Wu Zetian: The Mysterious Empress of China

Friends! I have been reading, watching documentaries and learning about Wu Zetian all week to top off what previous interests I had in her! You might say I’m a little obsessed by now, and am stoked to share an abbreviated overview of what I learned! Not only does she give us an insight to a period of China’s traditions and history, she also allows us an opportunity to debate and teach leadership skills! I hope you enjoy!

Set the Scene:

In a country highly influenced by Confucian beliefs, women of China are known for having endured some extraordinary expectations in their dress, family roles, and general inferiority to men. Confucian beliefs strongly pushed the idea that women are subject to a lower standing than men.

According to Khan Academy’s discussion of Confucianism and Daoism’s influence over women,

“a woman’s first obedience is to her father before she is married, to her husband while she is married, and to her son after her husband dies. During the course of their lives, women were dependent on their male kin, but they had different levels of power depending on their age and influence over male family members. Mothers of influential older sons, for example, exercised far greater control over household affairs than a younger son’s new bride.”

Women and Families in Classical Society

Then there was the foot-binding practice, of course. Young girls would have to bend their toes in and wrap them so tightly that their bones would actually break and grow improperly, preventing their feet from ever reaching a normal size. This was highly favored when seeking a wife. So much so, that they actually created a type of grading system for women’s feet.

The highest praise a woman could get, was to achieve the “Golden Lotus”, which meant her feet were three inches long! Three inches! Just for referrence, I just measured my women’s size 9 shoes to be about 7 inches long! If you have a Cabbage Patch or Build-A-Bear, the doll’s shoes will be closer to 3 inches than yours.

Nearly as admirable as the status of Golden Lotus though, was the Silver Lotus, which was laiden on those girls who could manage to walk on a 4-inch foot.

Finally, the “big feet”, or Iron Lotus, qualification was merely anything over that 4-5 inch mark. We’d all be laughed at and called Sasquatch today. But back then, this was the fashion and very important to many when finding suitors!

So where did this terrible, painful tradition all begin?

Legend tells of a woman named Yao Niang, a dancer in the Emperor’s court. The Emperor was so infatuated with her tiny, bound feet that he constructed a 6 foot lotus, draped with ribbons and other beautiful things for her to dance on. Thus, came about the term “lotus feet”. Lotuses, being like the rose of Chinese culture, epitomizing all things beautiful and lovely.

Wu Zetian

But where does Empress Wu Zetian come into all this foot binding and Confucianism business? Well, she doesn’t really! Rather, she shatters all of these images of women and carves her own path, which is what makes her remarkable! But it also makes her one of the most controversially debated among women rulers in history. As the first Chinese woman to rule an empire, she did something momentous and really gave women a time to grow and be free. At the same time though, she has been accused of terrible things to make her position possible. Watch this short video by the Smithsonian of what has been uncovered from her era – some of the very limited hard evidence of her reign!

In a world that was “meant” to be ruled by men and generally oppressed the women, she took the reigns and led China through their Golden Age! Especially a golden age for women. The biggest problem for the poor woman’s reputation today is that there just isn’t a lot recorded that anyone can say is fact about her character. Scholars know she was not born to a wealthy family, but a lot of the rest of her story is truly a mystery. It is assumed that she was extraordinarily beautiful, and educated as well, to have landed a position in the emperors house. But how did she get from a maid to the Empress? How did she overcome the competition and create a standing for herself to rule against all odds? There’s a lot of debate and some rumors, but so many biased records just don’t seem clear.

She was cast as being one of the most evil rulers China had ever seen, attributed with committing disgustingly heartless crimes against anyone in her way, even family. Some of these accusations include being a temptress, murdering family and court members, poisoning the emperor himself, and so forth.

The Smithsonian magazine breaks down some of the issues of her historical portrayal though:

Just how accurate this picture of Wu is remains a matter of debate. One reason, as we have already had cause to note in this blog, is the official nature and lack of diversity among the sources that survive for early Chinese history; another is that imperial history was written to provide lessons for future rulers, and as such tended to be weighted heavily against usurpers (which Wu was) and anyone who offended the Confucian sensibilities of the scholars who labored over them (which Wu did simply by being a woman). A third problem is that the empress, who was well aware of both these biases, was not averse to tampering with the record herself; a fourth is that some other accounts of her reign were written by relatives who had good cause to loathe her. It is a challenge to recover real people from this morass of bias.

The Demonization of Empress Wu Zetian

Basically, she underwent the kind of social media that we see celebrities face today. The people recording her history had motives to manipulate the truth, and their strong words about her suggest that they probably did. Without personally meeting her, it feels almost impossible to conclude what her actual character was. All we can know for sure is that she was not welcome as a ruler, overstepped her boundaries/duties as a woman at the time, and wanted that throne.

Good and Determined Empress, or Vile Usurper?

With the official records so skewed, how do the general people of China feel towards Wu Zetian today?

First we must understand that while the court and most inner circles of the government wrote despicable things about her integrity and more personal affairs (true or not), she did manage to uphold all of her duties to the state.

As far as what made a good ruler, Confucian beliefs held that:

Tests of the good ruler were social stability, population growth (a reflection of ancient statecraft where the good ruler was one who could attract people from other states), and ability to create conditions that fostered the people’s welfare.

Introduction to Confucian Thought

Under her reign those close to her may have been targeted, but common people prospered, the military was effective, education and skills were spreading to previously overlooked people (aka women), the population growth at the time was good. All these things point towards a praiseworthy leader, regardless of individual integrity, according to Confucianism. This feeling is still strongly met today. I have asked dozens and dozens of my Chinese students whether they believe the Empress to have been good or bad, and I can only think of one time when a student couldn’t make up her mind. The rest immediately vouch for her effectiveness in bringing about a prosperous nation. I have even tried to debate with some and swing their opinion, but they’ve stood their ground.

Do you want to join the debate? Check out some more resources about Wu Zetian here to better decide what you think:

What do you think?? Do you think that personal integrity is as vital in a good leader as the peace and accomplishments of the nation under their reign? Or can you be a bad, overly ambitious person, but still reign well?

You can start talking about leadership skills with your children when they are still very young! They should definitely have regular conversations about what kind of good qualities they can achieve as they attend their first pre-school and kindergarten classes. Here are some activity-led discussions you can use to praise your child’s existing leadership skills and help them to want expand to be more like other great leaders too! Just sign up for the newsletter to gain access to all my free printables and activities using the form below!

What are some other ways you can talk about being a leader with your children? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

And make sure to sign up for my newsletter to gain access to free activities, more resources, and other updates!

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