above: Liu Yuxin as Wu Zetian in Taiping Gong Zhu Mi Shi
Born in Lizhou, Sichuan, Wu Zhao — later Wu Zetian — was the only Empress Regnant of China. First noticed by Taizong of the Tang Dynasty, she entered into the palace as a concubine at thirteen. After his death, she and all of the childless concubines entered a convent. However, she’d caught the eye of Gaozong, Taizong’s son and successor, and became his concubine, and then his empress. She established her own dynasty, the Zhou Dynasty.
But this isn’t about her. This is about me. Or, more specifically, how fabulous I find her.
Accounts of Wu Zetian vary wildly — as those of any female ruler in a patrilineal and patriarchal society are apt to be. Some saw her as a bloodthirsty, power-hungry, usurping, abomination.
Me? I think she’s awesome.
The very fact that she surpassed all odds and actually managed to make herself ruler of China in name as well as in theory — because there have been Empress Dowagers and de facto Empresses before and after her who ruled through their children and through their husbands, but Wu Zetian was the only one to lay claim to the title Huang Di — is amazing. A woman in power is always a scary thing to a society that so depends on sexism (note to all Orientalist creeps who think that this only applies to/exists in the “backwards” civilisations of the Far East — it doesn’t).
It astonishes me that people think she could have gotten to power any other way but through trickery and scheming. Perhaps it wasn’t the most legitimate method, but for people to claim that she was uncivilised and barbaric in her seizing of power when it was that society itself that was uncivilised and barbaric towards her, that society itself that does not offer her and her sister concubines the opportunity it offers her husband and her sons, that society that committed acts of violence and suppression against them, that deemed them inferior due to their assigned sex — is something that makes me legitimately want to crack up.
As are the claims that she was ruthless and needlessly violent. Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of a unified China, buried scholars alive, and I have yet to see the sort of vitriol Wu Zetian often gets directed at him. The fact is that she was no more violent or bloodthirsty than many of her male counterparts — she is merely judged more viciously for it because women are supposed to be “soft” and “kind” and “delicate” — nevermind the fact that she never would have gotten to where she was had she been soft and kind and delicate. Furthermore, there was more necessity to her violence, more necessity for her to be able to carry out her threats, because there was more instability to her rule. Oh, I don’t mean in the sense that the Mongols were about to topple the Southern Song or the Jurchens were about to overrun the Northern Song or the Manchus were coming for the Ming.
I mean the fact that people ceaselessly questioned her rule and her ability to rule, the fact that they threatened to topple her dynasty, the fact that people like the poet Luo Bingwang legitimately threatened to rise up against her. She faced more internal condemnation and questions of legitimacy from people who did not think that women had any place in the Dragon Throne than any man in her position ever did — including Yongzheng. (It’s also worth mentioning that if she established her own dynasty, it is not valid to question her claim to the throne. What claim did Liu Bang have to the throne? Yet he still became ruler over the Han Dynasty. What claim had Zhao Kuangyin have to the throne? Yet he still established the Song Dynasty. People are not required to switch loyalties when dynasties collapse and new ones replace them — see the multitude of anti-Qing organisations, and though this is considered an interruption of the Tang rather than a well and true replacement of it, it’s disingenuous to question her lack of royal blood without then questioning the lack of royal blood of, well, every emperor of china, our concept of royal blood is not, as the Western concept, ordained by the Christian God, but rather changes under the supposed ordinance of Heaven when one dynasty gives way to the other, such that no one family can lay claim to royal blood in perpetuity.)
She had to show that she was willing and able to dispose of people who threatened her rule, or else, well, people would start posing serious threats to it, because they don’t take her seriously enough, or they treat her as if she hadn’t the brains or the ability to govern. (Whether she could actually govern capably is another question.)
Her problem wasn’t that she couldn’t play by the rules, it’s that she knew them too well, knew how to use them and manipulate them to her best advantage, and it scared the men. It scared them, so she’s a demon and a monstress.
For further reference see: Irene of Attolia (Queen’s Thief) and Cersei Lannister (Game of Thrones)