Severing Grandma’s Phallus

A Gendered Re-examination of the Raising and Razing of Female Emperor Wu Zhao’s Axis of the Sky

  • N. Harry Rothschild

Abstract

In 695, at the peak of her Zhou 周 dynasty (690-705), Wu Zhao 武曌 (624-705), China’s first and only female emperor, erected the Axis of the Sky (Tianshu 天樞), a hundred-foot tall octagonal Buddhist pillar topped with a quartet of dragons holding aloft a scintillating fire pearl, a monument that, according to Song Confucians “exalted the Zhou and disparaged the Tang.” In 714, her grandson Li Longji 李隆基 (685-762), emperor Tang Xuanzong 唐玄宗 (r.712-56), ordered this phallic pillar razed, and smelted its bronze and iron into weapons. This reactionary public political act played an important symbolic role in a wider campaign to re-institute a Confucian moral order that placed Han Chinese above non-Han subjects in the restored Tang 唐 (618-90, 705-907) realm, re-installed a normative patriarchal order that placed men over women, and re-situated Confucianism over Buddhism. Building on the work of Antonino Forte and Zhang Naizhu, in a triptych portraying erection, ejaculation, and castration, respectively, this article examines the dynamic, fluid political and ideological contexts in which Wu Zhao erected her magnificent phallic pillar and Xuanzong destroyed it. 

Published
2019-02-10
Section
Articles