It is amazing how Chinese history twists its turns and reveals the most unexpected events of female governance. For ages, the Chinese emperors were accused of falling in love or obsessed with different women which subsequently led to the Empire’s collapse. A good example is the historically true legend of Yang Gui-Fei and her being the emperor’s concubine. However, the Chinese historical heritage shows that the gender issues were strengthened with the outrageously well-performed empress’ duties. It was evident that women, doing the men’s job, were brilliant. No matter how the male environment adopted that fact, the ruling was successful and pretty wise.
Empress Wu Zetian (17 February 624 – 16 December 705)
Though some consider women to be tender, nice, and soft, the Empress Wu Zetian was opposite to all the female features listed above. Moreover, she was deemed to be ruthless and somewhat despotic which is unusual for the Chinese woman, you would think. However, this was exactly what helped Empress Wu Zetian to remain just and unbiased since she was doing the male job in a female way. Also, she was known to be the best ruler amongst all who managed everything effectively during culturally diverse periods.
Born in a rich family Wu was taught music and the Chinese language. Hence, she was able to read classics and get highly educated for those times. By the age of thirteen Wu was considered a well-bred young lady who now could be introduced to the emperor’s court. Meanwhile, Emperor Tai Tsung made her the favourite concubine which gave Wu a wonderful opportunity to promote herself within the court and overall political issues through the Emperor.
The time passed, and the old emperor was replaced by his son Kao Tsung who had successfully taken power. Since Wu Zetian liked the new emperor long before, so she did everything possible to overthrow his wife after giving birth to his sons so long. She was a very cunning woman who thought that all was fair in love and war; therefore she accused the emperor’s current wife of killing the newborn daughter. Of course, the response of the emperor was reasonable, adequate, and satisfactory for Wu Zetian. This was the start of the 27-year-old concubine’s essential invasion of Chinese political life.
There is no doubt the Empress now had a full range of power within the court since the Emperor got injured and could not perform his duties anymore. “Wu Zetian proved to be a very competent monarch and throughout her reign, the legacy of prosperity was bequeathed” (Pandajojo). Although it seems like he could rule at least somehow, his wife did not let him do so. She has taken over the post and embodied the so-called female justice. This was implemented in serious structures created: the secret spying organization to find out the opposition’s intentions. It can be said here that such kinds of actions are truly adopted by the female insight, though already inherited by many contemporary countries’ politics. No wonder she was viewed as a cruel person since she used to get rid of everybody who stood in her way including the poor ex-empress Wang. Moreover, Wu Zetian now appeared at the peak of her power. Besides total control over political issues, she managed to outwit her elder sons and put into governance her youngest one to rule in shadow.
Ultimately, she would say that the best ruler is the one who treats the country’s issues like a mother treats her children. Of course, during her reign, there were a lot of Chinese cultural, political, and gender perspectives changed. No wonder, the women’s role within the country’s society was hugely reconsidered. This Empress can deservedly be called a very totalitarian ruler though very devoted. She managed to open the world of politics and art for women.
Moreover, one of the achievements this historical figure can boast of – she was the one to start her dynasty by putting her family members to the political court. Needless to say this entailed complete rooting in Chinese history.
Although the climbing for the highest post in the state was somewhat rough as per historians, her governance was known as fair and just after her youngest son declined the office. Moreover, Empress Wu Zetian reduced taxes, instituted exams for the higher posts of power. She raised agriculture since this was and still is the prior economical feature of China. What is interesting in terms of gender research, Empress Wu Zetian used to appoint trustworthy people to the position of state’s government. This is a mere female approach to the successful outcome.
One of the main changes Chine underwent during the reign of Empress Wu Zetian was the shift of religious matters. Of course, the most rooted religion ever was Daoism – and it was replaced by Buddhism. The empress invited the best scholars to plant the seeds of this faith which have successfully existed till nowadays.
It is amazing how this woman managed everything inside her head. Of course, it is a well-known fact that in ancient China women were somewhat in disgrace. However, such historical examples as Empress Wu Zetian give a certain impression of powerful and totalitarian regimes that took place way long ago. It has to be mentioned, though, that as any woman she must have become tired of such a tensed life of confrontation, lies, and power held in her hands entirely. Subsequently, she loosened the responsibilities of secret agencies and just started being too fearful and suspicious. Ultimately, her son took over the reign, which was to be expected since all these years he didn’t lose hope to take the place of his mother.
However, despite her old age she continued to take interest in the affairs she was doing the best: finding talented officials and giving them a chance of promotion. This was the prior aim of a female ruler – to approach the governance wisely with far-reaching goals. One can hardly deny that she was a cruel ruler; however, she could never forget that everything is done for the sake of the empire’s prosperity and success. Though she was just doing what every male Chinese emperor did. She was held hostage of the times she lived in.
It has to be said right at the beginning that Empress Lü used to be the most brutal empress ever known in the history of China. After the death of her husband, she had got the title of Empress subsequently empowered with everything an empress should have. The first thing she did was take revenge upon Concubine Qi. She murdered her son, and then put Qi through tremendous tortures. She ordered to cut off her limbs, blind her and make her deaf. There were other examples of inhuman treatment of other emperor’s relatives that only proves her being thirsty for power woman: …there is no doubt that Empress Lu was behind the murder of Emperor Shao’s mother. (Chi̕en, p. 121). So, for sixteen years the power was situated in her hands.
Of course, there was also a place for wisdom within the governing. People were satisfied with the fact that endless wars and invasions were stopped. Many Chinese officials were afraid of Empress Lü’s army and so didn’t even dare to rebel. Also, they were afraid of her ruthlessness and kept merely quiet since she proved to be somewhat unreliable in terms of private agreements as it was with Peng Yue.
Being a widow she exercised even more power than she did before. It is hard to believe but after the emperor’s death, the empress became even crueller. Just as our previously discussed historical figure, Dowager Lü used to exercise power through her son who by then took the reins.
The first targets to come closer to power were Consort Qi and her son. Of course, the emperor loved both his concubine and the son she gave birth to. However, this wasn’t on Dowager Lü’s plan list. She had to take over the concubine to get the highest position in the country. So, despite the love and moral tortures of the emperor who regretted he ever went hunting, Dowager Lü did what she had to do most maliciously. They say that the emperor could not see anyone and indulged himself in drinking and miscellaneous relations for a year. Hence, he could not take any serious decisions on his own and left it all to his mother.
Those were the most shocking events in Emperor Hui’s life. Nevertheless, he had to be careful with Dowager Lü for long after. Namely, he was to protect prince Fei from the empress to keep him alive. During one of the fancy feasts, the emperor suggested Prince have a seat right next to him. This was considered to be a great honour, which resulted in Dowager Lü’s great offence. Hence, she decided to get rid of Prince Fei by pout=ring poison into his cup of wine. Afterwards, she tried to toast him which was a mistake because the emperor unravelled her plan right away and tore out the goblet meaning to drink the poisoned drink himself. However, history’s turns are unexpected, so were the actions of Dowager Lü. She swept the drink off. Though Prince seemed like a wise person who wanted to protect his life and made an agreement with the empress that gives away all governance over his principality to Dowager Lü’s daughter.
In 192 BC Dowager Lü got the most unusual marriage proposal ever. The letter came from Xiongnu chanyu Modu who wanted Dowager Lü to marry him because they both were lonely and had a lot to share. However, she deemed that offer to be weird and somewhat intimidating. Although, for the sake of justice it has to be mentioned here that despite the offence she felt, the empress carried out a wise decision. Since she was afraid of Xiongnu’s military strength the decision was to give a daughter of the imperial prince in marriage. This way she paid off, didn’t display her offence and ensured peace. The actions were very wisely thought out. Sometimes Dowager Lü is thought to be the wisest and the ablest for administrative qualities.
So, after Dowager Lü was so insistent, the emperor Hui married Princess Luyuan’s daughter Zhang Yan. Unfortunately, their marriage turned out to be childless. And the historians still debate whether their children were adopted or not. However, this is not the only issue for debates because scholars still consider Empress Lu to be the primary ruler despite the emperor’s influence; though some don’t.
The issues of gender within politics in ancient China were close to absurd. Sometimes it seems like the gender issues were merely turned upside-down because Empress Lu was a wonderful representation of total control over the male ruling. Indeed, there were fascinating moments of her political influence, however, those can be deservedly called the merciless ones. Within the historical period of Empress Lu, the cruel justice and desire for power prospered. Unlike other contemporaries of her times, she embodied the utmost willpower and strong standpoints.
Empress made her way to power disregarding the circumstances. She did everything possible and impossible to achieve the set goals for the sake of China, power, and her son. And although she wasn’t introduced to the court from her very childhood the path of the powerful woman repays this shortcoming. She was a straightforward but restrained woman, Empress Lu may have behaved like an emperor, but she never claimed the title of one (Raphals, p.70).
The two brilliant historical figures under consideration were Empress Wu Zetian and Empress Lu. Both of them represent the entire wise power over men and their ambitions. It is said that female governance in China led to different undesirable love affairs and sexual issues. However, due to the example of these two empresses, we can clearly understand that the reigns were successful just as much as they were the unbearably savage. Female politics is deemed to have been fair and unbiased throughout Chinese historical heritage.
It is proved now that the two women reflected the best tradition of female ruling – fear for their children and fear to lose power. Moreover, it is widely known that ancient China politics was a cruel place to live in. The emperors were killed for the sake of getting the power in somebody else’s hands. The concubines were murdered because other women were afraid they would give birth to sons for the emperors. And the children were killed in this endless political melting pot.
The historical research made on both empresses is very interesting and valuable in terms of enlightenment. It is needless to compare the two lives that those two women had. They have much in common, though slightly different adolescence age development. After getting to the highest position of power of the empire, historians can now truly admit that women are much more unstoppable than men though much restrained and sage.
Ch’ien, Ssu-ma., Nienhauser, William H. Jr. The Grand Scribe’s Records, Vol. 2: The Basic Annals of Han China (Volume II). Bloomington, Indiana University Press: 2002. Print.
Pandajojo. Empress Wu Zetian of Tang Dynasty. Travel ChinaGuide. 2010.
Raphals, Lisa, A. Sharing the Light: Representations of Women and Virtue in Early China. New York, State University of New York Press: 1998. Print.