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Zhou Fang painting: Tang women playing Double Sixes
A vision of the male-chauvinist hell plus a poem
“She killed her sister, butchered her elder brothers, murdered the ruler, poisoned her mother, and choked her own son to death,” so the chronicles write.
Is China’s only female emperor Wu Zetian 武则天unfairly maligned? The short answer is: yes. Why? Because official history writing was done by men. After her death, her successor organised Emperor Wu’s systematic black washing. Of all the female rulers in the world, perhaps none has aroused so much controversy, or wielded such great power, as a monarch whose real achievements and character remain obscured behind layers of obloquy. In the seventh century A.D. she became the only woman in more than 3,000 years of Chinese history to rule in her own right.
With exceptional wisdom and great talent, Wu was most certainly a complicated heroine. Fearless and confident, ruthless and decisive, she stabilized and consolidated the Tang dynasty at a time when it appeared to be crumbling – a significant achievement, since the Tang period is reckoned the golden age of Chinese civilization. She would reach her goals by fair means or foul in the intrigue-filled imperial palace. Nevertheless, she made great political and diplomatic achievements and China gained global power. Being a devoted Buddhist, she also adopted liberal and benevolent ruling systems, including selecting talent on a large scale, conducting economic development and responding positively to criticism and dissident voices. The stable society and booming economy during her reign laid a foundation for “the Kaiyuan Flourishing Age” later in the Tang Dynasty. During her rule, Chinese women enjoyed unprecedented independence and freedom and in her capital, women took part in state exams, rode horses and wore men’s clothes. The great poet Li Po of the Tang Dynasty listed her as one of the “Seven Sages” of the dynasty probably because she promoted printing, which greatly benefitted the spreading of poetry. Wu also introduced Panda Diplomacy, which is ever popular with the communist leaders.
This was the woman as a politician. But how did she (or any Chinese ruler in the past) exercise power? One thing we know is that being an educated ancient Chinese means you are a poet. Wu was no exception. We shall take a close look into a fragment of her writing.
Tomorrow morning I will make an outing to Shanglin Park,
With urgent haste I inform the spring:
Flowers must open their petals overnight,
Don’t wait for the morning wind to blow!
The poem has an almost conversational tone. Emperor Wu discusses her plans for a walk in the park. It has irregular meter and no rhyme scheme, which underscores its informal nature. This is in sharp contrast with the primary style of the time which clearly preferred tightly regulated verse.
It has been speculated that the Emperor had enjoyed creating myths about herself in order to manipulate public opinion. The imagery of the Emperor informing the spring is similar to the mythical hyperbole of a rhapsody. It is likely that the Emperor intended to use this poem to indicate her power was not just over the human realm but also over nature and she demonstrates her supreme confidence in her power with the casual tone of a poem, implying she possesses powers beyond mere mortals. Her patronage of Buddhism and work through religion to strengthen her political position support the possibility that she was using this poem to add to her reputation as a divine leader.
After her death, she had a “Wordless Tablet” erected in her name, as if to tell us: It is fine to pass judgment on me and demonise this woman, I know you would.
Wordless tablet and Emperor Wu’s tomb