The history of Empires is usually a predominantly male affair. Women usually have to be content to sit out of the spotlight and be the Power Behind the Throne if that. But every once in a while, you get a Cleopatra, or a Catherine the Great; a woman who says "to Hell with this 'behind-every-great-man' garbage; I'm taking charge!" Such a woman was Wu Zetian, founder of the Zhou Dynasty and the only woman in Chinese history to hold the title of Empress Regent.
Zetian was born in the year 624 to a wealthy family. Her father, Wu Shihou, was in the timber business and was granted some important court positions. The year she was born, a total eclipse of the sun was observed across China. Wu Zetian was an intelligent and strong-willed girl, more interested in books than she was in lady-like passtimes such as needlework.
At the age of 13 (637) she became a concubine to the Emperor Taizong of Tang. Despite her exceptional beauty, she was not one of his favorites; probably because of that strong will of hers. When Emperor Taizong died in 649, she probably would have been sent to a Buddhist monastery, the usual fate of childless concubines after an emperor's death, but the wife of the new ruler, Emperor Gaozong, wanted an extra cute girl around the palace to distract her husband as part of her power struggles against his favorite concubine. Wu not only won Gaozong's affections, but managed to outlast both the wife and the other consort, replacing Empress Wang as Gaozong's wife.
As Gaozong grew older, his health began to fail, and Wu took over more and more of the ruling of the Empire. In 683, Gaozong died, and Wu became the Empress Dowager. Theoretically, Gaozong's son, Zhongzong, was Emperor, but Wu had him replaced by her own youngest son, Ruizong. The new emperor was only a figurehead, though; as the Dowager Empress still presided over imperial gatherings and prevented her son from active participation in government.
In the year 690, she had Emperor Ruizong officially cede the throne to her and she formally established her own Dynasty, the Zhao.
Her reign was a combination of Enlightened and Despot. She did much to promote women in her society and to encourage greater equality between the sexes. She was also known to be fair to the peasants, lowering taxes on them and increasing public works like irrigation systems to improve agriculture. She introduced meritocracy into China by having bureaucratic positions filled by scholars chosen by competitive examination rather than by military officers chosen by their family connections. On the other hand, her early reign as empress was marked by a ruthless secret police which she used to identify and eliminate possible enemies.
She promoted Buddhism over the Daoism that was more prominent in the government of her time; and later in her life developed an interest in Buddhist mystics. She adopted the cult imagery of Maitreya, the future Buddha, in order to build popular support
Later Confucian scholars condemned her, on the general principle that having a woman rule is as unnatural as having a hen crow like a rooster at daybreak; but even her opponents conceded that she was a capable and able ruler.
Game and Story Use
- Wu Zetian would be and interesting NPC to meet in a historical or time travel campaign.
- She could serve as an NPC patron for the group
- Or an implacible enemy, if the group runs afoul of her secret police
- Her experiences as a concubine and afterwards could serve as inspiration for a campaign set against family intrigues amongst nobility.
- Her interest in mysticism might lead to some interesting adventures in a magic-based campaign.
- The Empress has heard rumors of a woman in a remote monastery said to be the reincarnation of the Buddha, and sends the party to confirm it. What will they find?
- Since she's a lesser-known historical figure, you can probably crib from her life without your players noticing!