Emperor Wu Zhao and Her Pantheon of Devis, Divinities, and Dynastic Mothers (The Sheng Yen Series in Chinese Buddhist Studies) - Norman H. Rothschild

Wu Zhao, eighth-century emperor of China, has to be one of the most fascinating and enigmatic women in history. She rose from a second-class concubine to become the first wife of Emperor Tang Gaozong, and at his death, seized power and ousted her own son to become the only female emperor in Chinese history.


 This book does not directly explore Wu Zhao’s history. Instead, Rothschild analyzes the mythical, religious, and historical figures that Wu Zhao used to bolster and justify her own position. In retrospect, I don’t think I was the target audience for the book. I know basically nothing about Chinese history, but the book assumes the reader is already very knowledgeable about both Wu Zhao and the Tang dynasty. The prose is dense, and I tended to have to stop and look up the references to cultural figures of the time. The closest the book gets to giving a biography of Wu Zhao is a few paragraphs in the intro; otherwise, knowledge of her story is generally assumed. I had to do a certain amount of research on Wu Zhao (Wu Zetian) just to catch up.


While I may have learned less about Wu Zhao herself than I would have liked, the book was far more enlightening about Wu Zhao’s “pantheon” of goddesses and historical figures. Rothschild asserts that Wu Zhao sought to connect herself to ancient goddesses such as Nüwa, the “were-snake Daoist goddess” who created mankind and “mended the sky” and the Luo River goddess, a being who symbolically related the dragon with the feminine element of water. Wu Zhao also performed sericulturist rites four times--of the total of eight times the rites were performed during the Tang dynasty--to honor Leizu, the goddess of silk and weaving. Before reading this, I had no idea how important weaving was to the medieval Chinese definition of womanhood. Yet while Wu Zhao used these as “starter goddesses” to gain ascendancy, she later discarded some of them once she became emperor.


To combat the Tang stereotype of powerful women as “the unnatural anti-mother,” Wu Zhao identified herself with women who embodied the Confucian ideals of motherhood while still wielding a certain amount of political power. She raised stele to the Woman of Tushan, the Mother of Qi (“Beginning”) and a figure known as both a dutiful wife and mother. She claimed Jiang Yuang (“she who gave birth to our people”) as an ancestor. Jiang Yuan had her own interesting bit of propaganda: originally, she is known for abandoning her baby and only taking him back after a series of miraculous occurrences; however, she was recast as a Confucian “Model of Motherly Deportment” who only left her baby because she believed it to be the gods’ will. Perhaps the most interesting woman that Wu Zhao claimed as ancestor was Mother Wen, who raised ten sons and was considered by her husband to be one of his “ten capable ministers,” but valued by Confucians only for her fecundity. (Confucius’s response in the analects was that “With a woman amongst them there were, in fact, only nine.”) Wu Zhao named Wenmu as First Ancestress, used her to talk her way into sharing the crucial feng and shu rites with her husband, and utilized her example as justification for her own political role.


Wu Zhao also wrote books of rules on Confucian deportment, which seemed to reflect upon her the authority and embodiment of these virtues. She especially focused on the metaphor of weaving. Although women and weaving were inextricably tied, weaving and government also shared a common vocabulary, from “zhi” (“to govern”/”to weave silk”) to “lun”(“philosophical discourse”/”silk yarn”) to luan (“civil disorder”/”raveling a skein”). She highlighted as examples several matriarchs who used their weaving or their duties to their families to justify interfering in politics, emphasized loyalty as the primary virtue, and used the title “Sage Mother” to emphasize her maternal role.


Rosthchild suggests that Daoism was a two-edged sword for Wu Zhao: though it elevated female power--”dao” can even be interpreted to mean “mother of the world”--it was deeply connected with the rival Li clan who claimed Laozi as Great Ancestor. All the same, Wu Zhao elevated the Mother of Laozi, reaffirmed her title, and adopted the similar title of “Sage Mother.” She also connected herself the Daoist deity Queen Mother of the West, possibly because of Wu’s own fascination with immortality in her declining years. She also used the Queen Mother’s own habits with young boys to excuse her own.


Buddhism was one of the friendliest religions to Wu Zhao’s goals, and during her reign she declared it to be China’s primary religion. Buddhism embraced androgynism: Buddha was declared to be “beyond gender” and gender roles tended to be fluid and dynamic. Wu Zhao connected herself to Maya, the sage and “divine mother” of Buddha and the “mother of all bodhisattvas,” and to Vimalaprabha, the bodhisattva-goddess of pure light. In the Great Cloud Sutra, Buddha had prophesied that the devi Jingguang would descend to the world in the body of a woman and become a ruler and champion of Buddhism. Wu Zhao capitalized on this and similar prophecies; although the Five Impediments restricted the role of women, the fluidity of gender roles allowed her to skirt around the restrictions. She added Golden Wheel to her title and even claimed to be the reincarnation of the (male) Buddhist divinity Maitreya, but the festival in honor of her new title was so disastrous--a fire burned the festival complex to the ground--that she dropped the title. Although this connection was disastrous, Buddhism’s tendency to embrace androgyny and fluid gender roles bolstered Wu Zhao’s position throughout her reign.


Overall, although the book was somewhat dense and assumed far more knowledge than I possessed, I was intrigued by the analysis. In general, I found many of Rothschild’s claims rather tenuous. Much of his argument rests upon interpretations of poetry coming out of Wu Zhao’s court; although she may have had as much direct influence over this as Rothschild claims, it seems impossible to prove. All the same, much of the evidence of her political acumen is far more direct and often astounding. I think the most fascinating and important thing I learned from the book was the social complexity and tensions between the three main religions, and their different viewpoints on the role of women in society. Although I knew Confucianism wasn’t precisely friendly towards women, I had no idea that Confucius was so virulently sexist that he made Augustine look like a radical feminist. While I probably wasn’t the right audience for the book, it certainly gave me a new curiosity about the society of medieval China and about Wu Zhao herself.


~~I received this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Columbia University Press, in exchange for my honest review.~~