The Chinese TV drama The Empress of China is hot among audiences recently. Actress Fan Bingbing, who plays the role of Empress Wu Zetian, is a fabulous beauty.

It tells the story of China’s only known empress, who rules during the Tang Dynasty and apparently owns a vast variety of low-cut dresses. According to Global Times, the show sports a collection of 3,000 costumes costing some 10 million yuan. However, this big-budget costume drama following the life of China’s only empress Wu Zetian, was mysteriously taken off air on 21 December before reappearing with much less cleavage. Viewers aren’t happy with this drastic loss in eye candy. Many have gone online to vent about a show that they say has become a “bighead drama” or “The Bigheads of China.”


One netizen defended the historical accuracy of the drama’s revealing clothing choices: “In Tang Dynasty, the higher a woman’s social status, the lower her neckline. I didn’t have a thorough study on how low their neckline is, but I think it shows that the drama should follow the historical facts. No matter if the show is good or not, I don’t agree with the media regulator’s measures.”

After all these dramatic news, I personally felt that we are being treated like children. Is our life so backwards now that the people in Tang Dynasty has a more open mind than ours? And I hope that the administrators realise they are making fools of themselves.

Well, despite all of these, I finished watching the “bighead drama” and grow even more interested in Wu Zetian’s life. Most nations of note have had at least one great female leader. Of all these female rulers, though, none has aroused so much controversy, or wielded such great power, as a monarch whose real achievements and character remain obscured behind layers of obloquy.

In the seventh century A.D. Wu Zetian became the only woman in more than 3,000 years of Chinese history to rule in her own right. Her reign was peaceful and prosperous. She introduced Buddhism and 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 701, that it was time for her to abdicate. The empress even promoted what might loosely be termed women’s rights, publishing (albeit as part of her own legitimation campaign) Biographies of Famous Women and requiring children to mourn both parents, rather than merely their father, as had been the practice hitherto.

Yet Wu has had a pretty bad press. For centuries she was excoriated by Chinese historians as an offender against a way of life. She was painted as a usurper who was both physically cruel and erotically wanton; she first came to prominence, it was hinted, because she was willing to gratify certain of the Taizong emperor‘s more unusual sexual appetites. “With a heart like a serpent and a nature like that of a wolf,” one contemporary summed up, “she favored evil sycophants and destroyed good and loyal officials.” A small sampling of the empress’s other crimes followed: “She killed her sister, butchered her elder brothers, murdered the ruler and her own daughter, poisoned her mother. She is hated by gods and men alike.”

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 has used the same tools as emperors had for many generation before her: execution, banishment, terror. And, in her advanced old age of 66, she reportedly entertained a string of inappropriate lovers, including a Buddhist cult, a well-endowed peddler, a pair of smooth-cheeked singing brothers and her own nephew. (Take all that with a big grain of salt, through – the easiest way to slander a woman in any era is to call her a slut)

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. Wu’s first husband Taizong emperor forced the abdication of his own father and disposed of two older brothers in hand-to-hand combat before seizing the throne. And let’s not forget that Wu herself entered the court as a 13 year old sexual plaything.

Historian thought Wu disrupted the Confucian order of things just by being a woman, and even more so by first ruling through her husband and then usurping the throne from her own sons. Man didn’t look too kindly on such behavior, and if you are going to write about it, what would you do?

Very unusually for a Chinese emperor – Wu died of natural causes, but unobserved and alone, even though tradition held that the entire family should assemble around the imperial death bed to attest to any last words.

How later rulers felt about Wu is clear by how they chose to remember – or in this case not remember her. Chinese tradition dictated that rulers be buried in sumptuous tombs marked with huge memorial tablets. Usually the tablets were covered with details of all the great and glorious deeds the ruler had done and how he would be missed.

Not so much with Wu. Her memorial tablet, which stands near her tomb, remained blank, a mute testament to woman who accomplished so much, but about whom no one had a good word to say – the only such example in more than 3,000 years of Chinese history.

Wu now rest in an elaborate tomb in the countryside about 50 miles north of Xi’an. It was approached via a mile-long causeway running between two low hills topped with watchtowers, known today as the “nipple hills”, this spot was selected because the hills reminded Gaozong emperor of the young Wu’s beautiful breasts, it is undisturbed by tomb robbers or archaeologists.

Take a note that Gaozong is Wu’s 2nd husband and also the youngest son of her 1st husband, isn’t that interesting? I wish that there were more interesting female emperors in China, but there was only one and she‘s unique.