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Impressive Empress Wu the Celestial

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We are not immortal. However, it seems we have always strived to be. History enthusiasts are sure to be aware of ancient Egyptian burial rites, meant to assure you had what you needed in the afterlife. Here on the Forge Collective we’ve talked about Viking customs, bringing hack silver with them to barter in Valhalla. While none of us can really vouch for these methods until we leave this plane ourselves, it does seem that grave goods can have a lasting impact on the living’s understanding of history, and on the legacies of individuals. One such person, known later in her life as Wu Zetian or Wu the Celestial, accomplished something no one else had in imperial China. She ruled as Empress, first from the shadows, and later in her own rite. Historians who followed her painted her as ruthless, calculating, and incompetent. However, archaeological sites and some discoveries in tombs paint a very different picture.

Wu Zetian was born February 17, 624 AD. It is noted that this was the same year as a total eclipse of the sun. Her family were wealthy merchants, allowing her to receive more education than most women of her time. She was said to be incredibly beautiful, a claim backed up by her elevation to the status of imperial concubine at an early age. Although she didn’t rise high in the court of Emperor Taizong, she did have an affair with his son. Normally, a concubine who didn’t have a son with the Emperor would be sent away to a monastery after that emperor’s death. Her affair with the soon to be Emperor Gaozong gave her a way to escape that fate and rise to power. 

From this point on, there is a lot of speculation. Emperor Gaozong had an Empress, Empress Wang. Some accounts even say that Empress Wang brought Wu Zetian back from a monastery to take attention away from an ambitious concubine at court. However, soon tensions grew between the even more ambitious Wu and Empress Wang. Wu eventually had the Emperor’s daughter. History tells us that Wu Zetian strangled her own infant daughter to frame Empress Wang. Eyewitnesses claim to have seen the Empress near the infant’s room, she did not have an alibi, and she was stripped of her title. Wu claimed the title of Empress for herself. Of course, this sensationalized account is not necessarily true. Other theories include that Wang, who was childless, did in fact strangle Wu Zetian’s daughter. Another factor to include is their method of heating, which without ventilation, could suck the oxygen out of the room. This child’s death could have been a random tragedy, painted as a calculated plot by later historians.

Lucky for Wu Zetian, Emperor Gaozong was a sickly man. He eventually had what we now think was a stroke, and this meant Wu Zetian’s power grew. When the Emperor would have an audience, she would sit behind a screen and tell him what to say. Wu made sure the Emperor’s previous children were out of imperial succession, and hers would inherit the throne. However, eventually even those children became a threat to her power. She is said to have exiled her sons, and even forced one to commit suicide. From the time she took power until her death, she is said to have annihilated anyone in her way, even family. Toward the end of her life, after decisively ruling for many years, she declared herself Empress. Although China had a dowager empress in control before, this was the first and only time a woman ruled in her own right. From 690 AD – 705 AD she reigned as the one and only ruler of the self-declared Zhang Dynasty.

wu zeitan empress of china

Taking just what historians have written about her at face value makes her seem, frankly, terrifying. And I’ve even left out some of the more gruesome legends. If we are to believe just what is written about her, you’d think she was Cersei Lannister, if Cersei Lannister actually accomplished her goals and didn’t even love her own children.

However, can we trust the accounts of male historians from a patriarchal medieval society? Were her tactics for holding power that much different from her male contemporaries? How do you measure the rule of an individual who lived so long ago, and who likely was facing a lot of bias?

Although we likely can never answer these questions definitively, I’d say we can get a more complete picture from archaeological finds from her rule. The objects dated to her time period have no bias, and the story they tell is quite different.

Wu Zetian is said to have first implemented exams to qualify people who wanted to hold government positions. Before this, those positions were likely gotten through nepotism, and were not always held by the most qualified individuals. She also was the first to allow commoners and women into government positions. Likely because of these exams and pulling from a larger talent pool, the archeological record of her rule suggests a time of previously unattained stability, growth, wealth, and artistic achievement. One of the most important, if not most exciting, things found from her reign are huge granaries. Previous to her rule, China would suffer droughts and famines. Large scale hunger, of course, brought periods of instability. Wu’s reign saw the improvement of grain storage, and in granaries developed under her rule grain could be stored for over ten years. Her efficient store system made sure her common people would be fed, even in lean times. This wasn’t the only time she made sure her people were taken care of. Wanting to make her empire the wealthiest in the world, she capitalized on the value of Chinese silk. At the time, it was worth about as much as gold. The Silk Road was an incredibly long trade route, meaning it was very vulnerable to being raided and robbed.

silk road map

She built military outposts all along this trade route, again stabilizing and enriching the region. Because of these strong trade routes, her capital city, Chang’an, was one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world at the time. It had residents from all over the world. Some of that global influence can still be seen to this day, in the open air markets and cuisine of present day Xi’an. 

Another important piece of the puzzle was the discovery of the grave of noblewoman Li Chui. Although noble and wealthy, she was not high ranking. Despite this, her grave contained a priceless treasure. Her hair was piled into a “bee hive” hairdo, and adorned with a phoenix crown. Made of gold, and studded with hundreds of gemstones, this was a luxury item both in craftsmanship and materials. When archaeologists looked closer, they realized the stones gave them a better glimpse into the position of Wu Zetian’s empire.

li chui

This crown, not even in a royal tomb, contained carnelian from Uzbekistan, amber from Iran, garnet from India, and ivory from Sri Lanka. This meant Wu’s empire was trading with places as far as 4500 miles from her capital city. It seems hard to believe that an incompetent ruler could accomplish that in early medieval times.

Wu Zetian’s reign saw the growth and strengthening of the Chinese empire. Some even say that without her stabilizing influence, a united China may not exist today. During her rule, arts and trade flourished, and some of the era’s literature is studied by Chinese school children to this very day. Her methods would, of course, be considered tyrannical today, but a lot of what she did was still revolutionary. You could easily make the argument that even now, over a thousand years later, many powerful nations still don’t keep all their common folks fed. And many male rulers of her era and beyond have made bold moves, even monstrous ones, to retain power. I don’t find it shocking that a ruler who was generous with the common people, and ruthless with those in power, would have such a bleak reputation ascribed to her by those who came into power later.

If you’d like to draw your own conclusions about Wu the Celestial, there is a lot of great information here, and a great documentary here.

Want to feel a bit more celestial yourself? Check out our brand new Moonology ring. Its surface is an etching of the moon, and its low profile won’t get in the way if you feel like ruling with an iron fist.

moonology ring

P.S. after reading about Wu + Cersei we couldn't help think of this fitting song...

Curious Insight

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