominantly on her wrongdoings and her accomplishments, are originated in the extent of truthfulness and fairness in the portrayal of her in the archival texts. For all the tales that are associated with Wu, one thing stands out – most of the comments bring upon an image of a cruel, calculating and shrewd woman. Putting aside the dramatic presentations of the creative media, which often prioritise audience ratings, historical records concerning Wu – which largely focus on her evil deeds – appear doubtful. This notion is highlighted in the Cambridge History of China:

Everything concerning this remarkable woman is surrounded by doubts, for she stood for everything to which the ideals of the Confucian scholar-official class opposed – feminine interference in public affairs, government by arbitrary personal whim, the deliberate exploitation of factionalism, ruthless personal vendettas, political manipulation in complete disregard of ethics and principles. From the very first the historical record of her reign has been hostile, biased and curiously fragmentary and incomplete.’[3]

“Incomplete”, because so preoccupied were the historians and her critiques with demonising her that ‘less is known of the details of political life during her half century of dominance than of any comparable period of the Tang.’[4] That means, there has been a lack of unbiased historical documentations of her.

This phenomenon is suspected to be the result of the prejudice and resentment towards her, for no other reasons than she was a woman. My opening quote, abstracted from a manifesto written by Lo Ping Wang in support of a rebel leader who attempted to ouster Emperor Wu, lists the crimes allegedly committed by Wu in her quest for power and, later, to consolidate her position. Criticism of her was echoed by many during her times, from the court officials to the gentry class, and to the grassroots, whose knowledge of her was shaped by the former two groups. It also represents the traditional views towards the woman ruler as the way they were presented by the historians in the past. Those historians, undoubtedly, are the men of the elite class.

In a society that believed men are superior to women, and that ‘a woman’s duty is not to control or take charge,’[5] Wu’s control of the state unsettled them. As Yang Lian Sheng, a historian of the twentieth century, pointed out, ‘The severity of Confucian injunctions against female rule means she could never be accepted in her position….’[6] While attempting to implement new policies and reformation, Wu, during her reign, had to put in more effort to consolidate her power.

Those efforts, inevitably, invited further criticism. Firstly, in order to convince the people and to be accepted by them, Wu turned to archaic rituals to demonstrate her temporal power and harmonious relationship with heaven. Religious symbolism and ceremonies were used to legitimise her elevation to Gaozong’s empress at the initial stage and later, her own regime, in the hope of silencing her opponents. Secondly, she was said to have established a secret police force, to keep surveillance on her enemies. This so-called ‘secret secretariat’ is in fact a group of scholars employed by Wu ‘to process for the empress memorials addressed to the throne, and to make decisions on the policy which were properly the functions of the chief ministers.’[7] Thirdly, it is not difficult to understand that the strong security she set up for self-protection was prompted by the constant threats from her many male rivals – the aristocrat court-officials – who always sought the opportunities to dethrone her.

Ironically, for all the criticism against her from the Confucian men of her time, it was the system created by them that had initially prepared Wu for her entering the court, and thus allowed her the opportunity to open a path for herself.

Born in a family that had a close connection with the imperial court, Wu is said to have been prepared by her father Wu Shihou, a chancellor of the Tang court, to join the emperor’s harem. In a time when a woman’s greatest achievement was to be married well, to be selected as a concubine would bring upon a family pride, status and wealth; and in the case of Wu’s clan, a more formidable relationship with the emperor. Since young age, Wu had been specially trained in literary, musical and intellectual skills, which were traditionally exclusive to men. The effort paid off. She was recruited into the palace of the Emperor Taizong at the age of fourteen.

It was also those skills and knowledge that had enchanted the Emperor Taizong. Impressed by Wu’s intellectual take of the history of China, the emperor promoted his new favourite from a lowly concubine who took care of the royal laundry to become his secretary, allowing her the exposure to state affairs at the highest level.

However, it all ended with the death of the emperor in 649 AD. Abiding by the tradition, Wu, as of other wives and concubines of Taizong, was sent to live in a temple as a nun. Stories of how she later became a concubine of Gaozong – the new emperor and the youngest son of Taizong – were varied. Some said Wu had, while still under the former emperor’s roof, began an incestuous affair with the young prince. Others described a ‘chanced encounter’ – orchestrated by Wu – in the temple where Wu served her duty as a widow to the emperor, during which Gaozong was struck by her beauty and intelligence, and arranged for her return to the palace. There began Wu’s gradual rise to power.

As the third-ranking concubine, Wu is said to have eliminated the empress and the emperor’s favourite consort by extremely brutal means, including sacrificing her own newborn daughter and later, had her two rivals killed.

Now the new empress, Wu, trusted by her husband – who was sickly and weak – became actively involved in state affairs. Shielded by a screen, she would sit with Gaozong in court sessions, and supervise the emperor on matters ranging from the pettiest to the country’s vital policies.  Her political dominance was summed up by the prominent Sung historian, Si Magqian: ‘The great power of the empire all devolved on the empress. Promotion and demotion, life or death, were settled by her word. The emperor sat with folded arms.’[8]

It was during this period that Wu began to take unprecedented measures to elevate the status of women who had long been suppressed in the male-dominant Confucian society. Among her efforts were extending the mourning period for a mother to equal that of a father; sending a male ‘bride’ to the Turks, in oppose to the tradition of sacrificing a woman, for political kinship; and raising the positions of her mother’s clan by honouring her relatives high posts in court, to name a few. Most drastically, defying all tradition, Wu, during a rare and complicated ritual, which was vital to lend legitimacy to her status as the equal partner to the emperor, led a first ever procession of women – the consorts and women related to the imperial clan – in a sacred ceremony at the foot of Mount Tai (Taishan), symbolically to be close to heaven and granting divine acceptance. Recent archaeological finds, from the murals depicting women riding on horseback, reveal that women of Wu’s times had the freedom to openly travel, assume outdoor activities and involve in trades, which were once exclusive to men.

In addition, while Wu is accused of bringing an end to the literati patronage by Gaozong during the early years of his reign[9], she sponsored scholars to produce Lienu Zhuan, a collection of biographies of famous women in Chinese history. At the same time, a book that amassed a large work of music and rituals, Yue Shu, was produced. Buddhism enjoyed state patronage and later, during her reign, was made the official religion, resulting in buildings and carvings of images of great aesthetic values and grandeur.

Other achievements of Wu include: giving opportunities to scholars from obscure backgrounds (non-aristocrat) to sit for court-official entry examinations and to be recruited based on their talent rather than family connections and backgrounds. During Wu’s reign in the Chou Dynasty, there were forty per cent successful candidates. While some of them were called to the court, others served in education and administration at the local level. Wu’s support of the system promoted social and economic mobility.[10]  This is only one of the many reform programs established by Wu for the wellbeings of the lower classes; others, for example, include tax reductions, bestowing heavy rewards on the aged, and offering reliefs to the poor. All these accomplishments were ignored by the historians of her period, especially Yuan Shu, whose take of her – a ‘calamity’ – represents the attitude of traditional historiography towards Wu’s rule.[11]

In conclusion, I have no intention to whitewash Wu, as, for whatever reasons, brutality of any kind is intolerable, had she committed them. The aim of this essay is to point out the prejudice of the historians towards a woman who was ahead of her times, unafraid to be anti-Confucianism, and who campaigned for gender and social equalities.



[1] Abstracted from Lo Ping Wang’s manifesto in Quan Tangwen, Imperial edn., 1814; reprinted in facsimile, Huawen Shuju (Taipei, 1961).

2 Quoted from ‘Women and Confucianism’ in

[3] Twitchett, D. (ed.) The Cambridge History of China, Volume 3: Sui and T’ang China, 589-906, Part I (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 1979) pp.244-5.

[4] Ibid., p.245.

[5] Quoted from ‘Women and Confucianism’ in

[6] Yang, Lian Sheng, ‘Female Rulers in imperial China’, Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 23 (1960-1), pp.47-61.

[7] Quoted from Tang Huiyao (Beijing: Chunghua Shuju; 57) p.977.

[8] Zhizi Tongjian, Vol. 201 (Beijing: Guji Chubanshe; 1956) p.6343.

[9] ‘This lavish imperial patronage of scholarship, both lay and Buddhist, seems to have come to a sudden end in about 665 AD.’ – quoted from Twitchett, D. (ed.), The Cambridge History of China, Volume 3: Sui and T’ang China, 589-906, Part I, p.263.

[10] Quoted from Tong Dian, Vol. 17 (Shanghai, 1936) p.94b.

[11] Refer to ‘The Period in Retrospect’, in Twitchett, D. (ed.), The Cambridge History of China, Volume 3: Sui and T’ang China, 589-906, Part I, p.329.