Wu Zetian 武则天

The only legitimate female sovereign in the history of China


Chinese Name: 武则天

English Name: Wu Zetian

Other Names: Wu Meiniang 武媚娘, Wu Zhao 武曌, Wu Hou 武后, Empress Zetian 则天皇后

Born: 17 February, 624

Died: 16 December, 705


Establish Wuzhou 建立武周

Become the only orthodox female emperor in Chinese history 成为中国历史上唯一的正统女皇帝

Reform the imperial examination system 改革科举制度

Reform the administration of officials 改革吏治

Wu Zetian 武则天
Wu Zetian 武则天

Brief Biography of Wu Zetian

Wu Zetian 武则天, the founding monarch of the Wu Zhou Dynasty 武周时期, was a politician from the Tang Dynasty 唐朝 to the Wu Zhou Dynasty, and the only orthodox female emperor in Chinese history, one of the oldest (67 years old) emperors to ascend the throne and one of the longest-lived (82 years old) emperors.

Wu Zetian was born in Wenshui 文水 County, Bingzhou 并州 (now Wenshui County 文水县, Luliang City 吕梁市, Shanxi Province 山西省), is the second daughter of Wu Shiyue 武士彟, a warrior who made great contributions to the founding of the Tang Dynasty.

Wu Zetian 武则天
Wenshui county 文水县

In the 11th year of Zhenguan 贞观 (637), Wu Zetian was taken to be an imperial concubine (lesser wife) of Emperor Taizong of Tang 唐太宗 and was granted the title of “Wu Mei 武媚”.

In the 23rd year of Zhenguan (649), Li Shimin 李世民 died, and Wu Zetian became a nun in Ganye Temple 感业寺. However, she has been ambiguous with Li Zhi 李治, the new Emperor Gaozong of the Tang 唐高宗.

In the second year of Yonghui 永徽 (651), Wu Zetian entered the palace again and gave birth to a son. The following year (652), Wu Zetian was a concubine of Emperor Gaozong 唐高宗, and she had the title Zhaoyi 昭仪 (the highest-ranking concubine of the nine concubines in the second rank). She grew rapidly, earning the title of Huanghou皇后 (empress consort, the highest rank a woman held in the empire), and after that, she progressively gained immeasurable influence and unprecedented authority over the governance of the empire throughout Emperor Gaozong’s reign. 

In the first year of Shangyuan 上元 (674), Wu Zetian and Emperor Gaozong were referred to as the “Two Saints” (二圣, Er Sheng) both inside the palace and in the empire.

Wu Zetian 武则天
Two saints 二圣

In the first year of Tianshou 天授 (690), Wu Zetian became emperor, changed the name of the country to Zhou 周, made Luoyang 洛阳 the capital, called the “God capital 神都”, and established Wu Zhou 武周.

In the first year of Shenlong 神龙 (705), Wu Zetian was seriously ill. Prime Minister Zhang Jianzhi and others launched the “Shenlong revolution 神龙革命” to support the restoration of the Emperor Zhongzong of Tang 唐中宗 and force her to abdicate. In the same year, Wu Zetian died at the Shangyang Palace 上阳宫 at the age of 82.

Personal Life and Major Contributions

Maintain the unity of the Empire

From the reign of Wu Zetian to the establishment of Wu Zhou 武周, wars with neighboring countries rose and fell from time to time, with Wu Zhou winning the most. During her 15 years in office, Wu Zetian basically maintained the unity of the Empire.

In the second year of the Shengli 圣历 (699), the remaining Khitan 契丹 parties made a riot. Wu Zetian sent Li Kaigu 李楷固 and Luo Wuzheng 骆务整 to fight against them and completely put them down.

In the first year of Jiushi 久视 (700), Tubo 吐蕃 invaded Liangzhou 凉州, and Tang Xiujing 唐休璟 defeated them in Hongyuan 洪源 valley. He won all six wars, defeated Tubo, and beheaded more than 2500 levels. In the second year of Chang An 长安 (702), Tubo Zanpu 赞普 led more than ten thousand people to invade Maozhou 茂州. Chen Daci 陈大慈 fought against them, winning all four wars and beheading more than a thousand ranks.

In the second year of Chang An 长安 (702), Wu Zetian set up the Beiting Du Hu Fu 北庭都护府 in Tingzhou 庭州 to manage the old land of Western Turks 突厥, which was still subordinate to the Anxi Du Hu Fu 安西都护府, consolidating the Tang Court’s jurisdiction over the western regions. This move made the Silk Road 丝绸之路 unimpeded and promoted economic and cultural exchanges between China and the West.

Wu Zetian 武则天
Silk road 丝绸之路

Reform of the imperial examination system

One apparatus of government that fell into Wu’s power was the imperial examination system 科举制度: the basic theory and practice of which was to recruit into government service those men who were the best educated, talented, and had the best potential to perform their duties and to do so by testing a pool of candidates in order to determine this objectively.

Wu Zetian 武则天
Imperial examination system 科举制度

The official tests examined such things considered important for functionaries of the highly developed, bureaucratic government structure of the current imperial government. The qualities sought in a candidate for government service included determining the potential official’s level of literacy in terms of reading and writing as well as his possession of the specific knowledge considered necessary and desirable for a governmental official, such as Confucian 儒家 precepts on the nature of virtue and theory on the proper ordering of and relationships within society.

Wu Zetian continued to use the imperial examination system to recruit civil servants, and she introduced major changes in regard to the system that she inherited, including increasing the pool of candidates permitted to take the test, by allowing commoners and gentry, who were previously disqualified by their background, to take them.

Cultural Legacy

Wu Zetian created Zetian 则天 characters. Some Zetian characters also spread to Japan and became the names of some Japanese people. And in Gyeongju 庆州, South Korea, the seal Scripture 印章经文 of Zetian Xinzi has also been found.

The year before Wu Zetian became emperor, she changed her name to “曌 Zhao”. It is the writing method of “照 Zhao” in Zetian characters, which means “the sun and the moon are in the sky 日月当空”. Wu Zetian thought that she was as lofty as the sun and the moon and that she was hanging in the sky.

Wu Zetian 武则天
Zetian characters 则天文字

Wu Zetian once convened literary courtiers Zhou Maosi 周茂思 and Fan Lubing 范履冰 to compile such books as Yaolan 要览, Zi Hai 字海, and Yueshuyaolu 乐书要录.

Zi Hai 字海 contains all the Zetian 则天 characters first created by Wu Zetian, which have been lost. Yueshuyaolu is a music law document with high historical and academic value in the Tang Dynasty. It is of practical significance and plays an important role in the history of ancient Chinese music.

Wu Zetian also reformed the music organization, changed the inner teaching workshop 内教坊 into the Yunshao mansion 云韶府, studied Yayue 雅乐, and promoted the development of court music. Wu Zetian’s reign was the transitional stage of music in the Tang Dynasty. It inherited Yayue in the early Tang Dynasty and laid the foundation for Yan music 燕乐 and folk music 俗乐 in the middle Tang Dynasty.

Video: Empress Wu Zetian of China

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