A Woman to Know: Wu Zetian

All fell before her moth brows. — poet Luo Binwang

(image via Wikimedia Commons)


Wu Zetian is the only woman in Chinese history to rule in her own name. And she didn't rule as "Empress"; she claimed the title "Emperor."

Wu rose to prominence via the power of her "moth brows" and skills of flirtation. She was a concubine to one emperor, and then charmed his son into keeping her around after his father's death, and *then* before even a decade had passed, she was the one sitting atop a throne in court, issuing decrees and orders while her lover was "sick." After the royal descendant died, Wu, a former courtesan, assumed total control of China. And despite notorious love affair after notorious love affair, she never again married — lest she risk ceding power to another man.

Wu's notorious "reign of terror" dismantled the Chinese court's bureaucracy and led to hundreds of aristocratic executions and royal exiles. In one of the most grisly stories, she chopped up the bodies of her enemies to make a giant stew — which she in turn served to even more enemies gathered around her dinner table.

But as many of today's scholars will argue, Wu's "evil" reputation isn't necessarily grounded in fact. The laymen of China actually benefitted from her government overhaul and vast social reform. She was ruling with an iron fist, but one that greatly helped the poor and the disenfranchised — unfortunately for Wu, though, those were not the courtly people who would ultimately be documenting her legacy.

Toward the end of her reign, as royal hangers-on schemed to usurp her control of the country, Wu was preoccupied with something more pressing: her impending mortality. She became consumed by Buddhist study, even commissioning a mammoth series of statues carved into the side of a mountain. The now-famous Longmen Grottoes are Wu's alleged final burial site. The Grand Vairocana Buddha, depicted below, is presumably carved in Wu's likeness, one of the few images of her that remain.

(image via Wikimedia Commons)


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