Empress Wu’s Greatest Accomplishments

Empress Wu

Empress Wu Zetian – Biography, Facts, & Accomplishments |Image is from the 18th century album of images of 86 emperors of China |British Library, shelfmark Or. 2231

Empress Wu: Quick Biography

Empress Wu, who was also known as Wu Zetian or Wu Zhao, was the first and only female monarch to rule China. Additionally, Wu Zhao is generally recognized as the longest reigning de facto female ruler in history, having being at the helm of affairs of the empire for close to half a century.

Her meteoric rise to power began when she married Emperor of Gaozong, at which point she manipulated the emperor to become his main consort (Huanghou). Prior to her marriage to Gaozong, she was a junior concubine of Gaozong’s father, Emperor Tiazong (r. 626–649).

Wu was also the mother of four sons, three of which became emperors of China. Chinese historians state that Empress Wu’s decisiveness and proactive approach to dealing with court affairs were just some of the reasons for her longevity at the top. She was also a very charismatic, charming and well-educated woman who worked very hard to unify the empire.

In 705, Empress Wu died. A year prior to her death, she was jettisoned out of the imperial palace in an apparent coup organized by senior military generals and state counsellors. China’s only female emperor was succeeded to the throne by her son Li Zhe (Emperor Zhongzong).

Empress Wu: Fast Facts

Date of Birth: February 17, 624 CE

Date of Death: December 16, 705 CE

Burial place: Luoyang

Dynasty: Tang Dynasty (618 – 907)

Parents: Wu Shiyue and Lady Yang

House: Wǔ

Spouse: Emperor Taizong (his concubine), Emperor Gaozong (655-683),

Children: Li Hong (later Emperor Yizong), Princess Si of Anding, Li Xian (Crown Prince Zhanguai), Li Xian (Li Zhe) (Emperor Zhongzong), Li Dan (later Emperor Ruizong), Princess Taiping

Religion: Buddhism

Reign: 690 – 705

Coronation date: October 690

Predecessor: Emperor Ruizong (from the Tang dynasty)

Successor: Emperor Zhongzong

Epithets: Sacred and Divine Huangdi, Holy and Divine Emperor

Also known as: Wu Hou, Tian Hou, Wu Zhao, Wu Zetian

Most famous for: China’s only female monarch; Empress of Tang dynasty,

Achievements of Empress Wu Zetian

Many historians over the years have insisted that Empress Wu Zetian was ruthless, manipulative and power hungry; however there is no doubt whatsoever that she accomplished some very astounding things during her fifteen-year reign as ruler of China. Many of her actions and social reforms were responsible for making China a prosperous and powerful nation.

In the article below worldhistoryedu.com explores the major accomplishments of Empress Wu, China’s only female monarch.

Empress Wu Zetian was a competent and effective ruler

Empress Wu was an extraordinary woman with amazing intellect and just the right amount of competence to rule China in a manner that allowed the empire to prosper.

The manner in which she steered the affairs of the empire has been compared to great female monarchs in history, such as Catherine the Great, Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth. Her reign allowed her to solidify the huge gains that were had been started by the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907) – one of China’s golden ages.

Her reign witnessed huge trade gains

As the power behind the throne of the Tang dynasty, Empress Wu was instrumental in transforming the capital of the empire – Chang’an – into one the most leading cosmopolitan places in the world. She also kept the Silk Roads very vibrant, allowing for a plethora of entrepreneurial and trading activities to thrive. Trade flourished with other Western empires and Eurasian nations. Much of the items traded were in textiles, spices and minerals.

To boost the economy, Wu asked her advisors and staff to compile a number of agricultural textbooks to help increase farmers’ yield. She also built several irrigation systems and brought down taxes on farmers. All those economic policies helped secure huge trade gains for the empire. This in turn improved the lives of many peasants in deprived and remote prefectures.

She was a massive supporter of women’s rights

Stories abound about how Empress Wu ruthlessly eliminated (either killed or exiled) her female rivals during her meteoric rise to the throne. However, it must be noted that her cruelty was not only aimed at women, it was simply aimed at anyone that stood in between her and her ambitious pursuit for power. In that regard, one cannot really say that she was anti-women’s rights.

On the contrary, she was a huge supporter of women’s rights. She encouraged Tang women to remain very assertive and earn the same level of education as their male counterparts. During her reign, women occupied a number of civil service positions; women in the Tang dynasty could put on male clothes and ride horses.

In one instance Empress Wu insisted that she too be allowed to offer sacrifices to the deities of heaven and earth at Mount Tai. Her husband Emperor Gaozong had just offered his sacrifices. Wu took an unprecedented move and followed suit, inviting a number of other princesses to do same.

Did you know: In an unprecedented move, Empress Wu made the mourning period for a deceased mother to be the same as the period for a deceased father?

Reigned over some of the most successful times of the Tang dynasty

In spite of her using the informer system and a well-resourced secret police to ruthlessly eliminate every individual that threatened her reign, Empress Wu Zetian did indeed work tirelessly to unite China, as well as rule the empire with very great efficiency. Historians to this day are amazed by her ability to seamlessly get raid off every palace element that sought to usurp her from her position.

Even when Emperor Gaozong, her husband, was on the throne, Empress Wu Zetian was the power behind the throne. And as Gaozong started to lose his vision as a result of a possible hypertension, Wu became more and more relevant in the court. She ruled on his behalf; it was understood that she even made better decisions than the emperor.

Empress Wu was one of China’s greatest social reformers

Additionally, she had a knack for making sound decisions that kept China on track within the golden age era of the Tang dynasty. She instituted several reforms that moved the empire from one based on military and political aristocracy to one based on bureaucratic system of administration.

Her biggest social reform came in the form of changing the recruitment policy of civil servants and state officials. The Empress abandoned the aristocratic system and instituted an objected and fair system for recruiting persons into the state machine. She also instituted a fair performance evaluation of civil servants; and those that fell short of the mark were immediate removed (either dismissed or at worst exiled) from their post and replaced with more competent people with intellectual capabilities.

Allowed the less privileged but talented folks to become state officials

Under the imperial examination system, Wu was able to bring stability to the empire, allowing competent people from less privileged homes and clans to enter into the civil service. Appointments and promotions were largely based on a merit, abandoning the old age tradition of placing incompetent aristocrats into positions of trust and power.  Some historians even believe that Wu purposely instituted social programs that repressed the aristocrats and favored the less privileged. As a result of this, she was very popular among the common folks.

Did you know: Empress Wu was the brain behind the two-volume Rules for Officials, a manual that was used to make the selection criteria for civil servants more objective?

She was an attentive ruler and had very good judgment

In addition to filling her cabinet with capable officials, Wu was considered a very attentive ruler who often made sound judgments. She encouraged some level of religious diversity, allowing Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism to flourish in the empire. She even went to extent of making some Buddhist monks dukes and personal advisors. It’s been stated that she built Dayun temples in each prefecture.

Another sound judgement of hers was in the alleviation of poverty among the common folks. Empress Wu primarily deployed a fair land allocation and re-allocation scheme that enabled farmers earn enough. Supporting this program were her numerous relief programs and pay rises for lower-ranked state officials.

Military and diplomatic accomplishments

Empress Wu scored extremely well in terms of military and diplomacy. First off all, she made the military very efficient, encouraging the army to be self-sufficient using the self-supportive soldier-farmer colonies (also known as the Fubing System). The system allocated parcels of lands to military for farming, allowing the soldiers to farm on those lands in order to raise crops and incomes for themselves.

Furthermore, she employed the services of very experienced military generals – such as General Wang Xiaojie –   to help her expand the empire. Thus, during her reign China held territories and cultural influence in places in Japan, Korea and Central Asia. For example, in 694, she handed the Tibetan-Western Turk alliance a crushing defeat.

She spearheaded intellectual and literary development

Another very admirable achievement of Empress Wu Zetian came in the promotion of literature, art and culture. It’s been stated that she collaborated with writers such as Yuan Wanqing, Liu Yizhi, Fan Lubing, Zhou Simao to produce many literary works. Most notable of those works include Biographies of Notable Women, Guideline for Imperial Subjects, and New Teachings for Official Staff Members.

Empress Wu Zetian also used many of those writers and artists as advisors. Wu herself was a lover of poetry, history, and music; growing up she loved reading and realized that knowledge and education would prove extremely useful in fulfilling her ambition of one day ruling China.

Her commitment to the arts and literature created the right conditions for prominent scholars and poets such as Du Fu and Li Bai to emerge after her reign.

Empress Wu’s name and titles

Wu Zetian had quite a plethora of names and titles. Upon reaching the upper echelons of Chinese society, she named herself Wu Zhao. After her marriage to Emperor Gaozong, she was given the name Wu Mei, which translates to “stylish”.

In China, her name Wu Mei is often the most preferred name of reference when talking about her youthful days. However, the name Wu Hou is used when talking about her years as empress dowager and consort. She gets referred to as Wu Zetian when her years as empress regnant are being talked about.

Read More: 10 Greatest Emperors of China

Other interesting facts about Empress Wu Zetian

  • Born into a relatively influential family, Wu was known as Lady Wu. Upon entering the royal palace at just fourteen years of age, she became Cairen – the fifth ranked imperial consort of Emperor Taizong.
  • In 655, after her marriage to Emperor Gaozong, she came to be known as Wu Hou – Empress Consort Wu.
  • As empress consort she was called Huanghou, And as empress dowager (Huang Taiahou), she was known as Shengmu Shenghuang.
  • Examples of Empress Wu’s titles when she was Empress regnant (Huangdi) were Jinlun Shengshen Huangdi, Shengshen Huangdi, and Yuegu Jinlun Shengshen Huangdi.
  • Empress Wu holds the singular position of being the first and only woman in the history of China to be given the title huangdi, which means “emperor” or “empress regnant”. During her reign as regnant she was given the epithet Sacred and Divine Huangdi.
  • Only two women in the history of China have put on the yellow robe – ceremonial attire reserved only for the emperor. The two women were Empress Dowager Liu of the Song Dynasty and Empress Wu Zetian.
  • Wu Zetian was buried in Qianling Mausoleum close to her husband Emperor Gaozong (Li Zhi).

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