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The Empress Wu: History and Legend


Admission requirements

Admission to the MA Middle Eastern Studies (research) or the MA Asian Studies (research). Students who are interested in taking this course, but are not admitted to the MA Middle Eastern Studies (research) or the MA Asian Studies (research), should contact the instructor BEFORE the start of the course.


Between 690 and 705 Wu Zetian was the only woman to rule China in her own name as Emperor. Long before that time she began her quest to solidify power, a quest that involved use of Buddhist ideology to an almost unprecedented degree. As both a woman and an advocate of Buddhism (whatever her motivations might have been), ‘Confucian’ historians were almost unanimous in their portray of the Empress Wu and the period of her reign, the Zhou, as one of thoroughgoing corruption. In this seminar we will examine multiple aspects of this fascinating figure, in an attempt to gain a balanced view of her in fact and fiction.

Course objectives

Students will gain an appreciation of the complexity of historical portrayals and the uses of ideology in history writing, as well as the place of Buddhism as a force in Chinese history.



Mode of instruction

  • Seminar

Attendance and informed participation are obligatory. Classes missed for a good reason (at the discretion of the instructor and to be discussed BEFORE the class takes place) will have to be made up with an extra assignment. Being absent without notification can result in a lower grade or exclusion from the term end paper and a failing grade for the course.

Course Load

  • Class meetings 2 hr x 13 weeks = 26 hrs

  • Individual presentation: 20 hrs

  • Readings: 130 hrs

  • Paper: 104 hrs
    TOTAL 280 hrs

Assessment method

Assessment shall be through:
1) In class participation: 20%
2) Presentation: 30%
3) Paper: 50%. The instructor will read and comment on 1 draft of the paper if and only if it is turned in by the deadline.

In order to pass the course, students must obtain an overall mark of 5.50 (=6) or higher.

There is no ‘resit’ possible for class participation or presentation. If the overall mark for the course is “5.49” or lower and a resit is necessary for the paper, an entirely new topic must be approved, and there is no opportunity for feedback.

The course is an integrated whole. The final examination and the assignments must be completed in the same academic year. No partial marks can be carried over into following years.



Reading list



registration is in principle limited to students of the Research Masters Asia and the Middle East. Other students should consult the instructor.

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Studeren à la carte nor Contractonderwijs is possible for this course.


Prof.dr. Jonathan Silk


Students with disabilities

The university is committed to supporting and accommodating students with disabilities as stated in the university protocol (especially pages 3-5). Students should contact Fenestra Disability Centre at least four weeks before the start of their courses to ensure that all necessary academic accommodations can be made in time conform the abovementioned protocol.

Academic Integrity

Students are expected to be familiar with Leiden University policies on plagiarism and academic integrity. Plagiarism will not be tolerated. If you submit any work with your name affixed to it, it is assumed to be your own work with all sources used properly indicated and documented in the text (with quotations and/or citations).