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wu zetian Wu Zetian(Wu Tse-tien; simplified Chinese: 武则天; traditional Chinese: 武則天; pinyin: Wǔ Zétiān; Wade-Giles: Wu³ Tse²-t'ien¹) (c.625 - 705),[12] also known as Wu Zhao (Wu Chao; Chinese: 武曌; pinyin: Wǔ Zhào; Wade-Giles: Wu³ Chao⁴), Wu Hou (Chinese:武后; pinyin: Wǔ Hòu; Wade-Giles: Wu³ Hou⁴), in Tang Dynasty, Tian Hou (天后), and in English as Empress Consort Wu, or by the deprecated term,[13] "Empress Wu", was a Chinese sovereign, who ruled officially under the name of her self-proclaimed "Zhou Dynasty", from 690 to 705; however, she had previous imperial positions under both Emperor Taizong of Tang and his son Emperor Gaozong of Tang, of the Tang Dynasty of China. Wu was a concubine of Emperor Taizong; after his death she married his successor and 9th son, Emperor Gaozong, officially becoming Gaozong's furen (variously translated as "empress", "wife", or "first consort") in 655, although having considerable political power previous to this. After Gaozong's debilitating stroke in 660, Wu Zetian ruled as effective sovereign until 705.[14] She is the only woman to rule China in her own right.

The importance to history of Wu Zetian's period of political and military leadership includes major expansion of the Chinese empire, extending it far beyond its previous territorial limits, deep into Central Asia, and completing the conquest of upper Korean Peninsula. Within China, besides the more direct consequences of her struggle to gain and maintain supreme power, Wu's leadership resulted in important effects in regards to social class in Chinese society and in relation to state support for Taoism, Buddhism, education, and literature. Wu Zetian also had a monumental impact in regard to the statuary of the Longmen Grottoes and the "Wordless Stella" at theQianling Mausoleum, as well as the construction of some major buildings and bronze castings which no longer survive. Despite these important aspects of her reign, together with the suggestions of modern scholarship as to the long-term effects of some of her innovations in governance, much of the attention to Wu Zetian has been to her gender, as the anomalous female supreme sovereign of a unified Chinese empire, holding during part of her lifetime the title of Huangdi.

Besides her career as a political leader, Wu Zetian also had an active family life. Although family relationships sometimes became problematic, Wu Zetian was the mother of three sons who served stints as emperors, and one of her grandsons became the famous emperor Xuanzong of the restored Tang Dynasty, ruling during its "Golden Age".

Further information: Chinese nameNames and titles

In Chinese history and literature Wu Zetian (Mandarin pronunciation: [ù tsɯ̯ʌ̌ tʰi̯ɛ́n]) was known by various names and titles. Mention of her in the English language has increased the multiplicity of this. A difficulty in English translations from Chinese is that English translations tend to specify a particular gender (as in the case of "emperor" versus "empress" or "prince" versus "princess"); whereas, in Classical Chinese, words such as hou (后, "sovereign", "prince", "queen") or huangdi(皇帝, "imperial supreme ruler", "royal deity") are of agrammatically indeterminate gender. NamesWu Zetian was born as Wu Zhao[12] (sometimes given as 武曌, although the actual characters are uncertain; however it is certain that Zhao was not 瞾, since this was one of Wu's innovative characters). Wu was her patronymic surname, which she retained, according to traditional Chinese practice, after marriage to Gaozong, of the Li family. Emperor Taizong gave her the name Mei (媚), meaning "pretty."[15] (Thus, today Chinese people often refer to her as Wu Mei or Wu Meiniang (武媚娘) when they write about her youth, whereas they refer to her as Empress Wu (武后) when referring to her as empress and empress dowager and Wu Zetian (武則天) when referring to her reign as "emperor.")[citation needed] TitlesMain article: List of titles of Wu Zetian

During her life, and posthumously, Wu Zetian was awarded various official titles (for a chronological list of these titles see: List of titles of Wu Zetian). Both hou (后) and huangdi(皇帝) are titles (modifications, or added characters to houare of lesser importance). Born Wu Zhao, she is not properly known as "Wu Hou" until receiving this title in 655, nor is she properly known as "Wu Zetian", her regnal name, until 690, when she took the title huangdi.

"Empress"Various Chinese titles have been translated into English as "empress", including "empress" in both the sense of Empress consort and Empress regnant. Generally the Emperor was male and his chief spouse was given a title such as Huanghou (皇后), often translated as "Empress". Upon the death of the Emperor, the surviving Huanghou could becomeEmpress dowager, sometimes wielding considerable political power as regent during the minority of the heir to the position of Emperor.

Since the time of Qin Shi Huang (259 BC - 210 BC) the Emperor of China used the title Huangdi. Wu Zetian was the only woman in the history of China to assume the title ofHuangdi.[citation needed] Her tenure as de facto ruler of China (first through her husband and then through her sons, from 665 to 690), was not without precedent, in Chinese history; however, she broke precedents when she founded her own dynasty in 690, the Zhou (周) (interrupting the Tang Dynasty), ruling personally under the name Sacred and Divine Empress Regnant (聖神皇帝), and variations thereof, from 690 to 705.

Wu Zetian is said to be the only woman in Chinese history to wear the yellow robe (otherwise reserved for the sole use of the emperor).[16]

BiographyEarly yearsBirth and background

(For a list of Wu Zetian's family, see: List of family of Wu Zetian.)

The Wu clan originated in Wenshui, Bingzhou (today's Wenshui County, Shanxi). Wu Zetian was born as Wu Mei,[12] in Lizhou (利州) (modern day Guangyuan City in Sichuan Province)[citation needed], or else in the imperial capital of Chang'an, during the reign of Emperor Gaozu of Tang, and lived from 17 February 624[10][17] - 16 December 705.[10][11] Wu Zetian was born in the seventh year of Emperor Gaozu of Tang's reign. In the same year, a total eclipse of the Sun was visible across China. Her father Wu Shihuo was engaged in the timber business and the family was relatively well off. Her mother was from the powerful Yang family. During the final years of Emperor Yang of Sui, Li Yuan (李淵) (who would go on to become Emperor Gaozu of Tang), whilst holding appointments in both Hedong and Taiyuan, Li stayed in the Wu household many times and became close to the Wu family. After Li Yuan overthrew Emperor Yang, he was generous to the Wu family, providing them with money, grain, land and clothing. Once the Tang Dynasty became established, Wu Shihou held a succession of senior ministerial posts including governor of Yangzhou, Lizhou and Jingzhou (荊州) (modern day Jiangling County, Hubei Province).

rs of Wu Zetian Childhood

Wu Mei (the future Wu Zetian) was a strong willed child who refused to study needlework like most girls of the time. Instead, she was only interested in reading, from which she gained a wide political awareness. During her childhood she traveled widely with her parents and thus developed a cultured and knowledgeable personality.

Emperor Taizong's concubine

When Wu (then Wu Zhao) was around 13 years old (sometime between 636 and 638) she became a concubine of Emperor Taizong of Tang. She was given the title of cairen, title for one of the consorts with the fifth rank in Tang's nine-rank system for imperial officials, nobles, and consorts.[15][18] When she was summoned to the palace, her mother, the Lady Yang, wept bitterly when saying farewell to her, but she responded, "How do you know that it is not my fortune to meet the Son of Heaven?" Lady Yang reportedly then understood her ambitions, and therefore stopped crying.

Consort Wu, however, did not appear to be much favored by Emperor Taizong, although it appeared that she did have sexual relations with him at one point.[19] According to her own account during her reign later while rebuking the chancellor Ji Xu, there was an occasion during the time she was Emperor Taizong's concubine when she impressed Emperor Taizong with her fortitude:

Emperor Taizong had a horse with the name "Lion Stallion", and it was so large and strong that no one could get on its back. I was a lady in waiting attending Emperor Taizong, and I suggested to him, "I only need three things to subordinate it: an iron whip, an iron hammer, and a sharp dagger. I will whip it with the iron whip. If it does not submit, I will hammer its head with the iron hammer. If it still does not submit, I will cut its throat with the dagger." Emperor Taizong praised my bravery. Do you really believe that you are qualified to dirty my dagger?[20]

The Emperor, Taizong, died in 649 his youngest son, Li Zhi, (whose mother was main wife Wende) succeeded him as emperor, under the name of Emperor Gaozong of Tang.

Consigned to the convent

Taizong had fourteen sons, including three to his beloved empress Wende (601-636), but none with Consort Wu.[21] Thus, according to the custom by which those of the deceased emperors consorts who had not produced children were after this permanently confined to a monastic institution, Wu was accordingly consigned to Ganye Temple (感業寺), with the expectation that she would serve as a Buddhist nun there for the remainder of her life. In colloquial Chinese, becoming a nun was known as "having ones hair shaved". However, Wu was to defy expectations, and leave the convent for an alternative life.

Rise to powerWherever the truth lies, by the early 650s Consort Wu was a concubine of Emperor Gaozong, and she was titled Zhaoyi(昭儀), that is, the highest ranking of the nine concubines of the second rank. Wu progressively gained more and more influence over the governance of the empire throughout Emperor Gaozong's reign, and eventually she was effectively making the major decisions. She was regarded as ruthless in her endeavors to grab power, and was believed by traditional historians to have even killed her own daughter to frame Empress Wang (and, later, her own eldest son Li Hong), in a power struggle. From convent to concubine

Gaozong became emperor at the age of 21. Inexperienced and frequently incapacitated with a sickness which caused him spells of dizziness,[14] Gaozong was only made heir to the empire due to the disgrace of his two older brothers.[21] Somehow, Wu escaped the convent and became the new emperor's concubine (and this despite that Gaozong was effectively Wu's step-son (the taking of a father's concubine-one who was believed to have had sexual relations with the deceased Emperor Taizong-was considered incest by traditional Confucian principles.)[19][22]). On or after the anniversary of Emperor Taizong's death,[23] Emperor Gaozong went to Ganye Temple to offer incense, and when he and Consort Wu saw each other, both of them wept-and were seen by Emperor Gaozong's wife Empress Wang.[24] At that time, Emperor Gaozong did not favor Empress Wang, and much favored his concubine Consort Xiao; further, Empress Wang did not have any children, and Consort Xiao had one son (Li Sujie) and two daughters (Princesses Yiyang and Xuancheng). Empress Wang, seeing that Emperor Gaozong was still impressed by Consort Wu's beauty, hoped that the arrival of a new concubine would divert the emperor from Consort Xiao, and therefore secretly told Consort Wu to stop shaving her hair and, at a later point, welcomed her to the palace. (Some modern historians dispute this traditional account, and some think that Consort Wu never actually left the imperial palace and might have had an affair with Emperor Gaozong while Emperor Taizong was still alive.)[citation needed]


Consort Wu soon overtook Consort Xiao in her favor from Emperor Gaozong. In 652, she gave birth to her first child, a son named Li Hong. In 653, she gave birth to another son, Li Xián. Neither of these sons were in contention to be Emperor Gaozong's heir because Emperor Gaozong had, pursuant to requests of officials who were instigated by Empress Wang and her uncle the chancellor Liu Shi, designated his oldest son Li Zhong as heir, whose mother Consort Liu was of lowly birth and whose gratitude Empress Wang expected. By 654, both Empress Wang and Consort Xiao had lost favor with Emperor Gaozong, and these two former romantic rivals joined forces against Consort Wu, but to no avail. As a sign of his love for Consort Wu, in 654 Emperor Gaozong conferred posthumous honors on her father Wu Shihuo.

Accusing the empress

Also in 654, shortly after Consort Wu gave birth to a daughter, the daughter died, apparently by strangulation. Consort Wu accused Empress Wang of murder.[14] Empress Wang was claimed to have been seen near the child's room by alleged eyewitnesses. Emperor Gaozong was led to believe that Wang killed the child out of jealousy. Wang was unable to clear herself. (Traditional historians believed that Consort Wu actually killed her own daughter to frame Empress Wang, although it was possible that this allegation was manufactured by historians.)[25] In anger, Emperor Gaozong considered deposing Empress Wang and replacing her with Consort Wu, but wanted to make sure that the chancellors would support this. He visited the house of his uncle Zhangsun Wuji, the leader among chancellors, with Consort Wu, and awarded him with much treasure but when he brought up the topic that Empress Wang was childless (as an excuse for deposing her), Zhangsun repeatedly found ways to divert the conversation. Subsequent visits by Consort Wu's mother Lady Yang and the official Xu Jingzong, who was allied with Consort Wu, to seek support from Zhangsun were also to no avail.[25]

Deposal of empress Wang and concubine Xiao

In summer 655, Consort Wu accused Empress Wang and her mother Lady Liu of using witchcraft. In response, Emperor Gaozong barred Lady Liu from the palace and demoted Liu Shi.[25] Meanwhile, a faction of officials began to form around Consort Wu, including Li Yifu, Xu, Cui Yixuan (崔義玄), and Yuan Gongyu (袁公瑜). On an occasion in fall 655, Emperor Gaozong summoned the chancellors Zhangsun, Li Ji, Yu Zhining, and Chu Suiliang to the palace-which Chu deduced to be regarding the matter of changing the empress. Li Ji claimed an illness and refused to attend. At the meeting, Chu vehemently opposed deposing Empress Wang, while Zhangsun and Yu showed their disapproval by silence. Meanwhile, other chancellors Han Yuan and Lai Ji also opposed the move, but when Emperor Gaozong asked Li Ji again, Li Ji's response was, "This is your family matter, Your Imperial Majesty. Why ask anyone else?" Emperor Gaozong therefore became resolved. He demoted Chu to be a commandant at Tan Prefecture (潭州, roughly modernChangsha, Hunan),[25] and then deposed both Empress Wang and Consort Xiao, putting them under arrest and creating Consort Wu empress instead to replace Empress Wang. (Later that year, Empress Wang and Consort Xiao were killed on orders by the new Empress Wu after Emperor Gaozong showed signs of considering to release them. After their deaths, however, Empress Wu was often haunted by them in her dreams, for the rest of Emperor Gaozong's reign, Emperor Gaozong and she often took up residence at the eastern capital Luoyang and only infrequently spent time in Chang'an.)[26]

Empress consort

In 655, Wu then became Tang Gaozong's new first lady (huanghou, or "wife" or "empress consort").

Son made Heir Apparent

In 656, per advice of Xu Jingzong, Emperor Gaozong deposed Consort Liu's son Li Zhong to be the Prince of Liang, while creating Wu's son Li Hong, then carrying the title of Prince of Dai, to be crown prince (that is, Heir Apparent).[26]

Elimination of opposed officials

In 657, Empress Wu and her allies began reprisals against officials who had opposed her ascension. She first had Xu and Li Yifu, who were by now chancellors, falsely accuse Han Yuan and Lai Ji of being complicit with Chu Suiliang in planning treason. The three of them, along with Liu Shi, were demoted to be prefects of remote prefectures, with provisions that they would never be allowed to return to Chang'an. In 659, she further had Xu accuse Zhangsun Wuji of plotting treason with the low level officials Wei Jifang (韋季方) and Li Chao (李巢). Zhangsun was exiled and, later in the year, was forced to commit suicide in exile. Xu further implicated Chu, Liu, Han, and Yu Zhining in the plot as well. Chu, who had died in 658, was posthumously stripped of his titles, and his sons Chu Yanfu (褚彥甫) and Chu Yanchong (褚彥沖) were executed. Orders were also issued to execute Liu and Han, although Han died before the execution order reached his location. It was said that after this point, no official dared to criticize the emperor any longer.

Exile of prince Li Zhong

In 660, Li Zhong, Gaozong's first-born son (to consort Liu) was also targeted. Li Zhong had apprehended that he would be next and had sought out advice of fortune tellers. Wu had him exiled and placed under house arrest.[26]

Gaozong disabled

In 660, Emperor Gaozong and Empress Wu toured Bian Prefecture (that is, Taiyuan), and Empress Wu had the opportunity to invite her old neighbors and relatives to a feast.[26]Later that year, Emperor Gaozong began to suffer from an illness that carried the symptoms of painful headache and loss of vision, generally thought to be hypertension-related,[27]but which some historians thought might be slow-poisoning by Empress Wu,[28] and he began to have Empress Wu make rulings on the petitions by the officials. It was said that Empress Wu had quick reactions and understood both literature and history, and therefore was making correct rulings. Thereafter, her authority was rival to Emperor Gaozong's.[26]

Attempt to dislodge Wu

By 664, Empress Wu was said to be so interfering in the imperial governance that she was angering Emperor Gaozong. Further, she had engaged the Taoist sorcerer Guo Xingzhen (郭行真) in using witchcraft - an act that was prohibited by regulations and which had led to Empress Wang's downfall - and the eunuch Wang Fusheng (王伏勝) reported this to Emperor Gaozong, further angering him. He consulted the chancellor Shangguan Yi, who suggested that he depose Empress Wu. He had Shangguan draft an edict, but as Shangguan was doing so Empress Wu received news of what was happening. She went to the emperor to plead her case, just as he was holding the edict that Shangguan had drafted. Emperor Gaozong could not bear to depose her and therefore blamed the episode on Shangguan. As both Shangguan and Wang had served on Li Zhong's staff, Empress Wu had Xu falsely accuse Shangguan, Wang, and Li Zhong of planning treason. Shangguan, Wang, and Shangguan's son Shangguan Tingzhi (上官庭芝) were executed, while Li Zhong was forced to commit suicide.[29] (Shangguan Tingzhi's daughter Shangguan Wan'er, then an infant, and her mother Lady Zheng became slaves in the inner palace. After Shangguan Wan'er grew up, she eventually became a trusted secretary for Empress Wu.) Thereafter, at imperial meetings, she would sit behind a curtain behind Emperor Gaozong, and they became referred to by the public as the "Two Holy Ones" (二聖, Er Sheng).[29]

Violence against the Wu clan

Meanwhile, on Empress Wu's account, her mother Lady Yang had been created the Lady of Rong, and her older sister, now widowed, the Lady of Han. Her brothers Wu Yuanqing and Wu Yuanshuang and cousins Wu Weiliang and Wu Huaiyun, despite the poor relations that they had with Lady Yang, were promoted. However, at a feast that Lady Yang held for them, Wu Weiliang offended Lady Yang by stating that they did not find it honorable for them to be promoted on account of Empress Wu. Empress Wu therefore requested to have them demoted to remote prefectures-outwardly to show modesty, but in reality to avenge the offense to her mother. Wu Yuanqing and Wu Yuanshuang died in effective exile. Meanwhile, in or before 666, Lady of Han died as well, and after her death, Emperor Gaozong created her daughter the Lady of Wei and considered keeping her in the palace-possibly as a concubine-but did not immediately do so as he feared that Empress Wu would be displeased. It was said that Empress Wu heard of this and was nevertheless displeased, and she had the Lady of Wei poisoned, by placing poison in food offerings that Wu Weiliang and Wu Huaiyun had made, and then blaming Wu Weiliang and Wu Huaiyun for the murder. Wu Weiliang and Wu Huaiyun were executed.[29][30]

Death of mother

In 670, Wu's mother Lady Yang died, and by Emperor Gaozong's orders, all of the imperial officials and their wives attended her wake and mourned her. Later that year, with the realm suffering from a major drought, Empress Wu offered to be deposed, an offer Emperor Gaozong rejected. He further posthumously honored Wu Shihuo (who had previously been posthumously honored the Duke of Zhou) and Lady Yang the Prince and Princess of Taiyuan.[29]

More turmoil in Wu clan

Meanwhile, Wu's older sister (the Lady of Han)'s son (her nephew) Helan Minzhi (賀蘭敏之) had been given the surname of Wu and allowed to inherit the title of Duke of Zhou. However, as it was becoming clear that he was suspecting Empress Wu of having murdered his sister, Empress Wu began to take precautions against him, who was also said to have had an incestuous relationship with his grandmother Lady Yang. In 671, Helan Minzhi was accused of having disobeyed regulations on mourning during Lady Yang's mourning period, and also of raping the daughter of the official Yang Sijian (楊思儉), whom Emperor Gaozong and Empress Wu had previously selected to be the wife and crown princess for Li Hong. Helan Minzhi was exiled and either was executed in exile or committed suicide. In 674, Empress Wu had Wu Yuanshuang's son Wu Chengsi recalled from exile to inherit the title of Duke of Zhou.[31]

Opposition to her regency

In 675, with Emperor Gaozong's illness getting worse, he considered having Empress Wu formally rule as regent. The chancellor Hao Chujun and the official Li Yiyan both opposed, and he did not formally make her regent.

Further elimination of rivals

Also in 675, a number of persons would fall victim to Empress Wu's ire. Empress Wu had been displeased at the favor that Emperor Gaozong had shown his aunt Princess Changle, who had married the general Zhao Gui (趙瓌) and whose daughter had become the wife and princess of her third son Li Xiǎn the Prince of Zhou. Princess Zhao was therefore accused of unspecified crimes and put under arrest, and was eventually starved to death. Zhao Gui and Princess Changle were exiled. Meanwhile, later that month, Li Hong the Crown Prince, who had been trying to urge Empress Wu not to exercise so much influence on Emperor Gaozong's governance and who had offended Empress Wu by requesting that his half-sisters, Consort Xiao's daughters Princess Yiyang and Xuancheng, who had been under house arrest, be allowed to marry, died suddenly. Traditional historians generally believed that Empress Wu poisoned Li Hong to death. Li Xián, then carrying the title of Prince of Yong, was created crown prince.[31] Meanwhile, Consort Xiao's son Li Sujie and another son of Emperor Gaozong's, Li Shangjin (李上金), were repeatedly accused by her of crimes and demoted.[31]

Exile of son

Empress Wu's relationship with Li Xián also soon deteriorated, as Li Xián had become unsettled after hearing rumors that he was not actually born of Empress Wu but of her sister the Lady of Han, and when Empress Wu heard of his fearfulness, she became angry at him. Further, the sorcerer Ming Chongyan (明崇儼), whom both she and Emperor Gaozong respected and who had stated that Li Xián was unsuitable to inherit the throne, was assassinated in 679, and the assassins were not caught-causing her to suspect Li Xián to be behind the assassination. In 680, Li Xián was accused of crimes, and during investigation by the officials Xue Yuanchao, Pei Yan, and Gao Zhizhou, a large amount of arms was found in Li Xián's palace, and Empress Wu formally accused Li Xián of treason and of assassinating Ming. Li Xián was deposed and exiled

New Heir Apparent

After, the exile of Li Xián, Li Xiǎn (who had by now been renamed Li Zhe) was created crown prince.[31]

Princess Taiping

In 681, Princess Taiping was married to Xue Shao (薛紹), the son of Emperor Gaozong's sister Princess Chengyang, in a grand ceremony. Empress Wu, initially unimpressed with the lineages of Xue Shao's brothers' wives, wanted to order his brothers to divorce their wives-stopping only after it was pointed out to her that Lady Xiao, the wife of Xue Shao's older brother Xue Yi (薛顗), was a grandniece of the deceased chancellor Xiao Yu.[31]

Death of Gaozong

In late 683, Emperor Gaozong died while at Luoyang. Li Zhe took the throne (as Emperor Zhongzong), but Empress Wu retained actual authority as empress dowager and regent.[32]

Empress dowager/regentSee also: Emperor Zhongzong of Tang#First reign, Emperor Ruizong of Tang#First reign, Li Jingye, and Li Zhen (Tang Dynasty)

Upon her husband, the Emperor Gaozong's death, Wu became empress dowager and then regent. Wu had already poisoned the crown prince, Li Hong, and had enough other princes exiled, that her third son, Li Zhe, had been made Heir Apparent. Furthermore, Gaozong's will included provisions that Li Zhe should immediately ascend to the imperial throne, and that he should look to empress Wu in regard to any important matter either military or civil.[33]

Reign of Zhongzong

In the second month of 684, Wu's son, Li Zhe, the Heir Apparent ascended to the imperial throne, taking the regnal name of Zhongzong, for the short six weeks of his reign.Emperor Zhongzong was under the thumb of his wife, the empress Wei, even appointing his father-in-law prime minister. Wu Zetian had him brought up on charges of treason, and he was sent into seclusion.

Immediately, Emperor Zhongzong showed signs of disobeying Empress Dowager Wu-including an insistence on making his father-in-law Wei Xuanzhen (韋玄貞) Shizhong (侍中, the head of the examination bureau of government (門下省, Menxia Sheng) and a post considered one for a chancellor) and giving a mid-level office to his wet nurse's son-despite stern opposition by the chancellor Pei Yan, at one point remarking to Pei:[32]What would be wrong even if I gave the empire to Wei Xuanzhen? Why do you care about Shizhong so much?

Pei reported this to Empress Dowager Wu, and she, after planning with Pei, Liu Yizhi, and the generals Cheng Wuting (程務挺) and Zhang Qianxu (張虔勖), deposed him and replaced him with her youngest son Li Dan the Prince of Yu (as Emperor Ruizong). Emperor Zhongzong was reduced to the title of Prince of Luling and exiled. Empress Dowager Wu also sent the general Qiu Shenji (丘神勣) to Li Xián's place in exile and forced Li Xián to commit suicide.

Full powerReign of Ruizong

Wu then had her youngest son Li Dan made emperor, as Emperor Ruizong. But she was the actual ruler, both in substance and appearance as well, Wu did not even follow the customary pretense of hiding behind a screen/curtain and in whispers issuing commands for the nominal ruler to formally announce: Ruizong never moved into the imperial quarters, appeared at no imperial function, and remained a virtual prisoner in the inner quarters.[34] In 690, she had Emperor Ruizong yield the throne to her and established the Zhou Dynasty, with herself as ruler (huangdi). The early part of her reign was characterized by secret police terror, which moderated as the years went by. She was, on the other hand, recognized as a capable and attentive ruler even by traditional historians who despised her, and her ability at selecting capable men to serve as officials was admired throughout the rest of the Tang Dynasty as well as in subsequent dynasties.[35] In 705, she was overthrown in a coup, and Emperor Zhongzong was returned to the throne. She continued to carry the title of "emperor" until her death later in the year.

Although Emperor Ruizong held the title of emperor, Empress Dowager Wu held onto power even more firmly, and the officials were not allowed to meet with Emperor Ruizong, nor was he allowed to rule on matters of state. Rather, the matters of state were ruled on by Empress Dowager Wu. At the suggestion of her nephew Wu Chengsi, she also expanded the ancestral shrine of the Wu ancestors and gave them greater posthumous honors.[32]

In 686, Empress Dowager Wu offered to return imperial authorities to Emperor Ruizong, but Emperor Ruizong, knowing that she did not truly intend to do so, declined, and she continued to exercise imperial authority.

Rebellion in 684

Soon thereafter, Li Ji's grandson Li Jingye the Duke of Ying, who had been disaffected by his own exile, started a rebellion at Yang Prefecture (揚州, roughly modern Yangzhou,Jiangsu) - a rebellion that initially drew much popular support in the region. However, Li Jingye progressed slowly in his attack and did not take advantage of that popular support. Meanwhile, Pei suggested to Empress Dowager Wu that she return imperial authority to the Emperor and argued that doing so would cause the rebellion to collapse on its own. This offended her, and she accused him of being complicit with Li Jingye and had him executed; she also demoted, exiled, and killed a number of officials who, when Pei was arrested, tried to speak on his behalf. She sent the general Li Xiaoyi (李孝逸) to attack Li Jingye, and while Li Xiaoyi was initially unsuccessful, he pushed on at the urging of his assistant Wei Yuanzhong and was eventually able to crush Li Jingye's forces. Li Jingye fled and was killed in flight.[32]

Huaiyi affair

By 685, Empress Dowager Wu began to carry on an affair with the Buddhist monk Huaiyi, and during the next few years, Huaiyi would be progressively bestowed with greater and greater honors.[32][36][37]

Secret police and informants

Meanwhile, she created copper mailboxes outside the imperial government to encourage the people of the realm to secretly report on others, as she suspected many officials of opposing her. Exploiting these beliefs of hers, secret police officials, including Suo Yuanli, Zhou Xing, and Lai Junchen, began to rise in power and to carry out systematic false accusations, tortures, and executions of individuals.[32]

Elimination of suspected rivals

In 688, Empress Dowager Wu was set to make sacrifices to the deity of the Luo River (洛水, flowing through the Henan province city of Luoyang, then the "Eastern Capital"). Wu summoned senior members of Tang's Li imperial clan to Luoyang. The imperial princes worried that she planned to slaughter them and secure the throne for herself: thus, they plotted to resist her. However, before a rebellion could be comprehensively planned out, Li Zhen and his son Li Chong the Prince of Langye rose first, at their respective posts as prefects of Yu Prefecture (豫州, roughly modern Zhumadian, Henan) and Bo Prefecture (博州, roughly modern Liaocheng, Shandong). The other princes were not yet ready, however, and did not rise, and forces sent by Empress Dowager Wu and the local forces crushed Li Chong and Li Zhen's forces quickly. Empress Dowager Wu took this opportunity to arrest Emperor Gaozong's granduncles Li Yuanjia (李元嘉) the Prince of Han, Li Lingkui (李靈夔) the Prince of Lu, and Princess Changle, as well as many other members of the Li clan and forced them to commit suicide. Even Princess Taiping's husband Xue Shao was implicated and starved to death. In the subsequent years, there continued to be many politically motivated massacres of officials and Li clan members.[36]

Monarch of the Zhou Dynasty

Wu Zetian, shown with her posthumous title Zetian huanghou

In 690, Wu took the final step, taking the regnal name Wu Zetian, and the title huangdi, as the monarch of the newly proclaimed Zhou Dynasty. Traditional Chinese order of succession (akin to the Salic law in Europe) did not allow a woman to ascend the throne, but Wu Zetian was determined to quash the opposition, and the use of the secret police did not subside, but continued, after her taking the throne. However, while her organization of the civil service system was criticized for its laxity of the promotion of officials, Wu Zetian was considered capable of evaluating the performance of the officials once they were in office. The Song Dynasty historian Sima Guang, in hisZizhi Tongjian, commented:[37]Even though the Empress Dowager[38] excessively used official titles to cause people to submit to her, if she saw that someone was incompetent, she would immediately depose or even execute him. She grasped the powers of punishment and award, controlled the state, and made her own judgments as to policy decisions. She was observant and had good judgment, so the talented people of the time also were willing to be used by her.

Early reign

Shortly after Wu Zetian took the throne, she elevated the status of Buddhism to be above Taoism, officially sanctioning the religion by building temples named Dayun Temple (大雲寺) in each prefecture belonging to the capital regions of the two capitals Luoyang and Chang'an, and also created nine senior monks dukes. She also enshrined seven generations of Wu ancestors at the imperial ancestral temple, although she also continued to offer sacrifices to the Tang emperors Gaozu, Taizong, and Gaozong.[36]

She faced the issue of succession. At the time she took the throne, she created Li Dan, the former Emperor Ruizong, crown prince, and bestowed the name of Wu on him.[36] However, the official Zhang Jiafu instigated the commoner Wang Qingzhi (王慶之) into starting a petition drive to make her nephew Wu Chengsi crown prince, arguing that an emperor named Wu should pass the throne to a member of the Wu clan. Wu Zetian was tempted to do so, and when the chancellors Cen Changqian and Ge Fuyuan opposed sternly, they, along with fellow chancellor Ouyang Tong, were executed. Nevertheless, she declined Wang's request to make Wu Chengsi crown prince, but for a time allowed Wang to freely enter the palace to see her. On one occasion, however, when Wang angered her by coming to the palace too much, she asked the official Li Zhaode to batter Wang-and Li Zhaode took the opportunity to batter Wang to death, and his group of petitioners scattered. Li Zhaode then persuaded Wu Zetian to keep Li Dan as crown prince-pointing out that a son was closer in relations than a nephew, and also that if Wu Chengsi became emperor, Emperor Gaozong would never again be worshiped. Wu Zetian agreed, and for some time did not again consider the matter.[36] Further, at Li Zhaode's warning that Wu Chengsi was becoming too powerful, Wu Zetian stripped Wu Chengsi of his chancellor authority and bestowed on him largely honorific titles without actual authority.[37]

Meanwhile, the powers of the secret police officials continued, but appeared to be curbed starting about 692, when Lai Junchen was foiled in his attempt to have the chancellorsRen Zhigu, Di Renjie, Pei Xingben, and other officials Cui Xuanli (崔宣禮), Lu Xian (盧獻), Wei Yuanzhong, and Li Sizhen (李嗣真) executed, as Di, under arrest, hid a secret petition inside a change of clothes and had it submitted by his son Di Guangyuan (狄光遠). The seven were still exiled, but after this incident, particularly at the urging of Li Zhaode, Zhu Jingze, and Zhou Ju (周矩), the waves of politically motivated massacres decreased, although did not end entirely.[37]

Also in 692, Wu Zetian commissioned the general Wang Xiaojie to attack Tufan, and Wang recaptured the four garrisons of Xiyu that had fallen to Tufan in 670 - Qiuzi, Yutian,Shule, and Suiye.[37]

In 693, after Wu Zetian's trusted lady in waiting Wei Tuan'er (韋團兒), who hated Li Dan (the reason why she did so is lost to history), falsely accused Li Dan's wife Crown Princess Liu and Consort Dou of using witchcraft, Wu Zetian had Crown Princess Liu and Consort Dou killed. Li Dan, fearful that he was to be next, did not dare to speak of them. When Wei further planned to falsely accuse Li Dan, however, someone else informed on her, and she was executed. Wu Zetian nevertheless had Li Dan's sons demoted in their princely titles, and when the officials Pei Feigong (裴匪躬) and Fan Yunxian (范雲仙) were accused of secretly meeting Li Dan, she executed Pei and Fan and further barred officials from meeting Li Dan. There were then accusations that Li Dan was plotting treason, and under Wu Zetian's direction, Lai launched an investigation. Lai arrested Li Dan's servants and tortured them-and the torture was such that many of them were ready to falsely implicate themselves and Li Dan. One of Li Dan's servants, An Jinzang, however, proclaimed Li Dan's innocence and cut his own belly open to swear to that fact. When Wu Zetian heard of what An did, she had doctors attend to An and barely saved his life, and then ordered Lai to end the investigation, thus saving Li Dan.[37]

In 694, Li Zhaode, who had become powerful after Wu Chengsi's removal, was himself thought to be too powerful, and Wu Zetian removed him.[37] Also around this time, she became highly impressed with a group of mystic individuals-the hermit Wei Shifang (on whom she bestowed a chancellor title briefly), who claimed to be over 350 years old; an old Buddhist nun who claimed to be a Buddha and capable of predicting the future; and a non-Han man who claimed to be 500 years old. During this time, Wu briefly claimed to be and adopted the cult imagery of Maitreya, the future Buddha, in order to build popular support for her reign.[39] However, in 695, after the imperial meeting hall (明堂) and the Heavenly Hall (天堂) were burned by Huaiyi (who was jealous at Wu Zetian's taking on another lover, the imperial physician Shen Nanqiu (沈南璆)), Wu Zetian became angry at these individuals for failing to predict the fire; the old nun and her students were arrested and made into slaves; Wei committed suicide; and the old non-Han man fled. Subsequently, she also put Huaiyi to death. After this incident, she appeared to pay less attention to mysticism and was even more dedicated than before to the affairs of state.[37]

Middle reign

However, Wu Zetian's administration was soon in for various troubles on the western and then northern borders. In spring 696, an army she sent, commanded by Wang Xiaojie andLou Shide against Tufan, was soundly defeated by Tufan generals, the brothers Lun Qinling (論欽陵) and Lun Zanpo (論贊婆), and as a result, she demoted Wang to commoner rank and Lou to be a low level prefectural official, although she eventually restored both of them to general positions.[37] In April of the same year, Wu Zetian recast the Nine Tripod Cauldrons, symbol of ultimate power in ancient China, to reinforce her authority.[40]

A much more serious threat arose in summer 696. The Khitan chieftains Li Jinzhong and Sun Wanrong, brothers-in-law, angry over the mistreatment of the Khitan people by the Zhou official Zhao Wenhui (趙文翽), the prefect of Ying Prefecture (營州, roughly modern Zhaoyang, Liaoning), rebelled, with Li assuming the title of Wushang Khan (無上可汗). Armies that Wu Zetian sent to suppress Li and Sun's rebellion were defeated by Khitan forces, which in turn attacked Zhou proper. Meanwhile, the Eastern Tujue Khan Ashina Mochuo offered to submit, and yet was also launching attacks against Zhou and Khitan-including an attack against Khitan base of operations in winter 696 shortly after Li's death at that time that captured Li's and Sun's families and temporarily halted Khitan operations against Zhou.[37] Sun, after taking over as khan and reorganizing Khitan forces, again attacked Zhou territory and had many victories over Zhou forces, including a battle during which Wang Shijie was killed.[20][37] Wu Zetian tried to allay the situation by making peace with Ashina Mochuo at fairly costly terms-the return of Tujue people who had previously submitted to Zhou and providing Ashina Mochuo with seeds, silk, tools, and iron. In summer 697, Ashina Mochuo launched another attack on Khitan's base of operations, and this time, after his attack, Khitan forces collapsed, and Sun was killed in flight, ending the Khitan threat.[20]

Meanwhile, also in 697, Lai Junchen, who had at one point lost power but had then returned to power, falsely accused Li Zhaode (who had been pardoned) of crimes, and then planned to falsely accuse Li Dan, Li Zhe, the Wu clan princes, and Princess Taiping, of treason. The Wu clan princes and Princess Taiping acted first against him, accusing him of crimes, and he and Li Zhaode were executed together. After Lai's death, the reign of the secret police largely ended, and many of the victims of Lai and the other secret police officials were gradually exonerated posthumously.[20] Meanwhile, around this time, Wu Zetian began to engage herself with two new lovers-the brothers Zhang Yizhi and Zhang Changzong, who became honored within the palace and were eventually created dukes.[20][41]

Around 698, Wu Chengsi and another nephew of Wu Zetian's, Wu Sansi the Prince of Liang, were repeatedly making attempts to have officials persuade Wu Zetian to create one of them crown prince-again citing the reason that an emperor should pass the throne to someone of the same clan. However, Di Renjie, who by now had become a trusted chancellor, was firmly against the idea and instead proposed that Li Zhe be recalled. He was supported in this by fellow chancellors Wang Fangqing and Wang Jishan, as well as Wu Zetian's close advisor Ji Xu, who further persuaded the Zhang brothers to support the idea as well. In spring 698, Wu Zetian agreed and recalled Li Zhe from exile. Soon, Li Dan offered to yield the crown prince position to Li Zhe, and Wu Zetian created Li Zhe crown prince, and soon changed his name back to Li Xiǎn and then Wu Xian.[20]

Later, Ashina Mochuo demanded a Tang dynasty prince for marriage to his daughter, part of a plot to join his family with the Tang, displace the Zhou, and restore Tang rule over China (under his influence). When Wu Zetian sent a member of her own family, grandnephew Wu Yanxiu (武延秀), to marry Mochuo's daughter instead, he rejected him.[42] Ashina Mochuo had no actual intention to cement the peace treaty with a marriage; instead, when Wu Yanxiu arrived, he detained Wu Yanxiu and then launched a major attack on Zhou, advancing as far south as Zhao Prefecture (趙州, in modern Shijiazhuang, Hebei) before withdrawing.[20]

In 699, however, at least the Tufan threat would cease. The Tufan king Tridu Songtsen, unhappy that Lun Qinling was monopolizing power, took an opportunity when Lun Qinling was away from the capital Lhasa to slaughter Lun Qinling's associates. He then defeated Lun Qinling in battle, and Lun Qinling committed suicide. Lun Zanpo and Lun Qinling's son Lun Gongren (論弓仁) surrendered to Zhou. After this, Tufan was under internal turmoil for several years, and there was peace for Zhou on the Tufan border.[20]

Also in 699, Wu Zetian, realizing that she was growing old, feared that after her death, Li Xian and the Wu clan princes would not be able to have peace with each other, and she made him, Li Dan, Princess Taiping, Princess Taiping's second husband Wu Youji (a nephew of hers) the Prince of Ding, and other Wu clan princes to swear an oath to each other.[20]

Late reign

Estimated territorial extent of Wu Zetian's empire.

As Wu Zetian grew older, Zhang Yizhi and Zhang Changzong became increasingly powerful, and even the princes of the Wu clan flattered them. She also increasingly relied on them to handle the affairs of state. This was secretly discussed and criticized by her grandson Li Chongrun the Prince of Shao (Li Xian's son), granddaughter Li Xianhui (李仙蕙) the Lady Yongtai (Li Chongrun's sister), and Li Xianhui's husband Wu Yanji (武延基) the Prince of Wei (Wu Zetian's grandnephew and Wu Chengsi's son), but somehow the discussion was leaked, and Zhang Yizhi reported this to Wu Zetian. She ordered the three of them to commit suicide.[43][44]

Despite her old age, however, Wu Zetian continued to be interested in finding talented officials and promoting them, and individuals that she promoted in her old age included, among others, Cui Xuanwei and Zhang Jiazhen.[41]

By 703, Zhang Yizhi and Zhang Changzong had become resentful of Wei Yuanzhong, who by now was a senior chancellor, for dressing down their brother Zhang Changyi (張昌儀) and rejecting the promotion of another brother Zhang Changqi (張昌期). They were also fearful that if Wu Zetian died, Wei would find a way to execute them, and therefore accused Wei and Gao Jian (高戩), an official favored by Princess Taiping, of speculating on Wu Zetian's old age and death. They initially got Wei's subordinate Zhang Shuo to agree to corroborate the charges, but once Zhang Shuo was before Wu Zetian, he instead accused Zhang Yizhi and Zhang Changzong of forcing him to bear false witness. As a result, Wei, Gao, and Zhang Shuo were exiled, but escaped death.[41]

Removal and deathIn autumn of 704, there began to be accusations of corruption levied against Zhang Yizhi and Zhang Changzong, as well as their brothers Zhang Changqi, Zhang Changyi, and Zhang Tongxiu (張同休). Zhang Tongxiu and Zhang Changyi were demoted, but even though the officials Li Chengjia (李承嘉) and Huan Yanfan advocated that Zhang Yizhi and Zhang Changzong be removed as well, Wu Zetian, taking the suggestion of the chancellor Yang Zaisi, did not remove them. Subsequently, charges of corruption against Zhang Yizhi and Zhang Changzong were renewed by the chancellor Wei Anshi.[41]

In winter 704, Wu Zetian became seriously ill for a period, and only the Zhang brothers were allowed to see her; the chancellors were not. This led to speculation that Zhang Yizhi and Zhang Changzong were plotting to take over the throne, and there were repeated accusations of treason. Once her condition improved, Cui Xuanwei advocated that only Li Xian and Li Dan be allowed to attend to her-a suggestion that she did not accept. After further accusations against the Zhang brothers by Huan and Song Jing, Wu Zetian allowed Song to investigate, but before the investigation was completed, she issued a pardon for Zhang Yizhi, derailing Song's investigation.[41]

Commemorative stele at Qianling Mausoleum, where Wu Zetian and her husband Emperor Gaozong were buried.

By spring 705, Wu Zetian was again seriously ill. Zhang Jianzhi, Jing Hui, and Yuan Shuji, planned a coup to kill the Zhang brothers. They convinced the generals Li Duozuo, Li Dan (李湛, note different character than the former emperor), and Yang Yuanyan (楊元琰) and another chancellor, Yao Yuanzhi, to be involved. With agreement from Li Xian as well, they acted on 20 February,[3] killing Zhang Yizhi and Zhang Changzong, and then had Changsheng Hall (長生殿), where Wu Zetian was residing, surrounded. They then reported to her that the Zhang brothers had been executed for treason, and then forced her to yield the throne to Li Xian. On 21 February, an edict was issued in her name that made Li Xian regent, and on 22 February, an edict was issued in her name passing the throne to Li Xian. On 23 February, Li Xian formally retook the throne, and the next day, Wu Zetian, under heavy guard, was moved to the subsidiary palace Shangyang Palace (上陽宮), but was nevertheless honored with the title of Empress Regnant Zetian Dasheng (則天大聖皇帝).[41] On 3 March,[45] Tang Dynasty was restored, ending Zhou.[40] She died on 16 December,[11] and, pursuant to a final edict issued in her name, was no longer referred to as emperor, but instead as Empress Zetian Dasheng (則天大聖皇后).[40] In 706, Wu Zetian's son Emperor Zhongzong had Wu Zetian interred in a joint burial with his father Emperor Gaozong at the Qianling Mausoleum, located near the capitalChang'an on Mount Liang. Emperor Zhongzong also buried at Qianling his brother Li Xián, son Li Chongrun, and daughter Li Xianhui (李仙蕙) the Lady Yongtai (posthumously honored as the Princess Yongtai) - victims of Wu Zetian's wrath.

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