Wu Zetian (Empress Regnant of China/Founder of the Zhou Dynasty)

empress-wu-zetian.jpgWu Zetian (simplified Chinese: 武则天; traditional Chinese: 武則天; pinyin: Wǔ Zétiān) (625 – 16 December 705), personal name Wu Zhao (武曌), often referred to as Tian Hou (天后) during Tang Dynasty and Empress Consort Wu (武后) in later times, was the only woman in the history of China to assume the title of Empress Regnant.

As de facto  ruler of China first through her husband and her sons from 665 to 690, not unprecedented in Chinese history, she then broke all precedents when she founded her own dynasty in 690, the Zhou (周) (interrupting the Tang Dynasty), and ruled personally under the name Sacred and Divine Empress Regnant (聖神皇帝) and variations thereof from 690 to 705. Her rise and reign has been criticized harshly by Confucian historians but has been viewed under a different light after the 1950s.

The future Empress Wu was born in 625, a year in which a total solar eclipse was visible in China.

Wu Zetian entered the Tang palace at 13 and became a concubine of Emperor Taizong. She did not become a favorite of Taizong's, and after his death in 649, she might have been expected to spend the rest of her life as a Buddhist nun, like his other childless concubines.

However, through an unlikely fortuity — Empress Wang, the wife and empress of Emperor Taizong's son and successor Emperor Gaozong, wanted another beautiful concubine to divert Emperor Gaozong's favors from Consort Xiao, with whom Empress Wang was having a desperate struggle — Wang had her brought back to the palace and made a concubine of Emperor Gaozong. Consort Wu proceeded to defeat both Empress Wang and Consort Xiao in the struggle for Emperor Gaozong's affection, and subsequently, both Empress Wang and Consort Xiao were killed, and she was made empress.

As empress Wu progressively gained more and more influence over the governance of the empire throughout Emperor Gaozong's reign, and toward the end of Emperor Gaozong's reign, she was effectively making most of the major decisions. She was regarded as ruthless in her endeavors to grab power, and was believed by traditional historians to have even killed her own daughter to frame Empress Wang, and her own eldest son Li Hong in a power struggle. She subsequently had another son, Li Xián, deposed and exiled.

After Emperor Gaozong's death in 683, Empress Wu became the empress dowager and proceeded to depose a third son, Emperor Zhongzong, for displaying independence. She then had her youngest son Emperor Ruizong made emperor, but was ruler not only in substance but in appearance as well, as she presided over imperial gatherings and prevented Emperor Ruizong from taking an active role in governance.

In 690, she had Emperor Ruizong yield the throne to her and established the Zhou Dynasty. The early part of her reign was characterized by secret police terror, which moderated as the years went by. She was, on the other hand, recognized as a capable and attentive ruler even by traditional historians who despised her, and her ability at selecting capable men to serve as officials was admired throughout the rest of the Tang Dynasty as well as in subsequent dynasties. In 705, she was overthrown in a coup, and Emperor Zhongzong was returned to the throne. She continued to carry the title of "emperor" until her death later in the year.

Related Links:
Wu Zetian on Wikipedia
China Culture.org