By Wendy Wu,
for Georgia Weekly Post.
Empress Wu Zetian (also known as Empress Consort Wu, Wu Hou, Wu Mei Niang, Mei-Niang, and Wu Zhao, 624-705 CE, r. 690-704 CE) was the only female emperor in the history of China. She reigned during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE) and was one of the most effective and controversial monarchs in China's history. She began her life at court as a concubine of the emperor Taizong.
After his death, she married his son, Gaozong (r. 628-683 CE) and became empress consort but actually was the power behind the emperor. When Gaozong died in 683 CE, Wu took control of the government as empress dowager, placing two of her sons on the throne and removing them almost as quickly. She was the power behind the throne from Gaozong's death in 683 CE until she proclaimed herself openly in 690 CE and ruled as emperor of China until a year before her death in 705 CE, at the age of 81.
Wu Zetian was born in Wenshi County, Shanxi Province, in 624 CE to a wealthy family. She was the daughter of Wu Shihuo, a chancellor of the Tang Dynasty. Unlike most young girls in China at this time, Wu was encouraged by her father to read and write and develop the intellectual skills which were traditionally reserved for males. Wu also learned to play music, write poetry, and speak well in public. She was very beautiful and was selected by emperor Taizong as one of his concubines when she was 14 years old. It was Taizong who called her 'Mei-Niang' meaning 'beautiful girl' (one of the names commonly, and wrongly, attributed to her as her birth name). Although the function of the concubine in China is almost always associated with sex, a woman in this position could have a number of non-sexual responsibilities, from daily tasks like taking care of the laundry to more specialized skills like conversation, poetry reading, and playing music.
Wu began her life at court taking care of the royal laundry but one day dared to speak to the emperor when they were alone and talked about Chinese history. Taizong was surprised that his latest concubine could read and write and became fascinated by her beauty and wit in conversation.
Taizong was so impressed at her intellectual abilities, he took her out of the laundry and made her his secretary. In her new position, she was constantly involved in affairs of state at the highest level and must have performed her duties well because she became a favorite of Taizong.
She attracted the attention of many of the young men at court and one of these was the Prince Li Zhi, son of Taizong, who would become the next emperor, Gaozong. Wu began an affair with Li Zhi, who was married at the time, while still attached to Taizong as concubine. Li Zhi was deeply in love with Wu but could not do anything about it because she belonged to his father and, besides, he was already married. When Taizong died, Wu and his other concubines had their heads shaved and were sent to Ganye Temple to begin their lives as nuns.
This was a common practice after the death of the emperor. The emperor's concubines could not be passed on to be used by others but were forced to end their time at court and start a new life of chastity in a religious order. However, when Li Zhi became emperor and took the name Gaozong, one of the first things he did was send for Wu and have her brought back to court as the first of his concubines, even though he had others and also a wife.
▲ Wu began her life at court taking care of the royal laundry but one day dared to speak to the emperor when they were alone and talked about Chinese history. He was very surprised that his latest concubine could read and write and became fascinated by her beauty and wit in conversation. Taizong was so impressed at her intellectual abilities, he took her out of the laundry and made her his secretary. In her new position, she was constantly involved in affairs of state at the highest level and must have performed her duties well because she became his favorite Georgia Weekly post. File Photo..
Wu was given the privileged position of first concubine even though by law she should have been left in the temple as a nun. Gaozong's wife, Lady Wang, and his former first concubine, Xiao Shufei, were jealous of each other but even more envious of the attention Gaozong paid to Wu. According to Wu's own account, they conspired against her but, according to other historians, Wu started and finished the problems she had with them.
Lady Wang had no children and Lady Xiao had a son and two daughters. In 652 CE, Wu gave birth to a son, Li Hong, and in 653 CE had another son, Li Xian. Neither of these boys was a threat to Lady Wang or Lady Xiao because Gaozong had already chosen a successor; his chancellor Liu Shi was Lady Wang's uncle, and Gaozong appointed Liu Shi's son, Li Zhong, as heir. Still, this did not mean the women were not jealous of the favor the emperor showed Wu now that she had given birth to two sons in a row. In 654 CE, Wu had a daughter who died soon after birth. The baby was strangled in her crib and Wu claimed that Lady Wang had killed her because she was jealous. Wang was the last person seen in the room and had no alibi. Wu also accused Lady Wang and her mother of practicing witchcraft and implicated Lady Xiao; Lady Wang was found guilty of all the charges and so were the others. Gaozong divorced his wife, barred her mother from the palace, and exiled Lady Xiao. Lady Wang's uncle, the chancellor Liu Shi, was removed from his post which meant his son was cut off as Gaozong's heir. Wu was now raised to the position of first wife of Gaozong and empress of China. She was also assured that her sons would rule the country after the death of her husband.