Females in politics! This has been a thought that was shocking to many throughout history. Here in the United States, it is still difficult for a woman to aspire to be President of the nation. Many think of the U.S. as a progressive nation that freely liberated women. They seem to forget that men voted in this nation for more than a hundred years before they recognized suffrage rights of women. However, voting rights did not necessarily mean electability. That would just have to develop over time. Now we see women running for high offices and many finding success. But don’t get in too big of a hurry to pat ourselves on the backs, women have ruled nations long before we declared independence, even before the Western hemisphere was reached by Europeans.
During the most glorious years of the Tang dynasty a woman rose to power and ruled with commanding success. This woman holds quite a distinction as the only female in Chinese history to ever rule as emperor. Who was this woman? How did she come to power? And, what impact did she have on her nation?
China’s only ruling empress was Wu Zetian. She has been described in many ways. Some have called her an autocrat. Others brand her as ruthless. Still some take a look at her reign and say that in her actions, Wu was only doing what she had to do. After all, a female tackling a man’s job required much audacity. Yet some have described her as a woman simply doing a man’s job, the way a man would. Was she really that different from the male emperors of the day?
Wu was an effective ruler in a time of peace. During her reign, China was a nation that more culturally diverse than during other periods of the nation’s history.
The groundwork for Wu’s rise to empress began before here birth. Between 618-906 AD, the Tang dynasty allowed women relatively more freedom. Women were not subjected to the binding of their fee. They were not forced to lives of submission to their male counterparts. During the Tang rule, culture and politics were impacted by women. Being born into a wealthy family of nobility, Wu was educated and trained in arts. She was instructed how to read and write. She was taught to play music.
At the age of thirteen, Wu became a concubine in the court of Emperor Tai Tsung. She was said to have possessed charming wit. She gained attention with her intelligence. Her beauty was undeniable. Though she was noted as Tai Tsung’s favorite of all his concubines, Wu’s affections turned toward another. Tai Tsung’s son Kao Tsung had caught the your girls attention.
She remained the concubine of Tai Tsung until his death. Wu was twenty-seven. She then became a favored concubine of the new emperor. As time passed, Wu delivered sons to the Kao Tsung. The desire for power drove Wu to plot to remove an obstacle in her path to power, Empress Wang. Wu accused the empress of murder. She convinced Kao Tsung that Empress Wang had murdered Wu’s newborn daughter. She must have been very convincing. Kao Tsung replaced the empress and married his concubine, Wu Zetian.
The couple were married only five years before the Emperor suffered from a stroke. Kao Tsung was crippled and unable carry out his duties. Empress Wu stepped in and took over the administrative duties at court. This elevated her to a position equal to that of an emperor.
From her new lofty position, Wu created a secret police for the purpose of spying on those who opposed her. It was not beyond her to jail those who crossed her. She even had people, like Empress Wang, who stood in her way put to death.
The Emperor did not recover from his stroke and with his death, Wu was faced with new obstacles to her power. What were the obstacles? Her own sons. She dealt with them by outflanking them and putting her youngest son in a position of power. He was weak, and she could control him.
In order to secure her own power as a woman, Wu began to put women in elevated positions of power. She lifted the popularity of women in power positions by forcing scholars to write biographies of famous women. She gave her relatives on her mother’s side of the family top political positions.
Tradition was tossed out the window, and Wu promoted a mindset that a good ruler would be one who ruled like a mother over her household. But just what kind of mother was Wu? She had already deceitfully kept her eldest sons from positions of power. She had been controlling over her youngest son as he was named Emperor. By 690, she somehow had managed to get her son to remove himself as Emperor. She was declared Emperor of China.
As Emperor, Wu exercised wisdom. She sought out the best people for government positions. She treated those she trustily with great fairness. To halt the influence of the aristocratic military men, she reduced the size of the army. She replaced these military men in government positions with scholars. Government positions were not simply matters of aristocracy in Wu’s court, she put everyone on a level playing field and fostered competition for positions. She had those seeking or being considered for positions to take tests. She became known for her fairness to the peasants of her nation. She did the unthinkable to many in her position. Wu reduced taxes. She exhibited a spirit of progressivism by strengthening public works and increasing agricultural production. She was interested in the ideas and knowledge of others. Wu invited gifted scholars to her nation.
Wu even impacted the religious lives of her people. She elevated Buddhism over Daoism as the favored state religion. She commanded the building of Buddhist temples and cave sculptures. Under her reign, Chinese Buddhism reached its highest development.
Over time, she relied less and less on her spies and reduced the power of the secret police unit she had set in place. This may have been part of the reason for a growing mindset of fear and superstition. Corruption crept into her court as sorcerers and court favorites used flattery to influence the aging ruler. Under the weight of her age and her fears, Wu experienced great stress and finally in 705 gave up the throne to her third son. Once out of power, she did not live much longer. In that same year, China’s first female politician, Wu Zetian died.