Wu Zetian (625 CE — 705 CE) was the only empress regnant to ever rule China. She was born to a wealthy merchant family. Instead of spending her time learning traditional ladylike pursuits, she immersed herself in politics and books. When she was a teenager, she became consort to the Emperor of China. She bore him no sons, and at his death she was sent to a convent. Somehow, she managed to legally free herself from the convent, and she became the consort of the next emperor, Gaozong of the Tang Dynasty. She accused the empress consort of strangling her daughter, and the empress was deposed. Wu Zetian took her place, and gave birth to sons. She ruled from the sidelines for many years, especially when her husband became ill. When the emperor died, she was named regent for her son, Emperor Zhongzong. When he refused to do as she told him, she had him deposed and China went to her next son, Emperor Ruizong. She ruled through him very effectively with a few rebellions, and in 690 CE she had her son abdicate in favor of her. She established the second run of the Zhou Dynasty, which at her death would revert back to the Tang Dynasty.
Throughout her rule, she established an intelligence agency in order to discover her opposition. She also used religious engineering to gain more power by manipulating the main religions of China. She also employed officials, good ones, in order to oversee different parts of Her realm. She was incredibly knowledgeable by means of economics and diplomacy, and China found itself growing in wealth and living standards under her rule.
In 704 CE, she became seriously ill, and corruption in her administration started to rise. Officials planned to take power from her, or to become regent while she was sick. In 705 CE she was continually ill, and the government became even more corrupt. A coup d’état was staged, removing her from office.
Writer’s Note: This is a very shortened version of Wu Zetian’s story, because most of the articles about her are extremely subjective, depicting her as a wrathful, corrupt leader. The opinion of many historians on Wu Zetian is that she was manipulative, corrupt, cruel, and incompetent, and that she used dishonorable tactics in order to gain power. While that may well be true, those are not methods that are specific to Wu Zetian, a woman ruler. She could have been villainized and demonized by historians for being manipulative, but many leaders did that to gain power, regardless of gender. One could say that she had an understanding of the politics of China in this period and used them to her advantage. Because many politicians used those methods, it is wrong the demonize Wu Zetian without also demonizing the men who did like or even worse things to attain power. Unfortunately, she stands out, because she is the one empress to rule China suo jure (in her own right).