Historical Tales: 12—Japanese and Chinese - Charles Morris

A Female Richelieu

Five years after the death of the great Taitsong, his son Kaotsong, Emperor of China, fell in love with a woman, a fact in no sense new in the annals of mankind, but one which was in this case destined to exert a striking influence on the history of an empire. This woman was the princess Wou, a youthful widow of the late emperor, and now an inmate of a Buddhist convent. So strong was the passion of the young ruler for the princess that he set aside the opposition of his ministers, divorced his lawful empress, and, in the year 655, made his new love his consort on the throne.

It was a momentous act, So great was the ascendency of the woman over her lover that from the start he became a mere tool in her hands and ruled the empire in accordance with her views. Her first act was one that showed her merciless strength of purpose. Fearing that the warm love of Kaotsong might in time grow cold, and that the deposed empress or some other of the palace women might return to favor, she determined to sweep these possible perils from her path. At her command the unhappy queens were drowned in a vase of wine, their hands and feet being first cut off,—seemingly an unnecessary cruelty.

This merciless act of the empress, and her dominant influence in the government, soon made her many enemies. But they were to find that she was a dangerous person to plot against. Her son was proclaimed heir to the throne, and the opposing officials soon found themselves in prison, where secret death quickly ended their hostility.

Wou now sought to make herself supreme. At first assisting the emperor in the labors of government, she soon showed a quickness of apprehension, a ready wit in emergencies, and a tact in dealing with difficult questions that rendered her aid indispensable. Step by step the emperor yielded his power to her more skilful hands, until he retained for himself only the rank while she held all the authority of the imperial office.

Under her control China retained abroad the proud position which Taitsong had won. For years war went on with Corea, who called in the Japanese to their aid. But the allies were defeated and four hundred of the war-junks of Japan given to the flames. The desert nomads remained subdued, and in Central Asia the power of China was firmly maintained. Now was the era of a mighty commotion in Southern Asia and the countries of the Mediterranean. Arabia was sending forth its hosts, the sword and the Koran in hand, to conquer the world and convert it to the Mohammedan faith. Persia was in imminent peril, and sent envoys to China begging for aid. But the shrewd empress had no thought of involving her dominions in war with these devastating hordes, and sent word that Persia was too far away for an army to be despatched to its rescue. Envoys also came from India, but China kept carefully free from hostilities with the conquerors of the south.

Kaotsong died in 683, after occupying the throne for thirty-three years. His death threatened the position of the empress, the power behind the throne. But she proved herself fully equal to the occasion, and made herself more truly the ruler of China than before. Chongtsong, son of the late emperor, was proclaimed, but a few days ended his reign. A decree passed by him in favor of his wife's family roused Wou to action, and she succeeded in deposing him and banishing him and his family, taking up again the supreme power of which she had been so brief a time deprived.

She now carried matters with a high hand. A nominal emperor was chosen, but the rule was hers. She handled all the public business, disposed of the offices of state, erected temples to her ancestors, wore the robes which by law could be worn only by an emperor, and performed the imperial function of sacrificing to Heaven, the supreme deity of the Chinese. For once in its history China had an actual empress, and one of an ability and a power of maintaining the dignity of the throne which none of its emperors have surpassed.

Her usurpation brought her a host of enemies. It set aside all the precedents of the empire, and that a woman should reign directly, instead of indirectly, stirred the spirit of conservatism to its depths. Wou made no effort to conciliate her foes. She went so far as to change the name of the dynasty and to place members of her own family in the great offices of the realm. Rebellious risings followed; plots for her assassination were formed; but her vigilance was too great, her measures were too prompt, for treason to succeed. No matter how great the rank or how eminent the record of a conspirator, death ended his career as soon as her suspicions were aroused. The empire was filled with her spies, who became so numerous as largely to defeat their purpose, by bringing false accusations before the throne. The ready queen settled this difficulty by an edict threatening with death any one who falsely accused a citizen of the realm. The improbable story is told that in a single day a thousand charges were brought of which eight hundred and fifty proved to be false, those who brought them being at once sent to the block. Execution in the streets of Singan, the capital, was her favorite mode of punishment, and great nobles and ministers died by the axe before the eyes of curious multitudes.

A Richelieu in her treatment of her enemies, she displayed the ability of a Richelieu in her control of the government. Her rule was a wise one, and the dignity of the nation never suffered in her hands. The surrounding peoples showed respect for her power, and her subjects could not but admit that they were well and ably ruled. And, that they might the better understand this, she had books written and distributed describing her eminent services to the state, while the priesthood laid before the people the story of her many virtues. Thus for more than twenty years after the death of Kaotsong the great empress continued to hold her own in peace and in war.

In her later years wars broke out, which were handled by her with promptness and success. But age now weighed upon her. In 704, when she was more than eighty years old, she became so ill that for several months she was unable to receive her ministers. This weakening of the strong hand was taken advantage of by her enemies. Murdering her principal relatives, they broke into the palace and demanded her abdication. Unable to resist, she, with unabated dignity of mien, handed to them the imperial seal and the other emblems of power. In the following year she died. For more than forty years she had been the supreme ruler of China, and held her great office with a strength and dignity which may well be called superb.