Wu Chao (625-705), known as "The Empress Wu," is considered to be one of the most powerful women in history. That she rose to such an important position at a time when women was commonly relegated to the confines of the family home is a remarkable achievement. That she ruled with competence and ushered in an era of social change that would affect Chinese society for centuries is even more remarkable.
The T'ang dynasty ruled China from 618 to 907. Li Yuan ascended to power following the assassination of Sui Yang-ti, and began the dynasty. His rule was to last only a few years. In 627, his son, Li Shih-min ousted him and usurped the throne. Li Shih-min then assumed the title, T'ang T'ai-tsung. He was determined to solve the internal problems that had burdened previous dynasties. T'ang created a new form of government that consisted of a hierarchy, with the emperor at the top. Below the emperor were three administrative units: Councils of State, Military Affairs, and the Censorate. The Council of State was the most important. It drafted, reviewed, and implemented policy. The second Council was in charge of the military, under the rule of the emperor himself. The Censorate kept a watch over government officials and investigated charges of corruption. Although he attempted to seize all property in China as his own, T'ang T'ai-tsung decided to let the landowners keep their property when his efforts were unsuccessful. While he instituted one of the earliest forms of a civil service examination to fill government jobs, members of the aristocracy took most of those positions. Into this "new" China entered Wu Chao, who came to the palace of T'ai-tsung as a junior concubine in 638, at the age of 13.
A Life of Intrigue
Wu Chao was born in Wen Shui, China in the year 625. Not much is known regarding her early years as a concubine to Emperor T'ai-tsung. By the time of his death in 649 she reportedly had already become intimate with his heir, Kao Tsung. Custom mandated that she enter a Buddhist convent upon the death of T'ai Tsung. However, Wu Chao received visits from the new emperor frequently. Soon she had returned to the palace as his favorite concubine. Wu Chao set about to eliminate any rivals, including the current empress. By 665, she had become empress, and went on to bear four sons and one daughter for Kao Tsung. When he suffered a stroke in 660, Wu Chao took over the government of China. When Kao Tsung died 24 years later, she rose to the position of regent of China, ruling in place of her young son, Chung Tsung. She then replaced Chung with another son, Jui Tsung. By 690, she had deposed Jui Tsung and become Emperor of China. Wu Chao was the first and only woman to occupy that office in Chinese history. Shortly before her death in Ch'ang-an on December 16, 705, her ministers and generals forced Wu Chao to cede the throne to her son, Chung Tsung.
A Forceful, Innovative Ruler
Even before Kao Tsung's stroke and death, Wu Chao orchestrated the conquest of Korea from 655 until 675. In his book, Chinese Civilization, Werner Eichhorn indicated that the economic power of the Buddhist monasteries during this time could not be over-estimated. "Indeed, for a short time it looked as though the Empress Wu (690-705) was going to make the T'ang empire into a Buddhist state. When she finally took full power, Wu Chao attempted to change the existing social order. Members of the aristocracy had opposed her climb to the throne. Her own reported ruthlessness resulted in the dismissal, exile, or execution of many of these opponents. In their place, Wu Chao promoted those who remained loyal. The royal armies maintained their loyalty when her rivals attempted to overthrow her. The rebellion was crushed in weeks."
The arts thrived when Wu Chao reigned as "Divine Empress Who Rules the Universe," the Buddhist title she assumed. Eichhorn said that, "During the empress Wu's interregnum, all the painters of the empire were brought to the capital of Ch'ang-an to assist in restoring the paintings of the palace collection to their former condition. Each following his own speciality and artistic bent, the artists made copies of all the paintings, drawing on paper and making exact replicas of the originals. Many of the princes also became famous for their paintings of celebrated personalities of animals or as calligraphers—another sign that the high T'ang nobility were lovers of art." Many of the paintings of this era had Buddhist themes or honored the ideals of good citizenship, in the ancient Chinese tradition.
Lasting Social Change
Wu Chao did not replace the old social order with chaos. She followed the intentions of T'ang T'ai-tsung and held civil service examinations to fill government positions. The qualified civil servants provided China with a new class of citizens that were not of the aristocracy. According to The New Encyclopedia Britannica, in its 1995 edition, "The transformation of Chinese society in the T'ang period from one dominated by a military and political aristocracy to one governed by a scholarly bureaucracy drawn from the gentry was promoted by her policy."
In her fictionalized 1986 account of the empress in the novel, Green Dragon, White Tiger, Annette Motley captured the historical mood of the era when the woman known in the novel as "Black Jade," ruled the T'ang dynasty, and all of China. In her historically accurate epilogue to the novel, Motley wrote: "For those who would like to know—Wu Chao's (Black Jade's) reign as empress was as eventful as her earlier life had been. Her government continued to be astute and efficient, and her grateful ministers supported her through several abortive attempts on the part of the Wu or the Li to replace her with one of her sons."
Motley continued with, "Her private life remained the enjoyable scandal of the court, though the turbulent Feng overreached himself at last by burning down the Ming T'ang in a passion of jealousy when his mistress turned to a new lover. This was Meng Shen, once the boy she had taught at Kan Yeh. He had become a calm, witty and eminently sensible man, a physician and scholar, who was to keep her affection as long as she lived. His good sense could not prevent her from indulging in other less wise liaisons, however, notably with the Chang brothers, a pair of young court butterflies whose outrageous behavior and rapacious family turned the court upside down. With deep regret, the ministers persuaded the Empress's third son [Lord Tiger or Chung Tsung] that the time had come for her to abdicate."
No other woman in history, except for Catherine of Russia and Elizabeth I of England, enjoyed such power over so vast an empire. History did not always treat her kindly. Shortcomings that might have been overlooked in male rulers were given careful scrutiny in the case of Wu Chao. Yet the place she made for herself in history, and the changes she introduced, offer the most appropriate assessment of this interesting ruler.
Further Reading on Wu Chao
Eichhorn, Werner. Chinese Civilization, Frederick A. Praeger, 1969.
Fitzgerald, C. P. The Empress Wu, 2nd edition, 1968.
Hooker, Richard. "The T'ang." Available at: http://wwwloki.stockton.edu/
Motley, Annette. Green Dragon, White Tiger, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1986.
The New Encyclopedia Britannica, 15th edition, 1995.
"Wu Chao." Merriam-Webster's Biographical Dictionary, May 1995. Available at: http://web6.infotrac.galegroup.com.