Empress Wu Zetian (also known as Empress Consort Wu and various other names) is the earliest known female ruler of China and the first woman in Chinese history to become an empress. Empress Wu was born around 624 AD and lived until 705 AD, during the Tang Dynasty.
According to historical accounts, Empress Wu began her journey to power quite early in life. At a young age, she was chosen by Emperor Taizong ( r. 626–649) to be a concubine in his court. Through her beauty and intelligence, she soon rose to prominence in the court and was favored by the emperor.
Though she gave birth to several sons, none of them survived to adulthood. However, the emperor eventually appointed his third son, Gaozong, to be the crown prince. After Emperor Taizong’s death in 649 AD, Empress Wu successfully maneuvered to ensure that Gaozong would become the new emperor.
With her position as the emperor’s wife, Empress Wu was able to use her influence to gain more power, with the ultimate goal of ruling China. She suppressed opposition to her rule and seized control of all aspects of government, from bureaucracy to military operations. This allowed her to shape the public policy decisions of her reign.
During her rule, Empress Wu undertook numerous reforms aimed at broadening the influence of women in society and increasing their access to education and political power. For example, she encouraged the examination system for the civil officials, allowing both men and women to take the exams. She also abolished many of the unequal practices against women, and provided them with more economic rights under the law.
Empress Wu’s ambitious reign was not without controversy. Throughout her reign, she was accused of being overly cruel and oppressive, and of seeking power for personal gain instead of the benefit of the people. Despite this, Empress Wu remains the only female ruler in the 2000 year history of China and her legacy is still honored today.