Wu Zetian

wu zetian

At the time of Mohammed (650 to 750 AD), England was no more than a collection of tribal areas (the heptarchy) and Europe’s largest city was Constantinople with about 400,000 people.

On the other side of the world however, China under the Tang dynasty was starting on a golden age. Its capital Chang’an  (modern day Xi’an) lay at the eastern terminus of the silk road and was a vast planned city built as a rectangular grid 5 miles by 6 miles and surrounded by wall 5.5m high. Inside the city where two enormous square markets; the east market supplied produce from the silk road and the west market from the local region. It had 1,000,000 inhabitants and was the largest city in the world at that time. A visitor from London of the time (population 12,000) would have thought it an unearthly paradise.


That’s not the most remarkable thing about Chang’an however. Its ruler from 690 to 705 AD was Wu Zietan, the only one of China’s 557 emperors to have been a woman. She had originally as a teenager, become the concubine of Taizong the 2nd emperor of the Tang dynasty and grew into his confidence. She began accumulating power and influence at this point.  Taizong died in 649 and his son Gaozong became emperor and Wu succeeded in becoming his chief consort; Gaozong was sickly however and Wu became the power behind the throne. In 683 he died and Wu Zetian felt secure enough to emerge into the open and declare herself emperor.

By all accounts a hard headed and ruthless ruler, but no more so than any other emperor of that era, she ushered in a short time when women could occupy rank and travel and also a time of economic boom. Her short lived zhou dynasty ended with her death in 705 AD.

China would continue to be the centre of world civilisation for the next millennium. From 650 AD to 1850 the world’s largest city was in China, until Beijing was surpassed as the world’s largest city – by London.

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