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Emperor Wu Zhao and Her Pantheon of Devis, Divinities, and Dynastic Mothers by N. Harry Rothschild: A Book Review

Emperor Wu Zhao and Her Pantheon of Devis, Divinities, and Dynastic Mothers
Author: N. Harry Rothschild
Genre: History, Nonfiction, Religion
Publisher: Columbia University Press
Release Date: June 2015
Pages: 384
Source: Netgalley/Publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Synopsis: Wu Zhao (624--705), better known as Wu Zetian or Empress Wu, is the only woman to have ruled China over the course of its 5,000-year history. How did she rise to power, and why was she never overthrown? Exploring a mystery that has confounded scholars for centuries, this multifaceted history suggests that Wu Zhao drew on China's rich pantheon of female divinities and eminent women to aid in her reign.

     Wu Zhao could not obtain political authority through conventional channels, but she could afford to ignore norms and tradition. Deploying language, symbol, and ideology, she harnessed the cultural resonance, maternal force, divine energy, and historical weight of Buddhist devis, Confucian exemplars, Daoist immortals, and mythic goddesses, establishing legitimacy within and beyond the confines of Confucian ideology. Tapping into deep, powerful subterranean reservoirs of female power, Wu Zhao built a pantheon of female divinities carefully calibrated to meet her needs at court. Her pageant was promoted in scripted rhetoric, reinforced through poetry, celebrated in theatrical productions, and inscribed on steles. Rendered with deft political acumen and aesthetic flair, these affiliations significantly enhanced Wu Zhao's authority and cast her as the human vessel through which the pantheon's divine energy flowed. Her strategy is a model of political brilliance and proof that medieval Chinese women enjoyed a more complex social status than previously known.

     My review: Wu Zhao became China’s first and only empress. She rose from obscurity to become the emperor much to the shock of the country. It was evident that she was a political genius because she not only rose to the throne but also had a stable reign. One of the ways that she used her political acumen was through religion. She created a pantheon of female deities, and used them to help legitimize her reign. The author then divides the book into three faiths- Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. In each chapter, he writes about the specific deity and how she uses them to her advantage.

     While I was hoping to learn more about the life of Wu, I did find this book to be particularly interesting. I liked learning about these female goddesses, and I could see how they personally attracted Wu when she was empress and how she later used them as Emperor. I also liked as Zhao represented herself as these goddesses by having her as model for the goddess in the Buddhist temples. I also like how she also used poetry to help accomplish her goal.

     Overall, this book was about how Wu used religion to rise to the throne. This book is not really comprehensive, and it for scholars who know more about the history, politics, and religion of the  Tang era, and the emperor Wu. Still it was interesting in how the myths of the goddesses helped Wu rise to the throne when the idea of a woman ascending the throne held much opposition. This book only covers a small part of how Wu rose to power and how she stabilized her reign, and it is a small glimpse of the complexities of the religion in the reign. This was great introduction into the three faiths that I really do not know a thing about until I read this. It is obvious that the author loves the Chinese emperor, and that he is fascinated by how she accomplished this daunting task. I think that is one of the reasons why he decided to study her further. However, this book left me wanting to know more about the life of Wu Zhao. This book is for those that have a deep knowledge in religion, history, and politics for I believe this was more for academic scholars and not for the general reader.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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