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Empress Wu Zetian

History >> Biography >> Ancient China


Empress Wu Zetian by Unknown
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Growing Up

Wu Zetian was born on February 17, 624 in Lizhou, China. She grew up in a wealthy aristocratic family and her father was a high ranking minister in the government. Unlike many girls of her time, Wu was given a good education. She was taught to read, write, and to play music. Wu was an intelligent and ambitious girl who learned all she could about politics and how the government worked.

The Imperial Palace

When Wu was fourteen she moved into the imperial palace to serve the Emperor Taizong. She continued her education at the palace until the emperor died in 649. As was the custom, when the emperor died she was sent to a convent to become a nun for the rest of her life. Wu had other plans, however. She became romantic with the new emperor, Emperor Gaozong, and soon found herself back at the imperial palace as consort (like a second wife) to the emperor.

Becoming Empress

Back at the palace, Wu began to gain influence over the emperor. She became one of his favorite wives. The emperor's main wife, Empress Wang, became jealous and the two women became bitter rivals. When Wu's daughter died, she hatched a plan against the Empress. She told the emperor that Empress Wang had killed her daughter out of jealousy. The emperor believed her and had Empress Wang arrested. He then promoted Wu to Empress.

Over the next several years, Wu established herself as a significant power behind the throne. She built up strong allies in the government and eliminated rivals. When the emperor became sick in 660, she began to rule through him.

Becoming Emperor

In 683, Emperor Gaozong died and Wu's son became emperor. Wu became regent (like a temporary ruler) while her son was still young. Although she didn't yet have the title of emperor, she had all the power. In 690, Wu had her son step down as emperor. She then declared a new dynasty, the Zhou Dynasty, and officially took the title of emperor. She was the first and only woman to become emperor of China.

Secret Police

It was difficult for a woman to maintain power in Ancient China. Wu managed this by using secret police to spy on people. She developed a large system of spies who helped determine who was loyal and who wasn't. Wu rewarded those who were found loyal, but had her enemies put to death.

Ruling China

Another reason that Wu was able to keep power was because she was a very good emperor. She made intelligent decisions that helped China to prosper. She surrounded herself with competent and talented people by promoting people based on their abilities rather than by their family history.

During her reign, Empress Wu expanded the borders of China by conquering new lands in Korea and Central Asia. She also helped to improve the lives of the peasants by lowering taxes, building new public works, and improving farming techniques.


Empress Wu died in 705. Her son, Emperor Zhongzong, took over as emperor and reestablished the Tang Dynasty.

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For more information on the civilization of Ancient China:

Timeline of Ancient China
Geography of Ancient China
Silk Road
The Great Wall
Forbidden City
Terracotta Army
The Grand Canal
Battle of Red Cliffs
Opium Wars
Inventions of Ancient China
Glossary and Terms

Major Dynasties
Xia Dynasty
Shang Dynasty
Zhou Dynasty
Han Dynasty
Period of Disunion
Sui Dynasty
Tang Dynasty
Song Dyanasty
Yuan Dynasty
Ming Dynasty
Qing Dynasty

Daily Life in Ancient China
Numbers and Colors
Legend of Silk
Chinese Calendar
Civil Service
Chinese Art
Entertainment and Games

Kangxi Emperor
Genghis Khan
Kublai Khan
Marco Polo
Puyi (The Last Emperor)
Emperor Qin
Emperor Taizong
Sun Tzu
Empress Wu
Zheng He
Emperors of China

Works Cited

History >> Biography >> Ancient China

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