WUHOU: influential women of all time – Early Life and Reign, social and political life, major works and death

0
46
Just2know : There is no knowledge that is not power
Just2know : There is no knowledge that is not power

< Previous | Contents | Next >

laws to give greater benefits to women. She spent much of her reign trying to mitigate the laws against the monophysites. Though she succeeded in ending their persecution in 533, she never succeeded in changing Justinian’s religious policy from its emphasis on orthodoxy and friendship with Rome.

The best-known representation of Theodora is the mosaic portrait in the Church of San Vitale in Ravenna. Her death, possibly from cancer or gangrene, was a severe blow to Justinian. Her importance in Byzantine political life is shown by the fact that little significant legislation dates from the period between her death and that of Justinian (565).

WUHOU

(b. 624, Wenshui [now in Shanxi province], China—d. Dec. 16, 705, Luoyang)

W

W

uhou is the posthumous name (shi) of the woman who rose from concubinage to become empress

of China during the Tang dynasty (618–907). She ruled effectively for many years, the last 15 (690–705) in her own name. During her reign, Tang rule was consolidated, and the empire was unified.

Wu Zhao, also called Wu Zetian, entered the palace of the Tang emperor Taizong (ruled 626–649) in 638, at age 14, as a junior concubine. By that time, the Tang dynasty had recently reunited China, largely through the efforts of Taizong. Little is known of Wu’s life as a concubine of Taizong, but, on his death in 649, she is traditionally said to have already entered into intimate relations with his heir, the Gaozong emperor. Relegated to a Buddhist convent on the death of Taizong, as custom required, the future empress Wuhou was visited there by the new emperor, who had her brought back to the palace to be his

own favourite concubine. She first eliminated her female rivals within the palace—the existing empress and leading concubines—and in 655 gained the position of empress for herself, eventually bearing Gaozong four sons and one daughter.

Wuhou used her authority to bring about the fall of the elder statesmen, all of whom had served Taizong and still exercised great influence over the government. These men opposed her elevation to the position of empress, mainly because, although she was the daughter of a relatively senior officer, her family was not one of the great aristocratic clans. They also objected to the nature of her relationship with Gaozong, on the grounds that as she had been a concubine of Taizong, it was incestuous. By 660 the empress had triumphed over all opponents, who had been dismissed, exiled, and, in many instances, finally executed. Even the emperor’s uncle, the head of the great family of the Changsun, of imperial descent, was hounded to death, and his relatives were exiled or ruined.

Virtually supreme power was now exercised by the Wuhou empress in the name of the sickly Gaozong, who was often too ill to attend to state affairs for long periods. The emperor, who was weak in character, relied on her entirely, and for the last 23 years of his life, the empress was the real ruler of China. She continued to eliminate potential rivals, even when these were her own relatives, but she governed the empire with great effi , employing able men who clearly felt loyalty to her and stood by her when she was challenged. Her great ability as an adminis- trator, her courage, decisive character, and readiness to use ruthless means against any opponent, however highly placed, won her the respect, if not the love, of the court.

In the years between 655 and 675, the Tang empire conquered Korea under military leaders who were picked and promoted by the empress. When Gaozong died in

683, he was succeeded by his son Li Xian (by Wuhou), known as the Zhongzong emperor. The new emperor had been married to a woman of the Wei family, who now sought to put herself in the same position of authority as that of Wuhou, for Zhongzong was as weak and incompetent as his father. After one month Wuhou deposed her son, exiled him, and installed as emperor her second son, Li Dan (the Ruizong emperor), whose authority was purely nominal. A revolt was raised by Tang loyalists and ambitious young officials in the south. It was crushed within weeks with the loyal cooperation of the main armies of the throne. This demonstration of the support she commanded in the public service made the position of the empress unshakable.

Six years later, in 690, at age 65, the empress usurped the throne itself. Accepted without revolt, she ruled for 15 years. During that period the question of the succession began to assume great urgency. Her own nephews of the Wu family had hoped that as she had already changed the name of the dynasty to Zhou, she would also displace the Tang heirs of the Li family and leave the throne to one of the Wu nephews. Neither of them nor their sons was popular or unusually capable; on the other hand, Wuhou’s own sons, the two former emperors Zhongzong and Ruizong, had little support and less ability. But, even among her loyal supporters, there was a growing hope that the Tang family of Li would not be discarded. In 698 the empress decided to accede to these views; the exiled Zhongzong was recalled to court and made crown prince. The empress showed her remarkable quality in this deci- sion; she did not place her own family in the line of succession or designate one of her nephews as her heir. She seems to have had no ambition on behalf of her own family, only a determination to retain power for herself to the end.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here