Image taken from an 18th century album of portraits of 86 emperors of China, with Chinese historical notes. Originally published/produced in China, 18th century. (British Library, Shelfmark Or. 2231).

Wu Hou, born as Wu Zhao, came from a minor aristocratic family in China. She became the first woman to hold the title of Emperor of China, and her extraordinary story starts with her becoming the concubine of Emperor Taizong, of the Tang dynasty.

She was selected at the age of 13 to become one of the Emperor’s imperial concubines, because of her beauty. She had tough competition, as the Emperor had 122 concubines, who were all graded. At the top was the Empress (who had died before Wu joined the harem), below her were 4 women of the 1st grade, then came 9 women of the 2nd grade, then 27 ‚Äòwives‚Äô, sub divided into 9 grades, and so on. She was not a favoured consort of Taizong and bore him no children, so when he died she went to a Buddhist convent along with the other concubines of Taizong.

However this wasn’t to last long, as Wu had begun an affair with Taizong’s youngest son, Li Zhi (who became Emperor Gaozong), shortly before the Emperor died. Emperor Gaozong came to the throne, but it was his wife, Lady Wang, who brought Wu back from the convent. Ironically this was to combat her rival Xiao, whose son was heir to the throne, because she was childless, little did she know that Wu Hou would be her real rival for the affections and power of Gaozong.

Many were against the return of Wu. It was not customary for the concubine of an Emperor to become the concubine of his successor, but Wu knew how to gain support; she was submissive to the Empress who encouraged her rise, hoping she would usurp Xiao. She became alarmed when it appeared Wu had usurped both of them, but by then it was too late. Wu had cultivated many friends who were enemies of Lady Wang, and the Emperor was in love with her.

Wu had 5 children with Gaozong, however when tragedy struck and their daughter died Wu turned it to her advantage, many blamed Wu saying she had killed her daughter to frame Lady Wang. The Emperor was not persuaded by these rumours, and he imprisoned his wife and removed her title. Wu then became Empress. Once Empress, she persuaded the Emperor to name her son his successor instead. Five years after Wu became Empress, Gaozong had a stroke. He lived for another 20 years, but relied on Wu completely, and he trusted her with unlimited power.

She proved an excellent leader, subduing Korea and creating peace and prosperity throughout China. When Gaozong died, their third son Zhongzong became Emperor. He had been left instructions by his father to defer to Wu in everything; weak like his father, he did so. She deposed him after two months, she then ruled through her fourth son. In 670, she usurped the throne for herself, and no one opposed her. She changed the name of the dynasty from Tang to Zhou. She ruled for another 15 years before her rule started to weaken. She didn’t care about the succession, but was forced to let her third son come back with the title of crown prince. In the last year of her life her son, ministers, and generals stormed her apartments and demanded her abdication. She acceded to her son, and died in exile, months later.

Wu started off as the daughter of a minor aristocratic family and became an imperial concubine thanks to her beauty, but she became Emperor through sheer ambition, cunning and ruthlessness. She was China’s first female ruler and she left behind a prosperous nation.

-Danielle Triggs
Junior Girl
Girl Museum Inc.

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