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The Woman Emperor

The following is an article from the book Uncle John's Fast-Acting Long-Lasting Bathroom Reader.

In a civilization ruled by men for thousands of years, only one woman ever made it to the top in imperial China -Empress Wu.


China hasn’t had a monarchy since the Communist Revolution of 1949. But for more than 4,000 years before that, it was ruled by 308 different emperors spanning 14 dynastic periods. Of those 308, only one was a woman.

It happened during the T’ang dynasty, which ruled China from AD 618-907, an era commonly considered the height of Chinese art, literature, philosophy, trade, and technology. The capital city, Chang’an (modern day Xi’an), was the largest and most culturally advanced city in the world, with a population of more than a million. This was also a rare era of freedom for women in China; women had long been treated as inferior, but now enjoyed such freedoms as the right to be educated, to divorce, to own land, and to take part -to a degree- in politics. But no one could have expected a woman to take as large a role as the girl known as Wu Zhao.


Wu Zhao was born in 624 into a noble and wealthy family, and was educated from an early age in music, art, literature, and philosophy. That education would help her immensely. When she was 13 years old, her family’s connections allowed her the great privilege of becoming a Cairen, one of nine “fifth-tier” concubines of the Emperor Tai-tsung. Her education, her musical talent, her beauty, and her wit made her stand out from the other girls, and she soon became one of the emperor’s favorites. He gave her the title Meinang, or “Charming Lady,” and assigned her to work in the imperial study. There she would add to her knowledge the workings of government- knowledge that she would put to great use in the coming years.

In 649, when Wu Zhao was 25, Emperor Tai-tsung died -not a good thing for a concubine: in keeping with tradition, all the concubines were sent to a Buddhist convent, where they were to spend the rest of their lives. But Tai-tsung’s son, Kao-tsung, became emperor and soon began visiting Wu at the convent. Many historians believe that Wu Zhao had been having an affair with the prince for a number of years, possibly because she knew he could get her out of the convent when his father died. True or not, two years later the new emperor broke tradition and had Wu Zhao returned to the palace, where she became Wu Zhaoyi, Zhaoyi signifying the highest rank of the second-tier concubines. There were now only two women above her in what became her quest for the throne: Kao-tsung’s wife, Empress Wang, and his first consort, Xiaoshu.


Within a few years, Wu Zhaoyi had two sons by the emperor -two possible heirs to the emperor’s throne if she got rid of the two women in her way. And she soon did.

When Wu Zhaoyi’s newborn daughter died during childbirth, Wu accused Empress Wang of infanticide. Some versions of the story say that Wu actually killed her own daughter, then blamed it on the empress. In any case, in 655 the emperor imprisoned his own wife and made Wu Zhaoyi empress. She quickly used her new power to have the former empress and first concubine, Xiaoshu, executed. Wu Zhao now became Empress Wu Zetian. But she still wanted more.

Emperor Kao-tsung allowed Wu Zetian to take an active role in the government, and historians say she did it very well. Implementing such changes as improved agricultural practices, tax reductions, and increased efficiency in government administration, the empress helped bolster an already-thriving empire. She also began to eliminate people who dared oppose her, replacing them with her supporters. Emperor Kao-tsung became aware of what she was doing, but historians believe he was either afraid of her or powerless to stop her. In 660 Kao-tsung, just 32 years old, had a debilitating stroke. He survived, but Empress Wu now essentially took his place, becoming the actual, if not named, ruler of China. That still wasn’t enough.


Wu now began a brutal purge of the royal court. Anyone who opposed her was imprisoned, exiled, or executed -including family members. When the emperor finally died in 683, Wu’s eldest son, Hung, would have been first in line for the throne. (By this time, she had four sons.) But he was already gone, having died mysteriously a year earlier after complaining about his mother’s rule. Her second son was also out of the picture; he had once complained about an affair his mother was having, so she had him exiled (he eventually committed suicide). The third son, Li Xian, was put on the throne… and was exiled 54 days later, apparently too difficult for the empress to control. That left the fourth son, Li Dan, to become emperor -in name only- and to carry out his mother’s wishes.

By 690 Wu Zetian had eliminated enough of her enemies to do what had never been done by a woman in Chinese history: she deposed her puppet son and declared herself the sole ruler of China -giving herself the male name Emperor Shengshen.


Emperor Shengshen declared the end of the T’ang dynasty and a return to the Zhou dynasty (Wu Zetian believed herself to be descended from the ancient Zhou warriors). She ruled China for the next 15 years. It was an ironically brutal rule during which she spread the compassionate teachings of Buddhism while ruthlessly butchering her enemies. In 695 she expanded her royal name, taking the Buddhist title Emperor Tiance Jinlun Shengshen -the Divine Emperor Who Rules the Universe. In 705, now 80 years old, her rule was ended by a successful palace coup. Her third son once again became emperor, ending the Zhou dynasty after having just one ruler and restoring the T’ang dynasty. She died nine months later.

Wu Zetian was vilified by Chinese scholars for centuries after her rule. Stories of her brutality and “immoral behavior” may even be false histories written by her critics in the centuries following her death. Many historians point out that her actions as ruler stand out only because she was a woman and were not very different from from the actions of male emperors of the time. In all, the former concubine ruled China for nearly 45 years, 15 of them as emperor. No woman would ever rule China again.  


The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Fast-Acting Long-Lasting Bathroom Reader.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts.

If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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True. But the puppet empire was an attempt AFTER the republic had already been set up. They were trying to bring it back (with Puyi doing whatever the Japanese bosses told him to do).
The Manchurian peninsula is part of the land now known as China, at the time it was not.
You're right, it was a complicated mess.
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Well, it's a lot more complicated than that...

The last Emperor Puyi abdicated from the Qing throne in 1911, but refuses to be forgotten. He was first shortly restored as Emperor to the Qing throne by a warlord in 1917, though that lasted only 12 days; then he was again installed as the emperor of Manchukuo, a puppet of Japan in 1934.

So technically, the land known as China last had a monarchy in the Empire of Manchukuo, abolished in 1945 following the defeat of Imperial Japan.
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"China hasn’t had a monarchy since the Communist Revolution of 1949". No. The revolution was in 1911, when the last emperor was overthrown and China became a republic. The 1949 communist revolution overthrew that republic government. (Except for Taiwan. Chairman Mao and his communist troops never made it there. The Taiwanese government is still based on the post-1911 republic.)
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