L’Oréal heiress Françoise Bettencourt Meyers is currently the richest woman in the world , her estimated net worth of US$73.8 billion making her the 12th richest person overall. It’s a colossal fortune, but it pales in comparison to the wealth available to China’s Empress Wu Zetian (AD624-705), who ruled the country when the economy of China accounted for around 23 per cent of global GDP. Such an individual today would control an estimated more than US$16 trillion of assets. Of course, comparisons across centuries and different eras are tricky, but given China’s wealth at the time, it’s possible to argue that Empress Wu is the richest woman to have ever lived. Her debatable wealth aside, Wu remains one of the most fascinating individuals in Chinese history. If you believe the most critical accounts of her reign, she murdered one of her own children, deposed her sons who were emperors before her and ruled with the help of a secret police force. How Miss Hong Kong 2020 Lisa Tse went from Scottish nurse to Canto TV star Given her dramatic life story, it’s no surprise she has been portrayed in countless films and TV series. The most notable recent account was 2015’s Empress of China starring Fan Bingbing , whose racy costumes and frequent displays of cleavage had to be censored. Wu’s origins remain shrouded in mystery. Conflicting reports suggest she might have been born in modern Shanxi Province, Sichuan or Shaanxi. What is known is that her father was a wealthy timber merchant who developed close ties to the official Li Yuan, who would eventually become Emperor Gaozong of Tang. Unusually for the time period, Wu’s father made sure his daughter was well educated. She read widely and, at 14, was made an imperial concubine of Emperor Taizong of Tang. In the palace she worked as a secretary, which allowed her to continue reading and furthering her education. Emperor Taizong died in 649. Since Wu had not fathered any children with the emperor, by custom she was to be permanently confined to a Buddhist monastery following Taizong’s death. Supposedly, Wu had started a relationship with Taizong’s son, the new Emperor Gaozong, while the former was still alive. Whether true or not, he removed her from monastic life and made her his own concubine within a year. Back at the palace, consort Wu set about consolidating her position. A fierce rivalry rapidly developed with Empress Wang as the two ladies attempted to do away with one another. In 654, Wu gave birth to a daughter who died soon after. Evidence suggested Empress Wang may have been behind the death, but such was their rivalry that some historians believe Wu killed her own daughter to frame Empress Wang, although no firm proof for this exists. A year later, Wu accused Wang and her mother of using witchcraft – an event that precipitated the empress’ fall. Why doesn’t Hong Kong make great romance films any more? In her place, Wu was made empress in 655. Within five years, Emperor Gaozong began to suffer from debilitating headaches and a loss of vision, generally thought to be related to high blood pressure. Incapacitated, he began to hand duties and responsibilities over to his educated wife and looked to her for constant advice. In a sign of the controversy surrounding Empress Wu, historian Bo Yang has suggested that Gaozong’s illnesses resulted from sustained poisoning by Empress Wu. Whatever the truth, Wu wielded considerable power. “Promotion or demotion, life or death, were settled by her word,” recorded the Song dynasty historian Sima Guang several centuries later. Given the dubious rumours that surrounded her and her fragile position as a woman at court, Wu continually fought to maintain her influence. In many ways, she was ruthless. In 675, her and Emperor Gaozong’s eldest son, Li Hong, passed away. Once again, historians have speculated about whether Empress Wu was to blame for this death, with some saying she felt threatened by her son’s attempt to curb her power. Another deadly power struggle occurred several years later with the death of Ming Chongyan, a shaman trusted by the emperor and empress. Wu blamed the new heir to the throne – her second son, Li Xian – for the murder and accused him of treason. Under pressure from the empress, Gaozong demoted his son to commoner status and appointed Li Zhe (also known as Li Xian) as the new crown prince. Despite the alleged murders and family feuds, Empress Wu is credited with running the empire with tremendous efficiency and competency. She often selected the right individuals for the right tasks and her decisive character earned her respect, if not love. How Eileen Gu made over US$30 million in luxury endorsements When Emperor Gaozong passed away in 683, and Li Zhe became Emperor Zhongzong, Wu maintained her authority as empress dowager. Gaozong’s will went so far as to state that although Li Zhe should ascend the throne immediately, he was still to consult his mother on all matters of state and to get her approval. However, Emperor Zhongzong’s wife had ambitions of her own and almost immediately clashed with her mother-in-law. The predictable result was that within months the emperor was deposed on the orders of Wu, demoted to prince and sent into exile. Wu’s youngest son now took the throne as Emperor Ruizong, but his mother gathered even more power around herself at this stage. Ruizong never moved into the imperial quarters, appeared at no imperial function, was not allowed to meet with officials and was prohibited from ruling on matters of state. Although Wu’s rule was beneficial to the dynasty, it’s clear she bolstered her position through intimidation and violence, using officials who acted like secret police. No longer content with ruling from behind the curtain, in 690 Wu made Emperor Ruizong stand down and established the new Zhou dynasty, with herself as the imperial ruler (although it only lasted until the end of her reign). This was a historical feat – Wu remains the only legitimate female sovereign in the history of China, since other powerful female rulers, like Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908), ruled through nominal male emperors. 5 Hong Kong celebrity couples who broke up and got back together Through her machinations, Wu was able to reign as empress for 15 years. She was eventually removed in 705, the last year of her life, when ill health finally allowed rivals to seize power. Although certain historians are critical of Empress Wu – characterising her as a scheming woman who went too far in her lust for power – her rule was one of historical importance. She reshaped Chinese society from one dominated by military officials to one controlled by a scholarly elite. Her reign was prosperous and the wealth of China, which she controlled, grew significantly. Want more stories like this? Follow STYLE on Facebook , Instagram , YouTube and Twitter .