A FEMALE RICHELIEU
 FIVE years after the death of the great Taitsong, his son Kaotsong, Emperor of China, fell in love with a woman, a
fact in no sense new in the annals of mankind, but one which was in this case destined to exert a striking
influence on the history of an empire. This woman was the princess Wou, a youthful widow of the late emperor,
and now an inmate of a Buddhist convent. So strong was the passion of the young ruler for the princess that he
set aside the opposition of his ministers, divorced his lawful empress, and, in the year 655, made his new
love his consort on the throne.
It was a momentous act, So great was the ascendency of the woman over her lover that from the start he became
a mere tool in her hands and ruled the empire in accordance with her views. Her first act was one that showed
her merciless strength of purpose. Fearing that the warm love of Kaotsong might in time grow cold, and that
the deposed empress or some other of the palace women might return to favor, she determined to sweep these
possible perils from her path. At her command the unhappy queens were drowned in a vase of wine, their hands
and feet being first cut off,—seemingly an unnecessary cruelty.
This merciless act of the empress, and her
domi-  nant influence in the government, soon made her many enemies. But they were to find that she was a dangerous
person to plot against. Her son was proclaimed heir to the throne, and the opposing officials soon found
themselves in prison, where secret death quickly ended their hostility.
Wou now sought to make herself supreme. At first assisting the emperor in the labors of government, she soon
showed a quickness of apprehension, a ready wit in emergencies, and a tact in dealing with difficult questions
that rendered her aid indispensable. Step by step the emperor yielded his power to her more skilful hands,
until he retained for himself only the rank while she held all the authority of the imperial office.
Under her control China retained abroad the proud position which Taitsong had won. For years war went on with
Corea, who called in the Japanese to their aid. But the allies were defeated and four hundred of the war-junks
of Japan given to the flames. The desert nomads remained subdued, and in Central Asia the power of China was
firmly maintained. Now was the era of a mighty commotion in Southern Asia and the countries of the
Mediterranean. Arabia was sending forth its hosts, the sword and the Koran in hand, to conquer the world and
convert it to the Mohammedan faith. Persia was in imminent peril, and sent envoys to China begging for aid.
But the shrewd empress had no thought of involving her dominions in war with these devastating hordes, and
sent word that Persia was too far away for an army to be despatched to
 its rescue. Envoys also came from India, but China kept carefully free from hostilities with the conquerors of
Kaotsong died in 683, after occupying the throne for thirty-three years. His death threatened the position of
the empress, the power behind the throne. But she proved herself fully equal to the occasion, and made herself
more truly the ruler of China than before. Chongtsong, son of the late emperor, was proclaimed, but a few days
ended his reign. A decree passed by him in favor of his wife's family roused Wou to action, and she succeeded
in deposing him and banishing him and his family, taking up again the supreme power of which she had been so
brief a time deprived.
She now carried matters with a high hand. A nominal emperor was chosen, but the rule was hers. She handled all
the public business, disposed of the offices of state, erected temples to her ancestors, wore the robes which
by law could be worn only by an emperor, and performed the imperial function of sacrificing to Heaven, the
supreme deity of the Chinese. For once in its history China had an actual empress, and one of an ability and a
power of maintaining the dignity of the throne which none of its emperors have surpassed.
Her usurpation brought her a host of enemies. It set aside all the precedents of the empire, and that a woman
should reign directly, instead of indirectly, stirred the spirit of conservatism to its depths. Wou made no
effort to conciliate her foes. She went so far as to change the name of the dynasty
 and to place members of her own family in the great offices of the realm. Rebellious risings followed; plots
for her assassination were formed; but her vigilance was too great, her measures were too prompt, for treason
to succeed. No matter how great the rank or how eminent the record of a conspirator, death ended his career as
soon as her suspicions were aroused. The empire was filled with her spies, who became so numerous as largely
to defeat their purpose, by bringing false accusations before the throne. The ready queen settled this
difficulty by an edict threatening with death any one who falsely accused a citizen of the realm. The
improbable story is told that in a single day a thousand charges were brought of which eight hundred and fifty
proved to be false, those who brought them being at once sent to the block. Execution in the streets of
Singan, the capital, was her favorite mode of punishment, and great nobles and ministers died by the axe
before the eyes of curious multitudes.
A Richelieu in her treatment of her enemies, she displayed the ability of a Richelieu in her control of the
government. Her rule was a wise one, and the dignity of the nation never suffered in her hands. The
surrounding peoples showed respect for her power, and her subjects could not but admit that they were well and
ably ruled. And, that they might the better understand this, she had books written and distributed describing
her eminent services to the state, while the priesthood laid before the people the story of her many virtues.
Thus for more than twenty years after the death of Kaotsong
 the great empress continued to hold her own in peace and in war.
In her later years wars broke out, which were handled by her with promptness and success. But age now weighed
upon her. In 704, when she was more than eighty years old, she became so ill that for several months she was
unable to receive her ministers. This weakening of the strong hand was taken advantage of by her enemies.
Murdering her principal relatives, they broke into the palace and demanded her abdication. Unable to resist,
she, with unabated dignity of mien, handed to them the imperial seal and the other emblems of power. In the
following year she died. For more than forty years she had been the supreme ruler of China, and held her great
office with a strength and dignity which may well be called superb.