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Wu Ze Tian, the female emperor of China

China's first and only female emperor was an ambitious, strong willed, ruthless, and lusty woman Photo: Wu Ze Tian/Public Domain
Thursday, August 1, 2013 - Tales of the Dragon by Tang Long

WASHINGTON, August 1, 2013 — Wu Ze Tian, 624–705 AD, the first and only female emperor in Chinese history, was an ambitious, strong willed, ruthless, and lusty woman. She entered the imperial palace at the age of fourteen as a concubine to Li Shi Min, the second Emperor of the Imperial Tang Dynasty. She produced two emperors, murdered two of her own sons and a daughter then forced her own son to abdicate the throne in her favor.

In 649 AD, while the Emperor Tai Zong (Li Shi Min) was on his deathbed, she seduced the crown prince. When the emperor died, all concubines without children were sent to the imperial temple to serve as nuns. Within a year, the new Emperor Gao Zong brought Wu Ze Tian back into the palace as a concubine. She allied with the empress against Lady Xiao, a favorite concubine of the emperor. Soon afterwards, Wu Ze Tian became the emperor’s favorite, forcing the empress to join forces with Lady Xiao against Wu Ze Tian. 

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In 654 AD, Lady Wu gave birth to a princess. She choked the baby to death and framed the empress for the murder. Next year, Lady Wu accused the empress of witchcraft, resulting in her demotion and the appointment of Wu Ze Tian as the new empress; she then brow beat the emperor into executing the ex-empress and Lady Xiao.

When the emperor fell ill, she became the de facto regent. Four years later, in 664 AD, the emperor consulted with the Prime Minister to rein in the empress’ growing power. She confronted the emperor with the allegation and the Emperor Gao Zong blamed the Prime Minister as the instigator of the incident. The empress had the Prime Minister and his entire family executed.

Wu Ze Tian had four sons. She poisoned the first, when he opposed her maltreatment of Lady Xiao’s daughters. She exiled the second son, and later had him murdered, when she suspected him of assassinating one of her confidants. In 683 AD, Emperor Gao Zong died and the third son Li Zeh ascended to become Emperor Zhong Zong, but Wu Ze Tian retained power as the empress dowager and regent.

Within a month, the emperor was removed for not being sufficiently compliant to the dowager empress; thus, the youngest son became the new Emperor Rui Zong. In 690 AD, she forced the emperor to abdicate and installed herself as the Emperor of the Imperial Tang Dynasty.

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She was a willful but effective ruler, China prospered under her rein. She championed the national examination system to find the most capable person for government positions. The system promoted individuals based on scholarly knowledge, regardless of the person’s heritage or background.

She was cruel and vindictive to her enemies, but gave ample lead way to able subordinates. Anyone she suspected to be a threat to her power was eliminated, even her own sons.

She had a healthy appetite for men, and maintained her own stable of male concubines. She did not, however, mix business with pleasure. Once, one of her concubines refused to yield the right of way to the Prime Minister, and was soundly beaten by the official’s guardsmen for his insubordination. The boy toy begged Wu Ze Tian for revenge. The emperor ascertained the situation and suggested that in the future the man should avoid the routes used by the Prime Minister.

Of course, when one of her boy friends became overbearing or too much of an embarrassment, he would be dispatched minus a critical organ atop his shoulder.

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In 697 AD, at the age of 73, Wu Ze Tian acquired two new young lovers who were twin brothers; she even made them kings with their own fiefs. They were the last of a long succession of her imperial bedmates.

In the spring of 705 AD, Wu Ze Tian was seriously ill. A group of loyalists of the imperial Li family led by Li Xian, Wu Ze Tian’s third son, launched a coup and restored the throne to the Li family. Wu Ze Tian was deposed, but she was allowed to retain her title sans political power.

Confucian scholars lambasted her for her incestuous relationship with her stepson, her ruthless persecution of her enemies and her amorous appetite. However, they could not deny that she was an effective and just ruler of the realm.


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Tang Long

William Tang is a research analyst. Born in Taiwan, he is fluent in three dialects of Chinese and Spanish, plus survival level German and Japanese. He is a graduate of the Officers Advance Course at the General Political Warfare College, Taipei, Taiwan.

He lectures on Chinese history and culture and has two books in publication: “Tales of the Dragon – The Book of Lore,” an anthology of Chinese legends, fables, and historical anecdotes; and “Pets Only,” which recounts a pets operated eating establishment in northern Virginia. He lives with Shadow (Lab), Taz (Boxer) and Foxy Lady (Japanese Shiba Inu) in Fredericksburg, VA. He writes under the penname of TANG Long.

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