Empress Wu - Tang Dynasty China
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Later Tang Dynasty

Empress Wu
Empress Wu, ca. 700 AD

May 2016 - Wu Chao was one of T'ai Tsung's girlfriends. After he died, she became his son's girlfriend too! His name was Gaozong. She used Gaozong's love for her to get rid of all his other girlfriends (some she had killed) and eventually he married her, so she became the empress. As empress, Wu Chao (woo-CHOW) was very active in politics. When Gaozong had a stroke in 660 AD and was too sick to rule, Wu Chao took over the government of China. In 684 AD, Gaozong died, and Wu Chao became the regent for her young son. In 690, when she was 64 years old, Wu Chao forced her son out altogether and made herself Empress of China, ruling on her own. Wu Chao was a devout Buddhist, but also promoted Taoism. She was a great ruler, and China was very successful both militarily and economically under her rule.

But in 705 AD, Wu Chao (now 79 years old!) was forced out of power. Nobody could agree about who would come after her, and so there was a long civil war, with both men and women trying to get power.

Hsuan Tsung
Emperor Hsuan Tsung

In 712 AD, Wu Chao's grandson Hsuan Tsung became the ninth T'ang emperor of China. Hsuan Tsung was a great emperor who ruled a long time, and he managed to greatly expand the borders of China, so that by 750 he ruled all the way to Tibet and the Sogdians in the west, and north to the Uighurs and Jurchen, and south to Vietnam, and even controlled Korea as the Sui emperors had wanted. In 751 AD, the Chinese army fought the Arabs in a great battle at Talas (Samarkand) in Uzbekistan. They lost the battle, but they succeeded in stopping the Arabs from invading China.

But in the last years of his life, Hsuan Tsung turned to art and philosophy, and lost interest in running his empire. Some people say that he was more interested in his girlfriend, Yang Kuei-fei. In the end, Hsuan Tsung's generals took over ruling in his place. One of these generals, a Sogdian named An Lu-shan, controlled the troops of north-west China. In 755 AD, An Lu-shan led a rebellion against Hsuan Tsung. Hsuan Tsung ran away to Szechwan with a small part of his army. Soon his army rebelled too. The army killed Yang Kuei-fei and made Hsuan Tsung abdicate (quit) and let his son (Wu Chao's great-grandson) be emperor.

Learn by doing: Make a Chinese Buddha
The collapse of the T'ang Dynasty

Bibliography and further reading about the T'ang Dynasty:

Eyewitness: Ancient China, by Arthur Cotterell, Alan Hills, and Geoff Brightling (2000). Easy reading.

China (History of Nations), by Greenhaven Press (2002). For teens.

Daily Life in Traditional China: The Tang Dynasty, by Charles Benn (2001). A general introduction for adults.

Women of the Tang Dynasty, by May Holdsworth (1999). A short introduction, with many pictures of T'ang period figurines.

The Court of the Lion: A Novel of the T'ang Dynasty, by Eleanor Cooney and Daniel Altieri (1990). Historical fiction, for grownups.

Tang Dynasty Art
Tang Dynasty Pottery
Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD)
Ancient China


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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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