Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
My post a while back on the real Mulan gave me an idea to do an occasional series on the most badass women of ancient China. You’d think that ancient China was all patriarchy all the time. But there were exceptions in the form of the most ambitious and most talented of women.
And the grandmother of badass Chinese women has to be Empress Wu Zetian, although I don’t necessarily mean this as a compliment. In over three millennia of monarchy, the emperor was always a man, except her. Although sometimes women dominated politics from behind the scenes, often in the capacity of mother of the emperor when the emperor happened to be a child, none but her openly took power for herself. You can imagine the level of political acumen and ruthlessness required to do this. Cersei Lannister is but a pale shadow compared to her.
Born into an aristocratic family in the early days of the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.) — China’s golden age — Miss Wu was called into the palace at the age of 13 to serve the emperor. The position of “palace girl” was a tricky one: It meant that she was one of the many women who looked after the emperor’s needs, but it also made her a potential concubine for the emperor at any given time.
One day, the emperor was trying to tame a horse with a remarkably combative temper. Miss Wu volunteered to His Majesty that she knew how to tame the creature. “But I will need three things: a whip, a mace, and a dagger. I will start by whipping the horse. If that doesn’t work, I’ll strike it on the back with the mace. And if that doesn’t work, I’ll cut its throat.” The emperor commended her for this display of animal cruelty.
But the Taizong Emperor was already an old man at this point and growing frail. One day the crown prince came to be with his father and met the young palace girl and remembered her very well indeed. A few years later, the emperor died, and the crown prince succeeded him. Meanwhile, according to Tang customs, all the palace girls had to become nuns. But as luck would have it, a year later the new emperor came to the nunnery to commemorate his late father. There he saw the girl of his dreams again, now in a nun’s habit. He had her recalled to the palace to become his consort, where she soon gave birth to a prince.
The existing empress and other consorts watched her rise jealously. And government ministers objected to her presence on the grounds that she was already technically married to the previous emperor, the emperor’s own father. A series of palace intrigues ensued. In the end Wu outmaneuvered all her opponents. The emperor imprisoned his original empress and named Wu as her replacement. The prime minister who had objected to her ascension was demoted to become a provincial governor.
The emperor’s health grew weak. So at the age of 36, she became his proxy at court. Within a few years, he grew wary of her and discussed with his prime minister how he might get rid of her and take back power. She found out about this and confronted her husband. Unable to stand up to his wife, the emperor claimed it was all the prime minister’s idea. She had the prime minister’s entire family executed. I mean entire extended family, second cousins and all.
Further intrigues ensued — or rather just never ended. The crown prince died. Some say she poisoned him. Another was named. The emperor died, the crown prince became emperor, and Wu became empress dowager. She pushed the young man off the throne and named another prince the emperor.
A group of disaffected officials raised an army against her in rebellion. She defeated them in battle. She set up what amounted to a kind of ancient secret police, encouraging officials and citizens to report on each other for supposed crimes against the throne and then torturing those reported upon. Another provincial governor rose up against her; she defeated him as well.
And in 690 A.D., when she was 66 years old, she finally went all the way and named herself emperor. Not empress, emperor. She promoted her nephews, the sons of her brother, to become princes and lords. And for a moment, the Tang dynasty essentially ceased to exist, subverted by one of its former “palace girls.”
But despite her ruthlessness, Wu was willing to take advice from able ministers who served in her court, sometimes very sharp advice. And there was no one she listened to more than a man named Di Renjie. Di was famous for speaking truth to power and telling her exactly what was on his mind. In the face of a monarch who routinely sent entire clans to their deaths, Di must have had quite a spine. For his courage, she loved him. When her nephews clamored to be named crown prince so that the throne would now be passed down in the Wu family, Di objected and recommended that she restore the Tang dynasty upon her death. She followed his advice and renamed one of the emperors she had pushed aside again as crown prince.
In 705, with Wu now 81 years old and ill in bed, officials who opposed her finally got the better of her. Her own prime minister and her own palace guards initiated a coup, entered the palace, and forced her to abdicate in favor of the crown prince. She died later that year of natural causes.
For obvious reasons, she remains controversial in the eyes of history. She was absolutely ruthless and undeniably killed and tortured a great many on her way to power and in keeping it. In a deeply patriarchal society, surely there was no other path to the throne. A more scrupulous woman would not have murdered all those people. But then a more scrupulous woman could never have become emperor.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."