An emperor with a woman's touch

By Tiffany Tan (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-08-27 09:34
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Empress Dowager Cixi called the shots during the waning years of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), but in China's 5,000 years of recorded history only one woman has officially held the title "emperor".

An emperor with a woman's touch

Wu Zetian's Gold Strip
of Absolution.
Provided to China Daily

That distinction belongs to Wu Zhao, also known as Wu Zetian, who ruled from Luoyang at the turn of the 7th century, a period during which merit was promoted and China's territory expanded.

Wu, born in Shanxi province in AD 624, altered the course of Chinese history when she entered the imperial palace aged 14, as a junior concubine to the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) Emperor Taizong. When Taizong died in AD 649, Wu became the favorite concubine of his successor, Gaozong, in contravention of tradition.

Through ruthlessness and intrigue, Wu eliminated her female rivals and in AD 655 gained the position of empress. She exercised increasing power over the court as Gaozong's health deteriorated, and for the last two decades of his life Wu was the real ruler of China.

After Gaozong died in AD 683, Wu deposed his successor, her son Li Xian, and replaced him with another son, a puppet emperor. In AD 690, aged 65, Wu declared the foundation of a new dynasty, the Zhou, with herself as emperor.

Although Wu grabbed and held on to power by killing, exiling or demoting her enemies, she is credited for being a talented and efficient administrator who inspired loyalty from her officials.

Wu, who moved the imperial capital from Xi'an, Shaanxi province, to Luoyang, created a policy of meritocracy that would have a lasting effect on the bureaucracy of government. Posts were given to scholars who passed the civil service exams rather than members of the military and aristocracy, as in the past.

It was also during her years in power that the Chinese empire expanded to include Korea in the north and central Asian countries to the west.

Wu, like many rulers throughout the ages, yearned for immortality. She commissioned artisans to create a gold strip inscribed with an appeal to the Taoist deities for "longevity without aging and ascent to the state of immortality". It also asked them to "absolve (her) of any wrongdoing".

The 96-percent-gold strip was presented in AD 700 at Henan's Songshan Mountain, one of China's five sacred Taoist peaks, where monarchs prayed and made sacrifices. The strip is now on display at the Henan Museum, in Zhengzhou.

Although the Tang rulers were nominally Taoists, they favored Buddhism, which had become popular. Wu commissioned the biggest of 100,000 images at the Longmen Grottoes in Luoyang, a 17-meter seated Buddha said to have been modeled after her.

"Look at the eyes, nose and lips. They look just like a woman's," our guide Zhang Qian says, pointing to the figure inside Fengxian Temple cave shrine.

At 80, ill health forced Wu to return the throne to her son Li Xian, who reinstalled the Tang Dynasty. But by then she had already left her mark on history.