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Wu Zhao: The First and Only Female Emperor of China Essay (Critical Writing)

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Updated: Dec 27th, 2021

When one thinks of China it is easy to conjure images of an ancient Kingdom that is so sophisticated it can easily rival those that are found in Europe. In fact, one can even argue that the empires built by different Chinese dynasties are far more advanced than even European kingdoms that belong in medieval times. This can provide a picture of the kind of power, wealth, and influence wielded by Chinese emperors. This is also the reason why the idea of a female Chinese emperor is so intriguing. Wu Zhao is not only a compelling historical figure to study because of her gender but also because of the circumstances that surrounded her ascendancy to the throne plus the fact that she was not of noble birth. Wu Zhao’s life and twenty year reign acts as a prism to breakdown the complexity of ancient China, its culture, people groups, and religion. More importantly her life is also a rich source of information regarding the struggle of women to achieve equality in a world dominated by men.

Background

Before analyzing the book it is important to understand how the author, N. Harry Rothschild, researched the life and times of Wu Zhao. After reading the introductory part of the book the reader felt that Rothschild did an excellent job because of three things that he did. First, he was very thorough, meaning he did not rely on one source. He gathered as much information as he can. For example, he used three main sources: Old Tang History a month-by-monthy account of significant events; New Tang History written many centuries after her reign; and the Comprehensive Mirror, these are court chronicles recorded between 648 to 705, and contains commentaries (Rothschild, p. x).

The second reason why Rothschild was effective is because he understood the motives of those who prepared historical documents. Those who wrote the documents at the time when Wu Zhao was still on the throne will understandably write great things about her and would even tend to exaggerate her accomplishments. On the other hand later historians who tried to write about her reign can be suspected as being biased especially if they have an agenda to influence how the people should think about the significance of having a female emperor. In this regard the author sources such as The Complete Anthology of Tang Poetry that allowed him to understand a bit more how Wu Zhao thought about her role in society through her poems (Rothschild, p. xii).

The third reason why Rothschild was effective is based on the fact that he was able to see the big picture and he simply did not focus on the events that transpired in a short period of time. In this regard the author was able to see how the Empire expanded and as a result was able to connect with other cultures. The most significant result of cross-cultural activities is the arrival of Buddhism in China. For many centuries before Wu Zhao was born there was only one central ideology in China and it is Confucianism. This is the bedrock from which the Empire was built on and when Buddhism came this new religion allowed the kingdom to be more flexible when it comes to some of their views.

Historical Context

To say that Wu Zhao made an impact as the first woman emperor is an understatement. This is because during her time the idea that women must stay home to take care of domestic issues is prevalent all over the world. Even in modern societies there is still a great deal of evidence that women are considered as inferior to men. Even countries with high literacy rate where women have access to education and work opportunities it is very common to hear of stories of discrimination. There is something about the physical attributes of women that society finds them not capable of surviving in a man’s world. Considering the position of an emperor one can say that there is no other job that requires manhood as much as a ruler of a vast empire such as China.

To be emperor during the time of Wu Zhao does not only require administrative skills but also the ability to interact and lead an imperial court composed entirely of men. How can a woman do that if it is not a generally accepted practice to allow a woman to rule a patriarchal society such as China? But there is more challenges up ahead for Wu Zhao, an emperor is not only a good administrator the emperor must also be skilled when it comes to dealing with enemies within and outside the kingdom.

If this is not enough to break the spirit of an ambitious woman trying to become the first female emperor one has also to consider additional obstacles that Wu Zhao had to deal with in her ascent to the throne. First, she was not a member of the aristocracy. Although she was the daughter of a wealthy lumber merchant who later on became a government official it must be pointed out that she was the second daughter from a second marriage. Thus, the author stated that before she rose to prominence no one really knew her name and even worse where she came from. In other words women of her social status were given no special attention making her rise to power truly amazing. If this is not enough to discourage an average woman, there is a need to emphasize that she started as a fifth-ranked concubine to emperor Tang Taizong, the father of his future husband crown prince Gaozong. And to make it more complicated Gaozong was already married to a woman who is a member of aristocracy (Rothschild, p. 3).

Confucius and Women in China

The circumstances surrounding Wu Zhao and the fact that she came from humble origins made it almost impossible unthinkable for her to rise to the top. But if you add another factor to the equation you can see that the ideas from Confucianism are a major obstacle to her rise to power. This is what the author pointed out:

In a deep rooted Confucian tradition that existed for better than a millennium by the time this second Wu daughter was born in the early seventh century ‘men were venerated and women denigrated.’ In family temples, male ancestors were esteemed far more highly than their female counterparts. Filial piety, loyalty, benevolence, and righteousness – all paramount Confucian virtues – were characteristics more easily possessed by men … Women were considered, by nature, to be emotionally volatile, lascivious, willful, jealous, and lazy. In Chinese writing, many characters that contain the element for woman have negative meanings (Rothschild, p. 4).

Wu Zhao was not only up against society in general who may look down on her status and her being a concubine of a former emperor but she was also against the high-officials and men of renown who are fanatical students of Confucianism. In their mind it is impossible to consider a weak-hearted and morally bankrupt woman to rule the throne of China. As a result Wu Zhao had to fight them off from the time she was chosen as the new empress to the time she was reigning as the first female emperor. It was a costly struggle that did not end when she died. In fact after her reign those who continue to venerate past ancestors and the former glory of the Tang dynasty wanted nothing more than to erase her mark in Chinese history.

Outer Court, Inner Court, and Wu Zhao

Part of the reason that Wu Zhao became highly successful in her climb from obscurity to the throne can be explain by how the people around her underestimated her capability, experience, and background. One has to remember that she was not born poor and that her mother was of noble birth and therefore gave her access to learning the classics (Rothschild, p. 19) When it was time for Wu Zhao to be taught her mother Madame Yang poured all that she had into her so by the time Wu Zhao was about to become a concubine she was no ordinary girl in that harem.

She spent many years in the harem with very little contact with the outside world but she was not like the others who gave up hope that their lives will simply be like that. She learned how to survive inside the harem and was carefully observing the politics that exist within the harem. She befriended the women there and in due time she was able to form alliances with them. This was of great help to her when it was time for her to become empress and later on to become the emperor of China.

Wu Zhao was not only talented she was also very beautiful. This allowed her to be noticed by the emperor. Because of her beauty and charm she was reassigned to take care of the Crown Prince. This gave her the opportunity to develop a more intimate relationship with the Crown Prince and when it was time for him to ascend the throne she made sure that the empress that will stand by his side is not his current wife but Wu Zhao. The new empress was no match for her because she had no idea that Wu Zhao already prepared a long time ago by understanding how the harem works and how the whole system works and so she was ready.

Wu Zhao’s love for the emperor and the emperor’s love for her gave her the confidence to convince other high officials to take her side and support her. They knew that the new emperor would do everything in his power to keep Wu Zhao and so they went along with his plan to depose the former empress and replace her with a former concubine from humble origins.

Buddhism and Daoism

The Tang Dynasty was so successful that it was able to expand to places as far as outer edges of Korea and Persia. The Silk Road that provided a trading route for merchants also became some sort of an “information superhighway” where ideas were transported from other parts of the world into China. One of the most significant is Buddhism. It is a religion that speaks about the evils of the flesh. But as time passes by Buddhism spread from India to Central Asia and then to China and then it became more tolerant to women (Rothschild, p. 16) According to the author, “As the doctrine of emptiness advanced some sects argued that distinctions between men and women, like all polarities, were ultimately meaningless (Rothschild, p. 16) Buddhism therefore became popular in China as the Tang dynasty began to change the political and cultural landscape and Wu Zhao was in the right place and the right time to desire to rise up high above other women.

Daoism also played a major part because in this system of philosophy everything has a yin and yang. If there is man then there is woman. This paved the way for Wu Zhao to be treated as the equal of the emperor. From that point on she was very close to the throne and the empire was used to seeing her officiating like an emperor.

Ascension, Factions, and the Zhang Brothers

Wu Zhao was a very powerful, ruthless, and brilliant emperor. But in her old age she began to see her empire crumbling until finally when she was in her eighties it was taken away from her. If the one who succeeded her was not her son then she would have been killed. But it turns out that the coup plotters chose their leader to be the son of Wu Zhao and because of that they could not kill her. There were three major factors that led to her fall. First, there was a need for a successor. Secondly, in her old age she wanted to be with two beautiful men known as the Zhang brothers. Third, the fabrication of lies by the Zhang brothers and the preference of Wu Zhao to hand over the throne to the Wu clan created division within the empire and members of the imperial court rebelled against Wu Zhao.

First, there was a need for a successor. It is for the good of the empire that a peaceful transition of power can be made before her demise. Wu Zhao was getting old and weak and therefore they needed to stabilize the empire before her death. Aside from that it must be pointed out that Wu Zhao changed the Tang dynasty to Zhou dynasty and therefore there were loyalists from the Tang dynasty who wanted to change the empire back to what it once was (Rothschild, p. 182) But Wu Zhao wanted the throne to be passed on to a member of the Wu clan and not from someone who came from the Li clan.

Second, she was infatuated with the Zhang brothers. The only problem is that their immaturity greatly influenced the affairs of the empire. There were reports of debauchery and other inappropriate activities that they initiated within the imperial palace and these actions affected the morale of the officials who were trained in Confucianism. The presence of the Zhang brothers made Wu Zhao look inept and unable to control her empire.

And the third reason is factionalism within the imperial court that encouraged many to rise up against her rule. The urgency to establish a clear line of succession as well as the jealousy and anger felt by many officials concerning the Zhang brothers was the main reason for their rebellion. Wu Zhao was no longer able to rally her ministers to support her vision because frankly they do not believe that she was leading them to the right direction.

Wu Zhao’s reign and who benefited from it

Rothschild wanted to show the reader that he is an objective historian and careful not to judge Wu Zhao based on her gender. The author was quick to point out that later historians who were loyal to the Confucian ideals tried to discredit Wu Zhao and therefore accused them of fabricating stories to make her appear like she was an evil woman, ruthless, lascivious and all the negative things that ancient men used to accuse women. However, one has to consider that Rothschild wanted Wu Zhao to be seen in a favorable light. It can be argued that the author wanted to take her side and that he is happy that she has become emperor. In other words Rothschild is biased towards the feminist side of the argument and therefore he tried to soften the image of Wu Zhao

Rothschild was partly correct because there were inconsistencies in some of the historical documents (Rothschild, p. 210) Nevertheless, it must also be pointed out that it would have been impossible for Wu Zhao to ascend to the throne based on her credentials. How can a low ranked concubine of a dead emperor marry a crown prince and be considered as the new empress by displacing another who is of noble birth? Therefore one has to concede that she was a schemer and would use dirty tactics to get what she wants.

Rothschild spent time dealing with the negative impact of her reign but he should have given more information regarding the disastrous result of her reign. The people were hungry while Wu Zhao continued to build summer retreats and palaces without thinking that many of her people were suffering. If this was not the case then there should be no uprising that finally booted her out of the throne room. The anger of the officials and future leaders who inherited a weak kingdom was justified she was not a good emperor except only in one thing that she allowed the women in China to realize that they do not need to be subservient to men. But her ruthlessness and mistakes also strengthened the belief of Confucian fanatics that women should not rule.

If one will take the side of Rothschild then he can also conclude that Wu Zhao brought change into China. It can also be said that although she supported Confucianism she was also instrumental in bringing in new ideas such as reverence to Buddhism and Daoism. Her actions and her example forced many to consider the way they view and treat women.

However, if one will take the side of the critics then there is no one who benefited from her reign except Wu Zhao and her clan, the Wu family. Her reign was marked with scheming, slander, murder, torture, and bitterness. She will never forget a grudge and although she became the most powerful person in her empire it was hard to point out if there were others outside her family who truly loved her for who she is and not because they fear her wrath.

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