Today in History – The Death Of Empress Wu


December 16th 705: Empress Wu Zetian dies

this day in 705, Wu Zetian, the only sovereign empress of China, died
aged 81. Born during the Tang dynasty, she entered the court of Emperor
Taizong as a concubine when she was 14 years old. After Taizong’s death,
the new emperor Gaozong defied custom and chose the well-educated Wu to
remain as his favourite concubine. She rose to become Gaozong’s empress
in 655, after eliminating the current empress by allegedly killing her
own child and framing the empress. The new empress quickly silenced the
elder statesmen who opposed her position on the grounds that she did not
hail from the established aristocracy, with critics exiled and, often,
executed. Emperor Gaozong was a sickly man, and frequently entrusted
affairs of state to Wu, who managed imperial business essentially
single-handedly. Wu was a capable leader, known for her sound
management, her decisiveness, and her ruthlessness; these attributes won
her the respect, and fear, of the Chinese imperial court. Her greatest
accomplishments included agricultural and education reform,
stabilisation of the imperial bureaucracy, and imperial expansion. Upon
Gaozong’s death in 683, his son by Wu ascended to the throne, but,
concerned by the machinations of his ambitious wife, Wu had him exiled
and installed her other son as emperor. In 690, when she was 65 years
old, the empress claimed the throne for herself, and ruled as a
sovereign empress for 15 years. The question of succession led Wu to
designate her exiled son as heir, rather than choosing a member of her
own family, thus ensuring the continuation of the Tang dynasty. In 705,
senior officials conspired to compel the aging Wu to yield power to her
son. She accepted their demands and retired from the throne, dying in
December of that year. Despite decades of condemnation as a vicious
usurper, the achievements of Empress Wu Zetian, who defied the gender
conventions of her day, are increasingly being acknowledged.

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