Content warning for infanticide
Wu was the third ranking woman in China by 652 CE, after Gaozong’s first wife Empress Consort Wang and a favored consort named Xiao but best known to history as the Pure Concubine. That was when she birthed her first child, a son named Li Hong, soon followed in 653 by his brother Li Xiàn. Neither of Wu’s sons stood to inherit their father’s reign as the childless Empress Wang had already secured the emporer’s promise the son (Li Zhong )of another, lowborn consort (Liu) was heir.
In 654 Wu gave birth yet again, this time to a daughter. By this point Empress Wang and consort Xiao were working together against the ambitious Wu, without success. According to the slanders of the day, Wu smothered her own week old infant with the emperor, then blamed the babe’s death on Wang. Others believed Wang murdered the babe in jealousy. Historians speculate on the possibility of SIDS. The true cause of the baby’s death is unknown.
In 655 Wu formally accused Wang and her mother Lady Liu of witchcraft. Emperor Gaozong began meeting with advisors to discuss demoting Wang as a faction of supporters rose around Wu. Many expressed disapproval but the decision was ultimately left to Gaozong who stripped Wang of her titles and had both Wang and Liu placed under arrest in a remote part of the palace grounds. The Pure Concubine soon followed. Wu was Empress Consort now.
In 656 Gaozong changed his succession, stripping his eldest son Li Zhong with Consort Liu of the honor and making Wu’s eldest son Li Hong heir to his throne. From 657 through 660, Wu led a campaign of retribution against all who had opposed her ascension. This involved demotions, banishments, forced suicides, executions, and an assassination attempt on Li Zhong.
When Emperor Gaozong had a debilitating stroke in 660, Wu was named administrator of the court, with almost all the powers and responsibilities of emporer. She elevated several members of her family to high positions, however when they did not show sufficient gratitude, she would have them demoted and exiled. When a younger cousin caught the emperor’s eye and soon after died of poisoning, Wu was suspected but relatives out of her favor were convicted.