by Dressed Up Dreams Photo Studio

  • Sharon

1 - Monstrous Mothers

Updated: Dec 23, 2018

In many ancient cultures, being a caring wife and self-sacrificial mother is regarded as the exemplar par excellence of femininity. So what happens when a woman subverts such conventions of domestic duty by brutally murdering her own family for personal interests?

Enter Medea and Wu Zetian.

Both were powerful, aristocratic women who were infamous for their cruelty towards their own children and family. While Wu Zetian was criticized by historians as having “a heart like a serpent and a nature like that of a wolf”, Euripedes’ Medea provoked similar reactions among Greek theatre-goers, who were likely to share the same sentiments as Medea’s husband in the play, seeing her as “of all women most detested by every god, by me, by the whole human race!” While these criticisms convey an understandable horror and repugnance, they also elicit social anxiety over how such women should be regarded – are they human or animal? Masculine heroes or feminine mothers? Mad or sane?


In Greek mythology, Medea was the daughter of King Aeetes of Colchis. She was also a niece of Circe and is often depicted as a priestess of the goddess Hecate, therefore skilled in the use of poison. While there are various versions of the myth, all of them are consistent in depicting Medea’s intense love for Jason (the leader of the Argonauts), and her equally great desire for revenge (or justice) when her love was betrayed. Medea and Jason first met when he came to Colchis in search of the Golden Fleece. She fell in love with him and promised to help him, but only on the condition that he would take her away with him and marry her if he succeeded. Jason agreed, so she helped him through various perilous tasks, using her sorcery and knowledge of poisons to give him the victory. She even betrayed her family by killing her brother to help Jason escape with the Fleece - in some versions, Medea was said to have dismembered her brother's body and scattered his parts on an island, knowing her father would stop to retrieve them for proper burial.

However, not long after successfully returning to Corinth, Jason abandoned Medea for the king's daughter, Princess Glauce. As a barbarian woman (a non-Greek) who had now effectively exiled herself from her homeland, Medea was now of no use to him, but marrying the princess offered significant political advantages. Medea was furious and decided to take revenge by sending Glauce a dress and coronet, covered in a poison which would cause its victims to spontaneously combust upon contact. This resulted in the gory deaths of both the princess and the king, when he tried to save his daughter. She then completed her revenge by murdering her children to leave Jason with no descendants, utterly destroying everything he had (which was, in reality, what she had given him.)




While Euripedes’ play does not explicitly condone Medea’s sexual jealousy and destructive vengeance, it aligns our sympathies with Medea by making her predicament evident, and by characterising Jason in an utterly detestable manner:

“...Medea, wild with love, Set sail from your father’s house, Threading the Rocky Jaws of the eastern sea; And here, living in a strange country, Your marriage lost, your bed solitary, You are driven beyond the borders, An exile with no redress. The grace of sworn oaths is gone; Honour remains no more In the wide Greek world, but is flown to the sky. Where can you turn for shelter? Your father’s house is closed against you; Another is now mistress of your husband’s bed; A new queen rules in your house.”

In response to her anger, Jason brusquely states:

“You could have stayed in Corinth, still lived in this house, If you had quietly accepted the decisions of those in power”, arguing that “helpless passion drove you then to save my life [...] your services, so far as they went, were well enough; but in return for saving me, you got far more / Than you gave”. He continues to cite how she gained fame by marrying him, and how it was better for her to be in civilised Greece where there was rule of law, instead of being an unknown barbarian woman.

According to him, Medea’s possessive passion is unacceptable in a society where women are expected to be silently submissive wives - she should accept that his marriage to Glauce is merely another transaction, the way things work when men are in power. However, Medea refuses to be merely a pawn and expects Jason to honour his marriage vows as much as he would a pact with other men. Her language echoes that of the Homeric hero, and she finally divests herself of all conventional femininity by willing herself to murder her own children, despite her own emotional agony:

“Let no one think of me as humble or weak or passive; let them understand I am of a different kind: dangerous to my enemies,

Loyal to my friends. To such a life glory belongs.”

If Medea’s murderous intentions and self-transformation was fuelled by passion, it can be said that Wu Zetian was motivated by a different kind of love – a love for power.

Even today, Wu is notorious for the ruthless way in which she removed Emperor Gaozong’s first wife, Empress Wang, and a more favoured concubine known as Consort Xiao. According to records, when she was just a consort, Wu strangled her own baby daughter and blamed the baby’s death on Empress Wang, who was the last person to have held her. The Emperor believed her and disposed of the Empress (as well as Consort Xiao), imprisoning them in a remote part of the palace. After Wu Zetian was crowned Empress in her place, she allegedly had both women’s hands and feet cut off, and their mutilated bodies tossed into a vat of wine to drown.


Historians say that the infant child was not the only family member who fell victim to her quest for power; her eldest son, Li Hong, died suddenly after being poisoned (arguably at her hand), and his successor Li Xian (李贤) was eventually exiled and forced to commit suicide. Her third son Li Xian (李显) obeyed his wife more than her, so she had him deposed and exiled too. Finally, she placed her youngest son, Li Dan, on the throne, but was openly in control and dictated commands for him to formally announce. Li Dan was never an emperor in his own right though he bore the title. He never moved into the imperial quarters, appeared at no royal functions, and remained a virtual prisoner in the palace. Even so, Wu was not satisfied and forced him to yield the throne to her, destroying her fourth son and proclaiming herself the Holy Emperor Zetian.



Like Medea’s critics, Wu’s opponents relished in labelling her as a vicious, demonic woman who opposed nature by desiring the authority of a man. It was one thing for a woman to play politics in the harem, but asserting influence in governance - the sphere of princes – defied the very notion of harmony in the universe. She was called a demon-empress (妖后) by those who tried to incriminate her with charges of witchcraft, and scholars argued that nature itself had been reversed by the “usurping woman” — “throughout the empire in every prefecture hens changed into roosters, or half changed" as an omen protesting her rule. In another incident, an earthquake occurred shortly after she proclaimed herself Emperor, and courtiers immediately interpreted it as a bad omen, saying:


“Your Majesty, a female ruler improperly has occupied a male position, which has inverted and altered the hard and soft, therefore the earth's emanations are obstructed and separated. This mountain, so born of the sudden convulsion of earth, represents a calamity. [...] To respond properly to Heaven's censure, it is suitable that you lead the quiet life of a widow and cultivate virtue, otherwise I fear further disasters will befall us.”


Wu Zetian calmly rejected this interpretation and had the minister exiled, refusing to be silenced by the tirade of masculine voices.



But was she really as monstrous as history made her out to be?


Just as storytelling and mythology served the function of propagating social values, historical records (especially imperial history) perpetuated biases in being penned by male scholars who wanted to affirm the pre-eminence of Confucian sensibilities. Wu’s life became fertile material for a negative case study about what would happen when a woman refused to submit to male authority. One should note that many of the sensationalized records documenting Wu’s brutality were written in the Song Dynasty when Confucianism was gaining popularity, and many others were also penned by relatives who suffered at her hands.


By contrast, more recent studies present her in a different light, depicting her as a capable and wise politician who was a better ruler than her incompetent sons. Just as Medea’s husband would never have gloriously gained the Golden Fleece without her aid, Wu’s sons were largely inept and uninterested in politics, accomplishing little for the Tang empire. Under Wu’s reign, however, the Tang Dynasty prospered. She positively reformed agricultural production and taxation systems, rooted out corruption, and rewarded officials based on their ability, rather than connections. She also established the meritocratic system of entrance exams for officials (keju), avoided war, and was keen on cultural exchanges with other empires, welcoming their ambassadors, and even foreign students to study in the capital. It was unsurprising that her revolutionary views and strong-handed approach ruffled the feathers of officials who were unaccustomed to taking orders from a woman, especially one as intelligent and opinionated as her.


The Empire Empress Writes Back


In Medea, the chorus (a group of women in the play) chants the following lines in response to Medea’s justifications for revenge:

Streams of the sacred rivers flow uphill;

Tradition, order, all things are reversed:

Deceit is men’s device now, Man’s oaths are gods’ dishonour. Legend will now reverse our reputation: A time comes when the female sex is honoured;

That old discordant slander Shall no more hold us subject. Male poets of past ages, with their ballads Of faithless women, shall go out of fashion; For Phoebus, Prince of Music,

Never bestowed the lyric inspiration Through female understanding - Or we’d find themes for poems,

We’d counter with our epics against man. Oh, Time is old; and in his store of tales Men figure no less famous Or infamous than women.”

Simply put, they sarcastically speak of another outrage against nature – Jason being deceitful, when the legends attribute duplicity to the nature of a woman. They continue to point out the unfairness of such feminine stereotypes in male-dominated narratives – “that old discordant slander” – and conclude by saying that they will write their own poems and stories if no men will speak for them. Considering that Euripides’ play was performed in 431 BC, this rhetoric was shockingly feminist and prophetic for its time. More interestingly, this speech would have been performed by male actors (playing female roles) as women were also not allowed to perform in the theatre, lending (if only for a while) a masculine voice to the idea that stories with women should more truthfully represent them.


Like Medea and these chorus women, Wu Zetian was not content to have men tell her story. Her self-fashioning as a monarch included controlling the way she was spoken about, and while she could not completely silence her critics, she combatted them by producing alternative voices and self-representations to legitimise her reign.



On a most basic level, she funded scribes and scholars to sing praises of her in the annals and records, opposing the Confucian critics. She also positioned herself as a ruler endorsed by the gods in a variety of ways. Firstly, she gave herself a string of fancy titles reinforcing her divine authority as Emperor (e.g. 圣神皇帝,总年越古金轮圣神皇帝, 圣母神皇). (The last one is particularly interesting as she branded herself as a Holy Mother and Divine Emperor simultaneously – associating herself with both Nu Wa and Fuxi’s gendered roles in the legends of creation.) Secondly, she commissioned a Buddha statue in her likeness and had it centrally positioned in the Longmen Grottoes to receive worship from devotees. She also persuaded Buddhist monks to pen a sutra proclaiming that she was the reincarnation of the Maitreya Buddha who would reign in place of the Tang emperors. Copies of these texts were printed and distributed all around the country, and abbots were made to preached from the sutra to affirm her authority. This use of divine authority to endorse one’s reign seems especially necessary for female rulers who challenged the political and patriarchal norms of their time; England’s first female monarch Queen Elizabeth I also cleverly fashioned herself as “The Virgin Queen”, associating herself with the Virgin Mary.


Wu Zetian also sought to elevate the status of women through the written word by commissioning scholars to put together biographies of famous women, and herself composed many poems presenting different sides of her character. Largely though, her poetry fell into three categories: love poems, poems about politics, and poems about nature/landscapes.

《如意娘》 看朱成碧思纷纷,憔悴支离为忆君。 不信比来长下泪,开箱验取石榴裙。

The Ideal Maiden Watching red turn to green, my thoughts entangled and scattered,

I am disheveled and torn from my longing for you, my lord.

If you fail to believe that of late I have constantly shed tears,

Open the chest and look for my skirt of pomegranate-red. (trans. Lee Hui Shu)


《腊日宣诏幸上苑》

明朝游上苑,火急报春知。

花须连夜发,莫待晓风吹。

Proclaiming an Imperial Visit to Shanglin Park

Tomorrow morning I will make an outing to Shanglin Park,

With urgent haste I inform the spring:

Flowers must open their petals overnight,

Don't wait for the morning wind to blow! (trans. unknown)


In the love poems, she portrayed herself as a sad maiden tearful over the memory of her beloved husband. But in the political poems, she emphasized her authority by writing from the perspective of a ruler who commanded nature to do his bidding. These poems allowed her to performatively segment and reconcile the duality of her persona with traditional gender roles, collectively articulating a fascinatingly complex view of the female psyche.


While Wu elevated herself as the heaven-endorsed Emperor of a new age, Medea was also presented as a divine figure at the end of the play, appearing above the roof in in a chariot drawn by dragons. This was a theatrical convention reserved for the appearances of gods and goddesses on stage. By having Medea appear in this manner, Euripides portrays her as gloriously triumphant, like a goddess proclaiming judgement on Jason while he helplessly rages beneath. The play ends with her chariot gradually going out of sight, and the chorus of women concluding: “many matters the gods bring to surprising ends. The things we thought would happen do not happen”. On this rare occasion, a woman had the final say.


However, unlike Medea, who was a fictitious character, Wu was ultimately mortal and subject to the writerly judgement of her successors. Upon her death, she was buried at Qianling Mausoleum with her husband (the Emperor) Li Zhi. Despite her achievements, the giant stone memorial tablet leading to her tomb was the only one left uncarved in more than 2000 years of imperial history. Historians say that opinion about Wu Zetian was so mixed that no one could quite agree on what to say about her. Others read it as a brutal erasure of her story and accomplishments by the patriarchal hand. Yet we can also consider this silence as a sort of victory in itself, for she ultimately avoided having her life authoritatively summed up and set in stone by the words of another. For such an exceptional woman, it was better to leave her story open to interpretation.



Model: Tang Jo Ee MUA: Chen Liju

Photography /Styling: Sharon