In the 4,000 year history of the Chinese Empire, only one woman was ever bold – or powerful – or hardcore – enough to seize control of the Imperial Throne and openly dominate the Middle Kingdom with the full weight of an honest-to-god Son of Heaven Emperor of China. That woman was the much-hated, much-awesome, much so wow many diabolical shank-you-in-the-face-while-you’re-sleeping tyrant Wu Zetian – Empress of the T’ang Dynasty, creator of the Zhou Dynasty, and a spicy Szechuan-style murderess who came from humble beginnings, ruthlessly annihilated anything that stood in her path, and ultimately held all of China under her iron-fisted power for over half a century.
And Wu Zetian Ain’t Nuthing to Fuck Wit.
There’s no place to hide once I step inside the room
Wu Zetian was born in 624 AD in a small city in Szechuan Province. Her father was some military officer and semi-wealthy landowner, but thanks to a razor-sharp wit and intellect Wu was well-known not only for being super hot and super awesome to talk to, but also for being really goddamn smart, educating herself in history, literature, and affairs of state at a time when most women weren’t doing much except washing dishes and watching the Kardashians. A fortuitous combination of luck and badass cred eventually got young Wu admitted into the Palace of Emperor Taizong as a maidservant at the age of 14, and thanks to her knowledge of classical literature and semi-unusual ability to read and write she was given the task of cleaning and maintaining the Imperial Library.
Well, sure, ok, badass librarian shit aside, Wu was destined for better things than dusting off the Emperor’s fucking workstation, and so one day when Taizong came into the study while she was working she started talking to him about awesome shit like the Three Kingdoms and Lu Bu and other hardcore bastards from Chinese history. Emperor Taizong pretty much popped a boner immediately. He nicknamed her the “Charming Lady”, made a point of visiting her to talk about warlords and explosions pretty much any time he wasn’t running the day-to-day operations of the Chinese Golden Age at the height of the T’ang Dynasty, and eventually took her in to be one of the concubines in his harem (which, while it isn’t exactly empowering, is pretty much as high up the fucking power food chain as most women could hope to get in 7th century China). When Emperor Taizong died in 646, all of his concubines had their heads shaved and were thrown into a convent (an old Chinese custom), but Wu had already seduced the Prince (scandalous!) and within three years she’d managed to escape a lifetime as a nun and get right back into the business of running shit in China.
Emperor Gaozong promoted (is that the word?) Wu Zetian to the rank of “Favored Concubine,” and his wife, the Empress, immediately lost her shit and started trying to start shit. But Wu Zetian hadn’t clawed her way from some backwater town in Szechuan Province and fought her way out of a convent to get outwitted by some dumb aristocrat biznatch. She subverted the Empress, banged the Emperor, had three sons for him, and then framed the Empress with killing a baby and for being a witch and that’s not even her real hair color anyways etc. On Wu Zetian’s orders (and she had honestly no authority to do this), the Empress was arrested, her hands and feet were cut off, and she was forcibly drowned in a vat of wine. The last thing she saw before asphyxiating in a facefull of booze was Wu Zetian’s awesome-looking victory snarl.
Wu Zetian pretty much immediately became Empress of China, married Gaozong, and then – stop me if you didn’t already see this coming a mile away – oh no out of nowhere Gaozong suddenly suffers a massive stroke and is almost completely incapacitated yet somehow still alive. Acting as regent for the out-of-commission Emperor, Wu Zetian starts sitting in on all important political functions, and basically single-handedly rules over the world’s largest and richest empire with utter cold-blooded impunity.
To cement her place on the throne, Empress Wu did an awesome thing and created one of the world’s first organized secret police services, then basically told them to go fucking nuts and assassinate or arrest anyone who didn’t like her. Thirty-six high-ranking political ministers are executed, commit suicide, or have tragically fatal accidents in just a couple months. Her eldest son was exiled to Mongolia for disobeying her orders, and her second son is stripped of his royalty and declared a peasant because he was possibly thinking about maybe plotting an uprising or something. Two military commanders on the frontier start asking around about raising troops to overthrow the Empress, and by the end of the year both their heads are hanging on display outside the gates of her palace.
It’s worth noting that even though Wu Zetian was an utterly brutal and ruthless motherfucker who stone-cold bulldozed everything in her path and maintained a tyrannical choke-hold on her power thanks to dozens of badass assassins who snapped necks for her in dark corners across China, Empress Wu was also a super-capable ruler who successfully ran a first-world country of 50 million people. Remembering her peasant roots, Wu reformed agricultural laws to lessen the tax burden on peasant farmers across China, instituted some of the world’s first labor laws, streamlined the bloated military into a more efficient fighting force, and cut the fat in her own government by forcing any government administrator to complete a ridiculously-difficult civil service examination to prove they were smart enough to have the job. She kicked out useless politicians, brought in well-trained scholars, built irrigation systems to improve farming, and did other chill shit that isn’t super exciting to write about. When a bunch of uptight idiot Confucian scholars came out and said no fucking way should China be ruled by a woman, she told them Confucianism sucks, dumped it as the official Imperial religion, and started building a bunch of temples and shit for a previously-lesser-known faith called Buddhism. The Buddhists were so pumped they carved a hundred-foot tall Buddha out of a limestone cliff face near her capital and carved it to look like her.
Cash Rules Everything Around Me
Emperor Vegetable finally kicks in in 683, and the crown fell to the only one of his kids that hadn’t been exiled or killed or stripped of power – Wu Zetian’s youngest son, who at this point was still too young to rule on his own without a regent. The Chinese Cersei Lannister went along with this shit for like a year, then eventually took an incredible step that no Chinese woman ever had the balls to do (or would ever have the balls to do again) – she said fuck it, deposed her son, and declared a new Imperial Dynasty. The T’ang is dead, we’re the Zhou Dynasty now.
Then she moved the capital to a different city, declared future Emperors would pass through the maternal line, and ordered all those fucking asshole misogynist Confucian scholars to start writing epic heroic biographies of great women from Chinese History. Those that refused were buried alive.
PROTECT YA NECK
Empress Wu Zetian ruled the Zhou Dynasty with an Iron Fist for another twenty-two years, doing whatever the hell she wanted and daring anyone to step to her. She continued improving the lives of the peasants, made the government stronger and more efficient, and led her newly-refurbished badass army on a half-dozen massively-successful military campaigns that stomped out barbarian tribes, lawless warlords, and seditious rebels with equal zeal and impunity. She also became an Ol’ Dirty Bastard, and even into her 70s she was known to have a fucking apartment building full of hot young guys she was fucking whenever she felt like it.
In her fifty-plus years as the fucking sole autocratic dictator of Imperial China, Empress Wu never faced a serious coup or rebellion attempt. She abdicated the throne peacefully to her son in 705 AD at the age of 80, and died a year later in her bed with a fucking smile on her face. Her son would end the Zhou Dynasty, move the capital back, and go back to the T’ang Dynasty, meaning that for the rest of time the fucking history of the T’ang Dynasty has to be written with a little asterisk next to it marking the 22 years that it was outsmarted by the toughest chick in Chinese history.
Her tomb is marked by a giant dick-shaped stone marker with absolutely nothing written on it. It was traditional for Emperors to do this and have a scholar write an inscription after their death to mark the Emperor’s legacy, whether it be good or bad. With the Empress Wu, nobody could find any words.