Wu Han, Historian: Son of Chinas Times
There are abundant signs that Wu was viewed with deep suspicion by later generations of Chinese. Her giant stone memorial, placed at one side of the spirit road leading to her tomb, remains blank. How to evaluate such an unprecedented figure today? It may be helpful to consider that there were in effect two empresses—the one who maintained a reign of terror over the innermost circle of government, and the one who ruled more benignly over 50 million Chinese commoners.
Seen from this perspective, Wu did in fact fulfill the fundamental duties of a ruler of imperial China; Confucian philosophy held that, while an emperor should not be condemned for acts that would be crimes in a subject, he could be judged harshly for allowing the state to fall into anarchy. Her social, economic and judicial views could hardly be termed advanced, and her politics differed from those of her predecessors chiefly in their greater pragmatism and ruthlessness.
It was common for poor Chinese boys to voluntarily undergo emasculation in the hope of obtaining a prestigious and well-remunerated post in the imperial service. She was also the most important early supporter of the alien religion of Buddhism, which during her rule surpassed the native Confucian and Daoist faiths in influence within the Tang realm. Her year rule was marked by a successful foreign policy that saw only a few, victorious, wars but the considerable expansion of the influence of the Chinese state.
Map: Wikicommons. Her reign was peaceful and prosperous; she introduced the meritocratic system of entrance examinations for the imperial bureaucracy that survived into the 20th century, avoided wars and welcomed ambassadors from as far away as the Byzantine Empire. Moreover, Wu exhibited one important characteristic that suggests that, whatever her faults, she was no despot: She acknowledged and often acted on the criticisms of loyal ministers, one of whom dared to suggest, in , that it was time for her to abdicate.
Explaining why the empress was so reviled, then, means acknowledging the double standard that existed—and still exists—when it comes to assessing male and female rulers. Wu probably did dispose of several members of her own family, and she ordered the deaths of a number of probably innocent ministers and bureaucrats. She also dealt ruthlessly with a succession of rivals, promoted members of her own family to high office, succumbed repeatedly to favoritism, and, in her old age, maintained what amounted to a harem of virile young men.
None of these actions, though, would have attracted criticism had she been a man. Every Chinese emperor had concubines, and most had favorites; few came to power, or stayed there, without the use of violence. Taizong forced the abdication of his own father and disposed of two older brothers in hand-to-hand combat before seizing the throne.
Empress Lu Zhi B. There must also be some doubt as to whether Wu really was guilty of some of the most monstrous crimes that history has charged her with.
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It was Lu Zhi who, in B. The mute and limbless concubine was then tossed into a cesspit in the palace with the swine.
In death, as in life, then, Wu remains controversial. Even her gravesite is remarkable.
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No-one knows what secrets it holds, for like many of the tombs of the most celebrated Chinese rulers, including that of the First Emperor himself , it has never been plundered or opened by archaeologists. Mary Anderson. Amherst : Prometheus Books, ; T. The Woman Who Discovered Printing.
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Cixi officially ceded power to Guangxu in when he came of age.
Educated in the strictest of Confucian orthodoxy, Guangxu was suspicious of everything Western. The tension between Cixi and her adopted son, and between reformers and traditionalists, was heightened by the influence of an academic and adviser, Kang Youwei. His reform proposals won over Guangxu, but Cixi mistrusted him.
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Kang involved the emperor in a plot to assassinate her, but their plans were discovered in Kang fled to Japan, and Guangxu was placed under house arrest, leaving him as a puppet but effectively removing him from power. Cixi continued to rule China until her death. She survived a number of crises, including the Boxer Rebellion, which ended in a defeat for China at the hands of a foreign coalition in In the face of defeat, the ruling Chinese elite rallied around the dowager empress, who had published the unprecedented Decree of Self-reproach, in which she blamed herself for the devastation caused by the war.
In January Cixi announced a series of reforms that shook up all aspects of Chinese life. Marriages between Han and Manchu partners were legalized. Foot-binding, a custom long practiced on Han girls, was banned.
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Freedom of the press was expanded. In Cixi announced that China would be transformed into a constitutional monarchy with elections. Cixi died in November , only one day after Guangxu, whom many believe she had poisoned to ensure the weak sovereign would stay out of power.
Cixi named her two-year-old great-nephew the heir and designated a new dowager empress to watch over the nation she brought into the modern age. History Magazine. After Cixi seized power, the brilliant queen regent of China never let it go and guided her people into the 20th century. Read Caption. The philosopher had long been dead, but his disciples managed to preserve his teachings.
Confucianism, favoured by the patronage of the state, gained a strength similar to Buddhism during the time of Emperor Ashoka or Christianity after Constantine. Thousands of Confucian academies were built, spreading Confucian ethics across China and most of East Asia and would dominate Chinese ethics during the centuries to come. Even today, the ethnic Chinese refer to themselves as Han rem Han people. Although history tells us, then, that the Han Dynasty ended in CE, from the examples cited above it is clear that the Han still lives on today in many different forms.
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