The most evil woman in Chinese history or a medieval Cinderella? Jonathan Clements examines the life and films of Empress Wu.
The opulent, sumptuous world of China’s Tang era (618-907 AD) saw an end to centuries of civil unrest, and great wealth arriving down the Silk Road from the west. The setting is a character in itself in modern epics like The House of Flying Daggers and The Curse of the Golden Flower. But the dynasty’s most famous figure flourished in its early days, when a lone woman fought her way up through the palace ranks to become China’s first and only sovereign empress, a creature of legendary sexual appetites, disgraceful deeds and, even 1200 years after her death, constant controversy.
Wu was the daughter of a self-made millionaire, who fell on hard times after the death of her father, and practically sold into palace slavery to escape persecution by her vengeful brothers. From such a lowly start, her life encompassed a meteoric rise through the palace hierarchy, sexual relationships with two emperors, a regency both unofficial and then official, and her eventual coronation as a ruling sovereign in her own right.
This has led a number of Chinese historians to despise her. Confucian wisdom holds that a woman in a position of power is as unnatural as a ‘hen that crows at daybreak’ (usurping the rightful place of a rooster), and many of Wu’s detractors have tried hard to make her reign sound like a disaster. In fact, it was no better or worse than any other, and Wu was in charge during some of the high points of the century, albeit secretly, ruling in the name of her disabled second husband.
THE FACE OF A GODDESS
Despite many attestations to her beauty, nobody is sure exactly how Wu looked. The most commonly seen image was not drawn until a thousand years after her death, for an album of notable historical personages, and shows her clutching devoutly at a votive tablet, her eyes squinting in a vulpine scowl, her mouth almost imperceptibly sneering in an asymmetric smile. It is likely that a massive statue of Buddha, carved at the Longmen grottoes in Wu’s later years, was deliberately designed to bear a close resemblance to the ruler who wanted to proclaim herself to be the great sage’s reincarnation. The statue is also likely to have been the main inspiration for most later illustrations of Wu. One of the earliest images, from the 12th century book Some Ceremonial Pictures, shows a full-faced, rather stout matriarch. Wu was a strapping northern lass from China’s hinterland, where women were notorious for their independent nature. Northern girls quite literally wore the trousers, and despite numerous imperial edicts later in the Tang dynasty, insisted on riding horses in manly breeches, often scandalously going without a veil.
Wu’s feisty nature brought her to the attention of her first husband, the aging Taizong Emperor, who called gave her the nickname Meiniang, or The Flirty Girl. The teenage Wu was little more than a chambermaid in Taizong’s palace, but came to his attention through a combination of luck and her belligerent attitude. One of the few surviving stories of her teens, invariably repeated in film versions, tells of her cruel offer to beat a disobedient horse into submission. If that failed, she recommended slitting its throat.
Taizong laughed at the time, not suspecting that Wu’s comments might reflect a similarly cold calculation in other areas of her life. When Taizong fell terribly ill with the sickness that would kill him, it was the young Wu that he appointed as his nursemaid. But even as he lay dying, it was Wu who seduced his son – sneaking into the royal toilet for hurried assignations, even as guards stood outside and the young prince kept up the appearance of being a dutiful son.
Speculation varies wildly about Wu’s relationship with the father – some fictionalised accounts paint her association with him as entirely pure and platonic; others suggest that he was the love of her life, and that her seduction of the Crown Prince was merely a calculated decision to keep her out of exile to a convent following Taizong’s death.
NUN ON THE RUN
On screen, filmmakers usually take the opposite view, relegating Taizong to a minor supporting role, and concentrating on Wu’s much longer marriage to her princely lover, soon crowned as the Gaozong Emperor. The first ever film about Wu, Fang Peilin’s 1938 costume drama Wu Zetian: A Queen depicted Gaozong as a portly buffoon, petrified of angering his many wives, and unable to arbitrate in the inevitable conflict between Wu and his leading wife and the other palace women.
With the death of her first husband, Wu was sent to a Buddhist convent along with all the other palace women of the former emperor. It was Gaozong who persisted in sneaking away to the nunnery to continue their forbidden trysts, but Gaozong’s own wife who suggested that Wu returned to the palace as an official concubine – hoping that by controlling access to Wu, she could lure more of her wayward husband’s time and attention away from other concubines. Gaozong’s wife planned to use Wu as a weapon against another rival, but was out-manoeuvred by Wu herself. Within months of Wu’s return to the palace, her chief competitors had been accused of witchcraft, exiled or executed on trumped-up charges. Wu became Gaozong’s new empress, and ruled by his side. After Gaozong suffered what could have been a series of strokes or early onset multiple sclerosis, Wu ruled in his name for 20 years, before widowhood prompted her to crown herself as sole sovereign.
She is buried at Qianling, a massive mausoleum hewn out of a mountain near modern Xi’an, whose vaults contain both her body and that of Gaozong. But Empress Wu’s final resting place is fraught with indicators of scandal and intrigue. Twin hills, the ‘Naitou-shan’ or Nipple Mountains, flank the road leading to her tomb – supposedly the burial site was chosen because they reminded her breast-fixated husband of her. Several of her grandchildren are buried nearby, in locations chosen out of spite, deliberately intended to ruin her own feng shui. Statues of adoring foreign ambassadors, once arranged in several ranks to show the long diplomatic reach of Tang China, have been beheaded by unknown vandals. Most chilling of all, the giant memorial stone, where Wu’s children were supposed to carve their kind words about her life and achievements, was left completely blank after her death – the only such case in imperial history.
Cursed to live in ‘interesting times’, Wu’s reputation has suffered incredible reversals of fortune. She has been lionised as the first feminist, pilloried as a perverse man-eater, and damned as a scarlet woman. Legend has it that she strangled her own new-born daughter and pinned the blame on a rival concubine, although that, along with many other allegations, was probably invented by a male successor determined to portray the rise of a female ruler as an unrepeatable mistake.
It was during the Tang dynasty that the Canton region of south China was finally incorporated in the empire – to this day, the Cantonese language refers to Chinese people not as Han, as in the rest of the country, but as Tang. It is thus not all that surprising that the best-known film depiction of Wu to date remains the lavish Shaw Brothers epic Empress Wu – made in 1960 in a Hong Kong drunk with excitement, modernisation and a newly affluent lifestyle. Directed by Li Han-hsiang, the movie was a deliberate challenge to the upstart, low budget world of television, filling cinema screens with images of medieval riches, gorgeous dresses and decadent lifestyles – less Tang dynasty than… well, Dynasty, with Wu as an imperial Alexis Carrington, dominating and terrorising her family and in-laws.
QUEEN OF THE SOAP AGE
But her true home is television, where several serials have fictionalised her life, benefiting from the long running time available to broadcast media to depict Wu as a modern-day Cinderella – a heroine who gamely claws her way to the top. One, starring Petrina Fung and made for ATV in 1984, was even screened on British television with subtitles in a short-lived attempt to capitalise on the earlier successes of Monkey and The Water Margin. Others have been less swift to make it abroad – the most noticeable in modern times was the CCTV series Wu Zetian, starring Liu Xiaoqing. Since playing the young Wu onscreen, Liu has gone on to live a torrid life in the public spotlight, going from actress to billionaire property developer before an infamous downfall that culminated in a year’s prison sentence for tax evasion. Now out of stir, her public profile in China was deemed ideal for her to play Wu a second time, this time rumoured to be in a series concentrating on her later years.
But there are always rumours that Wu is coming back to the big screen. Director Zhang Yimou is notoriously obsessed with her story, and famously commissioned five separate authors to write screenplays about her during the 1990s. These five scripts, plus a sixth written on spec by an author who was annoyed not to have been originally approached, remain in circulation in the Chinese film business, regularly attracting attention from producers keen on combining the sellable elements of a martial-arts saga for a male audience, and a costume drama for women. As the Chinese Olympics approach and foreign companies look for a piece of what could be a lucrative fad for things oriental, several more Wu projects are rumoured to be in the works. One, part-funded with Japanese and Korean money, is based on Shan Sa’s novel Empress, first published in French in 2003. Another, rumoured to have finally escaped from Development Hell, is director Xu Jinglei’s Days in the Palace, concentrating on Wu’s later life. Twelve hundred years after her death (in quiet retirement after jealous courtiers had murdered her young gigolo attendants), Wu still reigns supreme.
This article first appeared in Firecracker magazine #3, 2007. Jonathan Clements is the author of Wu: The Chinese Empress Who Schemed, Seduced and Murdered Her Way to Become a Living God, out now in paperback and on the Kindle (UK/US).