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(951 posts)
Tue Oct 17, 2023, 09:00 AM Oct 2023

On This Day: Chinese Empress begins 15 year reign - Oct. 17, 690

(edited from Wikipedia)
Zhou was a short-lived Chinese imperial dynasty that existed between 690 and 705, when Wu Zhao (commonly known as Wu Zetian) ruled as empress regnant. The dynasty began when Wu Zhao usurped the throne of her son, the Emperor Ruizong of Tang, and lasted until the Emperor Zhongzong of Tang was restored to the throne in the Shenlong Coup.

[The dynasty was established on 17 October 690, and Empress Wu Zetian was deposed on 21 February 705].

Wu named her dynasty after the ancient Zhou dynasty, from whom she believed herself to be descended.


Before her coronation, Wu Zhao (as she was then known), was often acting as de facto regent for her husband, Emperor Gaozong, or her sons, giving her a head-start in accomplishing her aims, which she then consolidated as Huangdi of Zhou once she became ruler in name also. Beginning in 655, Wu began to preside over court meetings in the name of the emperor, and she co-ruled with Emperor Gaozong until his death. After Gaozong's death, she ruled in name of her sons, who reigned officially as puppet emperors, and power was completely and solely in her hands. In 690, she deposed her son, Emperor Ruizong, and declared herself Huangdi (emperor) of her Zhou Dynasty.


Despite Wu's infamous rise to power, there is evidence that suggests women were granted more privileges during her reign, and China was in a state of great prosperity during her rule.

The dynasty's state religions were Buddhism and Daoism, both of which Wu Zetian exploited for self-promoting propaganda. The monk Xue Huaiyi claimed to have found a document predicting the reign of a woman of great merit who would become universal ruler. In support of her imperial ambitions, Wu Zetian also proclaimed herself "Sage Mother", having statues of Laozi's mother as "Sage Mother" placed in Daoist temples.

Countless Chinese works of fiction depict her as a wise ruler. Nevertheless, historically (rather than according to novels) her reign began and continued with extensive violence, combined with the use of secret police and a network of informers. The debate about Wu's use of violence and coercion is more as to how some of it may have been exaggerated, and how much of it was necessary for her own survival, particularly given the animosity of the clans adamantly opposed her, together with a social and political system which found a woman of her accomplishments to be anathema solely on the basis of gender.


Wu's reign resulted in a greater level of Chinese imperial power both externally and internally. This was accomplished along with diminishing the power of the old official class, drawn from the traditionally powerful clans, thus greatly changing the dynamics of power in China.

Wu Zetian greatly enhanced the prestige and effectiveness of the civil service recruitment tests, filling government positions by skills demonstrated in written examinations, and opening them up to men of all classes. She followed this with popular promotions and increased salaries. Wu issued Acts of Grace and other decrees of relief for the commons, and funded religious activities. However, toward the end of her reign she lost popular support due to the influence of the two young Zhang brothers she took as lovers and the resulting corruption in government.

When her court officials intervened, they killed the Zhang brothers, Wu Zetian abdicated the next day, and the so-called Zhou dynasty fizzled to an end with the restoration of the Tang. Nevertheless, some of Wu Zetian's achievements have left their mark on history, such as the emphasis in subsequent Chinese history on merit-based examinations, as well as extant monuments, including huge parts of Longmen Grottoes.

Wu Zetian was personally an author and poet, with many surviving works, including sixty-one essays under her name recorded in the Quan Tangwen "Collected Tang Essays" and forty-six poems collected in the Complete Tang Poems anthology of Tang poetry. Wu Zetian and her court left a remarkable legacy of poetry and literature from the end of Gaozu's reign and even more so during her Zhou dynasty period, during which the Zhuying ji poetry anthology was published, the poets of which were very influential to the subsequent flourishing of Tang poetry. Thus, though the Zhou dynasty failed to take root as an actual dynasty, it was one of the more important eras in Chinese history, and of influence on modern global culture.

Empress Wu is considered one of the greatest emperors in Chinese history due to her strong leadership and effective governance, which made China one of the world's most powerful nations. The importance to history of her tenure includes the major expansion of the Chinese empire, extending it far beyond its previous territorial limits, deep into Central Asia, and engaging in a series of wars on the Korean Peninsula, first allying with Silla against Goguryeo, and then against Silla over the occupation of former Goguryeo territory. Within China, besides the more direct consequences of her struggle to gain and maintain power, Wu's leadership resulted in important effects regarding social class in Chinese society and in relation to state support for Taoism, Buddhism, education and literature.


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