Royal Tea: Empress Wu

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Valeria Velasquez

[vc_row][vc_column width=”2/3″][vc_column_text]For the past four editions of Royal Tea, we have covered a variety of topics, ranging from forbidden romances to incestous bondings, all of which have been about the busy lives of endlessly interesting white people. And while the juicy scandals surrounding some of Europe’s most memorable monarchs and affluent families have been delightful to discuss, there are scorching-hot, scandalous concoctions we’ve yet to explore. On this edition of Royal Tea, we will look into the life of Empress Wu of China, whose tremendous (and extremely questionable) ambition would not let anybody get in her way — not even her own children.
The famous empress we are discussing today isn’t precisely much of a fan-favorite, yet her determination is quite… admirable. As the daughter of a general, Wu wasn’t born into a royal family and had a relatively low (but not necessarily unprosperous) status in the grand scheme of China’s imperial elite. When she was only fourteen years old, she was admitted as a fifth-tier concubine with royal duties that were similar to those of any old palace maid. Yet despite being such a low level concubine with official responsibilities that strayed from those of a seductive companion, the fact that she was even considered for a concubine positions suggests that she possessed compelling character and beauty (being considered for a concubine position is the Tang Dynasty version of winning a spot in the Miss Universe pageant). While Wu was of low rank, one of her duties would lead to the downfall of all 28 concubines before her — Wu had the daily task of changing the imperial bed sheets. Such a simple duty doesn’t sound like much of an advantage, but through frequent encounters, good looks and devious planning, she gained the favor of the Emperor’s younger son, Gaozong.
Engaging in a (very illegal) tryst with the son of the Emperor came with one big advantage. After the death of the Emperor, all of his unfortunate concubines were destined to give up their formal lives, as it was deemed disrespectful to the memory of the corpse to have any of his past concubines engage in relationships with other men. Luckily for the future empress Wu, Gaozong retrieved her from the Buddhist convent shortly after she had arrived, and she entered the palace as a high-ranking concubine. As if getting away from an eternal life in misery wasn’t enough, what Wu did next secures her  title as Worst Mother of the Millennia. In a sticky love triangle with a sick conclusion, it turned out that Gaozong’s wife, Empress Wang, who had failed to give birth to sons, was sickly jealous of another one of Gaozong beloved concubines and hoped that the addition of Wu to the inner circle would soothe Gaozong’s intense adoration. Seeking power,, Wu decided to strangle her newborn child — not without reason, of course. Quickly after, Gaozong’s other concubine and his wife were stripped of their titles on the grounds that they had conspired against Wu and killed her darling babe.
Wu’s cunning evil doesn’t stop there. After discovering that Gaozong had visited the premises in which his wife and his once favorite concubine were imprisoned, she ordered that her victims be caned 100 times and that their hands and feet be cut off. As if they hadn’t suffered enough, Empress Wu commanded that the prisoners be kept in vats of wine before being executed, infamously stating, “Let these two witches be drunk to their bones!” The extent of her corruption was always unmatched; the power she had only grew exponentially. While she had secretly been governing for Gaozong as his health diminished, the climax of her power occured when she managed to exile every single heir that came after Gaozong’s death — all of which were her own children.
From seductress, to murderer, to lover of cruel and unusual punishments, Empress Wu was an iconic (yet extremely problematic) ruler. Her heinous decisions and schemes serve as evidence for one statement: any of her sociopolitical contributions are difficult to focus on given all of the secrets and lies that stirred within. [/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]