Women Who Ruled: Empress Wu 5/5

A series of small rebellions and border skirmishes marked Wu’s middle reign. Being an ardent student of history and economics, Wu was able to turn early defeats to latter victories. In 698 the issue of succession rose once more as two of her Wu clansmen nephews pushed the Empress Regnant to name one of them as heir.  Other clans also jockeyed to make marriage alliances to link them to the Tang dynasty, and end the Zhou era. 

At the urging of her advisors, and with the agreement of her nephews, Wu recalled her third son Li Zhe from exile. Li Dan relinquished his status as heir soon after, making Li Zhe once again Crown Prince. Empress Wu had his name changed to Wu Xian. By 699, aware of her own advancing age, Wu secured oaths of peace and loyalty from the princes and princesses of the region, that they would honor the succession. 

In the later years of Wu’s reign she relied more and more on certain key advisers, a decision not supported by all. When word of a negative diuscussion between Wu’s grandson, granddaughter, and grandnephew reached her ears, she ordered all three to commit suicide. (And I thought my grandma was hard to please.)

Two men Wu trusted a great deal at the end were the young attractive Zhang brothers. Wu kept, or kept up the appearance of, maintaining a male harem well into her seventies. It was widely speculated the Zhang brothers performed sexual favors for the elderly empress. When Wu fell ill in 704 and only the Zhang brothers, not her chancellors, was permitted to see her, suspicions they were controlling her grew. 

Wu recovered for a time, and allowed an investigation of the Zhangs but interrupted it with a pardon for the young men. When Wu fell ill again in the spring of 705, her chancellors and descendants of Emperor Gaozong staged a coup. They seized the Zhang brothers and surrounded the palace on February 20th and executed the brothers for treason. Wu was forced to sign edicts naming Li Xián as regent and then emperor. She died that December and was interred with her husband and descendants.

Her monument remains blank, never etched with a flattering epitaph as Wu expected when she had it built. Every contemporary portrait was ordered destroyed. Her record, like the record of other women who ruled, has been wiped out and smeared with slander. It’s incredible how much we do know, but some of that is probably preserved falsehood. Wu ruled with a network of secret police, the giving and taking of titles, and a constant eye toward potential threats. 

In 4,000 years of Chinese history, Empress Wu stands apart for reigning in her own name. 

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