The fortunes of the world’s wealthiest individuals reach staggering heights. From high-profile entrepreneurs to visionary investors, these titans of industry navigate the realms of affluence, shaping industries and leaving a mark on the global stage. However, there was a queen in China who was so rich that the wealth five richest people today – Elon Musk, Bernard Arnault, Jeff Bezos, Larry Ellison and Warren Buffet – pales in comparison. Wu Zetian, popularly known as Empress Wu, ruled when the economy of China accounted for around 23 per cent of global GDP.
According to an old South China Morning Post (SCMP) report, such an individual today would control assets worth more than US$16 trillion.
The outlet further said given China’s wealth at the time of Empress Wu’s rule, it is possible to argue that she is the richest woman to have ever lived.
Empress Wu is one of the most popular characters in Chinese history, and countless television series and films have been made on her life. The most recent is ‘Empress of China’, which released in 2015 and had Fan Bingbing in the lead role.
Who was Wu Zetian?
The SCMP report said she was born in Shanxi Province in 624 AD, and that her father was a wealthy timber merchant. He developed close ties with Li Yuan, who later became Emperor Gaozong of Tang.
She loved reading books and at the age of 14, started working as a secretary of Emperor Taizong in the palace in Tang, where she continued her education.
The emperor died in 649 AD and as per the custom at that time, all the women connected to him were sent to a Buddhist monastery. But, according to SCMP, she was in a relationship with the emperor’s son Gaozong, who succeeded him. He removed her from monastic life and made her his concubine within a year.
Her controversial rise to the throne
As Wu started consolidating her position in the place, a fierce rivalry developed between her and Empress Wang. The Chinese outlet said that Wu gave birth to a daughter in 654 who died soon. But she blamed it on Empress Wang and framed her.
After the fall of Empress Wang, Wu was made the empress in the year 655. Within five years, Emperor Gaozong began to suffer from migraine-like headaches and loss of vision. This caused the king to hand over the affairs of his kingdom to Wu and her reign began.
SCMP said Wu fought continuously to maintain her influence and in many ways, was ruthless. In 657, Emperor Gaozong’s son died and the blame came on Empress Wu, with some historians saying she felt threatened by Li Hong’s attempt to curb her power.
She was linked to several other murders and family feuds. But, Wu ran the empire with tremendous efficiency and competency. Her decisive character also earned her respect across the kingdom.
Wu’s influence continued even after the death of Emperor Gaozong in 683. She ruled for 15 years and was eventually removed in 705, the last year of her life.
Empress Wu’s rule was one of historical importance. She reshaped Chinese society from one dominated by military officials to one controlled by a scholarly elite. Her reign was prosperous and the wealth of China, which she controlled, grew significantly.