I have always had a fascination for ZeTian Wu because she was the only female in Chinese history to ever rule as an Emperor. Wu grew up in a time period when men dominated almost everything. Women were forbidden to interfere with political affairs so it was unheard of for a female to even hold political power. Wu not only managed to lead the country in a way that prospered it, but she was also the Emperor’s most favored wife. Impressed by her capabilities, I tried to learn more about her when I had the chance to.
In 2011, a Chinese drama depicting parts of ZeTian Wu’s life was released. Titled, “Beauty World,” the drama began when Wu was a Zhao Yi (a type of rank for a concubine). Empress Wang (equivalent to the title of a Queen) was in Wu’s palace, visiting Wu’s newborn daughter. Shortly, the Emperor and Wu arrived. Wu was delighted to see the Empress. She walked towards her daughter’s carriage to pick her up, but discovered that she was not breathing. There was a mark on her daughter’s neck, which had the same imprint as Empress Wang’s ring, a ring that no one else owned. Wu immediately accused the Empress of strangling her daughter. The Emperor sided with Wu and was convinced that Wang murdered his newborn princess because she was jealous of Wu. After several investigations, Empress Wang was found guilty, and was eventually deposed and rid of her title.
Chancellors speculated that Wu killed her own daughter to frame the Empress because Wu was notorious for her ruthlessness and she had her eyes on the title of the Empress. By planning such a scheme that legitimately deposed Empress Wang of her title, Wu stripped the chancellors’ ability to defend Wang. Shortly after Wang was exiled, the Emperor made Wu his new Empress, the highest title out of all of his wives.
Wu not only held the highest rank but she also held most of the Emperor’s heart. Despite having thousands of other wives, he adored her the most. He gave her the best of everything and spent the most time with her. His chancellors even advised him to focus more on state affairs and not on a woman. He ignored them because he was very much infatuated by Wu. The Emperor often expressed his commitment and loyalty to Wu through a vow, “I am willing to become a stone bridge, to endure 500 years of wind, 500 years of rain and sun, only for you to walk by the bridge.”
One day, a female official brought in new concubines for the Emperor. This was done annually so he would always have new, young and beautiful wives. That day, Wu happened to pass by them. She looked at them, then turned toward the female official and praised her for selecting such attractive women for her husband. The servant immediately turned towards her colleague and scolded her for selecting them. Wu stopped her and asked, “Are you implying that they are a threat to me?” The servant does not answer. Wu then said, “I will never, ever, have to worry about these young and beautiful women because I never use my beauty to keep my husband by me.”
At this point, I knew Wu was smoking something. How did she expect the Emperor to remain committed after she becomes less attractive, especially when he was constantly surrounded by new, beautiful wives?
Wu never elaborated.
Perhaps Wu was confident that her husband would love her forever because she was a very understanding wife, who was willing to sacrifice everything for him, and assisted him in state affairs in ways that no one else could. Wu organized her own secret police to spy on potential rebels and assassinated them when they became a threat to her husband. She was even willing to die for him. In one scene, various chancellors plotted to overthrow the Emperor. When one of them tried to kill him with a sword, Wu threw herself on him and prevented him from getting hurt.
Later in the drama, Wu discovered that it was not Empress Wang who killed her daughter; her husband did. He needed a reason to depose Empress Wang to gain more control in the palace. Thus, he planned his daughter’s death and framed it on Wang. Wu never confronted him because she realized it was necessary to sacrifice their daughter for him to secure more military power. She never blamed him and only wept alone. And when she discovered that she became pregnant again, she told the Emperor that she had a feeling that it might be a daughter. Wu asked the Emperor to promise to treat their new daughter well, and give her the best of everything, hoping that this would compensate for the death of their last daughter.
Towards the end of the drama, Wu began to see that her husband never loved her. He treated her well because he needed her help in his state affairs. He wanted to spend time with her only to get valuable political advice. Wu had a flashback to one of her past birthdays. That day, he arrived to her palace with excitement. Thinking he had a surprise for her birthday, she was delighted. Instead, he was thrilled because he wanted to share his plans to silence his enemies. As he was about to leave, she asked him if there was anything else he needed to tell her, but he said no. As Wu replayed her relationship with the Emperor, she realized that the man she loved and tried to protect had never loved her. He was only using her to advance his political agenda. And despite being a woman who was capable of anything, she had never felt so powerless to fight back.