“She killed her sister, butchered her elder brothers, murdered the ruler, poisoned her mother,” the chronicles say. But is the empress unfairly maligned?
Of all these female rulers, though, none has aroused so much controversy, or wielded such great power, as a monarch whose real achievements and character remain obscured behind layers of obloquy. Her name was Wu Zetian, and in the seventh century A.D. she became the only woman in more than 3,000 years of Chinese history to rule in her own right.
In death, as in life, then, Wu remains controversial. Even her gravesite is remarkable. When she died, she was laid to rest in an elaborate tomb in the countryside about 50 miles north of the then capital, Xi’an. It was approached via a mile-long causeway running between two low hills topped with watchtowers, known today as the “nipple hills” because Chinese tradition holds that the spot was selected because the hills reminded Gaozong of the young Wu’s breasts.