History is coloured with great empires, from the Russians in Eastern Europe, the Japanese in the far East to the British in the North. The majority of these world powers were for the most ruled by men. Yet, there is the strange outlier of a female ruler which was quite common in Egypt when they expanded their territory, where the most notable would be Cleopatra. But one of the rare cases of this was that of Empress Wu of China who fought her way to the imperial throne much like her Russian sister Catherine the Great.
This study will discuss two of these women’s, beginnings, rise to power and their accomplishments but first, it will examine the various obstacles women have faced throughout history to take the throne.
Throughout history, powerful, ambitious women have often been depicted as femme fatales who used men’s need to spread their seeds against them. If that was not the case, they were merely spoils of war, the most infamous example of women being no more than a prize to win would be Helen of Troy.
Helen of Troy may have been a spoil of war but her godly counterpart Aphrodite was the femme fatale of Homer’s epic. These two legendary women along with Athena play well into the argument that women are not able rulers but two mortal women would argue otherwise, Cleopatra, the Queen of the Nile and Empress Wu. These two prominent female rulers show that women can be as lethal as men if not more and women are far from the weakest sex.
They used their sexuality to play puppetry with some of the most influential male rulers of their time, this is especially true for Wu Zhao who started her career as the Emperor’s concubine and even the mother of one of his children. Before discussing her rule, let us investigate how the patriarchy feels threatened by the mere notion of a crazed female assenting the throne. Here, the most intriguing authority would be the famed Eastern philosopher Confucius, who expresses his concerns as follows: ‘Women are to be led and to follow others, and a woman ruler would be as unnatural as having a hen crow like a rooster at daybreak.’ (Women in World History 2019) During the height of the Tang dynasty one woman was to challenge this notion and rule Imperial China successfully. To some she was a tyrant who was ruthless in her pursuit of power to others, she may be history’s greatest misfit. So one can easily argue that her rule is a hotly debated topic in modern-day academia. And, sadly, this study supports the argument that she may have been a tyrant. As far as Confucius scepticism goes and Wu’s defiance Kieth McMehon explains:
One woman actually called herself emperor, Wu Zetian ??? (625-705), the only female emperor in Chinese history and probably the only one in the entire world to rule her own dynasty (known as the Zhou ? dynasty, from 690 to 705). Like others before her, she manipulated tradition in order to legitimize her claim to the throne, but went farther than anyone before or after her, almost even choosing as successor a member of her own family. Even after her dethronement and death, three other powerful women followed in her wake and made it briefly look as though women participating in rulership might become something normal. (McMehon 2013)
This except simply tells that Wu was the only woman who had the fighting spirit to end up on top and defy patriarchy. Even if some women followed her path and ambition to make female leadership normal they are never mentioned. And yes Wu was a master manipulator who to this day is the only woman to take the imperial throne of China. In short, history is littered with strong female role models and these have ruled our little stone for millennia. Some of these rulers were born with the title of Queen or Empress while others were not afraid to get dirty to gain influence.
Before the dawn of time, a little girl who was destined for greatness and with a brilliant mind, this little girl went by the name of Wu Zhao. She was out of good stock since she was born into a wealthy family. Despite not having the ability to fight her fights on the political chess board, like many women in her time. But one may speculate that her father a great political rook could have told her a thing or two about playing three dimensional chess with both political allies and enemies given that he was a chancellor doing the Tang Dynasty. On the point of her father, he was ahead of his time given that he encouraged his little prodigy to excel in both reading and writing. Her progrssive father figure may have been the key to her advocacy for women’s rights later in life. Just when she was about to break out of her cocoon and become this beautiful, intelligent, seductive young maiden her compelling rise to stardom begins. Her tale starts with the tragic story of being the lover of the sickly Taizong. The ill Emperor was no more than a pawn she could displace by his much more desirable right hand man Gaozong. At the time of Wu’s climb up the societal latter, Gaozong was happily engaged to Empress Wang. Gaozong would not be the only key pawn in Wu’s elaborate game of chess because next she will take aim at the Empress herself by manipulating her husband. At this point she is no more than a femme fatale in her own story but later on she would morph into a cold hearted tyrant. But this point will be discussed later. As is the case with many female rulers in areas of the world where women do not have access to this sort of power, she will merely be written of as cunning or even tyrannical because women at the time were not allowed to be ambitious. Much less be as ambitious as the men or as Confucius insist ‘women are to be led and follow others.’ he goes on to say that the mere notion of a female rule is absurd. Evidence that may paint her as a cunning young maiden would be first and foremost be her slaughter of her own child and framing Empress Wang for this horrendous crime. This little juicy side note plays out on one fateful evening where the Empress chooses to visit the royal quarters at the imperial palace. Not too surprising but the gullible Gaozong is quick to believe Wu’s side of the story maybe to quick. According to Liao’s assertion: ‘Before long, Gaozong, taken in by Wu Zeian’s story, ousted both Empress Wang and Xiaoshu, despite strong opposition from his court.’ (Liao 2014) Here, Liao paints Wu as not only cunning but also a lying murderer along with telling how gullible the Emperor could have been. One could even argue that Wu and Gaozong’s relationship is a viable example of ‘love makes blind or is it simply a case of a man willingly falling under a woman’s spell. After this little hiccup, her murdering spree continued because she wished to sustain her power and nobody were spared from her knife since she slaughtered both political rivals and even her oven family members. But Wu is far from the only female rule who got blood on her hands in order to stay in power. Or as Anderson writes so vividly Wu ‘wiped out twelve collateral branches of the Tang clan.’ (Anderson 1990). Another notable instance would be Catherine the Great who took the crown of the czars by murdering her own husband, the Grand Duke Peter of Russia. But these two women are not the only ones with murderous tendencies because Cleopatra ordered the murder of her own younger brother by way of poisoning.
Despite the supposed tyrannical nature her rule, newly discovered artifacts paint a more nuanced portrait of Wu, China’s only female ruler. These new pawns may still tell a tale of women who were not able to challenge men’s authority on the chess board but they could challenge the patriarchy in other ways. For instance, one shows a woman taking on the role of the knight because women were actually allowed to participate in English style of horse riding. Another shows a woman wearing men’s clothing. These newly discovered chess pieces make some experts form arguments that women under Wu were free to engage in the same activities as men, with the one exception being politics. Her advocacy for women’s rights and equality will be discussed at length later. In the frame of Chinese history, Empress Wu is the only female who has been able to conquer the Chinese Imperial throne. On the contrary, Cleopatra, aka the Daughter of the Nile, who was part of a long tradition of female pharaohs. Egyptian history is actually littered with powerful women taking the wheel. Even if this is the case, Cleopatra was different, for instance, she ‘was the first in her line to learn Egyptians. From birth she was identified as the daughter of Dionysus.’ (Highet 2011) As was the tradition of the time of Cleopatra, it was very common to be identified as a relative to a God or Goddess in order to be legitimate. To add to this, she was the daughter of Ptolemy XII, who can trace his heritage back to one of Alexander the Great’s generals. After his father’s passing, she married her brother, Ptolemy XII. Back then, it was relatively normal to marry your siblings or cousins especially in royal and aristocratic circles. Her marriage to brother legitimise her rule even more since she then could associate herself with the Egyptian Goddess, Isis.
Now that the foundation is laid, let dwell in these women’s long list of success. Despite their somewhat ruthless rule, which was fueled by paranoa, both women played the role as Queen and politician excellently. Empress Wu’s focal points doing her rule were (I) women’s rights, (II) land reform and (III) education. But there was also a dark side to her coin since like many Emperors before she was paranoid. On the point of her advocacy for women’s rights she made it possible for her fellow women to be an active participant in their own divorce and even allowing them to remarry. Such a huge change within society rubbed learned men and scholars the wrong way. Confucius expresses his concern on this issue by insisting that: ‘A husband can marry twice but a wife can never remarry.’ According to this saying men could remarry as they wished and still sustain their place in society while the same cannot be said for their wife. If a woman divorces her husband she is not only not allowed to remarry but she would also lose her place in society. As far as marriage goes, a woman’s main duties were to marry well this is not far from a woman’s reality in Europe at this time. But given this legislation, Chinese women were getting the luxury of initiating divorce. In addition to this, women were given the chance to inherit which was again purely a man’s luxury prior to Wu’s rule. Giving women these luxuries through legislation put Chinese women in a significant better position than their sisters in both Europe and Egypt. Yet, one should not neglect the fact that these luxuries were only something the upper classes could enjoy. The life of an average farmer’s was unchanged. On the contrary, farmer’s saw a huge change in their life do to Wu’s land reforms which made it possible for farmers to participate in the economy. But as was the case for much legislation doing this time, the money will always come back to the rich. Even if the purpose of these reforms were to diminish the filthy rich landowners influence and shift this influence to the central government, the rich would still benefit from it. This was especially prevalent in Wu’s capital, Louyang, which was expanding. But this growth was only due to farmers being part of the economy but also the fact that China herself were expanding to the north and the south. The most significant benefit of farmers becoming part of the puzzle was that forced labour were to be part of the past. Finally, Wu made it possible for the average man to attempt to move from the meek position of pawn to possible becoming a rook by letting them partake in the civil exams. These exams were known for being extraordinarily challenging but those who did pass secured a place in government. Additionally, she also reworked the Chinese writing system by adding a few characters. The writing system of modern China can actually be traced back to Wu’s improved version. All these strokes of genius are for the most part ignored when this misfit of a ruler is mentioned as a side note in many a history work. Instead, historians tend to favour the darker side to her empire. She was probably paranoid, so much so that she established a secret police and as mentioned earlier she slaughtered everyone she saw as a threat to her rule even relatives. But this is a trait repeated again and again no matter the sex of the ruler. While Wu emphasises women’s rights, much like Mao after her, and recognising that peasants were human beings and not just an aristocrat’s mule.
On the contrary, Cleopatra’s main concerns were (I) revitalising the old Egypt, (I) economic growth and (III) strengthening ties to the Roman Empire. As many rulers before and after her, Cleopatra longed for a time where Egypt could play chess with the best of them. In short, the glory days of a bygone era much like Hitler did in Germany during World War II. One thing she succeeded in revitalising was the mystique surrounding Pharaohs and their need to aline themselves with deities. In her case, her alinement journey started with Dionysus at her birth and later she claimed to be ‘Isis incarnate.’ (Vrettos 2010). Ways in which she achieved this by dressing in garments ‘sacred to Isis,’ or ‘by marriage to her brothers.’ (McCabe 2008) Before she took the wheel, the focus on the old Egyptian gods were close to non-existent and mummification was not the detailed process scholars know of today. The need to revitalise the old traditions both socially and religiously show her subjects what an excellent leader she was but also broaden her scope of rule. This step back also led to improvement of Egypt’s strength and wealth. On the point of deities, the most important claim she made was that she was to embodiment of Isis on earth. The reason why this claim is so crucial in order to understand Cleopatra’s rule is because it shifted the focus away from the fact that she was Greek and thus part of a dynasty who lost their place in the sun to the Roman Empire. As far as the economy goes, her talks with the Romans brought great wealth to the empire. But this was not the only way she brought about economic wealth because Egypt traded with many Eastern nations, Arabia and reaching as far as India. In thurn, this selitified Egypt as an entity one should not mess with. Also, during her reign, Egypt saw a shift from an economy where goods prices were determined by their weight to an economy fueled by money. Yet, the concept of coins were not entirely foriegn to the Egyptians because they first became familiar with coins after the Persian occupation. (Chauveau 2000) What has been laid before you, dear reader, is a far cry from the temptress you may encounter in Hollywood blockbusters. Given that on the big screen she is portrayed as this femme fatale who lures other prominant leaders into her bed chamber. In regards to this there is some truth to it but it was merely for political gain. The most notable would be Julius Caesar or even Marcus Antonius. In the case of Caesar, many texts argue that her passionate affair with Caesar came about after a falling out with her brother and husband Ptolemy XIII which led to her banishment from Alexandria. This specific love affair was purely political given that Caesar wanted a gateway into Egypt and thus Cleopatra became his “Queen” in this three dimentianal chess. Or as Suetonius writes: ‘But most particularly he loved Cleopatra with whom he often prolonged parties until dawn, and with her, too, he journeyed by royal barge deep into Egypt.’ (Suetonius 2008) out from this readers can decipher that this affair was more than merely politics but also personal. But it also goes onto tell that his army did not follow him along such travels. In contrast to her affair with Caesar which was purely political, her romantic entanglement with Antonius came about for a different reason. While her affair with Caesar was in place in order to strengthen Egypt’s ties to the Roman Empire, her romantic alliance with Antonius was sat in motion because she wished to keep Octavius from invading her beloved Egypt and make it yet another jewel in Rome’s ever expanding crown.
To close this of lets quickly discuss these women’s farewell to the world. One can not say that Wu’s demise was as dramatic as her rise quite the contrary since she actually died of natural causes. Cleopatra demise, on the other hand, was slightly more exciting yet tragic since she committed suicide by letting herself be bitten by a venemous cobra. The reason why Cleopatra choose death sentence is because according to Egyptian mythology death by Cobra would make you immortal. After Cleopatra’s demise Rome took over the rule of Egypt while the Chinese Empire raged on long after Wu’s death.
Women rulers rise to power, accomplishment and beginnings with a focus on Empress Wu and pharaoh Cleopatra.
History is coloured by many a female ruler but not many of them are mentioned and if they were lucky enough to get a small mention, they would often be painted as crazed lonitics or femme fatales rather than proficient ruler. Two famous examples are the temptress Cleopatra and the devil incarnate Empress Wu. While these may be great examples of women’s ability to rule, they also show men’s scepticism towards female rule. Some even arguing that women were meant to be followers not leaders.
In the context of Chinese history Wu is the only woman to win the medal of female ruler of China while Cleopatra was born into a long tradition of female rulers. Empress Wu started her journey of rewriting Chinese history as the daughter of a government official, then at prime blooming season she was chosen to be one of the Emperor’s concubines and from there she really began to spread her wings. Wu is an excellent case of women’s ability to seduce men in order to gain power this is a trade she shares with Cleopatra who played with the hearts of generals and Emperors alike. But Cleopatra introduction and rise is very different from Wu’s given that she was born into royalty and from the time of her birth she was associated with Dionysis and later she claimed she was the living incarnation of Isis. In When comes to these women’s rise to power, one seduced her way to the throne while the other was simply the next in line.
Both women have a long list of accomplishments ranging from stability, equality and great alliances. Again, Wu is the most interesting to examine given that she put a lot of reforms in place, from given women of her time the right to inherit to enriching her central government by rearranging land. Wu may have been a tyrant but she was also a great politician much like her Egyptian counterpart who forged great alliances with the Romans by seducing Caesar. On another note, both females had one specific trait in common, paranoia which led both to slaughter not only their opponents but also their family members.