Saturday, March 30, 2013

Book Review: Wu Zhao: China's Only Woman Emperor by N. Harry Rothschild


     It is notable that while women in China have managed to rule in the aspect of an Empress with great influence, or a widow awaiting a minor son to grow up and become emperor, there has been one woman that decided this was a ridiculous way of doing things and named herself emperor. Wu Zhao was that woman, and it is even more notable that she did so after rising from very humble origins.
     Rothschild details Wu Zhao’s early life and rise to power very well, while navigating the tricky waters that are Confucian historians. Confucians generally tried to keep very accurate records and histories; but they hated Wu Zhao so absolutely that they couldn’t keep quite a few…embellishments from their records.
     We begin by understanding Wu Zhao’s family. Her father was a merchant, that hated class that “produced nothing” (again, according to the Confucians-I’m not particularly set against Confucianism but some of the notions are rather narrow-minded). After her father died, and she and her mother were more or less driven from their home by male family members, Wu Zhao caught the eye of a court official, who recommended she enter the harem. She entered as a Talent, one of the lower rungs, and lived more or less in obscurity (barring a snide comment about how to train a horse, which amused the emperor). It wasn’t until the emperor was dying, and his son tending to him beside Wu Zhao, that her fortunes rose. That son, Gaozong, fell in love, despite the taboo against a son taking his father’s concubine. Even though Wu Zhao was sent off to a Buddhist nunnery after the old emperor died, Gaozong spotted her again and promptly brought her back to the palace, where she quickly gained influence in the court. Rothschild at this point explains what the harem was really like-the backbiting, the fight for notice, the mistreatment by the Empress and the Pure Consort (the highest rank in the harem). Wu Zhao used these politics to her advantage, gaining the friendship of the lower ranks in the harem and using the girls as her ears and eyes to eventually take down the two women and be elevated to Empress herself.
     Another point Rothschild focuses on is the fact that even as Empress, Wu Zhao and Gaozong ruled as equals rather than a man of absolute power and his devotee. Again, Confucian historians grumble about her influence, and even their contemporaries complained. Perhaps they saw the writing on the wall, for when Gaozong died Wu Zhao did not pass power over to their eldest son, but continued to rule alone, although with a concession to the Confucian ideal of a widow taking care of her late husband’s affairs.
     This is another aspect that made Wu Zhao successful as a politician. She skirted the line, but always managed to appeal to the three philosophies of the time-Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism. While she was a fairly devoted Buddhist herself (even concocting some “signs” that led to her being proclaimed a bodhisattva), she made friendly with all three, appearing to each as their proper idea of a ruler (though, as said before, she often concerned the Confucians). Rothschild details the sorts of rituals that went on to cement her steady ascent to power.
     I could go on, but I would rather everyone read it for themselves. Wu Zhao is a fascinating, if questionable, personage in history. Perhaps one could argue that many of the steps she took to gain power were necessary in a very patriarchal, conservative society. But, love her or hate her, Wu Zhao left her mark on history and on China.

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