Empress Wu Zetian entered the Chinese court as a fifth-tier concubine, but she ended her life as the country’s only female emperor. Once described as hated by “gods and men alike,” Zetian developed a reputation for ruthlessness, cruelty, and betrayal. But as we’ll see, that’s not the whole story of her dramatic rise to the top.
Strap in: It’s time to revisit the jaw-dropping life of Wu Zetian.
Wu Zetian Facts
1. She was Destined to Rule
Wu started breaking the mould early thanks to her father, Wu Shihuo. He encouraged his daughter to partake in activities generally reserved for men, such as reading and writing. By the time she was a preteen, Wu could write poetry, create beautiful calligraphy art, and quip with the best of them.
Mischievous, witty, and cunning, she was destined for statecraft from the beginning. But before that happened, she had to pay her dues…
2. She Started at the Bottom
When Wu was 13, she received the opportunity of a lifetime. China’s Emperor, Taizong, invited her to join his harem of over 100 royal concubines.
Is this every mother’s dream for her daughter? Eh, not so much, and Wu’s mother was no different. When she became upset about losing her daughter to the palace, Wu had to comfort her.
She asked, “How do you know that it is not my fortune to meet the son of Heaven”? Spoiler: “meeting” the Emperor was putting their relationship very lightly.
3. She was Cunning
Wu didn’t just start at the bottom, she started at rock bottom.
She began her career in the palace as a mere fifth-tier concubine, but it didn’t take long for Wu to catch Taizong’s eye. After discussing history with the Emperor as she changed his bed sheets, Wu charmed Taizong with her intelligence, as well as her ability to read and write.
It didn’t take long for her to rise up through the ranks.
4. You Didn’t Want to Mess with Her
Wu always found ways to stand out as one of Emperor Taizong’s concubines. One of her most notable strategies was offering to tame one of his horses.
Her tools? An iron whip, a hammer, and a knife. As she said, “First I’ll beat it with the iron whip. If it does not yield, I’ll hit it with the hammer. If it still won’t be tamed, I’ll cut its throat with the knife”.
5. She Got Bad Press
Some Chinese historians have theorized that Wu first gained favor with Emperor Taizong because she was willing to go the distance, wink wink.
Apparently, Wu was willing to satisfy her sugar daddy’s greatest and most unusual urges.
6. She Got a Bad Reputation
Heads up: Everyone should take this article’s spicier stories, like the one above, with a grain of salt. Although Wu has become infamous in the annals of history as a cunning, ruthless woman, some historians believe that’s not the whole story.
After Wu’s reign, her successors led a huge smear campaign to make her look as bad as possible. While she was no angel, she may not have been quite as bad as people think.
Both then and now, haters gonna hate.
7. She was More Than a Pretty Face
Wu earned the nickname “Mei-Niang” or “beautiful girl” from Emperor Taizong. As though that wasn’t a big enough giveaway, Wu’s actual name also meant “celestial”. Add em all together and what do you get?
As the Plastics would say, Wu was a “regulation hottie”. But despite her charms and all those “personal services” to the Emperor, she was never his favorite.
8. She was Banished
Being the Emperor’s concubine sounds like a high-profile gig…until you remember that it came with some pretty intense conditions.
Custom decreed that if Wu didn’t have the Emperor’s baby before he died, she had to go live as a Buddhist nun. It was seen as a disgrace for an Emperor’s wife to be touched by another man after he perished. However, when that day came, Wu refused to give up her power so easily.
9. She was the OG Ethan Hunt
When Taizong kicked the bucket in 649, his ministers forced Wu Zetian to get herself to a nunnery. She went, but soon enough, she managed to get out and fight her way back to China’s luxurious courts.
How did she do it? There are two versions of the story, and both make it clear that you didn’t want to mess with Wu Zetian. Either she escaped from the convent on her own, or the new Emperor specifically requested her return.
You’re probably wondering why he’d put his neck out for Wu. I’ll put it this way: Get ready for some soap-opera level intrigue, my friends.
10. She Snatched That Rising Son
Wu Zetian managed to return to court by attaching herself—both politically and romantically—to the newly crowned Emperor Gaozong…AKA her own pseudo-stepson. It turns out that Zetian had actually started an affair with Gaozong not just before she got shipped off to a nunnery, but even before his dad Taizong’s demise. Now that’s a messy hybrid between a love triangle and a family tree.
11. Nothing Kept her Down
When Wu returned from the monastery, she quickly became emperor Gaozong’s highest-ranking second-tier concubine. Now, this was actually a bit of a demotion from her previous role as the Emperor’s official consort, but hey, Wu took what she could get.
She knew it wouldn’t be long before she could craft a huge (and bloody) opportunity for a promotion.
12. She was Wily
Gaozong’s wife, Empress Wang took a liking to Wu and asked her for a favor.
When Wang saw Gaozong getting a bit too close to his favorite concubine, she asked Wu to get between the two lovebirds. Wu was only too happy to acquiesce. While Wu successfully broke up the Emperor and his main mistress, she did so by becoming the Emperor’s number one girl herself.
The Empress was furious, and she made sure she’d get her revenge on Wu.
13. She Made Enemies Wherever she Went
In time, Wu used all her feminine wiles to oust the Emperor’s old favorite, “the Pure Concubine” Xiao and cement herself as his preferred woman.
After Wu gave birth to two of the Emperor’s sons in 652 and 653, the Emperor’s wife was understandably ticked. Soon enough, Empress Wang and the Emperor’s old favorite mistress Xiao started working together to bring Wu down.
14. She Endured a Horrific Loss
While Wang and Xiao were plotting to oust Wu Zetian from the palace, Wu was getting busy with her beau, the Emperor. After giving him two sons, Wu also gave birth to a daughter in 654.
It should have been a happy time, but instead, the little girl led the imperial court to tear itself apart. Sadly, the baby quickly perished after her birth, leading Wu to retire in mourning. Just kidding, she immediately went mad with grief and blamed the baby’s cruel fate on her rival, Empress Wang.
15. A Scandal Rocked the Palace
According to Wu’s accusations, she saw Empress Wang near the baby’s room just before the child died. Even worse, the little girl’s cause of death may have been strangulation. It didn’t take a genius to put two and two together.
Everyone knew that the Empress was on edge about her fading power and extremely jealous of Wu, quickly leading the Emperor to accuse Wang of killing the innocent baby.
16. She Rose to the Top
Wang had never been able to give the Emperor a baby, and now she was accused of destroying one of his heirs.
The final straw came when Wu accused her rival not just of murder but witchcraft. After all this, enough was enough. Gaozong stripped Wang of her power and promptly replaced her with, guess who, Wu Zetian.
Goodbye, lowly fifth-tier concubine and hello, Empress of Imperial China.
17. She Played the Game of Thrones
Wu’s daughter’s demise was tragic, but it also led to some significant perks, and according to some historians, that’s not a coincidence.
Some scholars think that Wu used the loss of her own child as an opportunity to drag Empress Wang’s reputation through the mud and clear her own path to victory. But according to others, the mud-slinging may not be the full story.
18. She was Cut Throat
Disturbingly, some historians believe that Wu was so desperate for power that she strangled the child herself and then framed her rival for the evil deed. While, to this day, no one knows the truth about the baby’s final days, I think we can all walk away from this story with a helpful lesson:
Never mess with Wu Zetian.
19. She was Out for Blood
After Wu’s successful coup, she and Emperor Gaozong made things official by tying the knot in 655. Instead of a romantic honeymoon, Wu’s new hubby gave her the gift she really wanted.
Against his chancellor’s wishes, he imprisoned Wu’s rivals ex-Empress Wang and Consort Xiao. But even that wasn’t enough for Wu. She was out for blood, and she’d do anything to get it.
20. Her Sins Haunted Her
When Gaozong started thinking about freeing Wang and Xiao, Wu stepped in and shut down that idea. She promptly had the women executed. According to legend, their ghosts haunted Wu for years.
21. She Ruled
In case this entire article hasn’t made it clear, Empress Wu Zetian wore the pants in the relationship.
Her husband Emperor Gaozong has gone down in history as a sickly, weak ruler who could be easily swayed by his courtiers and, as we’ve seen, his lovers. As though his wimpy personality wasn’t easy enough for Wu to overcome, Gaozong then had a massive stroke in 660.
With the Emperor left debilitated by his health issues, Wu ruled in his place.
22. She Had the Emperor Wrapped Around her Finger
Wu looked for some extra, um, help during Emperor Gaozong’s reign by exploring magic and even employing a court sorcerer. However, Gaozong was becoming (rightfully) mistrustful of Wu due to the amount of power she wielded.
Her interest in magic rubbed him the wrong way, so much so that he sought to depose her. Here’s a sign of how cunning Wu could be: After a little sweet talk, she got Gaozong to forget about all his worries.
23. She Punished her Naysayers
Surprise, surprise: After Wu had her concumbine-rivals eliminated, she started “taking care” of those pesky chancellors who didn’t support her bloodlust. In plots worthy of any Game of Thrones season (except seven, obviously), Wu forced her allies to accuse her haters of treason. She had ex-chancellors demoted, sent into exile, and executed.
When one guy that she really disliked died before she could kill him, she made do by executing his sons instead. And that’s not even the worst thing she did when she “cleaned house”.
24. She was Merciless
Empress Wu had a special plan for her most hated chancellor, Zhangsun Wuji. After getting her cronies to accuse him of treason, she then manipulated her husband into sending Wuji into exile. Still unsatisfied, she sent yet another of her lackies to pay Wuji a visit and force him to commit suicide.
Just one thing: If you have to “force” someone, I believe it’s called murder, yes?
25. Bad Omens Followed her Reign
When Wu was crowned Empress after this long, bloody road to power, an enormous earthquake hit China, leading the courts to see it as a terrible omen.
One Confucian scholar claimed that the earthquake represented the horror of a woman in power. He even said that Wu’s masculine reign was making hens turn into roosters. Someone get this guy a chill pill please.
26. She Rebranded
Following the earthquake that occurred after her coronation, a mountain rose up from the land. Instead of seeing it as a bad omen, Wu interpreted the mountain as a blessing and a reference to the Buddhist mountain of paradise, Sumeru.
Wu then dubbed the mountain “Mount Felicity”. Gotta give it to her: This girl was a PR master.
27. She Held the Power
By 664, Wu effectively ruled China. She’d violently ousted all her rivals and competitors, leaving only her weakened husband and her loyal lackies.
Such was her power that when the Emperor had important government meetings, Wu Zetian would demurely listen to the diplomatic updates behind a delicate pearl screen and secretly call the shots. Gaozong was the Emperor in name, but Wu Zetian was the Empress in practice.
28. At Any Cost
Wu would do anything to hold onto her power, no matter how defenceless her target was. When her husband the Emperor impregnated one of his favored concubines, Wu is rumored to have poisoned the woman and made her lose her baby.
29. She Had her Eye on the Prize
Wu and Gaozong ruled as divine monarchs under new names. Gaozong took the title of “Tian Huang” (Emperor of Heaven) and Wu became “Tian Hou” (Empress of Heaven), but over time, they became known as “Two Saints” in a reference to the way they shared power. To show that she was no meek wife, Wu also started flaunting her power by wearing luxurious yellow robes.
Normally, only emperors were allowed to do this, so when Wu Zetian made yellow her signature color, it was a sign: Everyone had better back down and watch the queen conquer.
30. She was Vicious
People who didn’t respect Wu Zetian and her inner circle learned to regret it.
When Wu’s brothers insulted their mother,Lady Yang, Zetian showed that she had no patience with dissidents, even if they were from her own family. She promptly had her own siblings exiled and they literally died before she let them back into China.
But as we’ll see, Wu’s brothers may have been right to raise their eyebrows at Lady Yang.
31. Her Family Tree was Twisted
The Zetian family tree is a minefield of drama, but few things rival the mess made by Wu’s pervy nephew Helan Minzhi.
Apparently, Minzhi was getting busy with, of all people, his own grandmother, Lady Yang herself. Even so, their intimate encounters didn’t guarantee that Minzhi would mourn her for the correct amount of time. When Wu found out that Minzhi was disrespecting his grandma/lover, she had him exiled and then killed.
32. She had Blood on her Hands
The drama ain’t over yet, folks. Some historians wonder about that skeezy relationship between Minzhi and Lady Yang. It might be true, but it might also be some sordid tale cooked up by Wu Zetian to get Minzhi out of the picture. You see, years before Minzhi met his doom, his sister, the Lady of Wei, died under some very strange circumstances…
33. No One was Off Limits
Just as the Emperor was thinking of making the Lady of Wei his newest mistress, the young girl just so happened to meet an extremely dark fate:
After being poisoned, she suffered a painful demise. While the poison was found in food delivered by two of Wu’s cousins, rumors swirled that the Empress had snuck it in there herself. To make sure her cousins couldn’t profess their innocence, she coldly had them executed.
So, was Minzhi really the perv that Wu made him out to be? Or was he getting a little too close to proving that Wu offed his sister? To this day, no one knows.
34. She was a Feminist
With all the haters around, Wu’s status as a female ruler wasn’t lost on her. Throughout her reign, she worked hard to give women equal treatment and opportunities with men.
And the new Empress wasn’t shy about her proto-feminist stance either. In 666, Wu led a group of women to Mount Tai, a ceremonial site. There, the women took part in holy rituals that were normally reserved for men.
Yeah, rub their faces in it, Zetian.
35. She Made Women Count
Wu Zetian broke with tradition like a boss. Before her reign, China had a lot of double-standards, but under Zetian’s rule, all that changed. She let women get married and divorced as they pleased, and changed laws to give both men and women equal rights.
Here’s one example: when a man died, his family had to mourn him for three years. But when a woman died, her family only had to mourn her for one! Wu’s legislation levelled the playing field and gave women just as long as men.
But for every one of Zetian’s good deeds, there’s another completely horrific story about her going the extra mile to make somebody suffer.
36. But she Could be Utterly Monstrous
Case in point: Wu punished her rivals Lady Wang and Consort Xiao by having their arms and legs cut off.
Then instead of putting them out of her misery, she let them slowly bleed out, then threw their mutilated bodies into wine as she snarled, “Now these two witches can get drunk to their bones”. Say it with me now:
37. Like, Really Monstrous
Here’s another example of Wu’s insatiable cruelty. When her husband Emperor Gaozong was nice to his own aunt, Wu became so jealous and angry that she lashed out with an atrocious act.
She imprisoned the aunt’s daughter (Gaozong’s own cousin) on trumped up charges and made her starve to death. And that’s not all! That girl wasn’t just Gaozong’s cousin. She was also Wu’s own daughter-in-law.
Yup, she killed her son’s wife because Gaozong was nice to an old lady.
38. She Shook Things Up
Despite being the Empress, Wu Zetian wasn’t the most popular lady, especially among China’s hoity toity aristocratic circles, and over time, she got real tired of their stuffiness and judgment.
Determined to change things up, Wu started, god forbid, hiring regular people to work in the government. She worked to oust people who’d inherited their jobs and shook things up by hiring whoever was the most qualified and talented, no matter if they were men or women, higher class or lower class.
39. Her own Family Feared her
Wu’s children seem to have inherited their mother’s thirst for power and drama. Her eldest son Li Hong basically abandoned his claim to the throne by doing something unforgivable: Trying to be nice to people Wu hated.
Remember Wu’s old rival Consort Xiao? Well, Wu had her daughters thrown in prison basically for no reason. When Li Hong saw them down there, he felt bad and got his dad to let them out.
In 675, he “died suddenly” AKA was almost certainly poisoned by his ticked off mom. Believe it or not, losing just one son wasn’t enough for our gal Wu.
40. She, Um, Wasn’t Too Maternal
Wu’s second son Li Xian could have been Emperor, if he, like Li Hong, hadn’t poked his nose in the wrong places. First, he came out with the idea that he wasn’t actually Wu’s son, but the secret son of her dead sister.
Then, as if that wasn’t enough, it’s believed that he got his mom’s favorite sorcerer assassinated. Put the two together and what do you get? Deposed and exiled.
41. She Inched Closer to Power
In 683, Wu Zetian got one step closer to absolute power when her husband Emperor Gaozong passed away.
On the one hand, his demise wasn’t too shocking: Gaozong had suffered from ill health for ages. But then again, the circumstances around his passing were strange, at best. According to tradition, Chinese emperors were supposed to be surrounded by their families when they died.
But Gaozong passed away all alone, apparently because Zetian had poisoned him and needed to hide her sin.
42. Her Son Met a Horrific End
With Gaozong gone, there was very little standing in between Wu and her violent inclinations. When her husband was alive, she had merely exiled her son Li Xian.
Now that Gaozong was dead, she didn’t have to hold back. Wu ordered her associate to pay Li Xian a visit, then lock Wu’s own child in a room and force him to poison himself.
Mommy issues don’t begin to cover it.
43. She Had Her Fun
After a lifetime of turning her personal life into political gains, Wu could finally have a little fun after her hubby kicked the bucket. When it came time for the Empress to select a new boy toy, she had her pick of the litter.
She selected Huaiyi, a good-looking Buddhist monk, and rewarded him for his “service” with a series of promotions and honors.
44. Mommie Dearest Got it From her
After Gaozong was out of the picture, it was time for a new Emperor to rise:
Enter Wu’s third son, Emperor Zhongzong. Unlike his dad, Zhongzong didn’t roll over and let Wu control the country. Instead, the new Emperor struck his own path, refusing his mother’s advice and making important decisions without her input. Now, do you think Wu would take this kind of treatment well?
45. She Betrayed her Own Son
After Zhongzong ticked off his mother one too many times, Wu lashed out. She stripped him of his title and then exiled her own son to the outskirts of China. His successor, Wu’s fourth son, Li Dan, learned from his brother and followed his mother’s orders. He became Emperor Ruizong—that is, until 690, when Wu stripped him of his title and took power for herself as the Empress Regnant.
46. She was the Worst Mom
At Wu Zetian’s palace, the drama never stopped, but few things were as outrageous as the scandal over her son Li Dan.
It all began when Wu’s favorite lady-in-waiting told the Empress that Li Dan’s wife and preferred courtesan were, get this, witches. Wu immediately executed both women, then investigated her son for treason. She only stopped when one of Li Dan’s loyal courtiers withstood immense torture and even cut his own stomach open to show that Li Dan was innocent.
47. She Played the Field
Remember Wu’s boy toy, the hot monk Huaiyi? Would you be shocked to know that their relationship ended poorly? Jaw-dropping, I know. When Wu started spending time with another gentleman caller, Huaiyi got so jealous that he went all Carrie Underwood on Wu and burned down two of her ornate buildings.
In revenge, she burned down Huaiyi’s whole life. He was executed in 695.
48. History Did her Dirty
Archaeologists studying Wu’s reign were stunned when they made an enormous discovery—and when I say enormous, I mean it literally. They uncovered an absolutely massive granary, proving that Zetian wasn’t just the power-hungry despot remembered by the history books.
The granary proved that Zetian was also a highly competent ruler. Under her rule, she increased China’s agricultural output, almost doubled the number of farming households, and most importantly, kept her people fed. Despite all the murder, Wu had good qualities too!
49. She had a Flair for Decor?
On the other hand, Wu also had two rival princes executed and then displayed their heads in her palace.
50. Her Rivals Tried to Erase an Incredible Achievement
Wu made history when she appointed a woman in the role now referred to as “prime minister”. Unfortunately, this groundbreaking gesture didn’t have quite the impact Zetian wanted.
The prime minister’s official tomb was completely destroyed by Wu’s successors for a terrible reason. Scholars believe that it was a “malicious and intentional” attempt to erase both Wu and her female prime minister from history.
51. She was a Tough Customer
We’re the first ones to admit that bad press and sexist comments followed Wu’s reign from the get go, but the most terrifying stories about the Empress are actually true. Wu reportedly ordered 36 senior bureaucrats to either be executed or forced to commit suicide.
Additionally, hundreds of members of the bureaucrats’ families were enslaved. Yeah, we don’t like bureaucrats too, but was that really necessary, Zetian?
52. She had a Temper
Here’s another sign that Wu’s bad reputation doesn’t just come from biased historians.
While exploring Wu’s grand daughter’s tomb, a scholar discovered that one tablet described Wu with the character for “anger”. Yeah, that’s not normal. Most emperors were described with much more complimentary terms, suggesting that Wu’s fiery temper was very real.
53. She Could be Vain
In 689, Wu had the government create a new Chinese character, “Zhao,” in honor of one of her nicknames Wu Zhao. The new character combined the symbols for “ming” (light) and “kong” (sky), making Wu’s name literally “the light shining from the sky”. No one can say that Wu Zetian didn’t have a healthy ego, a fact that she proved with her next gesture…
54. She Made Herself a Goddess
During her reign, Wu humbly proclaimed that she was heavenly.
For real—Zetian said that she was kind of a god when she claimed to be reincarnation of the major Buddhist figure Maitreya. In Buddhist thought, Maitreya returns to Earth to achieve enlightenment and guide the faithful.
But despite Wu’s spiritual side, she often seemed more like a vengeful Old Testament god than a zen Buddhist goddess.
55. She was Vicious
Case in point? When Wu’s own grandchildren had the nerve to criticize her, Wu ordered them to commit suicide.
56. She Made History
In 690, Wu officially declared herself Empress. To ring in the new era, she announced the end of the Tang dynasty and named her reign the “Zhou Dynasty”. The name was in reference to a fiefdom her father hailed from, but also an earlier dynasty from which Wu often claimed a lineage.
No matter how you slice it, Wu was claiming her era. She was no longer a concubine or a wife, she was now China’s official ruler.
57. She Operated a Snitch Line
If you couldn’t already tell, Empress Wu Zetian lived for drama, so it’s not too surprising to learn that she instituted an official snitch line.
During the Zhou Dynasty, she set up a series of copper boxes in the capital. If you wanted to complain about your office enemy or tattle on your neighbor, you could always sick the Empress on them with one little note.
Oh, and this snitch line wasn’t the only way that Wu controlled her subjects. She also established her own secret police force in 686.
58. She was Big Sister
Unsurprisingly, Wu’s snitch line got a lot of traffic, but a ton of it was just spurious accusations from one ambitious courtier against another.
Numerous people were jailed, tormented, and even executed based on nothing more than a single note placed in one of Wu’s dainty copper boxes.
59. She Made a Bad Call
Wu’s reign saw the successful expansion of China’s territory into Central Asia and even the reopening of the Silk Road, but she made one particularly bad military call when it came to Korea.
She defeated one Korean kingdom with the help of the Silla people, but she then turned around and backstabbed the Silla in pursuit of more power. Wu was rewarded with a Korean uprising that pushed her army out of the land.
60. She Had Style
Part of Imperial diplomacy meant negotiating marriage arrangements with the tribal chieftains along the empire’s border. Typically, brides were offered to the chieftains or their family members. But keeping with her progressive style, Wu sent grooms instead.
One chieftan, insulted at the gesture and believing the groom to come from an inferior heritage, kept him prisoner before sending him back to China in 698.
61. She Broke the Rules
Emperors were known for having numerous concubines, some of whom performed intimate duties.
However, Empress Wu, not to be outdone by the boys, also had her own concubines. The handsome Zhang Brothers were Wu’s favorites, and they were known to spend a lot of time with the Empress in her “closed quarters” well into her old age. Bow chicka wow wow.
62. She Laid it all on the Line
By the end of Wu’s rule, a series of illnesses forced the octogenarian to rule by proxy. With time on her hands, Wu’s thoughts turned to her, um, checkered past. As she pondered her afterlife, Wu decided to make amends.
She couldn’t bring back all the people she’d offed, but she could confess her sins. She did so on a golden tablet and, according to custom, threw it off a mountain, where it lay hidden for 1300 years.
63. She was no Saint
Over a century after Wu begged forgiveness for a lifetime of wickedness, a farmer happened to stumble upon her golden confession. With it, a major historical riddle came one step closer to being solved: Was Wu as bad as the Confucians said, or did they maliciously discredit her?
According to Wu herself, they weren’t fully wrong. The tablet explicitly admits her “sinful nature”
64. She Reached the End
After a lifetime of scheming, Wu was ultimately undone by a coup in 705. Well into her 80s, Wu wasn’t as much of a threat, so her usurpers left her alive, but forced her to step down and let Emperor Zhongzong, her son, take the throne.
Sadly, in the bloody takeover, Wu’s favored lovers the hot Zhang brothers were executed. Not the Zhang brothers!
65. She Withered Without her Crown
After abdicating in her 80s, Wu lost her sense of purpose. She only lived for a few more months after she lost her crown.
She breathed her last breath in 705.
66. Her Tomb was Twisted
Wu’s tomb lies in Qian County with a stone slab erected outside of it. The slab, or stele, was customary, but it’s missing something: It was also supposed to be inscribed with the empress’s deeds. Instead, Wu’s stele was left blank.
Some scholars say this was a way to deny her impressive achievements or cast shame on her reign. Others insist on an even more twisted meaning.
67. She was a Boss
In a recent documentary on Zetian, historians claimed that her blank stele wasn’t a sign of failure, but victory.
Wu herself demanded to leave her tomb without any inscriptions. She either wanted to leave her legacy up to history, or to the end, she refused to explain herself to anyone. Like the boss she was, Wu would take her secrets to the grave.
68. There are Still Mysteries in Store
To this day, Wu Zetian’s official tomb has never been excavated or explored. Archaeologists believe they know where it is, but they don’t know how to access it without risking ruining the ancient structure.
Until they figure out a way to get in, Wu’s mysteries will live on.
69. If It Ain’t Broke…
Emperor Xuanzong, who ruled decades after Wu, actually kept her taxation, agriculture, and education reforms. Therefore, when China became the world’s most affluent country under his rule, he had Wu Zetian to thank.
Not only that, she brought stability to China during the Tang dynasty, now known as the country’s “Golden Age”. And history only wants to remember her as a bloodthirsty tyrant? Please.
70. She Inspired Scandalous Books
If you, like me, can’t get enough of Wu Zetian’s sordid exploits and messy personal life, here’s a recommendation for your next great read.
It turns out that Wu inspired the 16th century’s version of 50 Shades of Grey. The spicy novels focus on Zetian’s alleged bedroom escapades, although you probably have to take them with a grain of salt.
71. Her Daughter-in-Law Struck Back
Lady Wei, who was the wife of Wu’s son Emperor Zhongzong, used Wu as an inspiration for her own political machinations. And by this, we don’t mean that she implemented reforms, built granaries, or got really into temples.
Nah, Wei tip her hat to her old mother-in-law by poisoning Zhongzong to pave the way for her own son to become emperor.
72. She Got the Last Laugh
After Wu perished, her nephew, Wu Sansi, followed in his aunt’s diabolical footsteps and started controlling Emperor Zhongzong from behind-the-scenes. Like Wu, he also derived some of his influence from his sexuality.
It turns out that he was having an affair with Zhongzong’s empress consort. Hey, if you can’t beat ’em, sleep with their mistresses?
73. Her Time is Now
Wu hasn’t had the big screen treatment yet, but she was portrayed by Fan Bingbing in the Chinese TV series, The Empress of China. The controversial show had to be censored repeatedly because its costumes showed “too much” of its actress’ assets.
Honestly, considering Wu’s sultry scheming, it sounds like the filmmakers got that part right.
74. She was a Puppet Master
All in all, Wu’s official reign as Empress lasted 22 years, all the way from 683 to 705. However, when you consider that she was all but in charge long before she actually ascended to China’s royal seat, her rule was functionally over 50 years long.
She may not have been the nicest person on earth, but no one can deny that Wu Zetian could hold onto a crown like no one else.
75. You Didn’t Want to Mess With her
When one of Wu Zetian’s ministers suggested that she should act more properly as a widow, her response was so disturbing that it’s impossible to forget. Wu Zetian was not a woman to be messed with.
She promptly sentenced her upstart minister to exile in the “swampy, disease-ridden Southland” where one can imagine that the minister didn’t have a happy ending.