An upcoming series chronicling the life of China’s only female emperor, Emperor Wu Zetian of the Zhou Dynasty (she was the only emperor of that dynasty, the emperor to come before and after her were all emperors of the more famous Tang Dynasty), is set to become the most expensive TV series ever made in China (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Empress_of_China). The TV series will star Chinese megastar Fan Bingbing, and is also produced by her company.
The story of Emperor Wu is one of the most famous in the history of China. She seemed to have done the impossible: she assailed the entrenched sexism and misogyny embedded in feudal China and ascended to the title of Emperor, making her both the nominal and actual leader of China. It is noted that only three women in Chinese history has wielded as much power, Wu Zetian being the second. The other two were Empress Lü Zhi of the Han Dynasty, wife of Emperor Gaozu, the founder of the Han Dynasty and Empress Dowager Cixi, the wife of Emperor Xianfeng and mother of Emperor Tongzhi of the Qing Dynasty. However, the other two never managed to claim the title of Emperor for themselves, instead having to rule from ‘behind the curtain’.
Much of China’s history, understandably, is written by men and for men. It was noted earlier that in fact Chinese historians have a habit of writing towards a very specific audience: future rulers. Thus Chinese history is written as a warning to future emperors of the challenges they must conquer in order to hold onto power. The most deleterious of these challenges is undoubtedly guarding against the women you trust most. It is no surprise then that all of the above strong women who managed to climb to the peak of power were later demonized in the annals of Chinese history. Both Lü Zhi and Wu Zetian were ‘renowned’ for their immense cruelty. For instance, it was said that Lü Zhi turned Gaozu’s favored concubine, Mistress Zhao, into a human ‘stump’ by cutting off her limbs and mutilating her face and then blinding her, but kept her alive. Wu Zetian was said to employ ‘cruel ministers’ to administer extraordinary acts of cruelty and torture against political opponents and ruled by a campaign of terror. Cixi is widely regarded by modern Chinese history as the principal architect of the Qing Empire’s downfall, and the subsequent humiliation that the Chinese civilization suffered in the 20th century.
However, in more recent times, some familiar narratives of history have been challenged and re-imagined. One such case is that of the Qin Dynasty. Historically noted for their immense cruelty and extreme legal system and anti-Confucianism, the recent work 大秦帝国 has sought to re-tell the story of the rise of the Qin Empire, previously the Qin Kingdom in the Warring States Period, in a positive light. It sought boldly to re-imagine the Chinese civilization as having been born from a warrior nation (Qin), as opposed to a relatively meek and passive nation (context: after uniting China and establishing the Han Dynasty, Emperor Gaozu and his successors Wendi and Jingdi sought a policy of appeasement and compromise against the barbarians to the north, which was finally reversed by Emperor Wudi, who ordered several major military campaigns against China’s northern neighbors). The same has happened for the story of Wu Zetian, where more recent TV series have depicted her in a much more positive light, as a strong and wise leader far outweighing the weak Tang Emperors she replaced.