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Wu Zhao: China's Only Woman Emperor by N. Harry Rothschild: A Book Review

Wu Zhao: China’s Only Woman Emperor
Author: N. Harry Rothschild
Genre: Nonfiction, History, Biography
Publisher: Pearson
Release Date: 2007
Pages: 256
Source: My Personal Collection
Synopsis: This new entry in the Longman Library of World Biography series offers the compelling story of Wu Zhao - one woman’s unlikely and remarkable ascent to the apex of political power in the patriarchal society of traditional China.

     Wu Zhao, Woman Emperor of China is the account of the first and only female emperor in China’s history. Set in vibrant, multi-ethnic Tang China, this biography chronicles Wu Zhao’s humble beginnings as the daughter of a provincial official, following her path to the inner palace, where she improbably rose from a fifth-ranked concubine to becoming Empress. Using clever Buddhist rhetoric, grandiose architecture, elegant court rituals, and an insidious network of “cruel officials” to cow her many opponents in court, Wu Zhao inaugurated a new dynasty in 690, the Zhou. She ruled as Emperor for fifteen years, proving eminently competent in the arts of governance, deftly balancing factions in court, staving off the encroachment of Turks and Tibetans, and fostering the state’s economic growth.

     My Review: Wu Zhao is one of China’s most famous historical women. Her greatest accomplishment is that she was the only female emperor in China. This biography depicts Wu Zhao’s rise to power by using politics and religion to become the emperor. It also shows that while Wu Zhao was deeply flawed, and at times ruthless, she was a capable and adept politician that managed to reign for over a decade.

     Out of all the biographies that I have read on Wu Zhao, I found this biography to be the most balanced. N. Harry Rothschild  examines her negative reputation that was written by scholars centuries after Wu Zhao had reigned to show the reader her true character. She was a woman who held a grudge against her enemies, who was jealous of her female rivals, and greatly disliked her in-laws relatives. However, she most likely did not kill her daughter as later historians accused her of. She also was a smart political partner of her husband Emperor Gaozong. She managed to hold his devotion and love for the rest of his life.  

     This biography shows that Wu Zhao was reluctant in conducting state affairs and only did so when her husband was ill and she wanted to help him through a political crisis. N. Harry Rothschild also explains that unlike what previous historians have said about Wu Zhao, she did not control her husband. Rather, her husband always made the last decision. I found it interesting that Emperor Gaozong found his sons to be unsuitable for the throne, and thought his wife was the most suitable ruler. In fact, Emperor Gaozong wanted Wu Zhao to be the emperor after him! The author shows that Wu Zhao was a better politician than her own sons because when she is eventually ousted from power and her son takes the throne, her son cared only to live a life of luxury and indulgence and took very little interest in the country.

     Overall, this biography shows Wu Zhao’s significance in Chinese history. She was a woman who helped spread Buddhism in a Confucian country. She promoted arts and literature. She helped  bring women into state ceremonies and promoted talented women to help her with administering the country.Thus, this biography shows Wu Zhao was a woman that had an eye to spot talented people, a bold leader who had a keen sense of political acumen, and a fierce ambition. N. Harry Rothschild explains why Wu Zhao was China’s only female emperor and why there was never any Chinese empress that took the throne after her.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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