Wu Zetian is widely regarded as one of the most notable and influential women in Chinese history. Wu came from a well off family and decided to leave her family house in order to embrace court life as she believed that living in the realm of Emperor Taizong would be good for her (Fei et al., 2000, p. 192). It should be noted that under the rule of the Tang dynasty, Chinese women experienced a period of relative freedom: they could choose not to bind their feet and, depending on their families’ resources, they could learn how to read, write and play music. Judging from her educational background, it appears evident that Wu had always been discouraged from leading a submissive life.
Some have depicted her as a ruthless and ambitious ruler whose thirst for power encouraged her to challenge the philosophical principles and beliefs that had contributed to shaping her country (e.g. the widespread belief that women could not rule as they embodied the qualities of yin, whereas men embodied the qualities of yang), while some others have portrayed her as a brave, compassionate and effective leader under whose rule China prospered in both political and cultural terms. At thirteen, her beauty, skills, wit and intelligence allowed her to become one of the Emperor’s favorite concubines; however, Wu had her eyes on the Emperor’s son, Kao Tsung, who also took her as a concubine after his father’s death. Unlike Wu, Cleopatra did not have to engage in particularly complex subterfuges to become a political leader in Egypt. As a member of the Ptolemaic dynasty, Cleopatra was meant to rule her country and found it very easy to present herself as the reincarnation of Isis, a female goddess. Cleopatra originally ruled with her father, whose will clearly states that after his death, his daughter and one of his sons would get married and take his place. In 51 BC, Cleopatra and her brother, Ptolemy XIII, began ruling Egypt as joint monarchs. However, neither Ptolemy nor Cleopatra wished to share power and their respective personal ambitions resulted in a long civil war; hoping to gain Julius Caesar’s support against Cleopatra and other external enemies, Ptolemy and his followers killed Pompey. Caesar found the crime unacceptable and Cleopatra exploited his anger towards her brother to seduce him and secure a new powerful ally (Burstein, 2007).

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The ways in which Wu and Cleopatra rose to power are extremely interesting and worth of deeper analysis as the steps they took to strengthen their power say a lot about their aspirations and character. In China, when an emperor died, his concubines were transferred to a Buddhist monastery in order to make room for the new emperor’s concubines (Fei et al., 2000, p. 192). Following Taizong’s death, Wu and her fellow concubines were expected to shave their heads, dress modestly and live like Buddhist nuns; instead, Wu managed to arrange a meeting with the Emperor’s heir, i.e. Kao Tsung, before his father’s death (Fei et al., 2000, p. 192). The meeting was successful as Kao Tsung found Wu enchanting and decided to take her as his concubine (Fei et al., 2000, p. 192).

Wu gave him several sons, thus becoming more powerful and influential at court. She even succeeded in getting rid of Kao Tsung’s wife, Empress Wang, by telling the Emperor that she had murdered his newborn daughter; the Emperor believed his favorite concubine and decided to take Wu as his wife, thus replacing Empress Wang. Following the Emperor’s death, Wu began acting as a regent on behalf of her sons, thus becoming China’s first (unofficial) female Emperor (Fei et al., 2000, p. 192).

Similarly to Wu, Cleopatra also had to rely on her beauty and seductive skills to achieve her ambitious goals. Caesar found her enchanting and after some time, she gave birth to their son, thus prompting him to support her claim to the Egyptian throne. Even after Caesar’s death, Cleopatra manages to seduce yet another powerful Roman, Antony, from whom she has three children (Burstein, 2007). As a result of his feelings for Cleopatra, Antony conquers new territories which are automatically assigned to Cleopatra and his children (Burstein, 2007). Unlike Wu, who lived in a country where women were not supposed to get involved in politics, Cleopatra was a born leader whose greatest challenge was to get powerful allies at a time when the entire world was being re-shaped by the continuous rise of the Roman Empire.

In order to be recognized as an official and legitimate Emperor, Wu had to struggle to gain the political and moral support she needed; her intelligence and knowledge of the Chinese culture played a key role in enabling her to consolidate her power by finding a philosophical basis in Buddhism for a woman to rule a country and presented herself as the reincarnation of a present-day Buddha, or Maitreya (Wu, 1995, p. 8).

As a leader, Wu was both determined and compassionate: instead of trying to act like a man, she turned her femininity into a strength and elevated the position of women across China by having scholars write biographies of notable women. On the one hand, she repressed any form of opposition through a secret police force whose main goal was to jail or murder anyone who stood in her way; on the other hand, she presented herself as a loving mother moved by compassion and sympathy, as well as a proud woman who reinterpreted Chinese symbols in such a way to give women more legal rights, (Fei et al., 2000, p. 196; Schireson, 2009, p. 59).

It is interesting how Wu, who was not supposed to become an Empress, used her femininity to gain more power and then embraced a much more authoritative leadership style as if she wanted to tell the world that she was perfectly capable of ruling a whole country without a man by her side. She empowered women and even started her own dynasty. Cleopatra, on the other hand, was supposed to become a ruler and lived in a country where women enjoyed the same economic and legal rights as men; in spite of that, she had to secure powerful male allies throughout her life in order to stay in power. Even though women today are no longer required to seduce powerful men to achieve their goals (even though this practice is still very common), Wu and Cleopatra’s different leadership styles still survive today. Hillary Clinton, for example, is a transformational leader who has been striving to empower women while creating a shared vision. Similarly, HP’s CEO Meg Whitman believes that an effective leader should be able to innovate, break down barriers, listen to their subordinates and inspire them.

  • Burstein, S.M. (2007). The Reign of Cleopatra. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.
    Fei, H.H., Han, T., Wang, J. & Zhang, G. (2000). Notable Women of China. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.
  • Schireson, G. (2009). Zen Women: Beyond Tea Ladies, Iron Maidens, and Macho Masters.
    Somerville, MA: Simon and Schuster.
  • Wu, Q. (1995). Female Rule in Chinese and English Literary Utopias. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse
    University Press.