The Empress Wu Hou – China’s Only Female Ruler

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Empress Wu

Wu Hou, China’s only female ruler, is one of the most remarkable women ever to have lived. The daughter of an official, she entered the palace of the emperor T’ai Tsung at the age of 13 in the year 638 CE (AD) as a minor servant. She subsequently rose through a series of violent political intrigues to become the dominant force in the empire and eventually its declared ruler. Subsequent accounts of her life and reign have been clouded by her undoubted cruelty and the dissipation and debauchery of the latter part of her reign – and also by misogyny, since her history has frequently been written by men somewhat jealous of what a woman achieved. In reality, Wu Hou’s reign combined successful and expansive foreign policy with changes to the administration of the country which reduced the influence of the military aristocratic class and conferred it on the bureaucratic scholarly class, thereby widening the basis of government.

Wu Hou’s Rise to Power

Little is known of Wu Hou’s early life. This is not surprising since little attention is customarily paid in histories to those who appear to be playing minor roles. We do know that on the death of the emperor T’ai Tsung she was, as was customary, removed from the palace with the emperor’s other servants and installed in a Buddhist nunnery. This nunnery was later visited by the new emperor, Kao Tsung and she took the opportunity to establish a relationship with him, successfully so since Wu Hou returned to the imperial palace in Chang’an with the emperor.

Kao Tsung was a weak and sickly young man and it was not long before he was dominated completely by Wu Hou, now his favourite concubine. It is said that Wu Hou murdered her own newborn daughter and then accused the Empress (Kao Tsung’s wife Wang) of the crime. In any case, Wu Hou succeeded Wang in the position of official consort of the emperor. On the death of Kao Tsung, Wu Hou managed to retain her power through forcing the abdication of the next two emperors – Chung Tsung and Jui Tsung – and taking the precaution of having Wang’s arms and legs amputated and her body thrown into a vat. Jui Tsung lasted six years but was very rarely seen in public and kept a virtual prisoner in the innermost parts of the imperial palace. In 690, Wu Hou had herself crowned as the Emperor of China. Her reign lasted for 15 years.

Ultimately, she was undone by the corrupting effects of ultimate power – as was true of so many other emperors – and in 705 her current favourites – the decadent flatterer Chang brothers – were murdered in an outbreak of widespread public hostility. Unable to protect her favourites, Wu Hou abdicated the next day and returned to her bed to die.

Wu Hou’s Policies

During the period of Wu Hou’s ascendancy, China was ruled by the T’ang Dynasty. The T’ang Dynasty period for China was one of considerable expansion and development of cultural and governmental institutions. Wu Hou was an integral part of these developments. China made conquests against Korea in the east and the Arabs in the west. This expansion increased imperial revenues and power internationally and this was supplemented by measures taken by Wu Hou to strengthen imperial power internally and to satisfy popular needs.

In part, her reforms reflected the need she had to support her own particular position: for example, her movement of the imperial capital to the “Holy City” of Loyang resulted from the desire to wrest power from the historical military aristocracy of northwestern China and transfer it to the southern regions from which she had risen. Similarly, her sponsorship of Buddhism and her increasing reliance on Buddhist mysticism resulted from the greater status accorded to women by Buddhism, especially compared to that of the Confucianists who opposed her right as a woman to rule.

Wu Hou’s Qualities and Achievement

It is clear that Wu Hou was a woman of her time: the acts of violence that she employed are typical of contemporary imperial intrigues, even if she seems to have brought a certain gusto and inventiveness to the process which has distinguished her efforts.

More positively, she is characterised by her determination to succeed in the face of considerable difficulties and the excellence of her judgment of the characters of individuals who were to serve her. The formalisation of the examination system helped in the promotion of meritocracy in the country and in expanding the economic and social opportunities available to people throughout China. It is no coincidence that the Tang Dynasty enjoyed a golden period during the reigns of her successors, in which the flowering of culture and the arts represents one of the great achievements of humanity.

Sources

  1. Ebrey, Patricia Buckley, China: Cambridge Illustrated History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).
  2. Gernet, Jacques, A History of Chinese Civilisation, second edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982).
  3. Paludan, Ann, Chronicle of the Chinese Emperors (London: Thames and Hudson, 1998).
  4. Roberts, J.A.G., China: Prehistory to the Nineteenth Century, revised edition (Stroud: Alan Sutton Publishing Ltd., 2000).
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