China lays claim to over five thousand years of history, eleven major dynasties and only one female emperor by the name of Wu Tse-Tien. An amazing feat by any measure, her life is a fascinating but fractured tale. And although many historians of the period did not look favorably upon Wu Tse-Tien and could arguably not be trusted to accurately depict her ascension to power or the manner in which she ruled, the following story still remains an alarming combination of history, speculation, and legend.

At the age of 14 Wu Chao-i, as she was then known, became a concubine of Emperor Tai-tsung. It is rumored that the emperor heard of her beauty and called her to the palace, but she was generally ignored once she arrived. So when Tai-tsung died, she was sent to a convent with the rest of his concubines in accordance with tradition. Yet it is believed that during her stay at the palace she cultivated a relationship with the Crown Prince Kao-tsung, and when he became emperor he arranged for her to be brought back. Another interesting rumor of her return states that it was the childless Empress Wang that called Wu Chao-i back to the palace to distract the emperor from another rival concubine -- a plan that completely backfired.

Whatever the basis for her return, Wu Chao-i came back to the palace armed with an ambitious and ruthless plan. Intending to discredit both the Empress Wang and the rival concubine, she bribed servants to spy on them, summarily slandered them, and may have even killed her own baby, arguing to the emperor that Empress Wang did it out of jealousy. In either case, Wu effectively promoted herself over both Empress Wang and the competition, winning the love of Kao-tsung in the process. She bore him two sons, and soon became his open favorite. In 654, he sought ministerial approval to make her the new empress.

It took two years to accomplish, but Wu Chao-i finally became Empress Wu and quickly took advantage of her position. She arranged to have the five opponents of her ascension to Empress brought up on criminal charges. In her calculated vengeance, she had the hands and feet of Empress Wang and the rival concubine cut off, finally drowning them in a wine barrel.

His wife’s unusual -- if not sometimes cruel -- talents did not go unrecognized by Kao-tsung, and for the next 27 years until his death, Empress Wu had a hand in all of his decisions. Popularly regarded as the Two Sages, they worked as a team, with Empress Wu sitting behind a curtain and eavesdropping on everything regarding the governance of their territory as the emperor attended to business. It is argued, however, that all important decisions lay in her hands alone.

During her husband’s reign, Empress Wu presented the emperor with a twelve-part report on government improvement, almost all of which were implemented to some degree and helped her gain popular support. They included lowering taxes, opening reserved land for cultivation, economizing on public works, bestowing more suitable rewards on servants of the state and promotions for those imprisoned in their low rank with no one to recommend them. One of her more forward-thinking policies allowed commoners to inform the palace of corrupt officials and merchants.

But there were also several suspicious deaths surrounding Empress Wu, and most thought her to be their cause or influence. A niece of the empress, who the emperor wished to make his concubine, died after a fit of convulsions during a banquet held by her mother; Wu’s first son, the Crown Prince Hung, also died at a young age. When the next Crown Prince, Hsien, failed to follow the advice of one of his secretaries, the empress had a formal inquiry made into his affairs. Several hundred suits of armor were found and reported as treason, and the empress eventually demoted Hsien to commoner and exiled him -- he committed suicide shortly afterward.

But once Emperor Kao-tsung died, the balance of power shifted again -- there were now two sons that stood between Wu Tse-tien and the Emperor’s throne. Chung-tsung, Wu’s third son who became Emperor in 684, married a formidable woman with plans to raise her family’s status. When questioned about the unlawful appointment of Chung-tsung wife’s father, he asked who could stop him if he wanted to hand over the empire to his wife. Empress Wu took his statement literally, charged him with treasonable intent and had him forcibly removed from the throne. When the next in line, Jui-tsung, was unprepared to take over, the Empress declared he had a speech impediment, sent him to a detached palace and spoke on behalf of him.

Finally ruling as Empress Dowager, Wu Tse-tien still encountered some major obstacles on her road to power, including numerous revolts, one of which, led by an unhappy minister named Li Ching-yeh, she quelled in three months. Once in complete power, she made numerous changes, including the names of palaces, as well as the colors of the banners and insignias of the officials’ robes. She created a dozen new characters in the language, and spread Buddhism throughout her ruling ideology, gaining favor with the large population of Buddhist commoners, and capitalizing on the Buddhist belief that the messiah would be reborn as a woman to legitimize her position.

In 690, Wu Tse-tien completed her successful takeover, making herself emperor and established the Chou dynasty, ruling successfully until 705 when her son Chung-tsung returned, deposed her and reinstated the Tang dynasty. She died within the year, her 80th.

Wu Tse-tien left her mark in language as well as history: during her time as Empress Dowager, she created a new character for her name, the top portion reading “eyes,” the lower reading “empty” -- together they represent her as one that sees over everything while everything below remains empty. It is one that is still recognized and taught in school, but is never used except in reference to her name.

© Melt Magazine 2001