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How Did Wu Zetian Become the Emperor? Essay



Wu Zetian, the only female ruler of China, lived in an era when women were considered the lower population. Despite this, she managed to rule a huge country. Today, Wu Zetian is perceived as one of the founders of feminism. She was born February 17, 624 in a well-off, but not too aristocratic family, and her father was a wood merchant. During one of the numerous wars, he fought in the imperial army. From the very childhood, Wu Zetian was a rather talented child interested in poetry and art. She was only 14 years old when her father died, and Wu Zetian became the younger concubine in the harem of Emperor Taizong.

Way Up

The inhabitants of the Celestial Empire, the name used to refer to China, perceived boys as continuers of the family, breadwinners, and those whom parents can rely on in their old age. The girls were second-class people. In the harem of the Chinese emperor and a wealthy Chinese, there were the first, second, third, fourth wives, concubines, slaves, and servants who did not have the opportunity to communicate freely with their masters. The betrayal of the inhabitants of the harem was to be punished by death penalty. The described context allows understanding that it was quite difficult for a woman of that time to become prominent and almost impossible to become an emperor.

It was after the death of Taizong, when people began to understand the intention and potential of Wu Zetian. As it turned out, a small concubine did not spend years in the harem in vain dreaming of the mercy of the master. She has managed to establish more than a warm relationship with his son Gaozong. After the death of his father, Gaozong, the heir to the throne, realized that he needed the assistance of the faithful Wu Zetian and introduced her into his harem. This act was incredible for those times as all the concubines and wives of the previous emperor were to either live in monasteries or to be poisoned. No one dared to oppose the will of the emperor. Thus, the clever Wu Zetian, unlike her senior concubines, continued her days in the harem, but not in a monastery. However, she still had to spend some time in the Buddhist monastery, but soon she returned to the palace.

Some time passed, and Gaozong officially recognized Wu Zetian as his wife. This meant that now she was the main wife. It is clear that the emperor did not intend to refuse the harem. It seems significant to point out the fact that such a position for a woman meant that her son would inherit the throne and, in general, the fact that she is the main woman in the life of the ruler. The rise of the mentioned commoner was insulted by the entire high aristocracy of China, especially those close to the old emperor Taizong (Eisenberg 46). According to the ideas of that time, the intimate relationship with the father first and then with the son was equated with incest. In spite of such conditions, the empress succeeded.

During several years, all her detractors were removed from the palace, and rivals, according to her order, were punished without trial and effect. The greatest triumph for Wu Zetian was the massacre of the Emperor’s uncle and his clan (Eisenberg 47). After that, nothing threatened the position of Empress Wu Zetian. At the same time, Emperor Gaozong trusted his wife so much that he often consulted her on various issues of governing the country (Doran 474). In this connection, Wu Zetian took up politics. After Gaozong fell seriously ill, she even took the reins of government in her hands.

How did a modest concubine reach such a position? On account of Wu Zetian, there are also intrigues, meanness, and even death. On her orders, for example, her uncle’s husband was killed. Everyone who dared to raise a voice against her immediately lost his or her life. During the ruling of the weak Gaozong, his chief wife was, in fact, the head of the state. She gave birth to her four sons and a daughter. Zetian was present at the Emperor’s morning meeting with senior government officials. She personally selected warlords who waged wars on the Korean peninsula. This never happened in the history of the Chinese Empire, neither before nor after. This was considered a manifestation of absolute power and, most importantly, it was absolutely impossible for a woman.

Gaozong, a worthless emperor and husband of Wu Zetian, died. After this, the widow’s intentions became obvious: she decided to become the head of the state – the first woman in this position (Doran 474). At first, the countrymen did not believe that someone – even the main wife of the late ruler of the Celestial Empire – could think of such a rise. Nevertheless, Wu Zetian has managed everything rather cleverly. The power was first handed over to her eldest son Li Hong. He did not last a month in the palace either: his mother had personally deprived him of his throne be sending him to the provinces. Wu Zetian sadly complained about the incompetence of the offspring as a ruler. The authorities then transferred it to another son – Li Xián who was also deprived of ruling after some time. Zetian did not allow herself to reign. Such an act could lead the people out of patience and provoke a major uprising.

Zetian officially appointed herself empress and Sacred and Divine Empress Regnant. More precisely, the emperor: she demanded that they call her the male title – “huanghou”. This case is unprecedented. Soon it became clear why the far-sighted Wu Zetian had so diligently planted Buddhism. The people were told that the new ruler is the daughter of Buddha, and there is a prophecy that says: the next incarnation of the enlightened will come to the earth in the female image. Her victory in the internal struggle was by no means accidental, for the subsequent historical tradition describes her as a woman who is firm, strong-willed, intelligent, and prudent. She secured her position, changing her title and calling herself “The Celestial Empress”, on the basis of which she ordered herself and her husband to be called “two sovereigns” (McMahon 205). These actions met the resistance of a certain part of dignitaries and military men. Zetian had to pacify the military riots that broke, but she managed to suppress discontent and hold power.

Despite a rather thorny path to power, Wu Zetian managed to become a good ruler of the Heavenly Empire. Even though she did not tolerate any dissent and brutally dealt with the opposition, the following occurred during her ruling: flourishing agriculture, a clear system of admission was lined up to the civil service, and the northeast of China was freed from the power of the Turks. In the country, a relatively calm and full life began to reign. Wu Zetian has aged. With the overthrown ruler, they treated themselves better than she did with her enemies. Wu Zetian was allowed to live to natural death. She was buried with honors. The Empress herself ordered nothing to write on her grave to let the descendants themselves decide which epitaph she deserves.

To understand how she became an emperor, it is important to explore her personality to some extent. Wu Zetian was well-educated and wrote poetry and prose. Her works are included in what is referred to in China as the literary heritage of the Tang Dynasty (Rui-fang). Perfectly understanding that the chance to be spotted in the eyes of the emperor and achieve his favor is equal to one in ten thousand, an intelligent, developed and purposeful girl achieves that she is valued not as a faceless and anonymous concubine, but as an official of the chancery.

To raise her authority, Wu Zetian declared herself Maitreya – the incarnation of the unborn Buddha, and her ladies – bodhisattvas, which means people who have reached the highest degree of enlightenment (excluding Buddha). In general, she patronized Buddhism and Taoism in every possible way. This empress sought in the numerous at that time monasteries and a wide layer of Buddhist and Taoist monks of ideological and political support for her power. In addition, it was also useful for the needs of its aggressive policy in Central Asia, where Buddhism was the predominant dogma. At the same time, Confucianism was by no means infringed.

Leading a fierce struggle for power, Wu Zetian needed some justification for her claims to the imperial throne and the right to command people. It should be stressed that in China it was believed that the emperor receives power from God, which is why ordinary people must obey this power sanctified by Heaven. Zetian relied on Buddhism (Peng et al. 69). The latter began to spread in China during the Tang dynasty from the beginning of the seventh century AD. Zetian had great respect for Buddhist monks. Information has been preserved regarding the fact that she went out to meet Buddhist monks when they came to the Imperial Palace. It is believed that this religious blessing was one of the important factors that helped the empress to retain power for as many as fifteen years.

However, all the achievements of Wu Zetian in the governance of the state cannot drain the rivers of blood that this ruler shed in the struggle for the imperial throne. The thirst for power proved to be stronger even for her mother’s instincts. She cold-bloodedly killed her newborn daughter first, and – a few decades later – her son, because her children were standing in her way to the imperial power. Historians called her a talented ruler and a monster in female guise. Confucian historians sharply criticized her from the point of view of gender discrimination inherent in Confucianism (Yi 319). Nevertheless, modern feminists prefer to call Wu Zetian a great woman politician.


To conclude, Wu Zetian was an outstanding female emperor, the only ruling woman of China. Throughout her life, one observes how her personality strengthened and made her tougher. Losses, it seems, only encouraged her will, and failures became steps towards the goal. Zetian did not take into account the opinions of others, laws, and traditions, yet she implemented new ones. Among the key reasons that led to her enthronement, there are a strong character, weak husband- emperor, aggressive methods of ruling, and support of Buddhists.

Annotated Bibliography

Doran, Rebecca. “Building Power: Conspicuous Consumption, Projection of Identity, and Female Power in the Late Seventh and Early Eighth Centuries.” Frontiers of Literary Studies in China, vol. 6, no. 4, 2012, pp. 472-489.

This article focuses on the exploration of women rulers in China, especially their images, identities, and power. It specifically notes Wu Zetian as the most important and powerful ruler of China and her domination on the political scene. The use of this source is helpful to understand how empress Wu ruled the country, and it emphasizes her strong opposition.

Eisenberg, Andrew. “Emperor Gaozong, the Rise of Wu Zetian, and Factional Politics in the Early Tang.” Tang Studies, vol. 30, no. 1, 2012, pp. 45-69.

The scholarly article by Eisenberg discovers Wu Zetian’s becoming of an empress and enthronement. Focusing on factional agenda, the author states that the collaboration with the Tang general and courtier, Li Ji, among other things, played a great role. Buddhist relics and the extended tour of Bingzhou also discussed as essential points that led to Zetian’s ruling.

McMahon, Maureen. “Women Rulers in Imperial China”. Nan Nü, vol. 15, no. 2, pp. 179-218.

The author of this article discusses female rulers in China, paying special attention to Tang dynasty ruler Wu Zetian. Listing the key reasons for female ruling, the author notes the death of emperor-husband, regency, and strong character. This source helps to understand what was done during Zetian’s ruling, including her own methods of legitimization and political approach.

Peng, Niya, et al. “Feminist Thinking in Late Seventh-Century China: A Critical Hermeneutics Analysis of the Case of Wu Zetian.” Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: An International Journal, vol. 34, no. 1, 2015, pp. 67-83.

The author discovers the life of Wu Zetian and concludes that her activities are of proto-feminist nature in terms of gender equality, politics, and woman power. The value of this article lies in the fact that it presents the mentioned ruler from the perspective of feminism.

Rui-fang, F. A. N. Legend Biography Literary Journal Selection, vol. 11, no. 1, 2012, Web.

This source examines Wu Zetian as a feminist who was one of the first women holding the throne and succeeding in ruling the whole country. The author believes that despite male domination, the empress made a great contribution to China’s affairs and proved to be not inferior to men.

Yi, J. I. A. “Transformations of Woman’s Social Status in China.” Annals for Istrian and Mediterranean Studies Series Historia et Sociologia, vol. 2, no. 1, 2015, pp. 317-327.

The change in the status of Chinese women is the key theme of the article by Yi. The author attempts to clarify the role of Zetian in the improvement of social status and claims that she made a significant contribution to it. Also, the article includes the key reasons of how and why Wu Zetian achieved success in terms of male chauvinism.

Overall Discussion / Contribution

The sources that were used in this paper are rather important to understand how Wu Zetian became the emperor during the period of male chauvinism. They clarify the background of that times when only male rulers were in the head of the country, thus promoting inequality and male domination. The identified sources enlighten the mentioned topic from different angles. In particular, they focus on biography, family background, feminist attitudes, and Wu Zetian’s attitudes towards politics and religion. In general, they help to answer the research question in an appropriate manner and integrate the arguments to compose a well-designed essay. Therefore, the identified sources a rather useful for this paper as they provide the review of Wu Zetian from different perspectives.

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