A young girl named Mei-Niang (Sultry-Woman) known for her wit, intelligence, and beauty, was recruited to the court of Emperor Tai Tsung. She had been chosen to become one of the Emperor's hundreds of concubines in his court.
Years later she became Wu Zetian, the only female in Chinese history to rule as emperor. To some she was an autocrat, ruthless in her desire to gain and keep power. To others she, as a woman doing a "man's job," merely did what she had to do, and acted no differently than most male emperors of her day. They also note that she managed to effectively rule China during one of its more peaceful and culturally diverse periods.
The Tang dynasty (618-906 AD) was a time of relative freedom for women. They did not bind their feet nor lead submissive lives. It was a time in which a number of exceptional women contributed in the areas of culture and politics. So it is no surprise that Mei-Niang, born into a rich and noble family, was taught to play music, write, and read the Chinese classics.
She had been only 14 when she had entered his palace, and soon became his favorite concubine. But she also had eyes for his son, Kao Tsung. When the emperor died and Kao Tsung took over, Wu was now twenty-seven years old. The young woman was doomed to become a nun for the rest of her life. (In the patriarchal society, once a woman had served an emperor she could never marry another man again). All of his serving girls were sent to nunneries.
Mei-Niang?s future hinged on young emperor’s affection, who would try to get her back into the palace in two months. The court was a dangerous place, while Empress and another lady, Concubine Xiao, both vied for the Emperor’s affection.
In time she became a favorite concubine of the new emperor, giving birth to the sons he wanted. As mother of the future emperor of China, she grew in power. She managed to eliminate Kao Tsung’s wife, Empress Wang, by accusing her of killing Mei-Niang?s newborn daughter. Even though the Empress protested her innocence, she was eventually abolished, and Mei-Niang became the new Empress. One of the first things Mei-Niang did was to give an order to amputate the hands and feet of the ex-Empress, and of the Concubine Xiao. Those two women were then thrown into barrels of wine with their arms and legs tied together, and drowned.
The helpless woman who had faced prospects of forced nun-hood was now taking her life into her own hands, and ruthless as she eliminated one enemy after another. She treated ordinary people’s lives with care, but any court officials who opposed her were eliminated.
Within five years of their marriage, Emperor Kao Tsung suffered a crippling stroke. The Empress Wu took over the administrative duties of the court, a position equal to the emperor. She created a secret police force to spy on her opposition, and cruelly jailed or killed anyone who stood in her way, including the unfortunate Empress Wang. With the death of Emperor Kao Tsung, Wu managed to outflank her eldest sons and moved her youngest, and much weaker son, into power. She in effect ruled, telling him what to do.
“Mei-Niang” whose fate was to please a man, now gave herself a new name: “Zetian” - “Rule (of the) sky”. Her last name “Wu” carries the meaning of “military”, or “weapon”, or “martial force”.
In order to challenge Confucian beliefs against rule by women, Wu began a campaign to elevate the position of women. She had scholars write biographies of famous women, and raised the position of her mother’s clan by giving her relatives high political posts. She moved her court away from the seat of traditional male power and tried to establish a new dynasty. She said that the ideal ruler was one who ruled like a mother does over her children.
In 690, Wu’s youngest son removed himself from office, and Wu Zetian after having ruled for some years, she employed religion and spread word that she was really a reincarnated Buddha; therefore she was meant to be the emperor. In China, emperors were “Di”, and empresses were “Hou”. The last empress of Qing Dynasty was still a “Hou”. But Wu Zetian was officially enthroned as a “Di”, the Emperor. In spite of her ruthless climb to power, her rule proved to be benign. She found the best people she could to run the government, and treated those she trusted fairly. She reduced the army’s size and stopped the influence of aristocratic military men on government by replacing them with scholars.
Wu also was fair to peasants, lowering oppressive taxes, raising agricultural production, and strengthening public works. Under her rule, the people of China enjoyed one of their most prosperous periods. She established systems that were fair in recruiting and promoting officials, reduced taxes, encouraged education, and aided farmers. The population grew from 3.8 million households to 6.2 under her guidance.
But age became her new enemy. In her 70’s, she longed for her youth back, and kept two handsome young men as her favorite companions. Yet, when she was 81, a plot by some court officials ended in the execution of her lovers. Finally, in 705, she was pressured to give up the throne in favor of her third son, who was waiting all these years in the wings. Wu Zetian died peacefully at age eighty the same year.