Reign of Empress Wu Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Originally a royal concubine, Wu Hou became the only female emperor in Chinese history. Historians portray her as a ruthless autocrat, but her reign also saw great achievements in both domestic and foreign affairs.

Summary of Event

Wu Zhao (Wu Chao; later Wu Hou) was born into a family from Wenshui in the province of Shanxi. Her father was a wealthy Chinese general who had served Li Yuan Li Yuan (Tang emperor) who reigned as Gaozu (Kao-tsu, r. 618-626), the first emperor of the Tang Dynasty (T’ang; 618-907). As a child, she learned to write, play music, and read the classics. She became respected for her intelligence as well as her physical beauty. In 638, Taizong Taizong (Tang emperor) , the second Tang emperor, invited Wu Zhao to the palace, and she joined his harem with the rank of concubine of the fifth grade. The emperor was impressed by her scholarship and placed her in the imperial study, where she became familiar with official documents. [kw]Reign of Empress Wu (690-705) [kw]Empress Wu, Reign of (690-705) [kw]Wu, Reign of Empress (690-705) Wu Hou China;690-705: Reign of Empress Wu[0440] Government and politics;690-705: Reign of Empress Wu[0440] Wu Hou Taizong (599-649) Gaozong

In 649, Taizong died, and his son Li Zhi (Li Chih) became emperor as Gaozong. Gaozong (Tang emperor) As was customary, all the imperial concubines, including Wu Zhao, went to live the rest of their lives in a convent. There was speculation that the new emperor had already fallen in love with Wu Zhao, even before his father had died. At any rate, after three years of mourning, Gaozong visited the nunnery and later summoned Wu Zhao to live in the palace as zhaoyi, a second grade concubine. This was with the blessing of the childless empress Wang, who felt threatened by Xiao Shufei (Hsiao Shu-fei), the emperor’s favorite concubine and mother of one of his sons. Empress Wang believed that Wu Zhao could distract the emperor from his affections for Xiao Shufei.

Wu Zhao herself, however, soon took over the role of the emperor’s favorite companion, and in 652, she had a son by him. She became influential in the court, so a power struggle followed, with Empress Wang and her former rival Xiao Shufei now conspiring together against Wu Zhao. In 654, Wu Zhao gave birth to a daughter, who died suddenly in her crib. She blamed the death on Empress Wang, who had often held the newborn. Some historians suggest that Wu smothered her own infant so that Empress Wang would be blamed for the killing. The emperor believed Wu Zhao, but senior statesmen would not depose Empress Wang, who came from a powerful aristocratic family.

However, there were less powerful officials who saw an opportunity to advance, so they supported the arguments for change put forth by Gaozong and Wu Zhao. In 655, Empress Wang and Xiao Shufei were accused of trying to poison the emperor. As a result, Empress Wang was deposed, Wu Zhao was promoted to empress, and her son became the heir apparent. Empress Wang and Xiao Shufei were imprisoned and eventually murdered, possibly on orders from Wu Zhao. As time passed, an increasing number of Empress Wu’s opponents were sent into exile.

In 660, Gaozong suffered the first of many crippling strokes, which left him unable to rule. With each illness, he allowed Empress Wu to assume more power and make more decisions for him, although she could hold court only from behind a screen, in keeping with the Confucian tradition for empresses and empress dowagers. Eventually, she took over his whole administration. It is generally acknowledged by even her worse detractors that she ruled with intelligence. However, she was also ruthless in her will to power and removed, exiled, or executed anyone, even family members, who threatened her position.

In 674, the emperor and empress adopted new titles that placed them above their predecessors: heavenly sovereign (tian huang) and heavenly empress (tian hou). The empress’s popular and intelligent son and heir apparent, Li Hong Li Hong (Tang prince) (Li Hung; 653-675) often disagreed with his mother. In 675, he argued publicly with her about the brutal treatment of Xiao Shufei’s two daughters. He died suddenly and mysteriously. Contemporary and later historians believed that he had been poisoned on orders from the empress. Then her second son, Li Xian Li Xian (Tang prince) (Li Hsien; 655-684) was proclaimed the crown prince. In 680, the empress accused him of plotting against his parents, and he was exiled.

On December 27, 683, Emperor Gaozong died, and in 684, Empress Wu’s third son, Li Zhe (Li Che) ascended the throne as Emperor Zhongzong Zhongzong (Tang emperor) (Chung-tsung; r. 684), with Wu Zhao as the dowager empress. However, the empress could not control her third son, and he attempted to give his father-in-law a high bureaucratic post. Six weeks after ascending the throne, he was sent to prison. Now her fourth son, Li Dang (Li Tang), became Emperor Ruizong Ruizong (Tang emperor) (Jui-tsung, r. 684-690), but he was weak and incompetent. He was secluded in a different palace and was sovereign in name only; Empress Wu actually ruled.

Soon there was a plot by princes and other imperial family members in the Yangtze Valley. They issued a proclamation accusing the empress of killing her own children, amongst other crimes. The rebels were disorganized and eventually subdued by imperial armies. To crush any further opposition, Wu Zhao set up a system of rewards and promotions for informants who would advise the authorities about anyone plotting against her.

In 689, she appeared carrying the imperial scepter and wearing the imperial robes. She had the support of a group of Buddhist monks, who claimed that the Great Cloud Sutra, a Buddhist work, contained the prophecy of Empress Wu’s rise to the imperial throne. In 690, Ruizong abdicated in favor of his mother, and the high ministers asked her to ascend the throne. She named the new dynasty Zhou (Chou) and assumed the title of sage and divine emperor.

Eventually, as she grew older, there was the question of who would be her successor because there had never been a female monarch before. In 698, she decided to bring Zhongzong back from exile and proclaim him as her successor, instead of Ruizong. At the same time, there was increasing criticism of her dependence on sorcerers and young male concubines.

On February 22, 705, after a palace coup, she was forced to abdicate. The Tang Dynasty was restored, and Zhongzong became the emperor again on February 23, 705. He would remain emperor until 710. Wu was given the title “Zetian,” which means “supreme empress.” On December 16, 705, she died and was buried next to Emperor Gaozong in the Qianling Tomb.

Wu Hou’s achievements were numerous and significant. Between 655 and 675, she negotiated with Korea and persuaded that country to become an ally of China. She decreased military spending and operations and replaced the government’s military aristocracy with a scholarly bureaucracy based on merit examinations. She also lowered taxes, increased agricultural production, and constructed majestic buildings in the capital. Wu Hou also built Buddhist temples, cave sculptures, and hospitals. Chinese Buddhism Buddhism;China China;Buddhism thrived during her reign. At the same time, she was a patron of Chinese art, literature, and culture. Not surprisingly, she elevated the position of women, challenged the Confucian position against women rulers, and commissioned scholars to to write biographies of famous women Women;China .


Wu Hou was the only female emperor in Chinese history. Many of the stories about her portray a cruel and ruthless despot, yet she was also a remarkable and successful ruler of the Chinese empire during one of its most glorious and peaceful periods.

Sources of information about her reign include the official Tang Dynasty histories, which were compiled by state-appointed historians as aids to government administration. Another source is the Zizhi tongjian (1084; comprehensive mirror for aid in government), the great imperial history by the Confucian scholar, Sima Guang Sima Guang (Ssu-ma Kuang; 1019-1086). The official Confucian histories about her were written several hundred years after her death, and these tended to be unfavorable. This is not surprising because her reign as emperor was completely contrary to Confucian and traditional Chinese political theory. However, perhaps because of these obstacles against her rise to power, it is plausible that she did plot, scheme, and eliminate opponents in order to succeed. Many male rulers took similar actions. Empress Wu remains a mysterious and controversial figure, the subject of debate and fascinating stories.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fitzgerald, C. P. The Empress Wu. 2d ed. London: Cresset Press, 1968. A detailed, interesting biography of Empress Wu. This 263-page book includes maps, tables of relationship, an “Annual Table of Events,” notes on the chapters, and an index and bibliography in Chinese.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Guisson, R. W. L. Wu Tse-Tien and the Politics of Legitimation in T’ang China. Bellingham: Western Washington University, 1978. In-depth study dealing with the question of the legitimation of Empress Wu’s position, the tension between Confucian state theory and the contradiction of a female ruler, and a nontraditional historiography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hibbert, Eloise. Embroidered Gauze: Portraits of Famous Chinese Ladies. 1941. Reprint. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1969. The frontispiece is an illustration of Empress Wu, and the work includes a 33-page chapter on her.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Paul, Diana. “Empress Wu and the Historians: A Tyrant and Saint of Classical China.” In Unspoken Worlds: Women’s Religious Lives in Non-Western Cultures, edited by Nancy Falk and Rita Gross. 3d ed. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2001. Paul analyzes Empress Wu’s relationship to the Buddhist and Confucian traditions. She discusses the possible reasons for the often negative historical views and presents a more balanced portrait of Empress Wu.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Willis, John E. Mountain of Fame: Portraits in Chinese History. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994. One of the chapters is an interesting, general biography of the empress.

Categories: History