Chinese characters of Empress Wu

Chinese characters of Empress Wu
Chinese characters
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Chinese characters of Empress Wu, or the Zetian characters (則天文字), are Chinese characters introduced by Empress Wu Zetian, the only reigning female in the history of China, to demonstrate her power. The characters were not created by the Empress herself, but were suggested by an official named Zong Qinke, the son of one of her cousins, in December 689. The number of these characters is controversial, but various sources say 12, 17, 19, or 30 characters, et cetera. They were forcibly used by people during her reign but fell into disuse immediately after her death, so they help to determine dates of printed materials.

A few of the surviving characters are preserved in the written histories of Wu Zetian, and a few have found themselves incorporated into modern-day computer standards, classified as either variant or dialect-specific characters.

The form of the characters varies depending on where they are printed. For instance Empress Wu's own name zhào 照 was replaced with 瞾, but is erroneously thought to be 曌, and looking in the Kangxi Dictionary, one finds the description of the former having two 目 ("eye") characters being the proper character rather than the word míng 明 meaning "bright". Another form replaces the 明 above 空 with two 日 characters.



Wu was China's only female emperor, and she exercised her power by introducing many reforms. In addition to changing the way people dressed, she wanted to change the words people used.

Empress Wu's written reforms resulted in new characters, which were not created from scratch, but borrowed elements of older characters.

When the Wu dynasty ended, the original words were recovered because people eventually forgot how to write the characters themselves. Some of the characters ended up being preserved in other countries.

Anecdotes about the reign of the Empress Wu can be read in The Book of the Tang.

Example Characters

Original Character New Character Large Version Unicode Explanation of meaning
Zetian character 照 U+66CC The empress's name, “” is here composed of the radicals “日月当空”. The moon and sun symbolize a harmony of yin and yang.
Zetian variant of above character U+77BE The way the first character is sometimes erroneously written.

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