Empress Wu Zetian, Chinese Monarch, 624 AD-705 AD
Known for her strong and stabilizing governance, Empress Wu Zetian was the ruler of the Tang Dynasty, the only female emperor to hold office in Chinese history. Her legacy is in the consolidation of the Dynasty, maintaining peace when civil war was a possibility, ushering in what has been called China’s Golden Age of poetry and the arts.
Wu was well-read and intelligent, and during her rule appointed scholars, rather than aristocrats with family influence, to positions of power. It has been suggested that she was the earliest proponent of the printed word, however, there are competing accounts of her life, most of them written by her political rivals. These include reports of sexual promiscuity, murder by poisoning, and even infanticide. By all accounts her ruthless ambition let nothing stand in the way – not even family members – and she was a formidable power to contend with. The promiscuity accusations are most likely accurate as she is said to have regularly invited a pair of young male singers into her bedchambers when she was in her 70s.
The daughter of an army general, Wu entered the palace, as was commonplace at the time, as a teenage concubine. When Emperor Taizong died, Wu and his other concubines’ heads were shaved, and they were sent to a Buddhist nunnery. Through a combination of intelligence and street-smarts, she escaped, returning to the palace and eventually working her way up to marry the new Emperor Gaozong after “eliminating” his wife. She established herself as her husband’s equal, appearing with him in ceremonies on a throne of the same height, albeit behind a screen.
When Gaozong died, a series of Wu’s sons ruled, but it was always clear she was the power behind the throne. She ordered the youngest to abdicate and seized power herself. Wu’s one mistake was to have introduced one son to a concubine as attractive and conniving as herself, who would eventually help him overthrow her when she was in her 80s. Despite her ambition and malice, she was an early proponent of Buddhism, making it the mainstream religion in China. She remains an important, if controversial, cultural figure in China to this day.