Even though having a woman rule as emperor during the Tang dynasty's most glorious years would have been highly unnatural in accordance with Confucian beliefs, Wu Zetian, also known as Wu Zhao, was the only woman to do so in Chinese history. (Wills 202). Wu Zetian was Emperor Taizong's concubine, and after his passing, she wed Emperor Gaozong, Taizong's ninth son, who became Taizong's heir. Following Gaozong's incapacitating stroke in 660, Wu Zetian subsequently assumed the role of court administrator. Wu Zetian was formally crowned an empress in 655. (Wills 204). Up until 705, Wu Zetian presided as the court governor, which was the equivalent of being the emperor. Some viewed her as an autocrat, who was ruthless and pitiless in her interest to obtain and maintain power. To others, Wu was a woman doing men’s job as she acted similarly to most male emperors of her time (Huang 32). Despite the people's different opinions, Wu managed to rule China effectively during one of the country's most culturally diverse and peaceful periods (Huang 33). This paper addresses the greatest challenge Empress Wu posed to patriarchal Chinese society, the changes she made in the Chinese society, as well as how the political system, social structure, and practices affected one another in the patriarchal Chinese society.

The Tang dynasty, which occurred from 618 to 906 AD was a period of women’s relative freedom since they did not lead submissive lives nor bind their feet. It was the period when most exceptional women made significant contributions in the areas of politics and culture (wills 205). Wu Zetian’s political strength and ability rose during the Tang dynasty, and she became the only female emperor in the history of China, a position that did amaze not only many but also appeared unnatural and against the beliefs and norms of the patriarchal Chinese society. Wu Zetian became a captivating figure following the strong prejudice she faced against the women, a situation which gained her more imperial powers (Ban 179).

The greatest challenge that Empress Wu posed to the patriarchal Chinese society was that she was a very authoritative, forceful, influential, and powerful ruler who possessed man-like leadership qualities (Wills 207). Additionally, Empress Wu Zetian’s leadership actions prejudiced and awakened several other women who saw the importance of gaining power and authority over men despite such practices being considered as going against the traditions. Traditionally, the women in the Chinese society had the role of handling household activities within the homes, and political roles were purely men's business (wills 208). The rise of Empress Wu, however, made a significant contribution towards sensitizing both the men and women as they realized the importance of adjusting their views regarding their roles in the patriarchal Chinese society (Lai 244).

Traditionally, the women in the early Chinese society were expected to remain humble and respectful to others, especially the men, as well as remain submissive to their husbands and committed to various domestic duties. A woman in the early Chinese society was also expected to obey both her parents and the parents of her husband, as well as stay in harmony with the children and the brothers and sisters in law (Lai 245). The general view of women in the early Chinese society was to merely to serve others, especially the members of the family. Besides, Pan Chao explains that she considered herself naturally unenlightened, imprudent, unsophisticated, unworthy, and too unintelligent to write just because she was a female (Ban 281).

Empress Wu Zetian therefore significantly challenged the views of the patriarchal Chinese society on women as her rise to emperorship was a great historical anomaly in the middle of traditional Chinese society that got characterized by strong and powerful patriarchy (Huang 33). Empress Wu exhibited a broad range of man-like leadership characteristics following her deviation from the women’s traditional roles and responsibilities in the early Chinese society. At the time most women stayed home performing their various duties as defined by the traditions of the early Chinese society, Wu struggled with the most powerful and intelligent men from the high rank, ruling families for the imperial supreme power, despite her position as a concubine (Huang 34).

Like most previous emperors, Empress Wu was a ruthless ruler, and her level of cruelty could match those of Emperor Taizong as well as Qin Shihuangdi, who was the first emperor of the Chinese Qin Dynasty (Huang 36). Qin Shihuangdi’s rule got characterized by acts of brutality as he engaged in a broad range of brutal activities such as killing individuals who made citations of various classical works, burying scholars alive, as well as burying several artisans alive for their extensive knowledge. Emperor Taizong, on the other hand, had leadership qualities characterized by a bloody coup that led to the killing of his brothers by his supporters as well resignation of his father in his efforts to gain power (Huang 37). Empress Wu Zetian’s rule had similar characteristics as she sent to exile the princes who posed a threat to her power and even killed some of them (Wills 208). Empress Wu also ordered for the amputation of two ladies who she accused of planning to poison her husband, and she sent most of her opponents to exile. Despite Empress Wu’s acts being against the qualities of an ideal woman, she remained an authoritative and ruthless ruler over men in the patriarchal Chinese society (Wills 209).

One of the changes made by Empress Wu that contradicted the traditions of the early Chinese society was her expression of the lack of devotion. Empress Wu got accused of engaging in a love affair with Gaozong before their marriage at the time she was still serving as a member of Emperor Taizong’s household. Empress Wu was unfaithful, a practice which was against the traditions and customs of the patriarchal Chinese society (wills 211).

Wu Zetian also changed the patriarchal Chinese society by exhibiting effective and influential leadership qualities despite being a woman. Empress Wu took the sole responsibility of making all the political decisions on behalf of Emperor Gaozong after her suffered a stroke and became unable to discharge his leadership roles. She went against the norms that prevented women from participating in leadership affairs and remained conservative to every activity that took place and helped her husband in making wise and more informed decisions (Eisenberg 46). To ensure that she remained in charge of the patriarchal Chinese society after the death of Emperor Gaozong in 674, Empress Wu ordered his son Zhongzong to descend from the throne, after which she sent him to prison. Empress Wu got full imperial powers in 690, an event that made her the only female emperor in Chinese history (Eisenberg 48).

The changes brought by Empress Wu's rule led to a broad range of effects on the Chinese society's political system, social structure, and practices. Empress Wu's leadership led to a significant expansion of the Chinese empire as she extended it farther beyond its original territorial boundaries (Wills 212). Empress Wu also engaged in a broad range of wars on the Korean peninsula as they battled over the occupation and ownership of the formally Goguryeo territory. Apart from the direct impacts caused by Wu’s struggle to gain and retain supreme powers in the patriarchal Chinese society, Wu’s rule led to various important effects relating to the social class within the Chinese society (Lai 246). Wu's support for education, Buddhism, literature, and Taoism brought significant effects on the people's social practices, Chinese political system, and the society's social structure. Additionally, Wu's leadership caused a great effect on the Longmen Grottoes’ statuary, as well as the Qianling Mausoleum’s ‘Wordless State’ (Huang 39).

Empress Wu was indisputably one of the most powerful and authoritative rulers in the early Chinese society, and she remains as the only female emperor in Chinese history. Wu's challenge to the patriarchal Chinese society is a clear indication that the societal norms and traditions should not be used to prevent the minority groups in the society from expressing their talents and abilities, especially the ability to take leadership roles. Empress Wu's rise emperorship with supreme powers was a clear indication that women can make tremendous and useful contributions to the society's political and social affairs when they overlook various discriminatory traditions and customs that continue to pull women back even in the current society.

Works Cited

Ban Zhao, Excerpts from “Admonitions for Women,” Sources of Chinese Tradition, compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, 2nd ed., vol 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 821-824. MMW 12: Classical and Medieval Tradition. Comp. Edmond Chang. La Jolla, CA: University Readers. University of California San Diego. Winter 2013. 179-182. Print.

Eisenberg, Andrew. "EMPEROR GAOZONG, THE RISE OF WU ZETIAN, AND FACTIONAL POLITICS IN THE EARLY TANG." Tang Studies 2012.30 (2012): 45-69. Web.

Extracts from “Emperor Taizong on Effective Government,” Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook, ed. Patricia Buckley Ebrey, 2nd ed. (New York: The Free Press, 1993), 112- 115. MMW 12: Classical and Medieval Tradition. Comp. Edmond Chang. La Jolla, CA: University Readers. University of California San Diego. Winter 2013. 197-200. Print.

Huang, “Behind the Terracotta Army,” China: A Macro-History, Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, Inc., 1997, 31-40. MMW 12: Classical and Medieval Tradition. Comp. Edmond Chang. La Jolla, CA: University Readers. University of California San Diego. Winter 2013. 159- 164. Print.

Lai, Chiu-yueh. "Emperor Taizong On Effective Government." (1999): 243-246. Print.

Wills, “Empress Wu,” Mountain of Fame, Princeton University Press, 127-148. MMW 12: Classical and Medieval Tradition. Comp. Edmond Chang. La Jolla, CA: University Readers. University of California San Diego. Winter 2013. 201-212. Print.

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