WU ZE-TIEN, the only female Ruler in China

TOLD by Hani Law Copy right © 2006

                       All Rights Reserved

CHAPTER 1 **************************************************************************************
WU Mei Niang , a young girl of 14, was chosen amongst many other young girls to be a
concubine of
Emperor Tang Tai Zhong of the Tang Dynasty ( 618AD-684AD). The emperor
was one of the greatest Emperor in China’s history. He father was the first emperor of the
Tang Dynasty. Emperor Tang Tai Zhong managed to keep all his neighbouring states in a
harmonious relationship. Ordinary people were able to enjoy life; they could live in peace as
the Government maintained a strong army and neighbouring states dared not send their army
across the border to plunder and kill.

Before Emperor Tang Tai Zhong inherited the throne, there was a power struggle amongst
his brothers (LI Yuan Zhang and LI Yuan Ji) fighting to becoming the next emperor. As
LI Shi
, Emperor Tang Tai Zhong’s original name, was very ambitious and thought that only he
himself was fully capable of ruling the entire empire, he plotted to kill his two brothers. So
that he could ascend to the throne. Emperor Tang Tai Zhong himself had three sons, the
eldest son was LI Cheng Qian, the fourth one was LI Tai, and his ninth son was LI Zhi. The
eldest son, LI Cheng Qian, in accordance with the imperial tradition, had been appointed as
the Crown Prince.

Not only was WU Mei Niang a great beauty and a charming dancer, but she was also very
intellectual. She had received good education and could write beautiful poems. The
Emperor’s ninth son, LI Zhi was four years younger than WU Mei Niang, and since their
age gap was small, he often played with her despite the fact that WU Mei Niang was in fact
his stepmother. Gradually and without realizing it themselves, they had fallen in love with
each other.

LI Tai, the fourth son, was a scholarly man with a fervent love for literature and was the
apple of the Emperor’s eye. Because of his intellectual ability, he followed his father’s foot
steps and plotted to become the Crown Prince. His eldest brother, who was not enjoying
the best of health, was of course aware of his intentions. He had a strong sense of
insecurity and feared that one day, his father might strip his title and turn LI Tai to be the
crown prince. He therefore planned a coup d’etat, trying to dethrone his father so that he
could become the Emperor himself. However, his plan failed and he was exiled and died a
year later.  The Emperor had reservations about appointing LI Tai as the crown prince
because he was aware that his son had ulterior motives and had all along been ambitious
to become the next Emperor. Taking into consideration LI Tai’s evil intentions, Emperor
Tang Tai Zhong had no choice but to nominate LI Zhi to be the Crown Prince, although he
understood that he would be a weak and ineffective Emperor. LI Zhi, later married his
cousin, the daughter of his mother’s brother, Minister ZHANG-SUN Wu Ji, by order of his
mother, the Empress.

Before Emperor Tang Tai Zhong passed away, he had ordered Minister ZHANG-SUN
Wu Ji, the empress’s uncle, to be the mentor of the new Emperor, knowing that the
Crown Prince, LI Zhi, would be incapable to be a wise Emperor.

CHAPTER 2 *************************************************************************************
LI Zhi became the Emperor in 649AD, and was titled Emperor Tang Gao Zhong. It had
been a practice that all the concubines of the Emperor would be ordered to leave the
Imperial Palace and dispatched to a nunnery for life, upon the death of an Emperor.
Although WU Mei Niang was one of the Emperor’s favourite concubines, she could not
disobey the imperial order and became a nun. However, because of her special
relationship with the new Emperor, she was promised that arrangement would be made
as soon as possible to bring her back to the Imperial Palace within a year.

Time went by, and WU Mei Niang had to do all the hard chores in the nunnery, as did
the other nuns. The Emperor could not order her return to the Palace because most of his
ministers would not approve of the return of the Emperor’s stepmother to the Palace, only
to become the Emperor’s concubine.  Being a person with a weak personality, the Emperor
had no intention of acting against the advice of his ministers. However, he continued his
affair with WU Mei Niang by making secret visits to the nunnery. Within two years  WU Mei
Niang gave birth to two sons fathered by the Emperor in her sister's home. As she was still a
nun,  she had to rely on her sister to raise the sons.

The Emperor’s secret affair with WU Mei Niang was of course no secret to those close to
him. However, being a womanizer, the Emperor kept many other concubines in the Palace,
Concubine Xiao Shu was his favorate. The Emperor neglected his state business, much
to the worry of the Empress.

WU Mei Niang had now been in the nunnery for almost two years. One day, she had a
surprise visit from the Empress who offered to arrange for WU Mei Niang to return to the
Palace as the Emperor’s concubine, on the condition that she would get the Emperor to
stay away from his other concubines and to work hard on state affairs. WU Mei Niang
gladly accepted the invitation and the Emperor was overjoyed when the Empress
brought WU Mei Niang to him.  

After WU Mei Niang’s return to the Palace, there was a sudden change in the way in
which the Empire was run. Using her charm and intellectual ability, she succeeded in
encouraging the Emperor to spend many hours every day on state affairs. She also
offered advice to the Emperor when he could not make up his mind. Gradually, WU Mei
Niang was allowed to handle important state matters and make decisions on behalf of
the Emperor on important issues without the knowledge of the Ministers. This was in
contradiction to imperial tradition under which female members of the royal family were
forbidden to deal with any state affairs; any such attempt by an Empress or an
Emperor’s concubine to enquire about state business would be regarded as

With the Emperor’s growing reliance on WU Mei Niang to deal with state business, she
was able to monopolize all of the Emperor’s time, both day and night, much to the
annoyance of the Empress, who now regretted having arranged for WU Mai Niang to be
reunited with the Emperor.  

There was an incident in which WU Mei Niang upset the ministers. There were floods in   
some parts of the country. WU Mei Niang advised the Emperor to send aid to the people
by cutting a small percentage of the salaries of the ministers and also from the Emperor’s

Some of the radical changes that WU Mei Niang introduced certainly did not endear her
to the ministers. One of the changes she had made was to conduct open examinations to
recruit government officials. Hitherto, government officials were recruited through the
introduction of serving ministers. This practice had been handed down from time
immemorial and ministers were able to build up their individual factions in the imperial
court. Being a discerning administrator now, WU Mei Niang reckoned this to be the
cause of many deep-rooted problems. She recommended and the Emperor agreed that
government officials were to be recruited through imperial public examinations, and the
selection of the first three scholars was to be made by the Emperor himself, though on
the recommendation of the senior ministers.

CHAPTER 3 ************************************************************************************
By this time, WU Mei Niang had established herself firmly in the court and had enough
confidence of inviting her two sons and her sister to join her and the Emperor in the
Imperial Palace. WU Mei Niang’s two sons, had been brought up by WU Mei Niang’s
sister, and therefore they had taken WU Mei Niang’s sister as their mother. Day and
night, WU Mei Niang studied Chinese history and constitutional affairs studiously and
she had gained the respect from a small group of the court ministers. In order to
secure a permanent position in the Imperial Palace , she persuaded the Emperor to
appoint her eldest son as the Crown Prince.

Having had the ears of the Emperor who continued to be charmed by WU Mei Niang’s
beauty, WU Mei Niang became more and more powerful by the day. The Empress
naturally was extremely jealous of WU Mei Niang in whose chamber the Emperor spent
every night. Knowing that her own beauty was no comparison to that of WU Mei Niang
and that she could never win back the Emperor’s heart again if WU Mei Niang continued
to be the Emperor’s favourite concubine, the Empress then hired a witchcraft practitioner
who could deploy witchcraft to kill people without anybody knowing. The witchcraft was
given secret instruction to kill WU Mei Niang. However, The Empress’s plot was discovered
by WU Mei Niang, who by now had got eyes and ears throughout the Imperial Palace.
WU Mei Niang saw this as a good opportunity to get rid of the Empress in the power
struggle and she reported the Empress’s plot to the Emperor. The Emperor was of course
infuriated by what the Empress had done and imprisoned her, with all her titles and assets
stripped, a year after WU Mei Niang’s return to the Palace. She was subsequently

In order to survive in the fierce competitive environment in the Palace, Wu Mei Niang
would not let go of this golden opportunity to persuade the Emperor to appoint her as the
Empress. The Emperor encountered obstinate opposition from the senior ministers who
had been disgusted by the fact that WU Mei Niang was once a concubine of the Emperor’s
own father. Openly, they advised the Emperor that WU Mei Niang was not of noble birth
and therefore could not ascent to the Empress’s throne. A lot of the court duties were
carried out by WU Mei Niang who had become more or less indispensable to the Emperor.
The Emperor overruled all oppositions and appointed
WU Mei Niang as the Empress. This
happened in 655 AD and WU Mei Niang was 32 years old.

Five years later, when she was 37 years old, she proclaimed Emperor Tang Gao Zong
and herself as
Heavenly Emperor and Empress. By this time, the Heavenly Emperor’s
health was failing. The Heavenly Empress knowing that the Heavenly Emperor's only
interest was women , she sent home all of the Heavenly Emperor’s concubines so that the
Heavenly Emperor could devote all his time on his court duties.  With her willingness to
assist the Heavenly Emperor to deal with the state affairs, she started to assume more
court duties. By this time, the Heavenly Emperor’s health was failing, he was only too
willing to let the Heavenly Empress discharge all of his court duties. While the Heavenly
Empress became more and more busy, the Heavenly Emperor became bored and
lonely. One day, the Heavenly Empress 's sister met the Heavenly Emperor in the
Imperial Garden , and she ended up spending the night with the Heavenly Emperor.
Nothing could escape the Heavenly Empress’s ears and eyes, and when this affair was
reported to her, she suppressed her anger. The Heavenly Empress sent a massage to
her sister expressing her displeasure. The Heavenly Empress’s sister committed suicide.

The Heavenly Empress was very successful in helping the Emperor to run the country
efficiently and also in sustaining prosperity for the country. She had spies everywhere,
and she did not hesitate eliminating people who stood in her way and opposed her
constitutional reform.  Ministers like ZHANG-SUN Wu Ji, and SHANG-Guan Yi who had
also served the previous Emperor, were executed by the Heavenly Empress.

CHAPTER 4 ************************************************************************************
In 683AD, Emperor Guo Zong died. By this time empress Wu was 60 years of age and she
had been assisting Emperor Guo Zong in ruling the country for 28 years. Her second son,
LI Xian, was the Crown Prince as her eldest son, LI Hong, died young. The Heavenly
Empress believed that her second son was not capable of being an effective Emperor yet,
and therefore did not crown him the Emperor. Meanwhile, LI Xian had been befriended by
her mother’s enemies in court and they encouraged him to oppose his mother, the
Heavenly Empress and to usurp her power.  He also believed the rumor that her mother
had killed his elder brother, who had died very young. He also firmly believed that her
mother had brought about the death of her own sister, who he thought might be his real
mother. Under the influence of her mother’s enemies who at that time firmly believed that
women should not meddle with state affairs, and should only learn how to sew and do
embroidery, LI Xian plotted to overthrow his mother. The plot failed and he was sentenced
to death. A year later, in 684AD, the Heavenly Empress put her third son, LI Xian
(a different Chinese character), on the throne. Her third son, LI Xian, was also a
disappointment to the Heavenly Empress. Without securing his mother trust, LI Xian was
again trying to acquire power by joining the ministers who opposed her mother’s policy
and constitution. However, he did not succeed and was jailed for 14 years. He was in the
throne for only a month.

The Heavenly Empress’s four son , LI Dan, was then put on the throne, but only for a
short while. His ability was again found to be wanting and he was dethroned by his
mother.  With no heir to succeed to the throne, the Heavenly Empress became the first
and only female Emperor in the history of China. She named herself the female
WU Ze Tien
.  During her reign, she sought to eliminate corruption among the ministers in
the high society, and recruited people of high caliber from the general populous to high
official positions.

In 690AD, when the Heavenly Empress was 67 years old, she changed the dynasty from
Tang to Zhou. She died of old age in 705 AD, aged 82 years.

The Heavenly Empress was a great ruler initiating many lasting and effective measures ot
improve the governance of the country. Being a woman, she faced a lot of opposition and
resistance from the ministers who believed that the Imperial court was no place for women.
She was in fact a victim of sex discrimination, and under those circumstances, she would
have no choice but to be brutal at times. However, she was much praised by people from
various sectors.

When the Heavenly Empress was in her death bed, the senior ministers released
LI Xian
(the third son) from prison, and helped him establish himself as the Emperor again. He
reverted the name of the dynasty to Tang, and he was entitled
Emperor Zhong Zong.

After his mother’s death, Zhong Zong gave her a most honorable title which was Holy
Empress Ze Tien
 of the Tang Dynasty.  Zhong Zong reigned from 705AD to 710AD and he
was succeeded by his fourth brother,
LI Dan, who was named Emperor Rui Zong.

The following 14 emperors of the Tang Dynasty were the descendants of Empress WU.  

                                           THE  END
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