because the woman's place is wherever the woman is...

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Wu Zeitian

Wu Mei (meaning "pretty" in classical Chinese) refused to do needlework like the other little girls in 635, preferring instead to read. And when her parents traveled, she rushed to tag along, learning firsthand all that existed in her native China.

Tapped to be an imperial concubine at thirteen, Wu spent several years at the palace and, at the Emperor's death, she was sent to a Buddhist convent as was expected at the time. However events unfolded over the next few years, Wu wound up back in the palace and, in truth, some accounts suggest that she never left. In any case, she wound up in the bed of her step son, became his consort, had two sons and a daughter by him, took over as Empress, got rid of all those who opposed her power, and took over the throne as Emperor herself at her step son's death.

Some thought Wu killed her husband. The symptoms of his degenerating health could have been high blood pressure, but they might have been the results of slow poisoning over a period of time, as well. Either way, he died in 683, leaving all that unattended power right in front of Wu, who was more than up to the challenge of ensuring that no one -- not even her sons -- would get in her way of wielding it. By 690, she was officially Wu Zeitian (as she was known once she took position as Emperor).

During her fifteen years in absolute power, Taoism, Buddhism, architecture, education and literature all flourished. She expanded the Chinese empire deep into central Asia. She attended to the needs of the common people. And she increased gender equality during her reign. Her willingness to connive, manipulate, and murder to consolidate and protect her power has been criticized, of course, but in this, she was not vastly different from most men obsessed with power. A woman willing to do what is necessary to amass and maintain power in highly complicated social settings and dramatic times is really just demonstrating -- and being criticized for -- her in-your-facedness. Ho hum.

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