Wu Zetian, the woman who was to become China’s only female Emperor Regent was born in 624 AD, during the Tang Dynasty. The daughter of a government official, she entered the Palace Court as a concubine at age 14 and began a lifelong mission to become Empress Dowager. In 690 AD, she became Emperor Regent, ruling in her own right and founded the Zhao Dynasty. Wu Zetian was also a Buddhist who, during her reign, elevated Buddhism to the state religion in China, above Taoism and Confucianism. Buddhism spread throughout China; hundreds of thousands of Buddhist temples and monuments were built all over China. One of the largest statues of the Buddha in China, carved at Longmen Grottoes, is said to have been carved with a likeness of her face.
But don’t let all that Buddhism stuff fool you. Wu Zetian ruled China with an iron fist, and her reign was a bloodbath. She killed, imprisoned or exiled anyone that stood in her way or threatened her power. She terrorized people with a secret police force. Wu Zetian elevated Buddhist monks to positions of power within her reign, and carried on an affair with a Buddhist monk, Huaiyi. The story of her rise to power and her reign makes Shakespeare’s Richard III look like a 6-year old birthday party.
One recent scholarly work by Norman H. Rothschild, looks at Wu Zetian’s strategic use of female religious symbols, particularly Buddhist goddesses, as a way to create a feminine culture that secured her position as Emperor. (Rothschild, N. H. 2015, Emperor Wu Zhao and Her Pantheon of Devis, Divinities, and Dynastic Mothers, Columbia University Press.)
But you don’t have to get into the heavy academic stuff to appreciate the intense drama of her life and reign as Emperor. You can watch a remarkable TV drama of her life produced in China and released in 2014, online, in it’s entirety, with English subtitles. It is dramatically engrossing, visually stunning, and completely convincing.