China’s Forgotten Emperor

It should have made the perfect subject for a history documentary. Wu Zetian, China’s Forgotten Emperor, was the only empress in four millennia of imperial China. In the seventh century, she entered the court a lowly concubine at just 13-years old, and rose acceded to rule over the wealthiest realm on Earth for 50 years, both in support of her husband and, after his death, in her own right.

In the centuries since, the achievements of Empress Wu have been much denigrated, her role in history reduced to that of ruthless, scheming empress, and the scourge of the empire. This documentary was intended to rescue the tarnished reputation of Wu Zetian, and to reflect her presidency over a period of great stability and prosperity. In the process, it glossed over the executions of hundreds of members of the ruling family, the torture of her rivals and the probable murder of at least two of her own children. These were all understandable, apparently, and acts necessary for the retention of her power.

Yet, despite the fascinatingly rich source material available to producer and director Stephen Finnigan, and even with the allegedly ground-breaking evidence to challenge the accepted version of events, Channel 4’s China’s Forgotten Emperor failed to deliver.

Firstly, it offered very little that linked directly to Wu Zetian, other than the distinctly phallic mausoleum erected (yup) to her memory at Qianling, and a reconstructed palace that she had once commissioned. There were plenty of impressive monuments that invoked her immense power, such as the giant Buddha carved with a likeness of her face, and a series of lofty pagodas. Yet, of Wu Zetian herself, we learnt very little. We met historians and archaeologists who believe that, actually, she may not have been a catastrophic ruler, and that she could have been one of ancient China’s more politically astute, progressive and internationalist emperors. But, still, they couldn’t be certain.

Despite all of the artefacts unearthed, there was still very little could be confirmed about this most enigmatic empress even 1,300 years after her death. A figurine of a woman on horseback apparently shows that women had a relative degree of freedom in her society, and a jewelled headdress buried with its owner proves that there were rich people, too. Frankly, I fail to see why this should be surprising, given that the wealth of an individual is scarcely proof of a generally prosperous society. The main problem, though, is that the evidence just does not appear impressive to the viewer, and it certainly does not seem to be revelatory confirmation of the success of her reign.

That said, the discovery of the tomb of Wu Zetian’s female prime minister was slightly more significant, though, as it had been deliberately destroyed. “This is part of an intentional process, an intentional destruction of vestiges of female power during the late seventh and early eighth century,” said Professor Norman Rothschild of the University of North Florida. It was “the Confucian patriarchy striking back and re-establishing normative power”, and it explained why Empress Wu’s reputation suffered. But, did we need to uncover a ravaged ancient tomb to know that the histories of powerful women have long been rewritten and that women rarely benefit from such revision?

This forced drama fell flat. It’s revelations were unspectacular, its reconstructions of Wu Zetian tiresome. Incredibly, the woman who made China a global power was mostly portrayed applying her makeup in scenes crammed full of overripe oriental tropes reminiscent of such “historical” dramas as Netflix’s Marco Polo. In truth, this glamour was all a bit Channel 5 for a documentary that, for the most part, pleaded to be taken seriously.

While epic “historical” dramas such as Marco Polo and Game of Thrones display this dynastic power politics played out on a blood-drenched and fantasised scale, such true historical stories with source material as rich as that above ought to be able to match these series for intrigue, if not outstrip them given their authenticity. Yet, unlike Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History or Jack Weatherford’s Genghis Khan and The Making of The Modern World, China’s Forgotten Emperor failed to do deliver.

It is for the character and the intrigue that I watched this documentary, for a focus on Wu Zetian, and for detail and depth, not hasty assumptions and sweeping generalisations. China’s Forgotten Emperor presented a run-of-the-mill documentary as the serious, ground-breaking story of a pioneering Empress whose legacy was muddied by centuries of patriarchal denial. It failed to deliver on that premise.