Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Emperor Wu Zhao and Her Pantheon of Devis, Divinities, and Dynastic Mothers

Emperor Wu Zhao and Her Pantheon of Devis, Divinities, and Dynastic Mothers

Copyright Date: 2015
Pages: 384
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Emperor Wu Zhao and Her Pantheon of Devis, Divinities, and Dynastic Mothers
    Book Description:

    Wu Zhao (624-705), better known as Wu Zetian or Empress Wu, is the only woman to have ruled China as emperor over the course of its 5,000-year history. How did she--in a predominantly patriarchal and androcentric society--ascend the dragon throne? Exploring a mystery that has confounded scholars for centuries, this multifaceted history suggests that China's rich pantheon of female divinities and eminent women played an integral part in the construction of Wu Zhao's sovereignty.

    Wu Zhao deftly deployed language, symbol, and ideology to harness the cultural resonance, maternal force, divine energy, and historical weight of Buddhist devis, Confucian exemplars, Daoist immortals, and mythic goddesses, establishing legitimacy within and beyond the confines of Confucian ideology. Tapping into powerful subterranean reservoirs of female power, Wu Zhao built a pantheon of female divinities carefully calibrated to meet her needs at court. Her pageant was promoted in scripted rhetoric, reinforced through poetry, celebrated in theatrical productions, and inscribed on steles.

    Rendered with deft political acumen and aesthetic flair, these affiliations significantly enhanced Wu Zhao's authority and cast her as the human vessel through which the pantheon's divine energy flowed. Her strategy is a model of political brilliance and proof that medieval Chinese women enjoyed a more complex social status than previously known.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-53918-0
    Subjects: Religion, Sociology, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Illustrations
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Dynasties and Rulers Through the Mid-Tang
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  5. Wu Zhao’s Titles at Different Stages of Her Career
    (pp. xvii-xviii)
  6. Reign Eras from 655 to 705
    (pp. xix-xx)
  7. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xxi-xxiv)
  8. INTRODUCTION: Wu Zhao and Her Pantheon of Female Political Ancestors
    (pp. 1-22)

    In the tortuous half century of her remarkable political career, China’s first and only female emperor, Wu Zhao 武曌 (624–705; r. 690–705),¹ better known as Wu Zetian 武則天 or Empress Wu (Wu hou 武后), faced daunting cultural obstacles and fierce opposition.² Although “China did not have a written Salic Law,” remarked Zhao Fengjie nearly a century ago, “nevertheless there was a prohibition, silently observed through dynasties, that a woman was not to become emperor.”³ Given these deeply entrenched cultural attitudes, Wu Zhao clearly could not and did not construct her political authority in a conventional fashion. Wu Zhao’s...


    • [PART I Introduction]
      (pp. 23-24)

      Seeking to discern larger political principles in another place and time, historian William McNeill observes that “a successful revolution must invent or revive its own myths. Stability, predictability, control are otherwise impossible.”¹ While McNeill’s observations are drawn from Western societies in the modern era, the principles he delineates might be profitably applied to Wu Zhao’s rule in the late seventh century: She could not simply invent an entirely new paradigm of political authority divorced from precedent; she could and did, however, creatively draw on a vast cultural repertoire of existing mythologies. She amassed prophecies and obscure myths connected to female...

    • ONE Wu Zhao as the Late Seventh-Century Avatar of Primordial Goddess Nüwa
      (pp. 25-42)

      Variously known as a divine creator, a savior of mankind, and a mother goddess worthy of an enduring fertility cult, Nüwa 女媧 had gained a mythic repute long before Wu Zhao’s time. Suggesting a close connection to the essential female element of water, the cognate forms ofwaorguaindicate a probable linkage to the snail or frog, bespeaking the primordial origins of this deity.¹ One contemporary scholar described this ur-mother, often depicted as half snake and half human (a fertile, marshy, and generative matrix that begat mankind), as a “were-snake Daoist goddess.”² Another commentary tells of a “prestigious...

    • TWO Sanctifying Luoyang: The Luo River Goddess and Wu Zhao
      (pp. 43-59)

      At the very beginning of her regency as grand dowager in 684, Wu Zhao designated Luoyang her Divine Capital. Naturally, she sought to utilize the cultural and political currency vested in her new seat of power. This chapter examines the role of Consort Fu (Fufei 宓妃), the goddess of the Luo River (Luoshen nü 洛神女), in magnifying Wu Zhao’s political authority

      “The waters of the Lo River,” Edward Schafer observed of the watercourse that meanders through Luoyang, “enjoyed a reputation as venerable as those of the great Ho itself, into which it ultimately empties. They appear prominently in the earliest...

    • THREE First Ladies of Sericulture: Wu Zhao and Leizu
      (pp. 60-74)

      Leizu 嫘祖, a daughter of the Xiling clan, was the primary consort of the Yellow Emperor, warrior god and civilizing force of the early third millennium B.C. Regarded as an exemplary complement to the Yellow Emperor, she bore him two sons.¹ During his interregnum, Wang Mang (r. A.D. 8–23), ever keenly attuned to the complements and balance of the Five Phases, set up paired shrines for this power couple from hoary antiquity—the Yellow Emperor matched with heaven and the Yellow Empress, Leizu, with earth.² Shortly after the fall of the Han, in his eforts to persuade the already...


    • [PART II Introduction]
      (pp. 75-78)

      In traditional china, one negative characteristic routinely associated with the archetypal woman in a position of political power was “lack of natural motherly feeling.” By the Tang, there was a well-established narrative of the unnatural anti-mother.¹ Historians of subsequent eras fitted Wu Zhao into this narrative tradition of the monstrous woman devoid of human feeling, cataloging a grim litany of her abominations against her own children—smothering her infant daughter in 654, murdering her eldest son Li Hong in 675, and sending second son Li Xián 李賢 (653–684) into exile where he was pressured into suicide in 684. Though...

    • FOUR The Mother of Qi and Wu Zhao: Connecting to Antiquity, Elevating Mount Song
      (pp. 79-94)

      In the second chapter of Sima Qian’sRecords of the Grand Historian, it is recorded that Qi was the son of Yu the Great, legendary founder of the Xia dynasty and food-queller who delivered China from eight years of rain, and a woman of the Tushan 塗山 clan.¹ After their marriage, Yu remained with the Woman of Tushan for a mere four days before embarking on his tireless mission: to divert and redirect the deluge.²

      A commentary on the History of the Han Dynasty, written by Yan Shigu (581-645) in the early Tang, contains a passage, purportedly from the Western...

    • FIVE Ur-Mothers Birthing the Zhou Line: Jiang Yuan and Wu Zhao
      (pp. 95-108)

      The history of the han dynasty contains a “Table of Persons Ancient and Modern” (Gujin ren biao 古今人表). Paralleling the male “Sages” (Sheng ren 聖人) is a collection of female “Benevolent Persons” (Ren ren 仁人), including world creator Nüwa, silk goddess Leizu, and dynastic mother Jiang Yuan 姜嫄. While virtually all of the fourteen women included are consorts, mothers, or sisters of the sages, Lisa Raphals points out that this affliation does not diminish the cultural achievements of these eminent women. Raphals musters compelling evidence from Zhou and Han sources to illustrate that “women were represented as possessing the same...

    • SIX Wenmu and Wu Zhao: Two Mothers of Zhou
      (pp. 109-123)

      In the analects of confucius, when paragon King Wu of Zhou reputedly claimed, “I have ten capable ministers,” he included in their number his mother Taisi, the spouse of King Wen, a woman known also as Wenmu 文母, Mother Wen.¹ As attested to by Tang and Song sources, Mother Wen was a “living name” (sheng hao生號) and not a posthumous designation.² Not only did Mother Wen capably assist both husband and son, but she also birthed, raised, and conscientiously educated ten sons and one daughter, earning a lofty historical reputation as one of the “three mothers of the house...

    • SEVEN Four Exemplary Women in Wu Zhao’s: Regulations for Ministers
      (pp. 124-144)

      Wu zhao produced an impressive array of normative Confucian texts that prescribed proper behavior for women. Before she was empress, as Lady of Luminous Deportment, a second-ranked concubine, Wu Zhao composedInstructions for the Inner Realm(Neixun 內訓) in 654.¹ Subsequent works for women attributed to the prolific Wu Zhao include a hundred-chapterAncient and Recent Rules for the Inner Quarters(Gujin neifan 古今 內範) and an abridged ten-chapter version of this text titledCondensed Essential Rules for the Inner Chambers(Neifan yaolue 內範要略), a hundred-chapter edition ofBiographies of Exemplary Women, a separate twenty-chapterBiographies of Filial Daughters(Xiaonü...


    • [PART III Introduction]
      (pp. 145-148)

      Depending on the ideological climate and political vicissitudes, Wu Zhao’s patronage of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism waxed and waned at different junctures of her corule with Gaozong, her regency, and her reign as emperor of the Zhou. From the outset, however, Wu Zhao had a conflicted relationship with the Daoist establishment. On the one hand, Daoism was the ideology most amenable to female power, glorifying the latent force of the female water element, illuminating the potency of the mother, and prescribing that the Daoist sovereign cleave to “the role of the female.”¹ On the other hand, the ruling Li clan...

    • EIGHT The Queen Mother of the West and Wu Zhao
      (pp. 149-166)

      From an array of different ancient directional goddesses who appear on Shang oracle bone inscriptions, the Queen Mother of the West comes into clear resolution in theZhuangzi(a Warring States–era text) as a woman who had attained thedao.¹ As Elfriede Knauer frames it, “after a long break she becomes a powerful shaman and teacher of privileged human beings and a mediatrix between the heavenly and earthly realms.”² For Xunzi (312–230 B.C.), she was a divine teacher who instructed legendary flood-queller and Xia founder, Yu the Great.³ In theClassic of Mountains and Seas(a text likely...

    • NINE The Mother of Laozi and Wu Zhao: From One Grand Dowager to Another
      (pp. 167-178)

      Among Wu Zhao’s pantheon of female political ancestors, the mother of Daoist founder Laozi proved problematic, presenting singular opportunities and yet posing serious diffculties. This chapter examines, with attention to specific context and timing, the various strategies Wu Zhao devised to exalt the mother of Laozi in ways that might redound upon her own political authority.

      Perhaps the clearest sense we have of Laozi’s mother as a mortal being comes from the genealogical records of the Li family in theNew Tang History. In this Northern Song Confucian text, she is not a divine goddess but a woman of the...

    • TEN Rejected from the Pantheon: The Ill-Timed Rise of the Cult of Wei Huacun
      (pp. 179-190)

      This chapter examines the rise and fall of the cult of Wei Huacun 魏華存 (252–334), Lady of the Southern Marchmount (Nanyue furen 南岳 夫人), during Wu Zhao’s decades as empress, grand dowager, and emperor. As we have seen, Wu Zhao, possessing surpassing political acumen, was acutely responsive to shifting ideological climes; tempered by political circumstance, her measured patronage of Daoism ebbed and surged. The women who composed her pantheon were not static dramatis personae. At various junctures along the arc of her political career, the particular qualities that emanated from the different divinities and eminent women became more or...


    • [PART IV Introduction]
      (pp. 191-194)

      It is tempting to consider Wu Zhao a Buddhist monarch. Her mother, née Yang, a descendant of the pro-Buddhist Sui imperial family, was a devout believer.¹ After the death of her first husband, Taizong, Wu Zhao spent several years in a Buddhist convent.² During the half century of the reign of her husband Gaozong, her tenure as grand dowager, and her Zhou dynasty, more than 1,600 state-sanctioned Buddhist monasteries were established.³ In 690, shortly after inaugurating the Zhou, Wu Zhao issued an edict formally elevating Buddhism above Daoism.⁴ In 692, she placed a Buddhist prohibition on the butchering of animals.⁵...

    • ELEVEN Dharma Echoes of Mother Māyā in Wu Zhao
      (pp. 195-208)

      Mothers and motherhood, as we have seen, played a crucial role in the construction of Wu Zhao’s pantheon of political ancestors and in the development of her political persona. Wu Zhao discovered in Nüwa, Laozi’s mother, and the mother of Mencius powerful ancestresses who exerted an enduring cultural moment, and accordingly, with rhetorical and poetic panache, she cloaked herself in their several guises. Not surprisingly Māyā (Moye 摩耶), also known as Great Māyā (Mohe Moye 摩訶摩耶) or Pure Wonder (Jingmiao 淨妙), the mother of the Buddha, joined these other mother goddesses and exemplary mortal mothers.

      With a small “m,” māyā...

    • TWELVE Bodhisattva with a Female Body: Wu Zhao and Devi Jingguang
      (pp. 209-226)

      Perhaps no single piece of propaganda was more important to Wu Zhao’s attainment of emperorship than a Buddhist text, theCommentary on the Meanings of the Prophecies About the Divine Sovereign in the Great Cloud Sutra(Dayunjing shenhuang shouji yishu 大雲經神皇授記義疏; hereafterCommentary). Propagated on the eve of her accession to the dragon throne in 690, this four-fascicle text explicated a series of prophecies that helped to legitimize the inauguration of Wu Zhao’s Zhou dynasty. This elaborate, well-orchestrated collective effort on the part of Wu Zhao and her Buddhist propagandists introduced a new figure to her pantheon of female political...

  13. Conclusions
    (pp. 227-236)

    Stepping back to behold the cumulative might of the diverse pantheon of female political ancestors Wu Zhao culled in a half century as empress, grand dowager, and emperor, we are confronted with a staggeringly eclectic and pluralistic congregation of virtuous exemplars, renowned mothers, and numinous goddesses. Constructively and positively, this tour de force of culture heroes helped shape the contours of Chinese family, society, and religion. With elegant force and bedazzling panoply, Wu Zhao and her coterie of resourceful propagandists vividly rendered the collected women of her pantheon for all to witness—in text, symbol, image, and monument.

    Foremost in...

  14. APPENDIX: Wu Zhao’s Pantheon of Female Political Ancestors
    (pp. 237-238)
  15. Glossary of Chinese Places, Names, and Terms
    (pp. 239-246)
  16. Notes
    (pp. 247-310)
  17. Bibliography
    (pp. 311-338)
  18. Index
    (pp. 339-357)