This is an interesting Channel 4 documentary from 2015. It starts out by rather overstating Wu Zetian’s reputation as a dangerous and wicked Empress, mainly drawing the ideas from Confucian sources, who were predudiced against her, and then sets forth why she should have a better reputation.
In fact though Wu Zetian’s legacy has not always been seen through Confucian eyes, and there have been different estimates of her throughout history. She effectively ruled China for around 50 years during the late 7th century, when China was at the very peak of artistic and cultural achievement, and at least some of the credit for that must go to the Empress who patronized the arts and Buddhism.
In any case, with the usual array of experts to help them, the programme sets forth her extraordinary reign, including the controversial history of her dealings with rivals, and potential rivals, but meanwhile looking at the state of the country during this period, when it was a relatively free, open society which dominated world trade.
During her time women had a great rise in social standing, and the Empress appointed the first female Prime Minister also to advise her. Her works included building the huge Daming Palace, just outside Chang’an; parts of the Longmen Grottes were excavated during her time; and she built the magnificent Wild Goose Pagoda.
Her support for Buddhism of the one hand, and the mere fact that she was a woman on the other (in a patriarchal society), are the reasons Confucians and Taoists were against her, and accounts for their less than complimentary records of her life. Although obviously not without faults – and the same could be said for all her predecessors and successors – she nevertheless led a country to new heights of prosperity and openness.
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