Child Concubine to self-proclaimed Supreme Ruler
And readers... she seriously was quite a piece of work.
China's First and Only Female Emperor.
China's First and Only Female Emperor.
Name: Wu Chao was known by several names throughout her fascinating life including Wu Zetian , Wu Hou (武后) and Tian Hou (天后)
Childhood: Wu Chao was the daughter of a Chinese General Wu Shi Huo, and supported Li Yuan who eventually became the First Tang Dynasty Emperor Gaozu. As a result, her father became the Emperor's Minister which resulted in Wu Chao being given an excellent education. She was highly literate, clever and well read. She did not have much interest in sewing and other traditionally feminine pursuits. She travelled extensively with her parents and as a result had a greater understanding of the world and its mechinations than many girls of her time. Much of her warlike temperament and skills as a tactician are said to have been inherited from her father.
Adolescence: Due to her talent, beauty and privileged position, she caught the eye of her mother's cousin, an Imperial Concubine who supplied 'the little lotus blossoms' (child concubines) to the then Emperor Taizong. She spoke to the Emperor about Wu Chao, and naturally he insisted she become his concubine. Thus, at the age of thirteen, Wu became one of the Emperor's Consorts and he refered to her as Mei (媚) - which meant pretty. She was given the title Cairen which meant 5th ranking concubine.
Wu Chao's mother was apparently unhappy with her young daughter joining the concubines, however and wept when her daughter left. As testament to her inner strength and political ambitions, Wu Chao responded "How do you know that it is not my fortune to meet the Son of Heaven?" - and with that, her mother understood that her daughter had ambitions beyond those of an ordinary child concubine.
It appears that the Emperor did have sexual relations with Wu Chao, but he wasn't particularly interested in her.
There is an interesting story however, that tells of the Emperor's particularly wild and untameable stallion. He jokingly suggested that perhaps he get a concubine to try and train the beast. To this, Wu Chao responded that she could tame the horse, but she would need three things...
"I only need three things to subordinate it: an iron whip, an iron hammer, and a sharp dagger. I will whip it with the iron whip. If it does not submit, I will hammer its head with the iron hammer. If it still does not submit, I will cut its throat with the dagger." Emperor Taizong praised my bravery. Do you really believe that you are qualified to dirty my dagger?
From these words, it became apparent that the Emperor's little 'Mei' wasn't so little or gentle after all - and she was one to keep an eye on. They also foreshadowed some of the brutal and disturbing incidents that would take place later in her life.
Young Adulthood: Little of note happened for several years until Emperor Taizong died in 649, when Wu Chao was 26. He left behind 14 sons (though none to Wu Chao). As was custom the concubines of deceased Emperors were sent to monasteries to live out their lives as nuns. Wu Chao was no different, and thus became a nun at the Ganye Temple.
Wu Chao was very unhappy with this quiet dull life, and one day, Emperor Taizong's son, the 2nd Emperor of Tang - Gaozong came to pray for his father at the temple.
Wu Chao saw him, and started crying - and for whatever reason (I think you can guess) he took pity on her and brought her back to the Palace. This is really quite scandalous because having relations with your father's concubines was considered incest... However, this didn't seem to both Wu Chao or her Emperor - but it did bother some other people.
Back at the Palace, the Empress Wang and another concubine Lady Xiao were at war trying to oust each other. Empress Wang thought that Wu Chao may be an ally for her and together they could oust Lady Xiao. However, Wu Chao had the Emperor on her mind, and made sure he was madly in love with her. Empress Wang realised then, that they had perhaps brought a viper into the nest, and so she then allied herself with her previous nemesis Lady Xiao and tried to sabotage Wu Chao's position in the palace.
Emperor Gaozong was having none of this. He was in love. He would hear no nonsense being spoken about his beloved Wu Chao.
So begins a vicious and bloody battle for power behind the silk veiled walls of the Palace.
In 651 and 652 Wu Chao gives birth to two sons, who are not in direct line to the throne due to an arrangement the childless Empress Wang had made with her uncle (Liu Shi).
The backstabbing and intrigue continues and heightens in 654 when Wu Chao gives birth to a daughter who mysteriously dies of strangulation shortly after. Wu Chao alleges to the Emperor that it was Empress Wang and Lady Xiao who had organised the murder of their newborn daughter (though... horribly many historians suspect that Wu Chao may indeed have committed the crime herself to frame her rivals.) However, Empress Wang and Lady Xiao were not deposed due to complicated political arrangements.
The following year however, Wu Chao alleged that Empress Wang was using witchcraft with her mother. A lot of political bickering followed, but eventually the Emperor placed Empress Wang and Lady Xiao under arrest. Amidst much scandle, Wu Chao was made Empress!
Eventually, Empress Wu had Empress Wang and Lady Xiao killed - and quite horribly too. They were whipped over a hundred times and had their hands and feet chopped off. When Lady Xiao was dying she cursed Wu Chao 'When I am reincarnated, I'll come back as a cat - and you will be a rat! Subject to my torture!'. Allegedly she was haunted by these words the rest of her life - and refused to allow cats in court.
Adulthood as the Empress Consort: Empress Wu had work to do. Her first thing done was to place her son as heir apparent and depose the man Empress Wang and her uncle had chosen.
A man called Chu Suiliang went to the Emperor to try and talk some sense into him. He wanted to warn the Emperor that Wu Chao was wicked, and that it was wrong to have the former Empress deposed and then killed, not to mention the amorality of having relations with one's father's concubine - and while he ranted, the Empress Wu was listening.
The Emperor was angry that Chu Suiliang was defaming his love, and had him punished. Empress Wu didn't think this was good enough, and said that Chu Suiliang should die for his slander - he was not killed, but demoted and sent away. Eventually and suspiciously however, he later commited suicide.
Empress Wu starts getting nasty....
During the next few years, the majority of the Emperor's supportive ministers died or were killed. A state of fear hung over the palace and during her young adulthood has six children.
Empress Wu appears to have completely dominated the Emperor, who seemed completely unable to
Of course, Wu Chao found out and was very cross indeed. Only a few days later Shangguan Yi was accused of plotting a rebellion and put to death with his two sons. The remainder of his family and decendants were forced into slavery at the palace.
Now Empress Wu had even MORE power and she wasn't afraid to use it. Eventually she became regent, and ruled in lieu of her husband.
When her ailing husband eventually died, she placed her son as Emperor, but retained her position as Empress Doweger.
Although she was utterly brutal against her rivals, Empress Wu did some fascinating things.
- She recruited talented individuals from around China to come to the palace and take places amongst her staff. These individuals were not necessarily from high ranking families, but people with genuine talent whether it be for literature of military tactics. As she chose from those who were not traditionally chosen for positions of prestige she gathered very loyal people around her.
- She promoted Buddhism to the dominant religion. Her type of Buddhism was a tolerant one and it encouraged people of different religions to come and trade with China. It also gave her the support of a lot of Buddhist who saw her as the legitimate ruler.
- She encouraged agriculture: by reclaiming land to set up a system that rewarded areas that were able to produce surplus crops. The officials who governed regions that had too many people or little food would be punished. She also re-distributed land and offered able-bodied people more so they could enhance production. The officials who governed productive areas were rewarded and thus it was encouragement to grow enough food for trade, and the people of the region too.
- She made allies. Unlike most Emperors of the time, Empress Wu was more interested in trade than conquering. So instead of battling for territory she sent out traders to makes allies of the neighbours which resulted in an enormous boost of wealth to the Tang Dynasty.
For a time, Empress Wu reigned from behind her sons - and this was not a tidy system either. Ultimately she ends up using her son's against each other - and she forces at least one of them to commit suicide...
Emperor Wu - till death:Then finally sick of ruling from behind a man, she names herself Emperor and was Supreme Ruler for fifteen years until her death. During this time she had a team of secret police who would brutally suppress any who spoke against her.
As the Emperor she also had quite a number of lovers, one of whom allegedly had quite a spectacular appendage 'which was worth more than the kingdom' to her.
Eventually, the Emperor became sick and died in 705.
There is a lot of contention about Wu Chao, she is alternately praised and vilified by historians world wide.
The year that Lady Wu declared herself regent, heroic individuals were all mournful of the unfortunate turn of events, worried that the dynasty would fall, and concerned that they could not repay the grace of the deceased emperor [i.e., Emperor Gaozong] and protect his sons. Soon thereafter, great accusations arose, and many innocent people were falsely accused and stuck their necks out in waiting for execution. Heaven and earth became like a huge cage, and even if one could escape it, where could he go? That was lamentable. In the past, the trick of covering the nose surprised the realm in its poisonousness, and the disaster of the human pig caused the entire state to mourn. In order to take over as empress, Empress Wu strangled her own infant daughter; her willingness to crush her own flesh and blood showed how great her viciousness and vile nature was, although this is nothing more than what evil individuals and jealous women might do. However, she accepted the words of righteousness and honored the upright. Although she was like a hen that crowed, she eventually returned the rightful rule to her son. She quickly dispelled the accusation against Wei Yuanzhong, comforted Di Renjie with kind words, respected the will of the times and suppressed her favorites, and listened to honest words and ended the terror of the secret police officials. This was good, this was good. Liu Xu, the lead editor of the Book of Tang
"Wu Zetian (690–705) was an extraordinary woman, attractive, exceptionally gifted, politically astute and an excellent judge of men. With single minded determination, she overcame the opposition of the Confucian establishment through her own efforts, unique among palace women by not using her own family.
Her rise to power was steeped in blood...." Ann Paludan
"To the horror of traditional Chinese historians, all members of the shih class, the continued success of the T'ang was in large measure due to an ex-concubine who finally usurped the throne itself....Though she was ruthless towards her enemies, the period of her ascendency was a good one for China. Government was sound, no rebellions occurred, abuses in the army and administration were stamped out and Korea was annexed, an achievement no previous Chinese had ever managed." Yong Yap Cotterell and Arthur Cotterell.
"China's only woman ruler, Empress Wu was a remarkably skilled and able politician, but her murderous and illicit methods of maintaining power gave her a bad reputation among male bureaucrats. It also fostered overstaffing and many kinds of corruption." John King Fairbank.I have obviously omitted massive portions of information about this amazing, horrifying and impressive woman - because otherwise I'd need to write a thesis.
If you'd like to read more about her here are some links and books that I've used in my research.
Cross, R., Miles, R., (2011) Warrior Women, Quercus Press, London.
Next time on Warrior Women we'll be looking at
Mochizuki Chiyome - Ninja and Dark Heart of the Samurai