Wu Tse-t'ien

Wu Tse-t'ien (623-705) was empress of China. A strong-willed and capable ruler, she was the only female sovereign in China's long history.

Wu Tse-t'ien or Wu Chao is often known as Empress Wu. She was the daughter of a general of the first T'ang emperor, Kao-tsu, and was presented to his son, Emperor T'ai-tsung, as a concubine in 638. When T'ai-tsung died in 649, she, along with the imperial concubines, was required to leave the palace and enter a nunnery in the T'ang capital, Ch'angan.

The following year, unusual circumstances made it possible for Wu to return to the palace. Empress Wang, the wife of the new emperor Kao-tsung, felt insecure because she was not her husband's favorite. Hearing rumors that Wu had earlier attracted Kao-tsung, the Empress thought she could strengthen her position by patronizing and controlling Wu. Once back in the palace Wu turned against her benefactor but could not displace her. She then took the cruel and desperate step of murdering her own newborn infant, the Emperor's child, and accusing Empress Wang of the deed. Kao-tsung believed the accusation, dismissed Empress Wang, and decided to make Wu his empress.

This decision was vigorously opposed by the older ministers. Nevertheless, the Emperor issued a proclamation which listed the virtues of Wu and insisted that there was no reason that she should not become his wife. In 655 Wu became empress. Her position was strengthened when her son was named crown prince in 656.

In 664 Kao-tsung had the first of a series of paralytic strokes that were to affect him for the remainder of his life. Wu quickly took advantage of his infirmity to dominate the court. After a feeble attempt to displace her, Kao-tsung came entirely under her control. Emperor Kao-tsung died in 683, and Wu's son ascended the throne. She had expected to manipulate him, but he soon showed signs of independence. Without hesitation Wu had him deposed and replaced with his younger brother.

As empress dowager, Wu dominated the young emperor. Still unsatisfied, she decided on an unprecedented act. She determined to overthrow her son, change the name of the dynasty, and assume full authority as ruler. In 690 Wu proclaimed the founding of the Chou dynasty. For the first and last time, a woman had become sovereign of China.

Wu's reign, which was traditionally regarded as a regrettable and illegitimate hiatus in T'ang rule, was actually a time of important institutional change. It was a stable period, but the ascendancy of incompetent court favorites finally resulted in her overthrow in 705; she died shortly thereafter. Her older son, whom she had deposed 20 years earlier, was restored to the throne. His first act was to reestablish the T'ang dynasty, which ruled China until the line's extinction in 907.

Further Reading on Wu Tse-t'ien

Readable accounts of Wu Tse-t'ien that emphasize her personal life and career are C. P. Fitzgerald, The Empress Wu (1956; 2d ed. 1968), and Lin Yutang, Lady Wu: A True Story (1957).

Additional Biography Sources

Guisso, R. W. L., Wu Tse-T'len and the politics of legitimation in T'ang China, Bellingham, Wash.: Western Washington, 1989, 1978.