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How Should Empress Wu Be Remembered?

HistoryHow Should Empress Wu Be Remembered?

Empress Wu Zetian was the only emperor in Chinese history to rule in her own name as emperor, and even establish her own dynasty, the Zhou. Wu ruled as the power behind the throne from the late 650s to 690 AD, after which she overthrew her son and took the throne herself. She ruled as the first leader of her Zhou dynasty from 690 to 705, after which she was deposed by Tang loyalists, including her son Zhongzong. This was the end of Wu’s Zhou dynasty. While Empress Wu might not meet today’s standards of a “good person,” she should be remembered positively as a good emperor of Tang China.

Empress Wu cannot be considered a “good person,” if there really exists such a concept. Born into a semi-noble family, and as a woman in the sexist Tang culture, her only path to the inner circle of the imperial palace was to become a concubine for the emperor Taizong, and later Gaozong. But she had the ambitions, and the skills, of a leader. In order to realize her goals, she had to kill. And, she did. She deposed and exiled three of her four sons (it is unclear from the sources what happened to her fourth son) and even killed her own infant daughter in an attempt to frame then-empress Wang. This attempt worked, and it is what allowed her to take control of the Tang dynasty. After Wang was framed, Wu was promoted by Emperor Gaozong to the rank of Empress. Wu then killed Xiao, a prominent concubine of Gaozong, and Empress Wang, largely out of jealousy. During the period where she was the puppet ruler of the Tang, before 690 AD, Wu slowly exiled, killed, or otherwise removed her political rivals. It seems that she killed her mother, sister, her husband Gaozong, and her elder brothers. It has also been alleged that she killed two grandchildren who dared to criticize her, and large numbers of the Tang Clan. However, most of these allegations cannot be proved to be true, especially due to large biases which stemmed from her being a woman. Though killings these remain largely unsubstantiated, it is clear that she did kill at least a few of her rivals and relatives. If Wu had committed these acts today, in order to become the American President, for example, she would have been called a serial murderer and would have been convicted and sentenced to life in prison. People today would not look upon her as a role model for their children, as a standard of ethical behavior. Therefore, it cannot be said that Empress Wu Zetian was a “good person”.

However, looking at the past through a modern lens can often lead historians to make unfair judgments, judgments of hindsight. As an article by the Smithsonian on the subject wrote: although Wu did commit many murders, her rule was one of relative peace and prosperity. Throughout her fifty years in power, the empire expanded, trade increased, taxes were cut, and the few wars that occurred were short and victorious. Though 450,000 people died in the Turkish war during Wu’s reign, this number was far less than the millions that died in other conflicts, such as the An Lushan rebellion. In Robert Graves’ book I, Claudius, he writes about Livia, a similar historical figure to Wu. Livia ruled as the power behind the throne of the Roman Empire for many years. Tiberius’s name was put on many of the imperial decisions of the time, but it is likely that Livia was behind many of them, especially the murders and exiles of senators. Graves writes, “Really, from the point of view of the Empire as a whole, he had been for the last twelve years a wise and just ruler. Of six million Roman citizens, a mere two or three hundred suffered for Tiberius’s jealous fears” (Graves 350). Claudius, the narrator of the book, goes on to write, “I was living in the apple’s core, so to speak, and I can be pardoned if I write more about the central canker than about the still unblemished and fragrant outer part” (Graves 350). The same that was true for Tiberius and Livia is true for Empress Wu. If Empress Wu is to be judged in her capacity as the Empress of a nation, she should be judged more for her actions towards the body of her subjects, those fifty million Tang citizens, than her actions towards a few. This certainly does not excuse the murderers of her political rivals, but it does put her work as the Empress of a large nation into context. 

“Positively” is a low standard. It is anything other than negative. And Empress Wu certainly was not a bad Empress. She accomplished much, and greatly expanded the prosperity of the Tang Empire. Taizong and Illustrious August are considered to be great emperors, though their actions towards their family and household were very comparable to Wu’s. Why should Empress Wu Zetain be different?

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Jess March

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