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The life and times of Empress Wu
August 15, 2012 9:44 AM   Subscribe

Her name was Wu Zetian, and in the seventh century A.D. she became the only woman in more than 3,000 years of Chinese history to rule in her own right.

Wu rose from daughter of a minor general to become the power behind the throne of several emperors, and finally, outright ruler herself. Her methods in achieving and maintaining power were (allegedly) murderous. However, under her, China was at peace, and she introduced important reforms to the bureaucracy.

Wu died in 705. Her tomb has never been opened.
posted by Chrysostom (35 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite

 
The large Buddha statue at the Longmen Grottoes is thought to be modeled on her face.
posted by mjklin at 10:00 AM on August 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


Her methods in achieving and maintaining power were (allegedly) murderous.

Oh, she definitely was murderous. Which means she fits in well in the history of Chinese leaders, from Qin Shihuangdi to Kublai Khan to Chiang Kai-Shek to Mao to Deng.
posted by kmz at 10:01 AM on August 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


And, for that matter, most "great" leaders around the world throughout history.
posted by kmz at 10:02 AM on August 15, 2012 [5 favorites]


She's always been one my my favorites. Yes, she was vicious as hell, but that's pretty much the politics of the time. If she hadn't been vicious she would have been dismissed as weak, and Wu ain't lettin' that happen.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 10:10 AM on August 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


I thought it was very cool that the most recent Civilization game used her as the Chinese leader instead of the many other (perhaps more obvious) choices. Plus she's got some fantastic theme music.
posted by sonmi at 10:14 AM on August 15, 2012 [4 favorites]


Just this weekend I watched Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame. One of the major features of the plot is the coronation of Empress Wu, and the construction of a giant buddha statue featuring her face.

Decent flick. Not profound.
posted by contrarian at 10:23 AM on August 15, 2012


Often wondered exactly how far misogynist elements damaged her posthumous reputation, as usurpers in general get short shrift so it's hard to say how much is the the former rather than the latter but must be a part of it, I'd think. Mao Zedong was a big fan of her realpolitik skills if you believe certain accounts (Ch.).
Also, seems like coining your own new characters never succeeds, or can anyone think of a ruler's that survived?
posted by Abiezer at 10:23 AM on August 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


Yes, it *is* true she was as vicious and ruthless as any of her contemporaries. And, yet, she has historically been known *especially* for her ruthlessness moreso than her accomplishments.

Historiographical reinforcement of the patriarchy at work, folks.
posted by absalom at 10:39 AM on August 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


Just this weekend I watched Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame.

Huh, is it a whodunit mystery or just an action film? I've read a few of Robert van Gulik's Judge Dee mysteries, so I might have to check it out.
posted by homunculus at 10:42 AM on August 15, 2012


Speaking of badass Chinese women: Short comic about the life of a female pirate
posted by homunculus at 10:44 AM on August 15, 2012


She's always been one my my favorites. Yes, she was vicious as hell, but that's pretty much the politics of the time.

To be fair to the huangdi, her history was written by Confucian bureaucrats who hated her for a) being a woman, b) being a Buddhist, and c) not listening to them. Which was the origin of the worst vitriol, I have no idea.

It's a bit like Domitian as Emperor of Rome. There is little doubt that he had bad policies as well as good ones, but one gets from the history (written by Senators, mostly) the sense that his worst crime was telling the Senate to go f*ck themselves and not even pretending to listen to them (unlike his father and brother). Sure, he was paranoid and ruthless, but surviving numerous assassination attempts will do that to you.

Similarly, I have no doubt that Wu Zetian was pretty ruthless, but her reign was, by no means, a disaster for China, and she is, at worst, firmly in the middle of the pack as Emperors go, and probably a bit better than that. She wasn't Lǐ Shìmín, but that's a pretty high bar to set.
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:44 AM on August 15, 2012 [8 favorites]


Huh, is it a whodunit mystery or just an action film?

There is a bit of a mystery, but it is more of an action film. It's pretty to watch, if a little over-CGIed for my tastes.
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:50 AM on August 15, 2012


b) being a Buddhist

Good point. Bit later in the Tang you get Han Yu's famous Confucian's diatribe against Buddhism (PDF) which gives a flavour of the hostility:
Your servant begs leave to say that Buddhism is no more than
 a cult of the barbarian 
peoples, which
 spread to China in
the time of the Latter Han...
Now Buddha was a man of the barbarians who did not speak the language of China and wore
clothes of a different fashion. His sayings did not concern
the ways of our ancient kings, nor did his manner of dress conform to their laws. He understood neither the duties that bind sovereign
 and subject nor the affections of father and son. If he were still alive today and came to our court by order of his ruler, Your Majesty might condescend to receive him, but …
he would then 
be escorted to the borders of the state, dismissed, and not allowed to delude the masses...
posted by Abiezer at 10:53 AM on August 15, 2012 [5 favorites]


And other side of that, I suppose, is the appeal of Buddhism to (sort-of) 'outsiders' like Wu Zetian who obviously couldn't turn to orthodoxy for legitimation.
posted by Abiezer at 10:54 AM on August 15, 2012


Yes, it *is* true she was as vicious and ruthless as any of her contemporaries. And, yet, she has historically been known *especially* for her ruthlessness moreso than her accomplishments.
Historiographical reinforcement of the patriarchy at work, folks.


A man who is strong is still a man, but a woman who is strong is a ruthless bitch.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 10:55 AM on August 15, 2012 [7 favorites]


Speaking of badass Chinese women: Short comic about the life of a female pirate

I thought it was brilliant that Ching Shih was one of the Pirate Lords in Pirates of the Carribean...
posted by Slap*Happy at 10:58 AM on August 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


Thanks, GenjiandProust.
posted by homunculus at 10:59 AM on August 15, 2012


Wait, wasn't there a comment here about her being a character in a video game? Which game?
posted by homunculus at 11:02 AM on August 15, 2012


In Civ 5, apparently. Comment must have been deleted.
posted by Abiezer at 11:03 AM on August 15, 2012


In Civ 5, apparently. Comment must have been deleted.

Nope, right here.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 11:06 AM on August 15, 2012


They hid it under that big pile of air!
posted by Abiezer at 11:09 AM on August 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


Bit later in the Tang you get Han Yu's famous Confucian's diatribe against Buddhism

Heh, Han Yu knew how to lay it on, that's for sure.

Yeah, some of the opposition was xenophobia and nationalism, and some was a recoiling from Buddhism's rejection of the family as the center of social life, but a lot was the Confucian elite's anger at being supplanted from positions of power.

To be fair, many of the Buddhist temples got involved in land-and-tax schemes and money lending that makes Wall Street look somewhat restrained (and led, pretty directly, to the collapse of the T'ang), but Han Yu didn't seem to think that was a problem. Occupy Chang'an!
posted by GenjiandProust at 11:09 AM on August 15, 2012 [4 favorites]


Only thing I read about that was Gernet's Buddhism in Chinese Society, which I thought was great, but no idea if it stands up to modern scholarship as it's getting on in years now. Recall tales of merchants embracing the dharma and pious poverty and immediately sinking their goods-laden ships, only to discover the monks were rather hoping for a donation instead. Didn't taking the tonsure also get you out of corvee in some reigns, which obviously led to a large not-entirely-sincere clerical community dodging their feudal duties?
posted by Abiezer at 11:15 AM on August 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


Nope, right here.

I clearly need more coffee.
posted by homunculus at 11:21 AM on August 15, 2012


Didn't taking the tonsure also get you out of corvee in some reigns, which obviously led to a large not-entirely-sincere clerical community dodging their feudal duties?

I believe this is true, which, to bring it back to Wu Zetian, is, perhaps a warning against a leader of a nation embracing a religion too closely. Yes, she helped get Buddhism established in China, but a great deal of the religious infrastructure got compromised in the process, and it, in turn, compromised the government (interestingly, something similar happened in Japan at roughly the same time (part of the reason for moving the capitol from Nara to Kyoto was to get away from the overwhelming influence of some of the Buddhist temples).
posted by GenjiandProust at 11:22 AM on August 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


Another interesting female figure from those days is rebel 'empress' (she proclaimed herself such apparently) Chen Suozhen; led her peasant armies to capture large chunks of what is now Zhejiang just prior to Wu's rise to power, but the whole affair was over in about a month.
posted by Abiezer at 11:32 AM on August 15, 2012


I just had to dig out my book of Chinese humor to remember Lu Ta, the bandit-turned-Buddhist priest to escape arrest. Ah, the drinking and the dogmeat and the beatings... (all very humorous!)
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 11:42 AM on August 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


I forget what I was reading when I stumbled across the affair of the human pig and it was like one of those scare gifs. Probably the equivalent of a tabloid story but, still, eesh.
posted by fleacircus at 11:57 AM on August 15, 2012


There is an interesting first-person fictional biography of Wu Zeitan (by another name) by Shan Sa called Empress; and she shows up briefly in When Fox is a Thousand by Larissa Lai, also not by name. (I only noticed her in Fox because I'd just read Empress a month before.)
posted by snorkmaiden at 12:32 PM on August 15, 2012


To be fair, many of the Buddhist temples got involved in land-and-tax schemes and money lending that makes Wall Street look somewhat restrained (and led, pretty directly, to the collapse of the T'ang), but Han Yu didn't seem to think that was a problem. Occupy Chang'an!

Why not? Mao did.
posted by Space_Lady at 1:47 PM on August 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


>Occupy Chang'an!

Why not? Mao did.


Well, technically,Mao occupied Xi'an 西安 rather than Chang'an 長安, which was, I think, a little off from the site of the current city. Anyway, you don't have to do everything that Mao did.
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:02 PM on August 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


There is an interesting first-person fictional biography of Wu Zeitan (by another name) by Shan Sa called Empress; and she shows up briefly in When Fox is a Thousand by Larissa Lai, also not by name.

Weirdly, I ran past both of those books while looking for my Chinese humor book. Almost pulled out When Fox is a Thousand to read it again on the spot, such a good book.
I have a lot of books on Chinese history and especially the women, from Wu Zetian to Madame Mao (another demonified woman, albeit again with some justification).
I don't know why - maybe because Chinese (political) history contains a rare blend of absolute subtlety of communication paired with absolute naked aggression of action.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 3:03 PM on August 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


Speaking of Buddhist grottoes: The Maijishan Grottoes - Artistic Treasure of China’s Past
posted by homunculus at 3:09 PM on August 15, 2012


There was a fantastic Cantonese series in the 80's called "Empress Wu" - my entire family was addicted to it for the entire run.

We'd never seen anything like it and the story was fantastic - the Wu character was very charismatic.
posted by awfurby at 3:51 PM on August 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


Also, seems like coining your own new characters never succeeds, or can anyone think of a ruler's that survived?

Nothing comes to mind there (though I might well be missing something), but name-taboos are a different matter. The Daode Jing is the first example to come to mind: the received text uses 国 throughout to refer to states, whereas the earliest manuscripts use 邦, which was changed to 国 because of the taboo on 刘邦's name. There are also variant forms of characters -- plus or minus a stroke -- in order to avoid taboos on writing Imperial reign-names, so you'll see old texts with slightly funky characters in some places -- 玄 without the final stroke, say.

I'm pleased to report, meanwhile, that Wu Zetian's characters -- well, 曌 at least -- are still around, present in Unicode, and occasionally still used. I met someone years ago whose given name was 曌. She was amazed that anyone, especially a gringo, knew the reading for the character, and I had to explain that this sort of thing is what I do instead of fun.
posted by bokane at 9:02 PM on August 15, 2012 [4 favorites]


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