As China's only female emperor, Wu Zetian worked her way up to a position of power and prominence during the Tang Dynasty, establishing a legacy that would last thousands of years. One of history's most successful and controversial rulers, Wu Zetian married two emperors, birthed a couple more, and got rid of anyone that stood in her way. The line between fact and fiction with Wu Zetian is blurry, but stories about her life and rule make for one extremely fascinating read.
Wu Zetian, also called Wu Zhao and Wu-hou, became a junior concubine of Emperor Taizong in 636 or 638 CE at the age of 14. She was from a wealthy family and had been raised by a father that encouraged her to read, write, and develop her mind in ways that were usually reserved for men. Once she was at Taizong's palace, she first worked in the laundry. One day she dared to speak to the Emperor as he passed her and the two began to have regular conversations. The Emperor was taken with her intellect and put her in the position of his secretary. This kept her close to the Emperor and let her stay abreast of politics, social developments, and state affairs.
In addition to have Taizong's favor, she caught the eye of his son, Prince Li Zhi. The two began an affair, which was risky since he was married and she was still bound to his father.
When Emperor Taizong died in 649 CE, all of his concubines had their heads shaved and they were sent off to a convent, as was customary so they would have no other lovers after having been with the emperor. Because Taizong's son, Prince Li Zhi, now Emperor Gaozong (Kao Tsung), was in love with Wu, he sent for her and had her brought back to the palace. Wu became one of the many women in Gaozong's life, including his other concubines and his wife Lady Wang.
The Emperor's wife, Empress Wang or Lady Wang, had no children with her husband. His top concubine, Xiao Shufei, called the Pure Concubine, gave birth to a son and two daughters, and Wu Zetian produced two sons in 652 and 653. None of this really mattered from the perspective of who would succeed Gaozong since he had already chosen a successor but it did cause a lot of tension among the women. Gaozong designated that his chancellor Liu Shi's son, Li Zhong, would rule after him, in large part because Liu Shi was his wife's uncle.
What really bothered Lady Wang and Xiao was the attention paid to Wu. She was educated and unlike by the other women so she was automatically seen as a threat.
In 654, Wu gave birth to a daughter who died within a week. Wu accused Lady Wang, the last person to have held the baby, of strangling or smothering the child. She knew Lady Wang disliked her and, according to some later writers, killed the baby herself to set Lady Wang up for the crime. Lady Wang had no alibi and was also accused of witchcraft by Wu. Wu, perhaps looking to get rid of all of her rivals, indicated that the Pure Concubine may have been involved as well. Lady Wang was found guilty of the murder and banished to a remote part of the palace. Later, the Pure Concubine joined her. Gaozong divorced Lady Wang and then married Wu.