Lessons for Women from Empress Wu Zetian

wu zetian lessons

The history of China from the dynasties of old prior to the gender revolution has seen women’s role in society as suppressed. In the household of ancient times, women were seen as too weak to plough the field or accomplish simple tasks that require a bit of strength. Women were relegated to household task from cooking, serving and caring for the children. In the government, women were a non-entity in governing the state although there have been exceptions throughout legend. Administration was simply not the norm and not befitting for women as it was very rare for women to possess literacy. Women’s advices were labeled as shallow and at times too humble for the state’s sophistication.

The imperial palace was no better for women. They were either concubines or serving girl for the fancy of emperor, the amusement of eunuchs and regrettably, offer sexual release for esteemed guests.

Then came Wu Zetian. She not only crowned herself empress after politically outmaneuvering the court, but also founded a short lived dynasty. Her rule was unprecedented and at such time, confounding, not to mention scandalous. A woman has inherited the mandate of heaven, seated at the dragon throne, a woman assuming the role of what they call as the son of heaven.

Born from a noble family, she was sent to the court of Emperor Taizong to be of a lowly concubine where she would see to the meals and wine of the emperor. Although low in rank and not gaining the affection of the emperor, Wu Zetian was no means lacking in her appearance. She was slender and her complexion was clear as the finest polished jade. She was naturally gifted with wit and the determination to learn. She would use to her advantage the time and training for concubines to be able to read and write as she expounded the history books and treatises.

In time, Wu Zetian had the knowledge and charm to win the favor of the crowned prince Li Zhi.

They started a romantic affair that would be a turning point in China’s history.

After Emperor Taizhong’s death, Wu Zetian was sent to the monastery alongside other lowly concubined who had no sons with the emperor to a monastery to live out their lives in contemplation. When crowned prince Li Zhi ascended the throne, his first agenda was to recover Wu Zetian and make her his empress.

Unlike Emperor Taizong, Li Zhi was more passionate about indulgence and keeping romantic affairs with the other concubines. Although Wu was the favorite of Li Zhi, Wu knew that it would be a matter of time before she was deposed as a younger concubine will take her place. Wounded and yet resolved, Wu Zetian vowed that she will not be discarded again. Through scheming and handling, she systematically threw out all would be rivals to Li Zhi’s affection. In keeping her sanity, Wu Zetian would turn to books and would Li Zhi on matters that were beyond his grasp.

When Li Zhi’s eye-sight was growing poor and he became sickly, he had come to rely on Wu Zetian to handle the state affairs as his firs adviser, confidant and lover. As Li Zhi enjoyed himself, Wu Zetian found pleasure in ruling and handling the reigning empire.

For thirty years, a concubine was running the empire as Li Zhi weakened and eventually died. Wu Zetian knowing that she inherited the mantle of emperor, she would not name her sons Li Xian and Li Dan as emperor. Wu Zetian was determined to rule China.

Soon, Wu Zetian styled herself empress and ascended the throne of the Tang Dynasty. Her power was absolute and the people around her respected her abilities as they were witness how she ruled when Li Zhi has been absent for so many years prior the latter’s death.

To further the golden age that Taizong started, Wu Zetian would further reform taxation based on China’s continuous territory expansion and population growth. She lessened tax and gave incentives for over-production. To further good governance, Wu Zetian would preside over the state examination for the government. She was the one who discovered and started the career of two prominent men in the later Tang. Wu Zetian elevated the ranks of Yao Chong and Song Jing. Both men would eventually rise as Premieres of the state in the later Kaiyuan period.

A woman ruling the state would not mean compromise of territories as Wu Zetian had firm belief. She would retake several territories with her armies but would maintain diplomacy to other kingdoms that were not aggressive towards her country.

Under Wu Zetian, China prospered, continuing the success of Emperor Taizong and her legacy would be defined by bridging economic stability and prosperity in between the Zhenguan age and Kaiyuan age. Abruptly, the Tang ended when Wu Zetian renamed the ruling Tang into Zhou.

It was only old age that defeated Wu Zetian. She died in 705 AD, she was 81 years old. Her rule changed China forever as she would be remembered as a legendary woman that has made more impact compared to Fu Hao and Hua Mulan.

In acknowledging the essence of Wu Zetian’s characteristics that transcends her time, women can find inspiration in her leadership and contributions to society.


  1. Bounds for Women are illusory

One of the major criticisms for Wu Zetian was an allusion that she may have overstepped her bounds in society. In rising from concubine to Empress, it was a scandalous event where it had reached renunciation across the empire that many would fear that it would create decades of strife between warlords. Instead, Wu Zetian kept the empire together and China thrived under her. Through skill, diplomacy and knowing how to handle affairs, Wu was in power and she held China in the palm of her hand.

She broke the barriers and became the first daughter of heaven. A woman can be a good emperor just as any male can. She was a woman far ahead of her time and she would be a rallying symbol across the ages as women fought for equal rights.



  1. Asking for Help is not Weakness

Wu Zetian would not have stayed in power had she not sought the aid of others whether for her self-interest or for governing China. No man is not without help and it speaks the same condition for women. Wu Zetian was never too shy in compromising and electing people who would help her. She was rather excellent in such facet.

Knowing that there are talented men in the commoners, she further revised the public administration and disregarding all scrutiny of one’s origin. Passers were given rank and evaluated based on their character. Wu Zetian would preside over their interview and ask them to help her govern the country and be kind to its people.

Women who are in the position of leadership or at a managerial role should worry not in asking for help as the task demands it. Learn to seek aid in delegation and yet learn how to manage the matters of your responsibility. Accepting help is not perceived as a weakness; not knowing when you need assistance is the weakness.


  1. Defend Yourself

A woman holding a high position invites slight prejudice of one’s capability as there will be assumptions that a man could potentially handle it better. There will be doubts and it will test your composure. The best defense is to focus on how to function and thrive in your leadership role. Wu Zetian managed by intrigue, constant guard and systematic political elimination of threats to her reign. For you, that would be a little extreme. Use Wu Zetian’s example of effective management by incentives for excellence and the clear approval for a good supporting cast. Your best defense against all doubts and would be trouble is composure. Don’t let whisper and rumors eat away your confidence, you are placed in this position to lead because you had worked for it and earned it.

Have a happy weekend!

image courtesy of Empress Wu Zetian TV Show

Erin Trianthon

Erin Trianthon Erin is a media relations officer and when not tangling with agencies and the public, is seen tucked away in the corner of her favorite coffee shop with a book. View my other posts