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2023-01-12 05:56:19 Voices

It’s a man’s world.

This isn’t news: Human history is, by and large, a collection of men’s stories, with women serving as a silent backdrop or, occasionally, props. Ancient Chinese family genealogies record only the names of male members; the names of the women who nurtured them are lost to us forever.

Nothing is absolute, however. For a brief period — less than a lifetime — women dominated Chinese political life. Beginning in the late 7th century, Wu Zetian rose from empress consort to empress regnant, becoming the only woman to rule China in her own name. Under her unprecedented influence, women gained remarkable power. Female officials like the brilliant Shangguan Wan’er participated in military and state affairs while Wu’s daughter, Princess Taiping, took active roles at court.

Wu’s reign was brief. She was deposed in a coup in 705 and died shortly thereafter. Within a decade, both Shangguan Wan’er and Princess Taiping were killed. All three were vilified by historians for centuries.

Today, they have become icons of sorts for Chinese women tired of conforming to patriarchal gender norms. Wu is seen in some corners as a proto-feminist, while activists wonder what might have been if Shangguan Wan’er and Princess Taiping had been able to consolidate power. Yet, viewing these three women through the prism of modernity risks missing what made them so unique and important in the first place.

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Series translators: Lewis Wright and Katherine Tse; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell; copyeditor: Matthew Hall; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao; visuals: Ding Yining.

(Header image: Details of “Court Ladies Wearing Flowered Headdresses,” by the Tang dynasty painter Zhou Fang. From Liaoning Provincial Museum)