POST FROM THE DEVIL ORDERS TAKEOUT

Chinese Culture [6]: Our Ladies In History

Warning: the following are rather feminist interpretations of my Chinese history textbook and should not be used for any actual history exam. Also, gifs ahead.


1. Emperor Wu Zetian


Yes, emperor, not empress. Wu Zetian is the only lady emperor in all of Chinese history and I reject takeout to anyone who tries to tell me she is only an empress. She did in fact start out as the concubine of one emperor, but was sent to a nunnery (no, not that kind). The old emperor's son fancied her and took her back to court. Umm.
Our royals were possibly weirder than Donald Trump. Possibly.
Anyhow, through a series of maneuvers—I'm not kidding, she was an awesome political player—she had the then-empress ousted and became the empress herself. When this emperor died, there was a lot of politicking but eventually, instead of merely an empress dowager, she managed to become the emperor.

Under her rule, the farming industry bloomed, and this is crazy important for then-China which was reliant on agriculture. She also encouraged the development of "culture", which meant she had people gather the works of Confucius and similar philosophers. That's as much as my history book says.

My history book also only spent one page on her. One. Freaking. Page. For your reference, a typical new emperor of a dynasty had maybe five pages. The only female emperor of ever got one.
What irks me even more than the omission is that history of the time and most adaptations depict her as an alpha bitch. They didn't call her tyrannical, exactly, but they called her strict which is basically an euphemism. One recent adaptation didn't, and instead turned her into some romantic figure.

Don't worry, you'll get more annoyed.

2. Empress Dowager Cixi


Of the names on this list, this will be the most familiar to you. Cixi was an empress dowager, but before that she was only a concubine. After the emperor's death, she conspired with his official wife to kick out the (all-male) regent team.
Excuse me, I should like historical fiction about that.
Anyhow, there was again a lot of political strategising, and eventually she became the de facto ruler of China. Of course, by that time the Westerners were on a colonising spree, and things went downhill from there.

A couple points of note:
  • The Summer Palace that people yell at Cixi for rebuilding during war with Europe? That was actually built by her son to keep away his nagging mum.
  • She did, however, oppose the Hundred Days' Reform suggested by her nephew the emperor to become more liberal.
  • She's suspected of poisoning her nephew on her deathbed to avoid him from reforming the country.
Still, Cixi is fabulous for ruling China for 45 years, despite the pesky foreigners.

3. Empress Daji

I'll bet takeout you haven't heard of her unless you took a compulsory class in Chinese history. She's the consort of Emperor Zhou, last of the Shang dynasty, one of the earliest dynasties in recorded Chinese history.

Here's what history tells us about her:
  • She seduced the emperor and ruled for him.
  • She had a "swimming pool of wine" and "forest of meat" built where she and other concubines would entertain the emperor.
  • She ordered executions by branding someone with a red-hot pillar, taking someone's heart out to see how many holes there were, and cutting off a farmer's feet on ice.
  • She was a fox demon.
Despite how ridiculous a few of these sound, it still took me an hour of Googling—in Chinese—to find articles casting doubt on this portrayal. (Not the fox demon part, people aren't completely brainless.) The Wiki article was plain weird in English and Chinese.

Curiously, two of these incidents, the wine-pool and meat-forest + the execution-by-burning-pillar, weren't recorded in the history books immediately following the dynasty. Instead, they were recorded towards the end of the next dynasty. Furthermore, the cutting-heart-out was only recorded as the guy's death in older histories, and that guy was kinda on the opposition. In that time period, execution for supposed treason isn't that far-fetched.

So perhaps these incidents were exaggerated. And I find it quite doubtful to cast blame entirely on Daji, when, y'know, her emperor was still around and she wasn't regent for him or anything.

(Sources for this last part: 1, 2.)

I'm not necessarily denying she wasn't a very effective leader. Assuming that she did snatch power from king, she did cause the downfall of a dynasty. But the same could be said for literally every other emperor at the end of each dynasty, and they weren't called fox demons.

Love kickass ladies? Join my takeout army and start reading a translation of the original Mulan!

Do you think history vilifies powerful women? Which is your fav lady here?


Twitter-sized takeout:
Chinese Culture Appreciation is a blog series that aims at explaining tidbits of, well, the Chinese culture. As a girl from Hong Kong, I really hope to share more of my amazing, historically rich world with you.

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