The life and reign of the third emperor of the Tang Dynasty – and the consort who was to become China’s only female emperor.

Gaozong (K’ao-tsung) (628-83 CE) was the third emperor of China’s Tang Dynasty. He was the ninth son of the great Emperor Taizong and owed his accession to an accident of time and place as his elder brothers had become implicated in plots to overthrow the emperor or weak politically sidelined.

Since Gaozong, whose birth name was Li Zhi, was an indecisive individual who suffered from bouts of dizziness, it may be that this influenced his father’s choice of heir since, as he grew older, he became increasingly domineering and unwilling to accept opposition.

As emperor, climbing to the imperial throne in 649, Gaozong soon came under the influence of court officials and struggled to assert his independence for the course of his reign. Imperial policies continued in the same vein as those established by his father. The invasion of Korea continued amidst much slaughter, while Chinese forces allied with the Uighurs to defeat the Western Turks.

Central Asia was brought under some sort of control (although confrontation with the Tibetans and the Turks continued) and Chinese enforced rule over Kashmir in 661. The state’s power waxed and the crucial resource of horses was increased until state stud farms numbered 700,000 animals. Artisans and merchants were subsequently forbidden to ride horses, thereby saving them for military purposes.

Gaozong’s reign – and indeed the reigns of the next generation of emperors – is inextricably linked with the figure of Wu Zetian, the emperor’s favoured concubine who managed to supplant his other woman and became pre-eminent with the demotion and deaths of the Empress Wang and the Imperial Consort Xiao. Wu Zetian remains a controversial figure: she had first entered imperial service as a lowly concubine in Taizong’s reign, although there is little evidence as to whether or not he even was aware of her existence.

Wu was sent to a Buddhist nunnery on the death of Taizong but was subsequently recalled to court by Gaozong. According to legend, Wu Zetian smothered her own infant daughter and then successfully placed the blame on Empress Wang, securing her demotion and subsequent death as a result. Even so, she turned out to be a powerful and competent administrator, which role strengthened considerably when the emperor suffered a stroke in 660 when robbed him of most of his sight and mobility. Wu took ever greater control and purged those among the imperial court who dared to oppose her. Gaozong lived another 23 years in his reduced position and seems to have been able to do little other than obey his consort’s wishes.