Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Demonization of Empress Wu

Wu–played here by Li Hua Li–was depicted as powerful and sexually assertive in the Shaw Brothers’ 1963 Hong Kong movie Empress Wu Tse-Tien.

“All fell before her moth brows,” the Tang dynasty poet Liu Binwang wrote of Empress Wu Zetian (c.624-705), the sole woman ever to rule over China in her own name. “She whispered slander from behind her sleeves, and swayed her master with vixen flirting.”

Decried as a monster in female form – historians have charge her with  murdering her own husband and three of her six children – Wu has long been one of the most fascinating but most villified figures in China’s long history. Clawing her way from the lowly rank of fifth-grade concubine to the position of empress over a period of nearly half a century, she exhibited a ruthlessness far from untypical of the imperial court, but scarcely expected of a mere woman; here she is removing one of the most serious obstacles on her path to the throne:
Even today, Wu remains infamous for the spectacularly ruthless way in which she supposedly disposed of Gaozong’s first wife, the empress Wang, and a senior and more favored consort known as the Pure Concubine. According to the histories of the period, Wu smothered her own week-old daughter by Gaozong and blamed the baby’s death on Wang, who was the last person to have held her. The emperor believed her story, and Wang was demoted and imprisoned in a distant part of the palace, soon to be joined by the Pure Concubine. Having risen to be empress in Wang’s stead, Wu ordered that both women’s hands and feet be lopped off and had their mutilated bodies tossed into a vat of wine, leaving them to drown with the comment: “Now these two witches can get drunk to their bones.”
Is this portrayal fair, though – or has Wu fallen victim, like other strong female rulers before her, to a history written by men who would not have criticised such ruthlessness had it been exhibited by a man? Read this week’s Smithsonian essay – then judge.

(The demonization of Empress Wu)

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