Emperor Wu Zhao and Her Pantheon of Devis, Divinities, and Dynastic Mothers

Like a phoenix among sparrows, Chinese civilization is resplendent in its longevity, myth and tradition. For much of its long history, Chinese emperors incorporated myth, folklore, and ideological concepts to legitimate their dynasties, to sanction their rule.

Emperor Wu Zhao and Her Pantheon of Devis, Divinities, and Dynastic Mothers
By N. Henry Rothschild
Columbia University Press, 2015. 384 Pages 18 illustrations. $40 Hardcover
Reviewed by Elizabeth Napp

Emperor Wu Zhao and Her Pantheon of Devis, Divinities, and Dynastic Mothers

Like a phoenix among sparrows, Chinese civilization is resplendent in its longevity, myth and tradition. For much of its long history, Chinese emperors incorporated myth, folklore, and ideological concepts to legitimate their dynasties, to sanction their rule. From the earliest claims of the Zhou rulers that the heavens had bestowed a right to rule or the Mandate of Heaven to the three differing yet complementary faiths of Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism, Chinese rulers weaved together a tapestry of beliefs to justify their rule. In the course of over two thousand years of dynastic rule in China, virtually every emperor was male. While the adoption of Confucianism as the official philosophy of the Han Dynasty, China’s classical civilization, certainly justified male dominance over women; China’s patriarchal structure was far more complex than the dualistic system of patriarchy in the West. For in China, yin and yang were complimentary forces. The inner female sphere could complement the outer male sphere and a skillful and wise political dynamo could conceivably utilize Chinese myth and tradition to sanction her rule. In the right feminine hands, a female could become emperor; that is if she could create an equally powerful narrative claiming descent from the goddesses and wise women of Chinese lore. In Emperor Wu Zhao and Her Pantheon of Devis, Divinities, and Dynastic Mothers, N. Harry Rothschild presents a fascinating account of Wu Zhao’s use of myth, folklore, and religio-philosophical traditions to sanctify her rule. From concubine to empress to dowager empress to emperor, Wu Zhao ruled China and created her own Zhou dynasty within the Tang dynastic system. Rather than exploring every facet of her rise to power, including the discrediting of an empress and the severing of her rival’s hands and feet as well as the killing of her own child, Professor Rothschild focuses solely on Emperor Wu’s skilled use of China’s own mythical narrative to justify her rule. Exploring Emperor Wu’s use of Confucian female exemplars like the mother of Mencius, the Daoist Queen Mother of the West, and the Buddhist bodhisattva, the devi Jingguang, Professor Rothschild takes the reader on a delightful journey through the many faces of Chinese spirituality and morality. As myth is a portal into the very souls of the people, Professor Rothschild allows the reader to taste like the Vinegar Tasters in the classic Chinese painting, the three faiths of China and the very lively interaction between China’s myth and her people.

The narrative is brilliantly organized around the differing philosophies and myths Emperor Wu used as she rose to power. What served her as empress was not always valuable as dowager empress and certainly not as emperor. As Professor Rothschild eloquently writes, “Wu Zhao was able to select an apt paragon for every occasion, a suitable divinity for each stage of her fifty-year political career. Exemplary wives and ideal mothers helped add luster to her role as empress; strong-minded women with administrative and political experience lent validity to her regency as a grand dowager presiding over the court; and celebrated deities shed a beatific radiance upon her emperorship.” Wu Zhao knew when to emphasize the role of woman as mother, mother of the family of the nation. She knew how to utilize the Confucian models of propriety to her advantage. Celebrating the mother of Mencius, the famous Confucian scholar, Wu Zhao made clear that “though Mencius was already a worthy man, his mother added the lesson of her cut weaving to instruct him.” In one particular story of Mother Meng, the mother asked Mencius how his studying was progressing. Mencius replied, “About the same as before.” Mother Meng admonished her son and responded with “My son’s waste of his time studying is like me cutting my weaving…A woman who quits on that which she depends on to eat is like a degenerate man who give up on his cultivation of virtue. If he does not end up a thief, he’ll end up a lackey.” Emperor Wu also made use of the Confucian virtue of filial piety, respect for parents and ancestors. In Confucianism, women were undoubtedly inferior to men yet old age even trumped gender and an elderly widow was worthy of respect. While Confucian scholars may have declared her reign unnatural, Wu Zhao’s deep intelligence allowed her to create a worthy Confucian narrative explaining her rise to power.

In Daoism, Wu Zhao could have easily found her greatest support for the feminine wielding of power yet the Tang rulers into which Wu Zhao had married and risen to power, claimed descent from the Daoist sage and founder, Laozi. While Daoism clearly celebrated the mysterious power of the feminine, to align herself too closely with Daoism could undoubtedly undermine her rule. As Professor Rothschild notes, “Though Daoism, with both its powerful intrinsic female element and its rich tradition of female deities offered Wu Zhao a potent ideological tool to express her authority, the Daoist establishment’s close identification with the Tang dynastic house severely hampered her utilization of the faith.” Yet in the Daoist goddess, Queen Mother of the West, Wu Zhao found a powerful woman who attained the dao and became as Elfriede Knauer framed it, “a powerful shaman and teacher of privileged human beings and a mediatrix between the heavenly and earthly realms.”

Ultimately, it was in Buddhism that Wu Zhao found the ideal justification for her reign. By patronizing the imported faith, a faith that travelled on the Silk Roads to China as early as the Han Dynasty, Wu Zhao found a narrative that served her well. In the Great Cloud Sutra, Wu Zhao supplied proofs that she was a Buddhist monarch and a bodhisattva. As Professor Rothschild explained, “the fourth fascicle [of the Great Cloud Sutra] contains a conversation between the Buddha and devi Jingguang, Pure Radiance, a goddess the Buddha predicted would descend to the mortal world and become a powerful monarch, a bodhisattva with the body of a woman, and a great champion of the Buddhist faith.” In Pure Radiance, Wu Zhao could claim to be the bodhisattva sent by the Buddha. As the Tang rulers with their Chinese and Central Asian ancestry were more apt to incorporate practices that were not always strictly Chinese, Buddhism flourished. Under Wu Zhao, Buddhist monasteries and monks particularly thrived. Indeed, Wu Zhao was reported to have a Buddhist monk-lover (in addition to several youthful lovers who it was believed would increase her longevity). In Buddhism, Wu Zhao could claim to be beyond gender, beyond male or female. For in samsara [reincarnation], the boundaries between male and female are always blurred.

This fabricated pantheon of women conferred upon Wu Zhao an aura of divinity. In symbol and rhetoric, she shaped herself into a living goddess. She became the human vessel into whom the cumulative charisma and vital force of these eminent women and divinities flowed. The cultural resonance, maternal potency, demiurgic energy, divine splendor, and traditional weight of these female ancestors combined to support Wu Zhao’s political ascent and authority, and helped to generate her inimitable power. —Professor Rothschild

With the return of China to its seat as world power and as female politicians in the West seek to break the glass ceiling, Emperor Wu and Her Pantheon of Devis, Divinities, and Dynastic Mothers by Professor N. Harry Rothschild is a must read. For a civilization to last as long and as powerfully as Chinese civilization, there is much to be learned in the study of China. Of course, in an increasingly interdependent world, it is critical for the citizen of the world to be well-versed in Chinese motifs that continue to shape the Chinese mind. Oh, yes, there was that revolution in 1949, but the Chinese consciousness is ancient and the mythic mind is not easily altered even by the most authoritarian rule. By delving into the great philosophies and traditions of Chinese culture, Wu Zhao was able to speak a familiar language to her subjects and to ultimately subjugate a nation to her control. Without a thorough understanding of the Chinese mind, Wu Zhao would never have been able to shatter not just a glass ceiling but an iron ceiling. Oh, yes, there is much to be learned in Professor Rothschild’s book and even for those preferring a sensual and slightly decadent read, the reader will be delighted. For Emperor Wu Zhao was more than a brilliant tactician of men; she was a woman seeking to rise out of the ashes of patriarchy and soar to great heights of power while still enjoying the ride. And while I don’t condone the severing of hands or the killing of one’s own offspring, in Emperor Wu Zhao, there is a lesson in that old argument about cultural literacy. For when the myths and traditions of a people are understood, their hearts and minds are easily swayed. Yes, sometimes the bodhisattva saves you and sometimes you need to be saved from the bodhisattva. And as for presidential hopeful, Hillary Rodham Clinton, a good dose of Emperor Wu might serve her quite well. For to wield power when power is denied requires a skillful handling of the myths and traditions of a people.♦


By Elizabeth Napp

Elizabeth Napp is a Consulting Editor to Parabola who writes about Teaching and Education.