17 May Women’s History Month: Emperor Wu Zetian (China)
Hi everyone! It’s Dr. Hinson here with you today to talk about our third non-Western women ruler! We’ve been celebrating awesome and inspiring women throughout Women’s History Month with particular attention to stories of lesser known women. Our third installment is a divisive figure in Chinese history, so let’s see what we’ve learned!
Unsurprisingly, when I went digging to find out about Wu Zetian, China’s first and only woman Emperor from the 7th century, sources were scant. What I did find was a shocking and violent historical representation – which in and of itself is interesting. When critiquing historical sources, modern researchers often ask a series of questions: who was writing the history? Who was their audience? What was the purpose of historical writings within their culture?
It is worth revisiting the oft-quoted phrase, “History will be written by the winners,” (itself falsely attributed to Winston Churchill) to understand how histories and those who write them, are usually for the purpose of furthering a political or social aim. Historical representations are hardly factual accounts, since they are so often written by the “winners.” One need only look to the writing of American history and the representation of marginalized groups, like Native Peoples, to see the role that history plays in constructing a national narrative.
So what can we learn from a rather scarce and highly critical history of Wu Zetian? As we study the lasting impact of gender categories throughout Women’s History Month, I would rephrase Churchill’s statement and say that for a long, long time, “History was written by the men.” Not only have men been predominant in leadership positions in most cultures and societies, they have also been the ones recording history, writing accounts, and producing narratives about events and people. This innate bias has certainly impacted the writing of Wu Zetian’s legacy. Let’s see what I was able to find about before we talk more about the problem of gender-bias in historical accounts.
What we do know of Wu Zetian is that she lived under the Tang Dynasty, born in 625 CE (AD), she joined the household of the Taizong Emperor as a concubine. Narratives of how she rose in power vary, with a general consensus that after the death of Taizong, she managed to become a concubine to his son, Gaozong in 649 CE. From there she eliminated female rivals, including the existing empress and leading concubines, through alleged infanticide, torture, and murder. For the remaining years of her husband’s life, from which he suffered ill health, she was the de facto ruler of the empire. When her husband passed, she ruled as empress regent through her son, until she had him exiled in 690. She reigned as Emperor in her own right until 705 when she either relinquished her thrown or was ousted by the same exiled son. She died a short time after the end of her reign.
Though it does appear she was tough on, if not violent against, political rivals, she ruled over a peaceful and prosperous empire of 50 million Chinese commoners which she stabilized and consolidated. She was one of the earliest supporters of Buddhism in China, and during her reign the religion surpassed Confucian and Daoist practices. She was unusually well-read and self-willed for a woman of her time, and her meteoric rise to power is remarkable considering the treatment of women in 7th century China.
Yet, historical representations of Wu Zetian focus on political assassinations and scandal, even her sexuality and personal relationships, inordinately more than her accomplishments. Though a stone memorial tablet was erected to honor her reign after her passing, it was never inscribed, making it the only emperor memorial in 2,000 years of Chinese Imperial history without an inscription. A contemporary image of Wu Zetian does not exist, the image used for this blog was made over 1000 years after her death in the 18th century. The vitriol found in historical accounts is antagonistic at best, with one historian writing, “She is hated by gods and men alike.”
Within the history of women rulers, many stories emerge of how they felt they had to eschew their womanhood in order to be effectual. Since for most of history it was believed that their gender made them incapable of leadership, women rulers had to be ruthless and precise in their leading, while also upholding societal norms about women. Women rulers were held to the standards of their male counterparts, while also expected to represent the best and most idyllic qualities of womanhood. Though Queen Elizabeth I famously claimed, “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and a king of England too,” her namesake Queen Elizabeth II has emphasized her role as wife and mother as the most important aspects of her monarchy (more about QEII in July).
Examining histories of women rulers has taught us a lot about inbuilt biases that exist towards representation of women, particularly women in positions of power. The legacy of this bias continues to this day, where female politicians and leaders are questioned for their fashion choices, motherly duties, and sexual partners at rates much higher than their male counterparts. Women are not represented equally, either historically or contemporarily. Though one of the goals of Women’s History Month is to raise awareness to history-making women, it is also a time to consider how we tell the stories of these women, what language we use, and how our inbuilt biases can shape how we view their legacies.
That’s everything I have for this exploration into the fascinating history of Wu Zetian. Join Dr. Donnelly next week as she examines a contemporary non-Western women ruler, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia! Know of any other women rulers we should be talking about? Let us know in the comments!