image of Wu Zetian

2.3 Wu Zetian, Empress of China

Wu Zetian, Empress of China

Basic Facts:

Life: 625 to 705 AD

Reign: 690 to 705 (though she was reigning as regent long before 690)

Memorable Moment: When shown a highly insulting proclamation from a man leading a revolt against her, Wu said (in effect) “Who’s his speechwriter? A man that talented should be working for me!”

Extremely Brief Summary: Empress Wu shattered the glass ceiling in her rise from low level wife to de facto ruler to Divine Ruler in her own right. Sources on Wu give vastly different accounts of her, ranging from proud, capable feminist to seriously evil dictator. Either way she dominated for more than fifty years and became the only female emperor in 4,000 years of Chinese history.

Selected Sources and Images

One of many sources was Jonathan Clement’s biography, Wu: The Chinese Empress who schemed, seduced and murdered her way to become a living God.

Despite the provocative title, Clement’s biography is decidedly more sympathetic than many sources, including, for example, the section on Wu in Ann Paludan’s, Chronicle of the Chinese Emperors. English translations of Wu’s own poetry have been somewhat elusive, but you can read three of them on this site

An 18th century depiction of Wu. Stunning beauty might not be the description you would have given this steely gaze, but an 18th century artist was probably thinking of her more from the evil dictator angle. From Wikimedia Commons

The Giant Wild Goose Pagoda in Xi’an. Built during the reigns of Gaozong and Wu, though it has been renovated since.

Image Source: Squirrel_photos from Pixabay

A modern photo of the mausoleum of Wu and Gaozong.

Image Source: Gary Todd from Xinzheng, China, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Historical Fiction

If you’d like a fictional account, I enjoyed reading The Moon in the Palace by Weina Dai Randel. It’s considerably more sympathetic than the majority of depictions of Wu.

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  1. Talk about having the mind of a ruler! It’s interesting to think what would have happened if she had been born in Rome. She could have given those Emperors a run for their money! I found Wu Zetian to be both terrifying and intriguing. The more I learn about Chinese history, the more I want to learn.


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