Wu Zetian managed to rise from palace concubine to the first and only true female Emperor of China. I am fascinated by her story, or what I can glean from layers and layers of hateful history. As l did last year, I have chosen a woman who had or could have had ultimate executive power.
The level of determination, ambition, and desperation she must have had to survive is awe-inspiring. I don’t necessarily intend in following her career-wise, but I wish to emulate her ability to rise, above those who opposed her, above all of Tang Dynasty China. Even as Empress (in the sense of being married to the Emperor), she submitted the famous Twelve Suggestions, remarkably “modern” for her time. She prioritized merit in officials, even if they were lowly ranked. She lowered taxes on farmers, allocating land fairly. She innovated governmental reform and established a system where informants could anonymously report corruption/other crimes. She encouraged Buddhism in an overly Confucian society, allowing women more social freedom. She rose and fell with her own Zhou Dynasty, interrupting the Tang. She was titled Cai Ren, Zhao Yi, Empress, Empress Regnant, Empress Dowager, Holy Enlightened Empress of the Golden Wheel, and more besides.
However, much of her achievements are overshadowed by the historian’s accounts, many of which were old, male, and disapproving. Her reign was no less bloody than any other Emperor, more peaceful and successful besides. It is difficult to discern her motives behind the slew of murders and crimes she is supposed to have committed, yet all the more fascinating. At the Vancouver Public Library, the most pertinent book was titled: “Wu: The Chinese Empress Who Schemed, Seduced, and Murdered Her Way to become a Living God”. The book goes on to give a surprisingly objective account of Wu’s life and reign, accusing her of many crimes yet acknowledging that she may not have committed them. There is an astonishing lack of easily accessible books about her, even in the formidable libraries of online databases. She is all too often relegated to a footnote in books about the Tang Dynasty, spoken of as a mere outlier in the long line of male emperors. I feel very biased, to champion her as eminent when most records condemn her. I seek truth, reason, and answers, about her life, death, and reign. I want to know the stories behind the last remnants of her life, such as the imposing Blank Stele that still yet stands, on the ground of the Qianling Mausoleum.
The tale of the Blank Stele puzzles historians to this day. Did she choose to have her monument left blank; a testament to a woman so great as to leave a wordless legacy, 1300 years after her death? Was her tomb purposely left blank by hateful relatives, chancellors, and those who outlived her? What lies still, in the unopened Qianling Mausoleum? Who was this girl: daughter of a duke turned concubine turned Holy Enlightened Empress of the Golden Wheel? [title roughly translated] Was she truly a serpentlike demon, devoid of morals, heart, and compassion? The single story of her vilification should not be perpetuated, overshadowing the story of she who was once the most powerful woman in the world.
Along with single stories, China is too often portrayed as a communist dystopia, forgetting the glorious dynasties of a civilization estimated to be around 4000 years old. The Tang dynasty was the height of cosmopolitan culture in China and is regarded as one of the brightest points in Chinese culture. I wish to emulate Empress Wu’s example of ultimate strength and ability, in an era of gilded growth. This is an opportunity to show and share my culture, and I shall revel in resurrecting the Tang Dynasty, if even for a night.