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