Historians Examine The Ruthless Rise To Power Of China’s Only Empress

Over the course of 3,000 years, only one woman has ever ruled China: the formidable Empress Wu Zetian. But her power wasn’t easily won. And in order to secure her place in history, she committed some terrible deeds, marking her as one of history’s most ruthless and bloodthirsty rulers. This is her story.

Hero or villain?

At a time when women were considered inferior to men on all levels, Wu was determined to claw her way to the top. And according to some historians, she did whatever it took to get there: including murdering her own kin. But was she really the villain that she’s been made out to be?

Wu Zetian

When Wu Zetian was born in February 623 — either in Shanxi Province, Sichuan Province, or Xi’an, depending on which source you believe — the mighty Tang Dynasty was still in its infancy. Five years earlier, the powerful Lĭ family had seized the throne from the ailing Sui Empire, ushering in a period of peace and relative calm across the land.

Tang Dynasty China

Although the Tang Dynasty was still very much beholden to Confucian values — which promoted a misogynistic view of women — Wu was raised in a remarkably liberal environment. And her father, who was both a military general and a wealthy merchant, ensured that she received a good education despite her gender. 

Beautiful and educated

For Wu, that meant a childhood spent brushing up on Confucian literature as well as artistic subjects such as poetry and music. But it wasn’t just her privilege and intelligence that gave her a head start compared to most young women in Tang Dynasty China. According to records, she was also blessed with the gift of great beauty as well.