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Wu Zetian: a powerful woman from Chinese history

Wu Zetian was the powerful woman in the history of China, having made herself Emperor and then ruling a vast territory for 15 years. She was ruthless and cruel, when necessary, but also highly efficient and able to rule a contented populace with justice and benevolence.

Wu Zetian was born into a non-aristocratic family in 624 AD and entered the royal household as a serving maid, her job including changing the Emperor’s bedsheets. When the Emperor died she was sent to a Buddhist nunnery, but she escaped and returned to the palace as a concubine of Gaozong, the new Emperor.

She now began to develop the notion of reaching the very top, and had no compunctions about the methods she would use to get there. She started by killing the child she had given birth to, courtesy of the Emperor, and framed the Empress for the murder. The Empress was promptly exiled, leaving Wu Zetian in prime position.

There were other concubines, however, but these were disposed of by having their limbs cut off and their bodies drowned in a vat of wine. That – at least – is the story that has come down through history, but one also has to bear in mind that such stories are often told by people who wish to blacken reputations.

Be that as it may, Wu Zetian was now unrivalled, and she only had to wait for the Emperor and his sons to die before she declared herself to be Emperor, at the age of 65.

Her 15 year reign was not marked by any outstanding events, although she was able to counter threats from external forces and thus strengthen the Tang Dynasty.

Wu Zetian’s reputation, as mentioned above, suffered from criticism by others who resented her presence as a woman wielding supreme power. One cause of her unpopularity was that she encouraged the spread of Buddhism, which was a foreign import from India and was also more attuned to the spiritual needs of women.

However, the denigration went much further than that and included a decision by the Court not to mark her tomb with any record of her achievements, which is unlikely to have been the case had she been male.

Wu Zetian certainly appears to been a ruler one would not wish to get on the wrong side of, but that was also true of many Emperors throughout Chinese history who did not get such a bad posthumous press. The history of misogyny is extremely long.

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