Alexandra Dumitru, Asha Isaacs, Journey Maranto2nd periodEmpress Wu Hou
Empress of Tang Dynasty China 690-705 BC

In the relatively free periods of the diverse and cultured Tang era, a woman ruled, Wu Zetain, also known as empress Wu, Wu Chao or Wu Hou. She was the only woman to ever hold the throne in the patriarchal, Confucian society of the Post Classical Era. She was an effective, and some argue, an autocratic and stern ruler.

Early Life

Empress Wu was born in 625, amid the liberated periods of the Tang Era. During this period, women were not restricted to their household. The Tang period featured many powerful and educated women. So, it’s no small wonder that Empress Wu was taught to write, read and play music. At the age of 13, she was enlisted into the royal court of Emperor Taizong (also known as Emperor Tai Tsang.) Empress Wu was noted for her beauty and brilliance, and soon became Gaozong’s (Kao Tsung), Emperor Taizong’s son, favorite concubine.

Wu was 27 years old. She gave birth to the sons Emperor Gaozong wanted. She abolished Gaozong’s current wife by blaming her for the murder of Wu’s newborn daughter. Gaozong believed Wu's lies and replaced his old wife with the ruthless Empress Wu. Emperor Gaozong experienced a stroke that led him to completely depend on Wu. She took over the administrative duties and created a secret police force to keep a close watch on her opponents. By 660, Wu eradicated all her opponents and even some of her family members through bloodthirsty methods, such as execution and poisoning. When her husband died, Wu positioned her youngest, weakest son into power and, through him, Empress Wu began to wield power equal to that of an Emperor.

Her Reign as Empress

Wu’s youngest son withdrew himself from office in 690 and soon after Wu finally had complete control of the dynasty. After a long climb to the top, a trail of bodies in her wake, Empress Wu Hou reached her ultimate goal as Empress and sole ruler of Tang China from 690-705BC from the ages of 65-80. In contrast with her bloody and sometime immoral rise to power, Wu ruled with considerable wisdom and efficiency. She made many reforms that improved the life of her subjects. She cut down the military budget and improved agricultural production. She rewarded administrators who improved agriculture in their areas and punished those who imposed unfair tax on peasants. She also spread military administration to northwest China, where the Silk Road had been restored after the era of division and nomadic rule following the end of the Han Dynasty. Tang was in a golden age of peace and prosperity. The economy thrived under her rule, as did education. She helped the Keju Education System, originating in the Sui Dynasty, to further develop. She was also a huge supporter of Buddhism. She had large amounts of money dedicated in improving monasteries and provided Buddhist companies with grants of land. She commissioned several Buddhist paintings and sculptures as well. This was all in an effort to eclipse Confucianism and Taoism, and elevate Buddhism to state religion level. Some may speculate that Wu favored Buddhism over Confucianism because of its strict patriarchal views, which would have obviously conflicted with her own. Wu also had policies that promoted a more durable Chinese government with a scholarly bureaucracy. She tried to reduce the power of military aristocratic men by replacing them with scholars. Under her rule, those who wanted government positions had to take exams. This helped to establish a precedent for the future exam systems of later Dynasties, such as in the Song Era. Overall, Wu’s time in the throne of the Emperor had a positive effect on China.
Buddhist Stupas in Myanmar. These are similar to the ones Empress Wu had commissioned.

End of Rule and Death

In 705, after 15 years of ruling, Empress Wu became very ill. She gave the throne to her third son and was buried with her husband in the Qianling Tomb. After death, although her influence was less direct, it still remained a high point of cultural growth in Chinese culture.
It is apparent that women had very little influence in a society based on Confucianism, but Empress Wu was an exception. After her death, women had higher positions of power in their society, household, and sometimes government. The government remained strong after her rule because it was highly based on almost exclusively the scholar-gentry. The economy was in a good place because agriculture was run well. Most of these changes, however, were just temporary. Women’s role in society dropped once again under Neo-Confucianism, and Empress Wu’s great influence faded.The government fluctuated between highs and lows as various emperors took the Chinese throne. The scholar-gentry remained strong, Empress Wu was part of, but not the sole the reason this happened.
Empress Wu was also perhaps one of the greatest supporters of Buddhism China had ever known. She successfully made Buddhism a state religion over Daoism and patronized many Buddhist causes. Sculptures Empress Wu commissioned can still be seen today, and could even be two or three stories high. By the mid-9th century, well after Empress Wu’s death in 705, Buddhism had hundreds of thousands of monks and nuns in China, and there were nearly 50,000 monasteries.Although there was a Buddhist backlash that followed this spread of Buddhism, if it had not been for Empress Wu, Buddhism may have been completely abolished by other rulers. Because of the influence of Empress Wu, Buddhism endured and remains a prevalent religion in China today. The rule of Empress Wu was a high point in history for Chinese women during times where males dominated society.

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  5. Picture of Stupas: Stupas at Pagan." Image. iStockPhoto. World History: Ancient and Medieval Eras. ABC-CLIO, 2012. Web. 8 Feb. 2012.