This study examines representations of Wu Zetian in the biographical tradition of the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth centuries, as well as within the subsequent vernacular literature of the Ming and Qing periods. I analyze the traditional use and construction of female stereotypes (and female-oriented flaws and vices) in the rhetoric of official histories and fictional narratives and their application to representations of Wu Zetian. I argue that authors, anxious of discord engendered and caused by women occupying positions of political authority, sought to delegitimize Wu Zetian’s reign and subsequently cultivated a “rhetoric of female transgression.” I further argue that the image of Wu Zetian has become a cultural signifier of the dangers of female rule. Thus, my research broadly has two foci: (1) it traces the history of delegitimizing female rulership by examining the creation and codification of topoi, and (2) by focusing on images of Wu Zetian, this study examines how these topoi influence contemporary cultural and cross-cultural values, memory, and political rhetoric.

This study is divided into three chapters. Chapter one lays out the history of Wu Zetian in the Tang dynasty and an assessment of women in Tang society, which will inform the analysis of literary portrayals of Wu Zetian in chapters two and three. The second chapter examines the earliest representations of Wu Zetian. Thematically, the second chapter explores the biographical interpretation of female authority and the discursive tradition of negotiating historic fact with formulaic and reoccurring tropes. The third chapter looks at representations of Wu Zetian in the literature of the Ming and Qing periods, in which narratives are encoded with the topoi previously established in earlier historical accounts. Ultimately, although this study examines the persistence of rhetorical topoi regarding Wu Zetian, it also addresses the contested and fluid nature of her representations in non-traditional media.

Thesis Completion




Thesis Chair/Advisor

Zhang, Hong


Bachelor of Arts (B.A.)


College of Arts and Humanities



Degree Program



Orlando (Main) Campus



Access Status

Open Access

Release Date