Empress Wu Zetian (1939)



Director:     Peilin Fang. 

Starring:     Hong Bai,  Lanjun Gu,  Langen Han,  Naishuang Huang,  Xiucen Yin,  Zhizhi Zhang. 

Chinese biopic of the empress who interrupted the Tang Dynasty (618-907) with her behind her husband and sons (665-690) and in her own right in the Second Zhou Dynasty (October 690705)


Empress Wu Cheh Tien, the only woman ruler in China's history, was at first an attendant of Emperor Tai Tsung, Tang Dynasty.  She became a nun in the Kiang-Yeh Convent following the Emperor's death, but she was taken into the palace again by the successor Emperor Kao Tsung who had been madly in love with her when he was a prince. 

Part I.  Beginning to be the Emperor's Favorite. 

Four palace women come to see who has arrived.  It's Wu Meiniang, the concubine of Emperor Taizong.  Some discussion takes place about whether or not they should allow her into the palace.  Since Emperor Taizong's death, she has lived as a nun. 

The Emperor is told that Wu Meiniang has been taken into the palace.  A boy messenger brings news to the Emperor that Chu Suiliang wants to meet with the Emperor.  The Emperor tells the messenger to tell the man to call again tomorrow morning. 

The Emperor asks if Wu Meiniang has been taken care of.  Wu Meiniang arrives.  The Emperor tells her he hasn't seen her for three years.  They sit and drink some wine.  She says she has lived in Ganye Temple for many years and that she thought he had forgotten about her.  The Emperor tells her he has thought of her everyday. 

The court officials tell each other that is unusual for the Emperor not to hold court for four days.  So they decide to summon the Emperor.  A message comes to the Emperor that the court officials await him in order to discuss important matters.  He tells the messenger to say that he has a headache.  Wu Meiniang is concerned that she will be blamed for the Emperor's absence.  She also asks if the Empress will be jealous. 

The Empress comes to see her husband.  She tells him that he has not held court for ten days.  The high ministers are talking of succession.  She says that he certainly doesn't want to be accused of mismanaging government affairs.  The Emperor tells her to return to the temple.  He tells Wu Meiniang that she would make a wonderful Emperor.  This makes Meiniang very happy.

The Empress is up at night.  Her maidservant comes in to tell her that the Emperor has gone to Yulin Palace. 

Part II.  Fighting for Power.

The Emperor's nephews, Wu Chengzi and Wu Shangsi, are in the palace walking around as if they owned it.  Despite Empress Wang's presence, Empress Wu has lived her for several years now and her influence is very strong.  Yes, they say, she is a remarkable woman. 

A rumor goes around that the brother of Empress Wang is starting a rebellion.  The Empress comes to talk with Meiniang, the imperial concubine.  She tells her that the rebellion rumor is totally baseless.  She describes herself as a pitiful woman and says that someone is trying to humiliate her.   

Meiniang goes to see the Emperor about the rumor.  The Emperor tells her about Empress Wang and how he must teach her a lesson.  To make things worse for Empress Wang, Meiniang has her maidservant place a carved model of the Emperor with a small knife placed in its chest where the Emperor will find it.  On the back are the words:  "Emperor Kai Zong, born June 4, in the sixth year of his reign."  The Emperor immediately goes to see Empress Wang.  He asks her:  "What treachery is this?  You wish to take my life through witchcraft?"  He throws the effigy at her feet.  The Empress tells him that someone seeks to frame her.  The Emperor demands to know who is trying to frame her.  He adds:  "I know you are cruel and envious."

The Emperor is very happy. Today his daughter is one month old.  (The daughter's mother is Meiniang.)  Madam Hangguo arrives to celebrate the day.  Meiniang is bothered by her presence.  She feels the Emperor is much too solicitous of the woman.  The Emperor tells a messenger to tell Madam Hangguo to meet him by the Flower Pavilion.  Madam H. arrives and the Emperor tries to kiss her several times, but she keeps avoiding him.  She says she is afraid of Meiniang.  The Emperor tells her not to be afraid of the imperial concubine. 

Empress Wang tells Meiniang that she will treat the little daughter as one of her own children. 

Meiniang is not happy.  She wants to know who invited Madam Hangguo to the palace.  Her maidservant suggests it may have been the Empress. 

Wu Meiniang goes in to see her daughter.  For the sake of mother's reign, she says to the baby, she will be killed.  The baby cries.  Meiniang strangles the child to death. 

Wu Meiniang goes to the Flower Pavilion and catches the Emperor and the Madam in an embrace.  The Emperor is a bit intimidated by Meiniang.  He tells her:  "I mean no offense.  I'll make it up to you."  He even begs for her forgiveness.  Meiniang's maidservant comes to tell all that the little princess is not well. 

The Emperor accuses the Empress of killing the child.  He tells her:  "You are not qualified to be Empress."  He then demotes her to a commoner.  He creates a new title for Imperial Concubine Wu.  She will be Empress Consort.  One of the ministers begs the Emperor to please reconsider his decision.  The "murder" charge is based on the testimony of only one person.  And making the Imperial Concubine the Imperial Consort will never do.  He then resigns his post and bloodies his head by banging it against a step.  The Emperor commands:  "Take him out of here!"

The Emperor slips out to see Madam Hangguo. He complains to her about Meiniang.  He says:  "Everyday she criticizes my edicts."  While they talk, a messenger brings a package for Madam Hangguo.  She opens it up to find a white damask silk.  This frightens her a great deal.   The Emperor goes to Meiniang to ask her what is the meaning of all this.  She basically ignores him and says she has a few suggestions about policy.  This upsets the Emperor.  He accuses her of always interfering in government.  She objects that her ideas are such simple ones and there are only three:  1)  lift the tax system that is too heavy, especially on the common people;  2)  every citizen should attend all national events; and 3)  the old laws are unfair to women and should be modified.  She sums up by saying:  "I seek to ensure justice and humanity."  She then asks the Emperor to please present her suggestion to the people.  The Emperor suddenly gets a terrible headache because of her.  He finally agrees with her.  He adds:  "You will be the death of me."  Meiniang laughs. 

Part III.  At the Climax of Influence.

Empress Wu took power.  The Emperor became very bitter toward her.  He regrets his decision about the former empress very much.  The Emperor pays her a visit.  Ex-Empress Wang tells him that she has been imprisoned in this cold temple for twelve years.  She cries.  He tells her:  "This is all Wu Meiniang's doing."  The ex-Empress asks him to please release her from this prison.  He can only say that he will try to set her free.

On his way back to the palace the Emperor runs into one of his sons.  The son asks him why he went to see Empress Wang.  He tells his son that it is none of his business.  The son asks his father to restore Empress Wang's position.  The Emperor agrees and asks him to go get Chancellor Shangguan Yi and bring the man to see him. 

The maidservant brings Meiniang news about talk of a conspiracy against her. 

The Chancellor arrives.  The son says that his father made a mistake when he placed Meiniang in power.  There is support for Empress Wang.  The Emperor says that he is very mad at Meiniang.  She is trying to usurp him.  Suddenly, Wu Meiniang comes into the room.  The men are obviously frightened of her.  She turns to the Chancellor and demands to know what he is writing.  She demands to see it. When she reads it she discovers the paper is an edict restoring the ex-Empress to her position.  Meiniang tears up the paper.  The Emperor suddenly develops a headache and goes to bed.  Meiniang sends for Wu Chengzi.  She tells him to sentence Empress Wang to death immediately.   

The guards take the Chancellor to prison.  Other guards come for ex-Empress Wang, but she has already hanged herself. 

The Emperor dies.  The son says he wants to reform the ills of the nation.  He speaks of his mother's selfishness. 

A public announcement is made.  "This day we begin the reign of the Zhou Dynasty." 

A crown is placed on Wu Meiniang's head.  She is given the jade laurel.  Her name is Empress Wu Tzetian.  The shout goes up:  "Long live the Empress!"

In a bar a man becomes very intoxicated.  The fellow is actually the one time head monk at the temple.  He is summoned to see the Empress.  He goes before the Empress in his drunken state.  The Empress demands that he go over and face the Buddha. 

The announcement is made that two Zhang brothers wish to entreat your majesty.  They come in.  One's name is Changzong and the other Yizhi.  They bow before the empress.

Part IV.  Her Late Years.

The granddaughter of the executed Chancellor offers a burnt offering to the gods of paper money.  The two imperial consorts see her and investigate.  When they hear her say seditious things about the Empress, they grab her and take her to Her Highness.  The young woman's name is Shangguan Wan'er.  The Empress asks if she is related to the late Chancellor.  Yes.  Wan'er tells the Empress that she hates her because she killed her grandfather, as well as many other people.  The imperial consorts want the Empress to execute Wan'er, but the Empress refuses. She says the girl is just stubborn and emotional.  Wan'er thanks her for sparing her life.

The tow Zhang brothers and others perform for the Empress.  Minister Renjie comes to the Empress to talk about an important matter.  But before he discusses the matter, he objects to the way she makes the men dance for her.  He says she treats men like her playthings.  She retorts that the Emperor did much worse than what she is doing.  Minister Renjie tells her that the Emperor was addicted to sexual decadence.  Now down to business.  There is an urgent military situation.  Xu Jingye leads an army of 100,000 troops stationed in Yangzhou.  The minister believes that the Empress should pass the crown to the Rulin Prince to stop the approaching war.  Instead, the Empress says she will send out a strike force against the coming invasion. 

The Empress and her ministers toast to their impending military victory.  (The Empress has a "special relationship" with the Zhang brothers.)  The Empress ended the rebellion. 

The drunken monk starts a fire on the palace roof.  He was hit by an arrow shot by a guard causing him to abandon his torch and flee.  Soon pieces of the roof start crashing down near the ministers and the Empress.  She is escorted out of the palace.  They gather at the temple.  The Empress imagines the faces of some of the important people she had destroyed or killed.   Wan'er comes to her.  She tells her that her face does not look well at all.   The Empress asks for a mirror.   She looks at her face and says:  "I am old."  She drops the mirror as she faints.  She later says:  "Old age strikes without mercy.  . . . I will continue to fight until death takes me." 

The Zhang brothers talk about seizing power from the Empress.  They tell everyone that her condition is so critical that no one can see her.  The imperial consorts try to get into see her, but are denied.  They wonder if the Empress plans to pass on the throne to the Zhangs.  And they have heard that the Zhangs plan to meet with the Rulin Prince in Hangzhou. 

The ministers discuss the possibility of the Zhang brothers coming to power.  The imperial minister says that all the ministers have been banned from seeing her.  So they decide themselves to meet with the Rulin Prince. 

The Empress is very sick.  She asks Wan'er why the high ministers do not visit her.  Wan'er tells her that she forbade them entry.  The Empress denies this categorically.  She asks the two Zhang brothers about it.  They say nothing.  Then news arrives that the ministers are ready to launch an attack on the palace.  When they break through the palace gates they immediately start looking for the Zhang brothers.

The Empress is informed that the rebels have stormed the palace.  The Zhang brother go take a look, are captured and killed.  The command goes out:  "Find her majesty!"   They soon find the Empress.  They tell her that they stormed the palace only to ask for her pardon.  The Empress summons the two imperial consorts.  They tell her that she should give up her crown.  The Empress is outraged.  She faints and falls backwards.  The shout goes up:  "Praise the Empress!"


The movie is pretty old and not that great.  It's o.k.  The only interesting thing to me was that to get power this woman would stop at nothing.  She murdered her own one-month old daughter in order to frame the current Empress for the murder.  That is very bad, obviously and was a bit shocking to say the least!  One thing I wanted to know was whether or not the writer(s) of the movie thought Empress Wu Zetian was at least a good ruler for her people.  But this is not even mentioned.  The emperor always developing a headache at the first sign of trouble was funny and the crazy behavior of the drunken monk also provided some comic relief.   Also missing is the background of the Empress that might help explain her unbridled ambition. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


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