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Tracing the first empress in grottoes and peony gardens

The city of Luoyang in Henan Province is famous for the Longmen Grottoes, its fabulous peony flowers and China's first and only empress, Wu Zetian (624-705 AD) in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD).

For many years Luoyang and Empress Wu were virtually synonymous, though many other important figures lived in the ancient city -- the capital of 15 dynasties. Some count 13 dynasties, some even say 31, depending on complicated definitions of Chinese dynasties.

I had heard many stories about the extraordinary and beautiful woman who rose to power and ruled from 690 to 705 AD.

On a short, two-day trip, I traced some of her history.

She was cultured, conniving, ruthless and ambitious in her drive to gain the throne. She also helped advance women, flying in the face of Confucian thought about the utterly subservient role of females. The sage is believed to have said that a woman ruler would be "as strange as a hen crowing at daybreak."

Wu lived in the prosperous Tang Dynasty and though the period was quite open, it was still a time when women were not even allowed to attend family ceremonies or visit temples.

Wu, born into a noble and cultured family, was at first a concubine of Emperor Taizong, founder of the Tang Dynasty, in his later years. Of course, a dead emperor's concubines were forbidden to marry. So Wu was sent to a nun's temple, like all the emperor's childless concubines.

However, Taizong's son, Gaozong, welcomed her back to the royal family as his concubine, and later wife. Historians recorded how the whole government and country were opposed to Gaozong's decision to make Wu his queen. But she triumphed over all criticism, arranged her own coronation and founded her own short-lived Zhou Dynasty (690-705 AD) after Gaozong died. She already has been the power behind the throne.

The Zhou Dynasty interrupted the Tang Dynasty. Its capital was Luoyang, while the Tang capital was today's Xi'an in Shaanxi Province. Some historians consider the Zhou Dynasty a branch of the Tang, while others consider it distinct.

In any case, Luoyang, one of the earliest ancient capitals, is sometimes considered one of the world's four most historic cities, together with Mecca (Saudi Arabia), Jerusalem (Israel) and Athens (Greece).

Luoyang is also known as the "City of Flowers" and is famous for its extraordinary peonies, notably in the Peony Park, and for the world-famous Longmen Grottoes.

Both are linked in the legend to Empress Wu.

It was difficult to decide where to go on a short trip, so we chose grottoes and gardens.

Longmen Grottoes

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Longmen Grottoes first caught my attention when I was a child and heard a fantastic tale about the empress, then powerful scheming consort.

This one is about how supremely confident Empress Wu left her deified image in Longmen Grottoes.

The empress was said to be devout Buddhist although modern historians and novelists consider her piety a political tool to rule the public.

While she was still imperial consort, she ordered the creation of many caves in the grottoes, including the Fengxian Temple Cave and the enormous statue of Vairocana Buddha -- not deep within but towering in a shallow niche on the mountain side.

It is the single largest statue among more than 100,000 in the grottoes. It stands more than 17 meters high and each ear is 1.9 meters long.

The statue is acknowledged as the most artistic and compelling and is said to be the likeness of Empress Wu herself. It is commanding, maternal and mysterious, exuding wisdom; the face almost bears a smile.

The tale that Wu ordered craftsmen to carve her image cannot be confirmed, but the strong motherly visage bears some resemblance to paintings of the empress in her later years. She abdicated in 705 AD and died the same year at the age of 80.

As consort, Wu attended the opening ceremony of the cave with hundreds of officials.

Since I heard that story long ago, I have always wanted to visit the grottoes to see how this woman transformed herself into a deity more than 2,000 years ago. The statue is considered one of the most artistic in ancient China.

After climbing hundreds of steps, I was thrilled to stand at the foot of the Vairocana Buddha in Fengxian Temple Cave, halfway to the top of Mt Longmen.

Most other caves are dug deep into the mountain, with statues hidden inside. But Fengxian Temple Cave is more like an outdoor temple, as craftsmen carved the commanding statue in a shallow niche facing outward.

A local historian told us that the Vairocana Buddha is the embodiment of Dharmakaya and connotes devotion, sacrifice and perfection. Vairocana means "light everywhere."

The historian's explanation took me back 2,300 years and I could almost see how Wu, a determined consort in her 40s, wanted to demonstrate that women could be both strong and womanly.

Her critics called her cruel and ruthless -- no one would say that of a male ruler. But she also introduced more merit into officialdom and took measures to help ordinary people.

I walked among the crowds, pondering on how modern Chinese women still face the same challenge -- if you are strong-willed and successful in your career, you may face an unhappy life in terms of relationships and family affairs.

The Longmen Grottoes are the result of craftsmen from seven dynasties working for almost 400 years. Although it was begun in the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534 AD), emperors and individuals in the Tang Dynasty contributed around 60 percent of the statues.

It was also intriguing to compare the periods of the statues with their images of female beauty. The Northern Wei Dynasty considered slimness a standard of beauty, while in the Tang Dynasty the definition of beauty was quite the opposite.

The grottoes contain 2,345 caves and niches, 2,800 inscriptions, 43 pagodas and more than 100,000 Buddhist images. It is generally considered the zenith of ancient stone carving and aesthetics.

Garden of peonies

The ancient Chinese created many tales about flowers, giving each a human embodiment. For example, the spring narcissus is often a slim lady in white, ascending from the water without getting wet.

The lady of peonies is quite different. She is Queen of the Flower Court, ruling all the other flowers. She is many people's favorite because the peony, too, is linked in legend with ruthless Empress Wu.

The story goes that the empress loved flowers and ordered all kinds planted in her garden in Chang'an, today's Xi'an. On a snowy winter morning right after she ascended the throne, she issued a proclamation in the form of a poem.

"I will visit the garden tomorrow where I expect to see signs of spring. All flowers are ordered to blossom tonight and nobody shall wait for the wind."

All the flowers obeyed and bloomed the next morning when the empress entered the garden -- except for the proud peony that refused the blossom.

The empress was furious and burned all peonies in the court. She ordered all peonies to be "imprisoned" in Luoyang, where peonies had not grown before. The disobedient peonies would be punished with its harsh weather.

But peonies flourished and became even more beautiful in Luoyang where more than 1,000 varieties bloom today.

The fabulous peony legend does appear in historical records, but there's a more realistic version, also about the empress.

Confronting enormous criticism as the first female ruler, Wu wanted all officials to believe she was destined to be a ruler. To create a magnificent aura in her Xi'an garden, she ordered all gardeners to force flowers to blossom in winter, using greenhouses. But the peony failed to bloom in the harsh weather.

The empress, a peony lover, decided to move all peonies to Luoyang, following the gardener's suggestion, and later moved her entire court there as well.

Either way, Luoyang city is famous for peonies, bigger, brighter and more vivid than peonies elsewhere, it is said. Flower appreciation is a spring ritual in Luoyang and many literati there have written poems about fair ladies and peonies.


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