Wu Zetian (624 A.D.-705 A.D.), also known as Wu Zhao or Wu Chao, was the only empress
in Chinese history to rule with the power of an emperor. She was born into a noble
family during the Tang Dynasty
, a time of relative freedom
, and as a young teenager
became known for both her beauty
. She was brought to the court of the strong Emperor Tai Tsung and become one of his favorite concubine
s. She also caught the eye of the emperor's son and heir
, Kao Tsung (Gaotzung). When the emperor died, his concubines were all supposed to be sent to a convent
, but the new emperor kept Wu Zetian from this fate and made her his own concubine.
Wu Zetian gave birth to sons, and as mother of future emperors, had more power than the official wife of Kao Tsung, Empress Wang. Wu Zetian accused the empress of having killed a baby daughter of the Emperor, and the Emperor believed the accusation. His wife and another concubine were killed, and Wu Zetian managed to get the Emperor to marry her instead. She managed to get her own family listed first in a genealogy that ranked the families of the Chinese nobility in 659.
Kao Tsung suffered a stroke a few years after the marriage, around 660, and Wu Zetian acted in his place for the next 20-odd years as the emperor's health continued to be bad. She elevated her own family members and had others murdered if they opposed her. Nonetheless, she satisfied public needs and built a solid base of support. China conquered Korea during this period.
When Kao Tsung died around 883, Wu Zetian manuevered her youngest (and weakest) son, Chung Tsung, onto the throne rather than any of his older brothers. His wife tried to gain power over her husband, and dissatisfied with this, Wu Zetian managed to displace them and put another of her sons, Jui Tsung, onto the throne. Eventually, about 890, she gave up all the puppets and was named Empress herself, with no male co-ruler.
Her rule was fairly enlightened despite the means she used to get it. She was a great patron of Buddhism, reduced the army's size and military influence on government, and actually set in place the Chinese practice of choosing government officials through academic exams, which would last for centuries. During her reign, women enjoyed more freedom than in almost any time in Chinese history. And she tried to keep taxes low, although her public works sometimes needed a lot of funding.
As she grew older, she became more superstitious and susceptible to flattery. In 705, her son Chung Tsung forced her off the throne with the help of the older bureaucrats that she had not favored. She died the same year and was buried with her husband in the large and splendid Qianling Tomb, still a tourist attraction about 80 kilometers west of the city of Xi'an.