Wu Zhao, Selfless or Selfish

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Wu Zhao was an extremely well educated women with an uncanny ability to twist ideals and people to her advantage. She used those abilities to better herself, and create a prosperous and unified society. During Wu Zhao’s time as Emperor of the Tang Dynasty, officially from 690 to 705, she enabled women, giving them freedom and some sense of equality in Chinese society, gave social mobility to those of lower classes that showed promise, and promoted religious tolerance.

During the Tang dynasty, women were no longer confined to the inner quarters of the palace with only eunuchs for company but instead, Tang women began spending more time in the city. This freedom extended to their clothing. Instead of wearing veils and gauze, they began to wear hats and scarves to accentuate their beauty. Credit for this change is given to Wu Zhao in the “Treatise on Carriages and Clothing” in Old Tang History’s, when Rothschild states “from the time of Wu Zetian [Wu Zhao] forward, hats and scarves became widely popular and women rarely hid themselves with veils and gauze.”[1] Wu Zhao set a precedence allowing women to no longer feel the need to remain hidden from society. Wu Zhao also brought equality to the table on multiple occasions, once by requiring the morning time of mothers to be equal to that of fathers, and another by renaming the harem positions to sound more official. Rothschild writes that “she altered the titles to make them sound as though they were “bureaucratic,” akin to those of the ministers in the outer court.”[2] However, Wu Zhao never pushed for women to enter the political realm and reconfirmed their place was in the home.[3]

Using the influence over her husband, Emperor Gaozong, Wu Zhao challenged the Confucian norm. This was seen on a worldly scale in the first lunar month of 666 when the imperial rites of feng and shan were performed to show all of the Tang dynasty’s neighbors the cosmic harmony and order under Gaozong and Wu Zhao’s rule. These rights had only been performed seven times in Chinese history, and were previously performed by a male emperor and the high ministers since in Confucianism the mixing of men and women was considered inappropriate. Wu Zhao wanted to participate, so she used the grey area in the procedures provided by the centuries since the last ceremony to make a change. Wu Zhao petitioned her husband and according to Rothschild, Wu Zhao’s explained her place by saying that “the female role was not only necessary in the name of Confucian propriety, but it also conformed to the natural harmony,” keeping the balance between the female yin and the male yang.[4] Rothschild goes on to say that “the very ideological system that denigrated her on the basis of her gender, justified her appearance in the rights.”[5] Wu Zhao, not only challenged Confucian rites, but also beliefs, and went as far as to ignore the Confucian belief that considered merchants to be petty, greedy men seeking only profit, considering them the bottom of the social ladder. Wu Zhao, being a lumber merchants daughter, “took a laissez-faire approach when she rules, placing few restrictions upon commerce,” making her reign a prosperous one.[6]

Wu Zhao never forgot her humble beginnings, though she did attempt to cover them up several times during her reign. In order to combat the extensive political corruption, Wu Zhao reformed the civil service examination system, giving the opportunity for a greater number of successful candidates into government offices. Prior to Wu Zhao’s reform, the aristocratic clans had an “old boy” network, where they filled government positions with like-minded family members and subordinates, effectively blocking the advancement of many talented capable scholars of lower social standing.  According to Rothschild, Wu Zhao’s reform not only shifted the Tang court power structure, it also made the newcomers feel “a debt of allegiance to the Emperor and to the state, rather than to an “old boy” network of aristocratic relatives and friends.”[7]

One of the biggest credits that Wu Zhao was given is that of religious tolerance and the effects that religion held on politics. Wu Zhao challenged Confucianism consistently throughout her reign, as exampled above. She enjoyed the freeing qualities of Buddhism, because it contained none of the ancient historical and philosophical obstacles hindering a female ruler. Rothschild writes that “the universalism of Buddhism provided a common cultural ground that helped to bring together the multi-ethnic inhabitants of her cosmopolitan empire.” Wu Zhao went as far as to shift all religious affairs pertaining to Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism to the branch of Ministry Rights, making all three religions state recognized faiths.[8]

Wu Zhao created a state with little conflict, other than that from the challenge of her position. By giving women more freedoms and attempting some changes towards equality, she created a society in which a female ruler was not frowned upon. By giving those of lower social status the ability to move up the social ladder, she made her own origins not as questionable. Finally, by allowing multiple religions to be practiced not only did she show religious toleration, but she created an ability for her to reach her end goal without the religious restrictions of Confucianism. Though one may consider her selfish by design, it opened up a world for others.

Order your copy of Wu Zhao: China’s Only Woman Emperor now!

[1] Harry Rothschild, Wu Zhao: China’s only woman emperor, 1st ed, (Pearson Education, Inc; 2008), 13. [2] Rothschild, 59. [3] Rothschild, 205 [4] Rothschild, 61. [5] Rothschild, 61.[6] Rothschild, 15. [7] Rothschild, 45. [8] Rothschild, 138.

Image from Wikipedia, taken from An 18th century album of portraits of 86 emperors of China, with Chinese historical notes. Originally published/produced in China, 18th century. (British Library, Shelfmark Or. 2231)

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