The Story of Empress Wu

The hand-painted bowls are of the finest porcelain and originally had matching
porcelain lids. They are far superior in workmanship to the Bamboo, Celadon, and
Four Seasons dinnerware found throughout the rest of the site.  It is likely that this
set of bowls was kept in a display cabinet and only brought out and used during
special occasions.

Dr. Larry Young (specialist in Chinese history and culture at Cal Poly) translated the
characters discovered on these beautiful rice bowls.

Around the bowls one can see a picture of Empress Wu and Ti-Jen-cheh (a well
respected elder statesman).  Also seen are Chinese pictures depicting herbalist's jars
and gaming pieces (dice, etc.).

Empress Wu lived from AD 624 till 705.  Wu, one of the most famous (or notorious)
women in Chinese history, usurped the ruling power after the death of her husband
(the 4th emperor of the Tang Dynasty).  As a usurper and the only woman who ever did
such a thing in China, she has been severely condemned by Chinese historians.  Her
reign finally came to a close in AD 705.  She was in her 80's when she was set aside by
a palace coup and she died that same year.

When she took power, she named herself Wu Chou and one of the 19 new Chinese
characters invented by her was one to represent her name.  The Chinese public never
accepted this new character.  Her real name (known to historians) is Wu Tse-tien.
Once in power, she tried to change the name of the dynasty to "Chou".

The porcelain artist who painted these bowls refers to her as Wu Chou and indicates
his negative feelings toward this ruler by referring to her dynasty on the bowls as
"puppet Chou".

The same artist refers to the elder statesman by using his honorary title "Ti
Liang-kung".  This shows the respect the artist had for this statesman in contrast to
his disdain for the empress.

Dr. Young asks "Why would a San Luis Obispo Chinese family own bowls with this
particular story when there are many important historical sagas which could be
depicted?"  He indicates that legendary beautiful women, historical brave and loyal
warriors, the goddess of Mercy, the eight Taoist fairies and other folk heroes are
commonly seen in Chinese porcelain paintings.  But it is extremely rare to see a
symbol of a vicious woman, the head of a puppet regime as porcelain art.

The answer to this question may tell us more about the political aspirations of San
Luis Obispo's Chinese pioneers than any other artifact found so far.

First, we must remember that archaeologists deal with both "facts" and "hypotheses".
The existence of the bowls is an indisputable fact. The intelligent guess (hypothesis)
about why they are here is based on theories of human behavior.
The story of Empress Dowager Tzu-hsi

For the answer, we need to look at the period when San Luis Obispo's Chinese
pioneers arrived in California (the late 1800's).

It is possible that the porcelain artist was borrowing a story from the past as a way of
expressing public condemnation of the present ruling power in China.  Using such
historical parables has long been an accepted way of expressing public opinion in

A review of 19th century Chinese history tells us that when these bowls were made,
the ruling power of the Ching dynasty was in the hands of a powerful woman; the
Empress Dowager (1835-1908).  She was usually called Tzu-hsi in China.

In 1851, at the age of 16, Tzu-hsi became a low ranking concubine of Emperor Hsien
Feng.  In 1856, she bore him his only son and eventually became one of the Emperor's
wives.  When the emperor died, Tzu-hsi's young son became emperor.  She couldn't
rule openly but had to go through her son.  She would sit behind a screen in back of
her son's throne and listen as officials gave him their reports.  He would then repeat
her answers to them.  She often put her own interests above those of the nation.  
After a few years her son died.  Tzu-hsi appointed her own 3 year-old nephew
(Kuang-hsu) emperor even though he was not in a direct line of succession to the

By 1881, Tzu-hsi had complete control of China.  She represented the old
conservative guard (Manchu Nobles, etc.).  When her young nephew Kuang-hsu came
into full power in 1889 at the age of 17 he had a mind of his own and wanted to
modernize China.  In 1898, he initiated his 100 Days of Reform, planning to
"Westernize" China.  His reforms called for the development of rail lines, modern
schools, and other western style changes.

This went against the old guard and, with the support of the conservative military,
Tzu-hsi reacted by placing Kuang-hsu under house arrest and wiped out all his
modernizing decrees.  She even gave the order to have 6 of his reform movement
leaders executed.

Tzu-hsi's government secretly supported the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 which sought to
rid China of all foreigners (the Western influence).  When the Boxer Rebellion failed,
she and her supporters fled north and China had to endure a humiliating settlement
known as the Peace of Peking.

In 1901, she returned to the "Forbidden City" with a changed political attitude which
she hoped would allow her to stay in power, but the Chinese people had enough of her.
The Chinese Republican Revolution eventually overthrew her power and did away
with the old Imperial ruling system all together.
Site maintained as a public service by Archaeological Research, PO Box 1353, Lucerne, CA 95458.
More than Just a Rice Bowl
History and Prehistory of Lake County
and Beyond
Wu Bowls
Opium Use
Historic Features
Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

The parallels between the story of Empress Wu and Tzu-hsi are too obvious to ignore.
Both were women who used trickery to usurp power from the traditional male lineage.
Both were not popular with China's public.

Perhaps the most outspoken opponent of Tzu-hsi's reign was Dr. Sun Yat-sen
(1866-1925).  He was the leader of the Chinese Republican Revolution. Dr. Sun was
from the southern coast of China, a place called Chung-shan County in the
Kwangtung Province.

Where did San Luis Obispo's Chinese Pioneers come from?... the Kwangtung Province,
and many likely came from Chung-shan County. [Hong Kong is located on the south
China coast in the Kwangtung Province]

Why would someone leave their homeland and travel so far to start a new life in a
strange place?  History tells us that political unrest is often the key ingredient which
prompts people to leave their home country for new horizons.  It shouldn't be a
surprise that San Luis Obispo's Chinese population were staunch supporters of the
Republican Revolution which was being led by one of their home-town heroes.

All of this history leads us back to the rice bowls.

Dr. Young suggests that San Luis Obispo's Chinese pioneers would have welcomed
any form of art that could express their anti-Manchu feeling and support of the
revolution.  He indicates that it is very clever for the porcelain artists to "borrow"
the ancient symbol of corrupt power and use it as a public way of condemning the
present Chinese power holder.