Wu Zetian was the only female monarch in Chinese history. She received a good education when she was a young girl, and grew up to possess remarkable wisdom and courage.
Wu Zetian became a maiden working in Emperor Taizong's study when she was 14. However, she then had a secret affair with the Crown Prince, the emperor's son, who often came to see his father, and had fallen in love with her.
After Emperor Taizong died, all the women in his palace who had not borne him a child had to become nuns. Wu Zetian was one of them. But the Crown Prince, now Emperor Gaozong (r. 650-683), having not forgotten her, brought her back into his palace. In 655 Emperor Gaozong dismissed the empress and married Wu Zetian. As empress, Wu Zetian began to help her husband with the administration, growing ever closer to the very center of the empire's decision-making process.
Emperor Gaozong died in 683, passing the throne to his son, Emperor Zhongzong, but mandating in his will that Empress Wu Zetian should be in charge of all major political and military affairs. Within two months, Wu Zetian deposed Emperor Zhong-zong for his alleged intent to pass the throne to his father-in-law, and crowned her younger son (Emperor Ruizong). Now she became the one pulling the strings, and all her opponents were eliminated.
The last step towards the summit of her pyramid of power was taken in 690. Wu Zetian ordered that her dynasty be called "Zhou," and her reign, "Tianshou" (Assigned by Heaven). She styled herself as the "Holy Empress," a title she ruled China with for 15 years.
The benefits she rendered the empire as a sovereign included some policies supporting farmers, especially tax reductions, tolerance towards criticism so that people offered their counsel without fear of punishment, strict laws against corruption, and an effective recruitment system that ensured those with talent were appointed into the government.
In 705 the prime minister and other senior officials coerced the empress on her deathbed to abdicate the throne in favor of Emperor Zhongzong, changing the name of the empire back to Tang. Wu Zetian died the same year. In her will, Wu Zetian gave up her title as monarch, wishing to be buried with her husband simply as his empress. She pardoned and spared from punishment the families of her husband's ex-wife and concubines, as well as those ofthe court officials she had made enemies with. Emperor Zhongzong resumed the throne. He approved her will and arranged her funeral according to her wishes.
It was a transfer of power in which no bloodshed was involved, with the sovereign plotted against quite willingly giving up her power and title, almost without parallel throughout Chinese history. As the only woman in China to ever scale up to the heights of power but also frankly own up to what she in reality was, while defying a highly male-centered culture, Wu Zetian was given a relatively deserved place in history, both for the duration of the Tang Dynasty as well as long afterwards.