Some conquerors ruled justly, some were terrors, and according to most of Western history, all were men. Few women throughout history have been bestowed the title, and their accomplishments are often marginalized in favor of the men around them. One such woman was Empress Wu Zetian, who schemed her way out of her position as a low-ranked concubine to becoming Empress of China. Though her methods were underhanded and often terrifying, she created a lasting impact that permeated throughout Chinese culture, even as her successors attempted to erase her. As a conqueror, Empress Wu not only expanded the boundaries of China and established a period of great prosperity within its borders, but she ultimately undermined the stronghold of Confucian patriarchy, becoming a successful conqueror of not only the land but of her society as well.
Wu Zetian’s reign began long before she declared herself Empress. Her husband, Emperor Gaozong, suffered from vertigo and spent most of his days so dizzy that he could not bear to open his eyes and read the documents presented by his advisors. He turned to Empress Wu for help and allowed her to not only read the documents but to give her advice on what actions he needed to take. The most notable of her decisions enacted military forces to invade the Korean Peninsula in 668, effectively expanding Chinese territory further east, and giving her immeasurable political knowledge. However, her influence within the court was openly derided in an era that confined women to domesticity, and she was judged harshly for her actions after the death of the Emperor in 683. While she initially went along with imperial tradition and installed her eldest son as emperor, she found his wife’s nepotism unbecoming and deposed them in favor of her youngest son, who she soon regarded as incompetent, and imprisoned him within the palace. In 690, she declared herself Empress and immediately declared her reign as the Zhou Dynasty, named for an ancestral Chinese dynasty that she claimed descendency from. Despite contention surrounding her rise to power, she slowly gained acceptance as she brought both prosperity and peace to the empire. Her most notable act was the creation of the first social welfare programs in China. Prior to her reign, monks were responsible for the impoverished and the elderly, but “the almshouse as a public institution seems to have emerged only in the last years of the reign of the strongly pro-Buddhist Empress Wu.”
Though she succeeded in both social and militaristic realms, her greatest achievement was conquering the Confucian patriarchy. She plotted her way to the top and disrupted the norms of yin and yang by ruling an empire, a position women were never supposed to hold in Chinese society. She consciously revered pre-Confucian female mythological figures, choosing words and imagery throughout her dynasty that evoked them, and her choice in women “served to validate her person and her unique role as female emperor; their presence provided a sense that they always had been and always would be politically eminent.” Furthermore, she removed the ban on women showing their faces in public, refused to conduct her affairs behind a screen as she did while being Empress Dowager, and bestowed the title of “Emperor Wu Zhao” upon herself, further blurring the binary of yin and yang so deeply entrenched in Chinese culture. Her achievements were ultimately so polarizing that her successors erased the Zhou Dynasty from records, and women also endured harsher restrictions on their rights, in an attempt to prevent similarly ambitious women from rising to power.
Though emperors after her death in 705 attempted to erase her legacy by refusing to acknowledge the validity of both her rule and her dynasty, Empress Wu Zetian had a lasting impact on Chinese culture that extended well into the 20th century, where she was presented as a strong female figure during the rise of communism. Her political prowess guided by abject ruthlessness allowed her to make strides in both the political and social realms of the Chinese Empire. While many conquerors are defined by the land they acquired or the kingdoms they established, few have been such fervent challengers of the status quo, making Empress Wu Zetian one of the most successful (yet unknown) conquerors of antiquity.
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- McMahon, Keith. 'Women Rulers in Imperial China.' Nan Nu 15, no. 2 (2013): 179-218.
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- Song, Xianlin. 'Re-gendering Chinese History: Zhao Mei's Emperor Wu Zetian.' East Asia, no. 27 (2010): 361-79. Accessed February 12, 2019. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12140-010-9122-z.
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