In ancient China’s patriarchal society, women did not enjoy the same status as men. Many of the references to them in the early historical records are about the problems they created for men or society at large. The fall of the first three dynasties (Xia, Shang and Zhou: almost 2,000 years of rule) were all blamed partly on the monarch’s misbehaviour with favourite concubines, for instance.
When a woman attained political power, she was often perceived as dangerous and unvirtuous. And two of the most powerful women in Chinese history – both of whom were effective rulers of a united nation – were often portrayed in a very negative way.
Who was the first empress dowager?
Liu Bang was the first non-noble to become a Chinese emperor (See D for Dragon Throne). He was also the oldest person to be crowned, already 54 when he founded the Han Dynasty in 206 BC. When Liu died, his wife Lu Zhi became empress dowager because her son Liu Ying, aka Emperor Hui, was such a weak successor. She became the effective ruler of the Han for 15 years.
Lu was credited with abolishing many of the harsher rules imposed by China’s first emperor (see Q for Qin Shi Huang) and she laid a solid foundation for the golden era of Emperor Wu (see W for Wudi of Han). However, her ruthlessness has always overshadowed her historical legacy. Liu’s favourite concubine Qi was the most unfortunate of Lu’s rivals. Lu was said to have killed Qi’s son to prevent Qi from claiming the title of empress dowager in the first place. More infamously, she had Qi tortured after their husband’s death, chopping off her limbs, gouging out her eyes, and throwing her into a latrine. Qi was “human swine”, she said.
And the first – and only – female emperor?
Wu Zetian, the first and only empress in Chinese history, turned two of her love rivals and political enemies into “human swine” as well. Wu was said to have taken things a step further by stuffing her victims into large pots of wine to deepen their suffering.
There were endless acts of extreme cruelty through history. Yet when a powerful woman happened to be responsible, such as Wu or the empress dowager Lu, they have earned far greater censure in China.
It was never easy for a woman to survive the power struggles in royal politics, let alone climb to the top. Wu joined the Tang court as a concubine of Emperor Taizong (one of the two most heralded emperors, see L for Li Shimin). Some historians claim that while Tang Taizong was still alive, Wu had an affair with his son who, after taking the throne as Tang Gaozong, made Wu his own concubine. Wu grew her own power base and as Gaozong’s health deteriorated she became the effective decisionmaker after the year 660. After a brief stint as the empress dowager, she then took the throne from her own son in 690 and proclaimed herself as emperor of the Zhou, which often goes unrecognised as one of the formal Chinese dynasties.
One of Wu’s skills was picking the right talent to advise her and she has also been credited with introducing far-reaching reforms of the civil service selection system. For example, she pioneered the so-called ‘palace examination’ where she would meet the best students personally and pick the ones best-suited for senior officialdom.
Others have questioned Wu’s reputation for political astuteness. Were she more savvy she might have stayed as empress dowager instead of taking the throne herself, for instance. In that way she could have governed more indirectly, avoiding the wrath of conservative palace officials (and later historians) whose default response was to demonise female rulers.
Interestingly, Wu was played in a recent TV series by the popular actress Fan Bingbing. Not long afterwards, Fan also experienced a fall from grace, disappearing from public view for months and then admitting to tax evasion.
Where are the female politicians today?
Since 1949 much has been done to improve gender equality in China – as Mao Zedong famously proclaimed: “Women hold up half the sky”. But politics has remained an overwhelmingly male-dominated domain. So far no woman has made it onto the Politburo Standing Committee (currently comprised of seven) that governs China. The Politburo, the next rung down in political power, has 25 members. But only one is female…
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