Wu was born the second daughter of Lady Yang, herself the second wife of Wu Shiyue, a supporter of Tang Gaozu (Li Yuan) during his uprising which overthrew the Sui Dynasty. Wu Shiyue saw that this daughter of his was gifted; unusual for the era, he encouraged her to read and write. note Thus, compared to most women of her time, Wu was far more knowledgeable and learnt. Since her father died when she was young (him being already in his 60s when Wu was born), Wu's half-brothers took the opportunity to throw Lady Yang and her three daughters out of the household. However, Lady Yang wasn't an entirely defenceless widow; she was part of the Yang clan, which included the emperors of the Sui Dynasty. note
Wu first entered the Imperial Court as a minor concubine (才人, "cai ren") of Emperor Taizong at the age of thirteen and he was forty. note When Taizong died in 649, she was sent to a convent like all Imperial Consorts who had not borne any children. note Eventually, Taizong's successor Emperor Gaozong brought her back to the Imperial court, allegedly on the advice of his then Empress Wang so that Wu may distract Gaozong from his current favourite, Consort Xiao (a decision she would not regret anytime soon). As Gaozong became more and more infatuated with Wu, Empress Wang pulled an Enemy Mine with Consort Xiao hoping to displace Wu from the court.
Suffice to say, it didn't work and when Wu's newborn daughter was found dead in her crib and Empress Wang was allegedly the last person to see the child alive (though traditional historians claim Wu did it herself to further her ambitions), their days were numbered. Soon after, both Wang and Xiao were stripped of their ranks and confined under house arrest. Later, when Gaozong showed signs of pardoning the two, Wu became so angry, she ordered the two be executed by cutting off their limbs and drowning them in vats of wine.
As Wu's influence within the court grew, she persuaded Gaozong to make her son Crown Prince and began making state decisions on his behalf with increasing frequency. note When even Gaozong became annoyed enough at Wu's involvement in government to consider deposing her, she managed to persuade him against the idea enough to blame it on an official who opposed Wu. note After that point, Gaozong was more accepting of Wu's involvement that they often appeared together in court sessions. note
When Gaozong died in 683 note , Wu was in complete control of the Imperial Government and through Gaozong's will made regent to her son, who became Emperor Zhongzong, complete with a piece of advice in the will that basically amounted to the governing equivalent of "listen to mommy". However, within two months, Zhongzong was deposed and exiled, in favour of his younger brother Ruizong who managed to reign for six years, while Wu remained regent, when he was himself deposed and exiled, Wu took full control of the government, ruling as Huangdi in her own right. She changed the country's name to "Great Zhou" (大周, "Da Zhou") note .
While her rise to power was ruthless and bloody, though not more than most male emperors before or after, her actual reign was noted as being one of prosperity and stability, and creating a level of gender equality that endured through much of the later Tang Dynasty. She also was a keen patron of the Examinations System, which would become the basis of China's Imperial Government for the rest of its history. On a personal note, all Tang emperors after her were her direct descendants (through Zhongzong and Ruizong, who both regained the throne)note ; one of her grandsons was Xuanzong, who would eventually have his own problems with women and decadence. note Her daughter-in-law Empress Wei (Zhongzong's wife) also attempted to emulate her note , but Wei was killed and Ruizong regained the throne in 710, although he ruled for less than 2 years before relinquishing power to his son Xuanzong. Her surviving daughter Princess Taiping was killed by Xuanzong after being accused of taking part in a coup attempt. Many of the important officials during Xuanzong's early reign had in fact been discovered by Wu; this includes two of Xuanzong's early chancellors: Yao Chong and Song Jing. note
What is unusual during Wu's reign is her penchant for frequently changing the era name note and names of government departments and official titles, along with the construction of various gigantic palaces and monuments, all to boost her legitimacy.
Wu's downfall came after she took to pleasure and took a pair of brothers surnamed Zhang as her boy-toys. Zhang Changzong and Zhang Yizhi interfered in matters of court, to the extent that court officials have had enough of them. note A palace coup was then staged, the Zhang brothers executed, and Wu handed over the throne back to Zhongzong. She passed away less than a year after the coup. note
Part of the bad rap she received posthumously was partly due to her promotion of Buddhism over Confucianism and Taoism. note As for the famous "Wordless Stele", the stele was left wordless by her descendants, who cannot decide on the eulogy to be carved upon the stele.
Tropes as portrayed in fiction:
- Adapted Out: The majority of films about Wu Zetian only show the time of her rising to power as empress consort, and later, empress dowager, many ending when she became the first empress regnant of China.
- Adaptational Nice Guy/Adaptational Heroism: Thanks to modern scholars being skeptical of traditional histories, she is depicted as being more benevolent or even as an innocent girl, who was forced to become a ruthless woman in the dangerous world of men.
- Counterpart Comparison: Wu Zetian, to the eyes of Westerners, is the real-life Chinese version of Cersei Lannister, due to the brutal ruthlessness they show towards their enemies.
- God-Emperor: After take over the throne, she declared herself to be the Emperor with the title "Shengshen Huangdi", translated as "Saintly God Emperor" or "Divine and Sacred Emperor".
- A God I Am: Wu Zetian chose Buddhism as the state religion to legitimize her mandate for rule, as Confucianism did not allow female emperors. Furthermore, she claimed to be an incarnation of the Maitreya Buddha, writing a text which prophesied that the female emperor would eradicate illness, worry and disaster from the world. The Buddhist clergy created a document called "Commentary on the Meaning of the Prophecy about Shenhuang", which predicted a female Chakravartin who would rule the Jambudvipa as the reincarnation of Vimalaprabha.
- Wise Beyond Their Years: According to her own account, there was an occasion during the time she was concubine when she impressed the emperor Taizong with her fortitude and aggressive intelligence.
- Manipulative Bitch: According to history, Wu is a very intelligent woman who shrewdly manipulate those around her.
Appears in the following works:
- Several Chinese Historical Dramas and Movies:
- Detective Dee, taking place before her (official) takeover of the throne, played by Carina Lau.
- Young Sherlock, taking place before she became Gaozong's empress, played by Ruby Lin.
- The Empress of China, a 2015 series starring Fan Bingbing, reputably the most expensive Chinese Drama Series ever, notable for its endless Costume Porn. Fan portrayed Wu from her early teens to shortly before her death in her early 80s.
- Empress, a biographical novel by Shan Sa.
- In Civilization as a leader of China, alongside Mao Zedong in II and by herself in V.
- Only mentioned as the generic Empress in Judge Dee. However, a French continuation features her as a much more prominent character, since her constant plotting to keep her husband on the throne (but not healthy enough to actually rule) causes her to ally and/or clash with the judge on more than one occasion.
- An upcoming HBO series, from the production behind Game of Thrones, titled Empress starring Xiaoqing Liu.
- In Fate/Grand Order, she is an Assassin Class Servant. She's portrayed as an expert on torture who was an effective ruler, but ruled through fear. Her Noble Phantasm, Gàomì Luózhī Jīng, allows her to subject her opponent to her various methods of torture and execution, like drowning them in vats of wine. note