Most nations of note have had at least one great female leader. Not the United States, of course, but one thinks readily enough of Hatshepsut of ancient Egypt, Russia’s astonishing Catherine the Great, or Trung Trac of Vietnam.
These women were rarely chosen by their people. They came to power, mostly, by default or stealth; a king had no sons, or an intelligent queen usurped the powers of her useless husband. However they rose, though, it has always been harder for a woman to rule effectively than it was for a man–more so in the earlier periods of history, when monarchs were first and foremost military leaders, and power was often seized by force.
So queens and empresses regnant were forced to rule like men, and yet roundly criticized when they did so. Sweden’s fascinating Queen Christina was nearly as infamous for eschewing her sidesaddle and riding in breeches as she was for the more momentous decision that she took to convert to Catholicism–and while mustering her troops in 1588 as the Spanish Armada sailed up the Channel, evenElizabeth I felt constrained to begin a morale-boosting address with a denial of her sex: “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and a king of England too.”
Of all these female rulers, though, none has aroused so much controversy, or wielded such great power, as a monarch whose real achievements and character remain obscured behind layers of obloquy. Her name was Wu Zetian, and in the seventh century A.D. she became the only woman in more than 3,000 years of Chinese history to rule in her own right.
Wu (she is always known by her surname) has every claim to be considered a great empress. She held power, in one guise or another, for more than half a century, first as consort of the ineffectual Gaozong Emperor, then as the power behind the throne held by her youngest son, and finally (from 690 until shortly before her death in 705) as monarch. Ruthless and decisive, she stabilized and consolidated theTang dynasty at a time when it appeared to be crumbling–a significant achievement, since the Tang period is reckoned the golden age of Chinese civilization. T.H. Barrett’s recent book even suggests (on no firm evidence) that the empress was the most important early promoter of printing in the world.
Yet Wu has had a pretty bad press. For centuries she was excoriated by Chinese historians as an offender against a way of life. She was painted as a usurper who was both physically cruel and erotically wanton; she first came to prominence, it was hinted, because she was willing to gratify certain of the Taizong emperor‘s more unusual sexual appetites. “With a heart like a serpent and a nature like that of a wolf,” one contemporary summed up, “she favored evil sycophants and destroyed good and loyal officials.” A small sampling of the empress’s other crimes followed: “She killed her sister, butchered her elder brothers, murdered the ruler, poisoned her mother. She is hated by gods and men alike.”