Wu Zhao’s Remarkable Aviary
By N. Harry Rothschild (University of Florida)
Southeast Review of Asian Studies, Vol. 27 (2005)
Wu Zhao (624-705), the only female emperor in Chinese history, was a pragmatist, painfully aware that to establish her sovereignty she needed to marshal every tool, symbolic or real, at her disposal. Thus, as Grand Dowager and during her first years as Emperor, Wu Zhao meticulously amassed evidence–a vast symbolic repertoire of auspicious portents, apocrypha, carefully crafted state ceremonies, widely propagated texts, and self-aggrandizing titles–geared to provide her warrant and legitimacy in her unprecedented ascent to the apex of political power. With a political virtuosity born of three decades of experience in court politics and a brilliant, penetrating mind, she cleverly melded archaic and contemporary symbols into distinctive signets of her own authority. Among this vast repertoire of symbols, apocrypha and auspicious omens, an array of wildfowl played a significant role. In the wit of the parrot, the immortal aura of the crane, the traditions of majesty vested in the phoenix, and the mythic brilliance of the sunbird, she sought colorful and flamboyant sanction for her unique authority.
She emerged in the right place at the right time. Multi-ethnic, cosmopolitan and open, the early Tang dynasty (618-907) featured a lively commingling of nomadic, Central Asian steppe culture and traditional Confucian mores. Merchant caravans of laden Bactrian camels filled the Silk Road that linked Tang China to Central Asia and India, traveling to and from Chang’an and Luoyang, the grand twin capitals. Rather than being strictly confined to the inner quarters, women of this era were more visible, riding horses and donning male attire. Islamic mosques, Zoroastrian churches, Daoist abbeys and Buddhist monasteries all welcomed believers. Throngs heralding from all walks of life cheered at polo matches. Markets spilled over with Malayan patchouli, pepper from India, aromatic woods from Java, and Korean pine seeds, while in street stalls, Persians sold pilaf, figs and pistachios, and Turks hawked sesame buns and nang-bread.