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Hualin International Journal of Buddhist Studies 4.2 (2021): 300–449;
(This article belongs to the Special Issue The Wheel that Crossed the Borders: Buddhist and Non-Buddhist Religions)

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Heroic Śāktism with Chinese Characteristics: The Female Warrior Sovereign Prophecy, the Navarātri, and a Trio of Devīs of War in the Accession of Female Emperor Wu Zhao

†Norman Harry ROTHSCHILD
University of North Florida

Abstract: In a previous publication, I argued that China’s first and only female emperor Wu Zhao 武曌 (624–705) developed an assemblage of female divinities and dynastic mothers from Buddhist, Confucian, and Daoist traditions that she tactically deployed at different stages of her half-century career in governance to enhance her visibility and political amplitude; this strategy effectively imbued herself with the aggregate cultural resonance, maternal potency, demiurgic energy, and traditional charisma of these female ancestors. It seems that I overlooked several important devīs from the Hindu tradition: the indomitable radiant warrior queens Durgā, Cundī (Ch. Zhunti 准提/準提/准胝), and Mārīcī (Ch. Molizhi tian 摩利支天). This paper argues that the timely confluence of ‘heroic Śāktism’ and esoteric Buddhism—newly arrived and nascent yet influential religious and cultural currents in late seventh century China—which, in conjunction with the opportune circulation of a cryptic prophecy concerning a ‘female ruler and martial king’, enabled Wu Zhao to use this trio of Hindu goddesses as an integral part in the construction of her sovereignty— including playing a particularly central role during her accession in 690. The late Antonino Forte’s brilliant translation of the Commentary on the Great Cloud Sūtra contains a number of prophecies that provide vital clues and insights into the roles that these devīs played.

Keywords: Heroic Śāktism, Wu Zhao (Wu Zetian), Navarātri, Durgā, Mārīcī, Commentary on the Great Cloud Sūtra, vyākaraṇa


About the Author: †Norman Harry Rothschild (1969–2021): For twenty years, the focus of Norman Harry Rothschild’s research is Wu Zhao (624–705), better known as Wu Zetian or Empress Wu. His most recent book Emperor Wu Zhao and her Pantheon of Devis, Divinities, and Dynastic Mothers (Columbia University Press, 2015) examines the female emperor’s sustained effort to deploy language, symbol, and ideology to harness the cultural resonance, maternal force, divine energy, and historical weight of a broad-base of female exemplars and divinities—Buddhist devis, Confucian exemplars, Daoist immortals, and mythic goddesses—to establish cultural, religious, and political legitimacy. Tapping into powerful subterranean reservoirs of female power, Wu Zhao built a pantheon of female divinities carefully calibrated to meet her needs at court. This pageant of goddesses and eminent women was promoted in scripted rhetoric, reinforced through poetry, celebrated in theatrical productions, and inscribed on steles. This work follows his first book, a biography of the female ruler titled Wu Zhao, China’s Only Female Emperor (Longman World Biography Series, 2008). In addition, he has published an array of more than a dozen essays analyzing various facets of Wu Zhao’s sovereignty—her connection to apocalyptic Buddhism, her utilization of avian symbolism, her deft manipulation of language in choosing reign names, and the significance of her rapport with non-Chinese subjects—in Canadian, Italian, Korean, Chinese and American journals. Recent essays have also examined other epiphenomena in early Tang history: one examines contested narratives of the environmental and political consequences of a locust infestation in 715–716 and another looks at escalating rhetoric opposing performances of a Sogdian dramas in the early eighth century after Wu Zhao’s ouster and death.


This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.