Review: ‘Emperor Wu Zhao and Her Pantheon of Devis, Divinities, and Dynastic Mothers’ by N. Harry Rothschild


Published by: Columbia University Press
Publication date: 16th June 2015
ISBN: 9780231169387
Price: 40.00
Currency: USD
Edition: Hardcover

Wu Zhao (624-705), better known as Wu Zetian or Empress Wu, is the only woman to have ruled China over the course of its 5,000-year history. How did she rise to power, and why was she never overthrown? Exploring a mystery that has confounded scholars for centuries, this multifaceted history suggests that Wu Zhao drew on China’s rich pantheon of female divinities and eminent women to aid in her reign.

Wu Zhao could not obtain political authority through conventional channels, but she could afford to ignore norms and tradition. Deploying language, symbol, and ideology, she harnessed the cultural resonance, maternal force, divine energy, and historical weight of Buddhist devis, Confucian exemplars, Daoist immortals, and mythic goddesses, establishing legitimacy within and beyond the confines of Confucian ideology. Tapping into deep, powerful subterranean reservoirs of female power, Wu Zhao built a pantheon of female divinities carefully calibrated to meet her needs at court. Her pageant was promoted in scripted rhetoric, reinforced through poetry, celebrated in theatrical productions, and inscribed on steles. Rendered with deft political acumen and aesthetic flair, these affiliations significantly enhanced Wu Zhao’s authority and cast her as the human vessel through which the pantheon’s divine energy flowed. Her strategy is a model of political brilliance and proof that medieval Chinese women enjoyed a more complex social status than previously known.

N. Harry Rothschild is associate professor of Asian history at the University of North Florida. He specializes in Tang history and the study of women and gender in China and East Asia. He is also the author of Wu Zhao, China’s Only Female Emperor.


In China’s complex 5000 year history, only one woman ever became Emperor, Wu Zetian, also know as Wu Zhao. She rose from concubine to Empress, then Dowager-Regent, before deposing two of her sons to become Emperor in 690. During her fifty years in power she used her political accumen, patronage, propaganda and theatrical involvement in traditional rites to position herself at the height of Chinese society.

To support her unusual position, as first an Empress, and then Dowager, who took a very public involvement in state affairs, and then as Emperor, Wu Zhao cultivated connections to a variety of divine females and ancestors. She used these connections to her advantage, making use of different divinities and ancestors as was politically expedient, discarding those whose aspects no longer fit her purposes.

The book is divided into parts representing the ‘three faiths’ of China – Daoism, Confucianism and Buddhism. Each chapter focuses on a specific divinity of ancestor, how their cult was used and manipulated to suit Wu Zhao’s purposes.

N. Harry Rothschild writes convincingly and with clarity. His descriptions of art and religious rites are fascinating. He makes plentiful use of primary sources as well as knowledgeable modern scholarship.

Personally, I’d have liked a bit more background information; how did Wu Zhao rise to power, who were her family etc. It feels like there a is an assumption on the author’s part is that you’ve read his previous book and are adding to you knowledge. It’s probably not a book to read ‘cold’ unless you have more than a hazy grasp of Chinese history. Despite that, it’s a good book and now I want to know more about Wu Zetian.



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