Wu Zetian (ca. 625-705)Wu Zetian (ca. 624-705) - Wu Zetian, also known as Empress Wu has the distinction of being the only female ruler in China's history.  Although she began her career as a concubine of Emperor Taizong, upon his death in 655, she married his son, Emperor Gaozong.  This gave her the title of furen, meaning empress or first consort.  Highly regarded in the emperor's court, she already wielded considerable political power.  However, in 660, Gaozong suffered a severe stroke and Empress Wu became the de facto sovereign of China, ruling until 705.  While being the first and only woman to rule China is her primary claim to fame, she was an empress of accomplishment as well.  Under her reign, China expanded its borders considerably, particularly west.  She also improved the agricultural output of her kingdom primarily through irrigation techniques which improved the overall standard of living in China.  However, it should not be ignored that she was as ruthless (if not moreso) as many of her male counterparts who sat on the throne.  Throughout history, one rarely rose to power without knowing how to eliminate the competition.  For example, while still the wife of Emperor Gaozong, many in the royal court realized her ambition and tried to remove her before she could achieve full power.

 

Perhaps the most famous case is when the court eunuch Wang Fusheng accused her of employing Taoist sorcerer Guo Xingzhen for the purposes of witchcraft, which was forbidden.  Gaozong consulted Chancellor Shangguan Yi as to what course of action he should take.  The chancellor advised the emperor to depose Wu.  Emperor Gaozong agreed...but before he could deliver the edict, Empress Wu discovered the plan and devised a story to explain her actions.  She went to the emperor and convinced him she was innocent.  Not only that, but she was able to turn the tables on her accusers and portray them as the guilty parties.  And she still wasn't done.  The master stroke of her counter plan was to lay the blame at the feet of Li Zhong, the emperor's own son.  For Wang Fusheng and Shangguan Yi fell under Li Zhong's authority.  History does not record the tale Wu spun to the emperor, but it must have been a doozy.  Because, not only did it get her off the hook, but the three "conspirators" received the brunt of Gaozong's wrath.  They were all executed, even the emperor's son.  As he was Gaozong's heir, this made it easier for Wu to take power.  Once in power, she established a network of spys and secret police to root out and eliminate further opposition  Although she was removed from power in early 705 in favor of her son, she was already old and died only a few months later.  In addition to being the consort and wife of emperors, she was also the mother of Emperors Zhongzong and Ruizong, and the grandmother of Emperor Xuanzong who was considered one of the Tang Dynasty's greatest.