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Empress Wu - a Chinese woman with a fancy hat on

Empress Wu of the T’ang Dynasty

Who was Wu Chao?

Wu Chao was one of T’ai Tsung‘s girlfriends. After he died, she became his son’s girlfriend too! The son’s name was Gaozong.

Who was T’ai Tsung?
T’ang Dynasty architecture
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Wu Chao becomes Empress Wu

Once she got Gaozong to really love her, Wu Chao used Gaozong’s love for her to get rid of all his other girlfriends. She ordered people to kill some of them! Eventually Gaozong married Wu Chao, so she became the empress.

Wu Chao rules on her own

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.

What is a regent?

What did Empress Wu do with her power?

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.

More about Buddhism in China
More about Taoism

Empress Wu is forced out

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.

An Lu-Shan’s rebellion

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.

Sogdians and An Lu-Shan
Song of Everlasting Sorrow

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.

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