Encyclopedia Womannica

Leaders: Wu Zetian

Episode Summary

Wu Zetian (624-705) was the only female emperor in the history of China. Though she implemented major reforms, expanded Chinese territory and increased trade during her time on the throne, she is remembered as one of China’s most controversial rulers.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, and Grace Lynch. Special thanks to Shira Atkins and Edie Allard.

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

Today’s Leader is the only female emperor in the history of China. Though she implemented major reforms, expanded Chinese territory and increased trade during her time on the throne, she is remembered as one of China’s most controversial rulers. Let’s talk about Empress Wu Zetian.

Wu was born in Shanxi Province in 624. Her mother descended from a powerful family and her father served as a chancellor of the Tang Dynasty. Her family grew increasingly wealthy over the course of her childhood and Wu grew up in significant privilege.

Though it was very uncommon during this period for women to receive a formal education, Wu’s father insisted she break the norm. Wu learned to read and write, and was instructed in a variety of subjects including oratory, music, and poetry that were usually reserved for men.

Wu was also an exceptional beauty. When she was just 14 years old, she moved to the royal court to become one of the concubines of Emperor Taizong. 

Wu was first given a job working in the laundry. When the emperor realized that his new concubine was both educated and quite brilliant, he made her his personal secretary. This put Wu at the center of state affairs and increased her exposure to the politics and power players of the empire. 

During that period, Wu began an affair with the emperor’s son, Li Zhi. Though the two were apparently deeply in love, it was impossible for them to be together because Wu was a concubine of the emperor and Li Zhi was married. 

When the emperor died in 649 CE, he was succeeded by Li Zhi, who was known from then on as Gaozong.

In accordance with common practice, Wu and the other concubines of the deceased emperor were sent to a temple to live the rest of their lives as nuns. But  Gaozong was in love with Wu, and now as emperor could do what he pleased, he broke all conventions by immediately bringing her back and making her his premier consort. This did not please his wife.

Wu gave birth to two sons in quick succession, and then in 654 CE, she had a daughter. Soon after the baby’s birth though, the little girl was found strangled in her crib. Wu accused the emperor’s wife of murdering the baby out of jealousy, claiming she was the last one in the room. The accused was subsequently found guilty and exiled. 

Wu was then promoted to first wife and empress of China, and her sons became next in line for the throne. Interestingly, some later Chinese historians believed  Wu strangled her own baby and then framed the Emperor’s wife for the murder to get the wife out of the way. More modern historians, however, seem reluctant to draw that conclusion.

As empress, Wu was reserved in public. Still, it was common knowledge that she held real power. This troubled many of the emperor’s ministers and counselors who believed a woman holding such power upset the balance of nature. Shortly after she took the throne, an earthquake rocked the country shortly. The haters took  this as confirmation of their concerns. Wu disagreed with their assessment, and dealt harshly with those she saw as enemies.

By 660 CE, Wu’s husband had become ill and sight-impaired, so Wu took over the daily business of running the empire. She made all major decisions on her own, including a series of military campaigns on the Korean Peninsula. 

When the emperor died in 683 CE, Wu installed her eldest son on the throne. Unfortunately for him, he didn’t get along particularly well with his mother. He also had a wife with her own thirst for power. Wu eventually had her son charged with treason and exiled along with his wife.

Wu replaced her exiled first son with her second oldest son. He didn’t last long either, and was forced by his mother to abdicate in the year 690. 

With no sons left, Wu went ahead and took the throne herself. Adopting the name Emperor Zetian, she became the first and only woman to rule China alone and by her own authority. Her new chosen name, Zetian, means “Follower of the Heavens’ Laws.”

During her reign, Wu ruled with an iron fist, but also made much needed reforms and expanded both territory and trade in China. 

Wu overhauled the education system by standardizing teaching methods and creating a corps of professional teachers. She improved the system of agriculture by redistributing land more fairly, building irrigation ditches, and reforming the tax structure to reward yield. 

Wu also attempted to remove nepotism from military appointments, and instituted a program of required military exams to ensure that commanders were qualified to hold their positions. She even reopened the Silk Road trade route, which had been shut down by plague. 

But by 697, Wu was increasingly paranoid about those around her. She also spent most of her time with a series of young lovers rather than on governmental affairs. Though it was common for emperors to have a harem of young women at their beck and call, the public was outraged by Wu’s affairs, probably because of  her gender.

Wu’s paranoia eventually led to a court purge. Anybody she believed to be disloyal was either exiled or executed.

By 704 CE, remaining court officials had enough. They murdered her favorite lovers and forced Wu to abdicate in favor of her oldest son who she had previously exiled. 

Wu, who was already ill at the time of her abdication, died a year later in the year 705. 

She is buried in underneath a giant stone slab that later historians were meant to inscribe with the highlights of her rule. To this day, it remains blank. Despite the prosperity and progress she brought to her country, Wu is still seen by many as exclusively a villain.

As always, we’ll be taking a break for the weekend. Today is the final day of our month of Leaders. Tune in on Monday to hear the first episode of our brand new theme: Warriors.

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.

Talk to you tomorrow!