Wu Zhao: China's Only Female Emperor

Prentice Hall
N. Harry Rothschild / Peter N. Stearns  
Total pages
December 2007
Related Titles


This new entry in the Longman Library of World Biography series offers the compelling story of Wu Zhao - one woman’s unlikely and remarkable ascent to the apex of political power in the patriarchal society of traditional China.


Wu Zhao, Woman Emperor of China is the account of the first and only female emperor in China’s history. Set in vibrant, multi-ethnic Tang China, this biography chronicles Wu Zhao’s humble beginnings as the daughter of a provincial official, following her path to the inner palace, where she improbably rose from a fifth-ranked concubine to becoming Empress. Using clever Buddhist rhetoric, grandiose architecture, elegant court rituals, and an insidious network of “cruel officials” to cow her many opponents in court, Wu Zhao inaugurated a new dynasty in 690, the Zhou. She ruled as Emperor for fifteen years, proving eminently competent in the arts of governance, deftly balancing factions in court, staving off the encroachment of Turks and Tibetans, and fostering the state’s economic growth.


  • A focus on gender politics gives students a nuanced perspective of the traditional roles of women in Chinese society as well as the untraditional path of Wu Zhao herself.
  • An inside look at the imperial court provides details on the machinations of the government and the role of the emperor as well as life within the inner palace, the domain of eunuchs and concubines.
  • A focus on religion examines the political effects of Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism.

Table of Contents

Author’s Preface: What’s in a Source?


A Note Regarding Names

Chapter 1 What’s in a Name?

Chapter 2 Historical Preconditions for the Ascent of a Female Emperor: Steppe Culture, the Silk Road and Buddhism

Chapter 3 From the Sichuan Countryside to the Inner Palace

Chapter 4 Empress Wu: A Changing of the Guard

Chapter 5 The Two Sages

Chapter 6 Celestial Empress and Grand Dowager

Chapter 7 Wu Zhao as Lover: Lady of Perfect Satisfaction

Chapter 8 Sage Mother Rising

Chapter 9 Queen of Terror

Chapter 10 Bodhisattva of Mercy

Chapter 11 Emperor of the Zhou Dynasty

Chapter 12 Octogenarian in Retreat: Succession, Factionalism and Craneriding in the Final Years

Conclusion The Vain Quest for Wu Zhao

Glossary of Characters and Terms

Notes on the Sources