Was China’s only female emperor the most powerful feminist in history? by Lloyd Lofthouse

Posted by on Jan 20, 2014 in China, Historical Tidbits | 2 comments

When I was writing My Splendid Concubine and discovered how powerful the Empress Dowager Cixi (1835 – 1908) was I had no idea there was another woman from China’s history who was more powerful than Cixi.

Under Cixi—who ruled as regent through her son and then a nephew—China’s Qing Dynasty was in decline after suffering defeats during two opium wars and the destruction and deaths caused by the Taiping Rebellion; then the Boxer Rebellion almost a half century later. Cixi ruled China for forty-seven years but from behind the throne and never on it.

The most powerful woman in China’s history was Wu Zetian (624 – 705 AD), who was married to two Tang Dynasty emperors, a father and then his son; then became the founding emperor of the brief Zhou dynasty that survived for 15 years.  Zetian first ruled as the Empress Dowager Regent (like Cixi), but then she became the only female Emperor in China’s history.

Emperor Zhou (Wu Zetian) was born into a noble family during the most prosperous period of China’s five-thousand year history. By the time of her death in 705 AD, she had ruled China for 50 years—the first 35 years through her incompetent second husband and sons and the last 15 as emperor.

Of the ten most powerful women in history, only one other may be called a feminist and that was Empress Theodora (500 – 548 AD), who was the joint ruler of the Byzantine Empire with her husband Emperor Justinian. Theodora had laws passed that prohibited forced prostitution and closed brothels. Theodora also gave women more rights in divorce and property ownership. She gave mothers guardianship of their children, instilled a death penalty for rape, and forbade the killing of a wife who committed adultery.

The other eight women on the top-ten list were powerful but did little to improve the status of women.

During the fifty years that Zetian ruled the Tang Dynasty as Dowager Empress and then as Emperor, the dynasty reached its greatest extent, spreading well north of the Great Wall and far west into inner Asia.

She understood that with the people’s support, political stability was guaranteed. When there were tragedies such as floods or droughts, the dynasty quickly offered relief so recovery was quick.

While Zetian ruled China, the role of women in society changed drastically and due to her, feminism existed in China more than 1,300 years ago. Women didn’t worry about the clothing they wore. In fact, women were free to explore the arts such as writing poetry; riding horses; playing Chinese chess; writing and playing music and practicing archery as men did.

The infamous and horribly painful practice of foot binding wouldn’t appear until the Sung Dynasty (960 – 1279 AD) centuries later; then the torture of foot binding would survive until Mao and the Chinese Communist Party banned its practice in 1950 when women were made legally equal to men in China for the first time in the country’s history.

Even after Zetian was forced to retire at age eighty, there were officials who called for her return.

The historical record shows that the Tang emperors that followed her were mostly incompetent and the dynasty became corrupt and weak leading to its eventual collapse—but that hasn’t stopped many historians from painting Emperor Zhou (Wu Zetian) as a brutal, vicious, back-stabbing woman who has been accused of murdering her own sons while often ignoring the fact that during her fifty years as the most powerful woman in China’s history, the Tang Dynasty was financially stable ushering in an era that is considered the golden age of Imperial China, and Zhou didn’t share power with a man like Empress Theodora did.

Lloyd Lofthouse, January 20, 2014


Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition]. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the love story Sir Robert Hart didn’t want the world to discover.


  1. A fascinating piece of history, Lloyd. I’ve never heard of Wu Zetian and should like to know more about her. I’ve written about Cixi and the Boxer Rebellion in my e-book “Dragon Wind Rising” and found while researching that there are so many opinions on the character of this Empress, and opposing ones, that it’s difficult to know the truth. Even famed historians disagree.

  2. What an interesting post thank you. I am very impressed by and interested in these She-Wolves, as Doctor Lucy Worsley calls them.