Wu Zetian was born around 624 as the daughter of Wu Shihuo, Duke Ding of Ying and Lady Yang. She was born into a rich family with connections to the ruling dynasty, and because of this, she was also rather well educated. When she was 14 years old, she was taken to be an imperial concubine of Emperor Taizong of Tang, and she was given the title of cairen, which ranked as fifth in the Tang’s nine-rank system for imperial officials, nobles and consorts.
Emperor Taizong died in 649 and was succeeded by his son, Emperor Gaozong of Tang. As Wu did not have any children with the deceased Emperor, it was custom that she was to be confined to a monastic institution, and she was consigned to the Ganye Temple. However, she was brought back as a concubine by the new Emperor, who knew her from during his father’s lifetime.
By the early 650s, she had risen to the title of Zhaoyi, which was the highest-ranking of the nine concubines of the second rank. In 652, she gave birth to her first son, and in 653, she gave birth to a second son. In 654, she gave birth to a daughter, who died not much later. Wu accused the Empress Wang of murdering the baby, but it has been suggested that Wu killed her own daughter to frame Empress Wang. Empress Wang was removed from her position as Empress. Wu was created Empress in her place. Empress Wang was eventually executed.
In 655 Wu official being the new Empress Consort and her son was designated as crown prince and by 657 Empress Wu began avenging herself against all those who had opposed her ascension. Several were executed and exiled. Even the former crown prince was placed under house arrest.
By 664, Empress Wu had so much power that it began to anger Emperor Gaozong. It was suggested to him that he depose her and the edict was drawn up. Wu pleaded her case with the Emperor, and she managed to persuade him.
As Emperor Gaozong health began to decline, he considered having Empress Wu rule as regent. This never formally happened, but when he died in 683, the throne was taken by their son, now Emperor Zhongzong. However, she retained much power as Empress Dowager. Emperor Zhongzong reigned for just six weeks, as his mother had him deposed and she made her youngest son Emperor Ruizong. It was Wu who held power now.
By 690 Wu was set to become Empress Regnant of the newly proclaimed Zhou dynasty, despite the fact that women were barred from the throne. She took the throne later that year and immediately faced the issue of succession. She created the former Emperor Ruizong crown prince. Just three years later, the Crown Princess was excused of using witchcraft, and she was executed. Ruizong did not dare to speak of her, for fear of being next.
Wu reigned until her death on 16 December 705, and she was interred next to Emperor Gaozong. 1