The Immortal Secret: Empress Wu and Dong Baode (644-686)

The reign and rise to power of Empress Wu Zetian (690CE-705CE) is not only a critical time in the history of the Tang Dynasty, but also an anomaly in ancient Chinese history. As the only female ruler in the entire Chinese dynastic cycle, Empress Wu upended all conventions, strategically ascending to the dragon throne.  While in power, she was a cunning leader and will be remembered in history for her expert use of Buddhism to legitimize her female rule[i] (even proclaiming herself to be the bodhisattva, or a person who has become a Buddha out of compassion for humanity). History recounts Empress Wu’s many lovers, except the forgotten, secret love affair with a young pipa player named Dong Baoluo that lasted over twenty years and exemplified Empress Wu’s manipulative powers.  

             Dong Baoluo was born on a frigid winter morning in the year of 644 CE outside the capital of the Tang Dynasty, Chang’an. His birth was long and painful, and his mother died two days later. Baoluo was raised by his father Dong Guangli, a high-ranking general in the campaign against Karakhoja[ii] (640CE), as well as by the female household servants. Growing up, Baoluo received a thorough education, reading and writing at a young age and studying military strategies with his father. But Baoluo most enjoyed listening to the harmonious vibrations of the pipa, played by a servant, during social gatherings at the Dong’s estate.    

            The pipa originated in west and central Asia, and traveled over trade routes to the Chinese empire during the Northern Wei Dynasty[iii]. Originally it was played sideways, similar to a modern guitar, and the strings were made of twisted silk[iv]. As dynasties changed, the pipa evolved into an upright instrument, with the strings plucked by musicians with very long fingernails. The name for the pipa originates from the characters “pi”, meaning to play forward, and “pa”, meaning to play backwards, describing the plucking motion that is used when playing the instrument[v]. The pipa, during the Tang dynasty, was often played at parties for the aristocracy, where Dong Baoluo heard it for the first time. He was so fascinated with the music it created, and inspired by the emotions of valor, bravery, regret and sorrow it conveyed, that he pleaded for his servant to teach him to play. The servant agreed, with Dong Guangli’s permission, and taught young Baoluo to play during breaks from his studies. The young boy showed incredible promise, and after a few years of study, surpassed his servant teacher in ability.

            As Dong Baoluo grew older, word of his tremendous talent spread through Chang’an. At the age of sixteen, he was frequently playing at social events and policy meetings for the bureaucracy and aristocracy. It was only a matter of time before Emperor Gaozong heard of his skills. In the year 660CE, Gaozong had suffered the first of many strokes that disabled him with confusion and near total blindness[vi]. Since he could no longer be entertained by what he saw, he requested musicians to play for him, and when he heard of Dong Baoluo, he sent a letter to Dong Guangli summoning his son, Baoluo, to play for the royal Emperor and Empress at their court. It was the honor of a lifetime, and one Dong Baoluo would never dare to refuse.

            The year was 661CE, and a nervous seventeen-year-old Dong Baoluo tentatively approached the Emperor and Empress’s palace. It was days after the summer solstice, one of the hottest days in memory. Dressed in fancy attire, and carrying his pipa in his left arm, Baoluo was led into the palace and approached the Emperor’s court. Despite the terrible heat and shaking nerves, Baoluo walked into a long hall, painted in a heroic and royal yellow, filled with elaborate symbols of dragons. At the end of the hall, he saw Emperor Gaozong seated in the most exquisitely decorated throne, but it appeared that no jewels could outshine the beauty of Empress Wu, who was seated next to Gaozong and gazing upon Baoluo curtly. As Baoluo stepped forward, he noticed that the Emperor’s blank eyes stared at where he placed his foot with each step, tracking him by the noise he made. Right before he reached his chair in front of the Emperor and Empress, a servant came and took his pipa, replacing it with one decorated with the finest jewels. It was the most spectacular instrument he had ever seen. He sat down, with the royal pipa in hand, and began to play.

            He struck his first chord aggressively, immediately filling the royal hall with a feeling of tension. He struck again, and again, changing his chord and striking even harder until he broke the tension with a series of soft notes, inspiring all who listened with a feeling of solidarity. The succeeding notes lured the Emperor deep into his imagination where soldiers were huddled by a fire, its flames dancing to the rhythm of the notes. Uneasiness grew, and the music in the Emperor’s mind envisioned a slow approach, then rapid attack. With a series of rapid and intense chords, Baoluo’s music conjured the soldiers into the great hall, where an enemy ambush awaited them. The music in the hall echoed the soldiers’ burst of adrenaline with each rapid movement on the strings of the pipa. Baoluo channeled the stories of the battles at Karakhoja, which he learned from his father, into his music. Notes became more sounds of a battlefield, with the clangs of sword against sword, the heavy steps of foreign horse riders and the soft sound of a sword piercing flesh. Suddenly, the music turned hopeful, and the Emperor could see before him Chinese reinforcements, coming to aid their surprised allies.  With the final chord, Baoluo confirmed Chinese victory, and the hall fell into a contented silence. Emperor Gaozong smiled, while Empress Wu was left speechless by Dong Baoluo’s rendition of  “The Ambush from all Sides”[vii].

            The next day, after Baoluo returned to his home, a servant of the Emperor came to the Dong’s estate to summon Baoluo to study the pipa with the greatest player in China, within the palace walls. This request was shocking, especially for Dong Guangli, because it was not made by the Emperor, but by Empress Wu.

            Dong Baoluo arrived again at the palace with the servant, but this time with most of his belongings. He was guided to where he would be living, far away from the main palace, in a small, but exquisite, room, with a bed draped in fine silk. No sooner was Baoluo able to arrange his possessions than he was swiftly guided toward a room near the back of the palace. The servant opened the door for him, and then closed the door after Baoluo, leaving an overwhelmed seventeen-year-old boy alone with Empress Wu. Her beauty was so great he felt as if he would offend her by looking at her, but she just gazed at him softly with the smallest of smiles on her lips and began to speak to him. She informed him that he was to be the entertainer for the Emperor, as the performance brought him happiness for the first time since going blind. She explained that he would study under their best pipa player, who taught her first- born son, the prince Li Zhong[viii]. During their conversation, Baoluo hardly uttered a word, simply agreeing to whatever the Empress told him. Her eyes never lost contact with his, and that made him strangely happy.

            During the following months, Baoluo practiced constantly and noticed, out of the corner of his eye, the Empress watching him with her ever-present smile. Baoluo quickly realized that Emperor Gaozong did not make many decisions, and that the Empress herself gave the orders[ix]. Her presence was always felt everywhere, and any political decisions came from her.  After a year of living in the palace, Baoluo was summoned to meet with Empress Wu alone more often. She wanted to know how his studies were progressing, and asked him about his upbringing, and his education. He always answered her truthfully, and he began to feel that she had a plan for him. One day during their meeting, she touched his hand for the first time, and it sent shivers up his spine, and the softness of her skin nearly paralyzed him. As the meetings continued, they felt more and more comfortable with each other, until one evening, she requested he take a walk with her. She led him through the palace, unseen by anyone. They reached a door, and she told him to open it. Inside the door was the most extravagant bedroom he had ever seen. She grabbed his hand and pulled him toward the luxurious bed. Neither of them was heard from until the next morning.

            The affair between Empress Wu and Dong Baoluo was shrouded in secrecy, made possible because of Gaozong’s blindness and confusion[x], leaving him blissfully unaware of Empress Wu’s indiscretions. The affair existed on Wu’s terms: she would grant Baoluo audience, and she dismissed him. She dominated him, and he exuded happiness.

            During the next several years, their affair continued on in secrecy. Their meetings were not only sexual, but she would often drill him with many questions about politics and education. His knowledge was far greater than she had realized, and she began to trust him with political ideas. Starting to realize her great power, Baoluo suggested that she should expand her reach to the politics outside the palace walls. He suggested gathering a group of the best scholars in Chang’an to draft state papers and advise her on certain political decisions[xi]. She loved this idea, stopped Dong Baoluo’s pipa instructions, and made him take the civil service exam of her invention[xii]. When he passed with flying colors, she appointed him head of this group of scholars. She positioned their headquarters right outside the north gate of the palace walls, closest to the woman’s quarters. Due to their position, they became known in history as the North Gate Scholars[xiii].

            Dong Baoluo’s prestigious new job filled him with honor and conflict. He had a direct influence on the decisions in the empire, but his meetings with Empress Wu were diminishing. He and his other scholars met with the Emperor and Empress together to discuss politics. Gaozong had heard Baoluo play the pipa, yet he never heard him speak, so he did not recognize Baoluo’s voice. The affair continued, but the meetings were less frequent.

Dong Baoluo’s greatest achievement as the head of the North Gate Scholars was his writing of the “Model for Ministers”, a book expressing Empress Wu’s opinions on the relationship between the ruler and the minister[xiv]. The book emphasized the total commitment of the minister to the ruler saying, “Although the father-son relationship is extremely close, it still cannot compare with the ruler and minister forming part of the same organism.”[xv] This book that Baoluo wrote portrayed Empress Wu as a lover of learning, committed to continue learning. This also helped her establish her right to rule, even as a woman, in the same disposition as her use of Buddhism.

            The years following the writing of the “Model for Ministers” were tumultuous ones for Empress Wu. Gaozong’s illness worsened, and his heir, Li Hong, frequently disagreed with and disobeyed the Empress’s commands[xvi]. He died under mysterious conditions, leading many to speculate that Wu poisoned him[xvii]. The next heir, Li Xian, was significantly less smart than his elder brother Li Hong, and was easily manipulated by Empress Wu[xviii]. Yet, due to the presence of intelligent officials who became advisors to Li Xian, he soon became a threat to the Empress. In 680CE, she went so far to have Dong Baoluo and the rest of the North Gate Scholars compile the set of Biographies of Filial Sons to instruct him on her wishes[xix]. He was later exiled and committed suicide[xx].

            At the end of 683CE, Emperor Gaozong passed away[xxi]. The day after his death, Baoluo was summoned once again to the Empress’s bedroom. She worried her power would fade, as the seventeen-year-old heir, known as Zhongzong, took the throne[xxii]. His ambitions did not compliment those of Empress Wu’s, and he started to appoint the family of his wife to positions of power. He tried to cede the empire to his father-in-law, and the Empress had him jailed[xxiii]. The next day, another heir named Ruizong was appointed Emperor, but he played no part in politics and was kept in a palace far away[xxiv][xxv]. This allowed the Empress to have almost complete power over the empire.

            Dong Baoluo believed this upheaval was the reason why his affair with Empress Wu was fading. While that was a minor excuse, the true reason why their affair was terminated was her infatuation with another man: Xue Huaiyi[xxvi]. Xue Huaiyi, a peddler of cosmetics and medicines, was taken into the palace by one of Wu’s daughters and summoned by the Empress herself,[xxvii] just the same as Dong Baoluo. Unlike her affair with Baoluo, however, Xue Hauiyi and Empress Wu’s affair did not remain a secret[xxviii]. Soon, word had spread throughout Chang’an of the sexual exchange; Dong Baoluo and the North Gate Scholars were among the first to know.

            Dong Baoluo was devastated by the news. Throughout his long affair with Empress Wu, he not only admired her unmatched beauty, but also he highly regarded her intelligence and wit. He loved her, but it was clear to him that she never felt the same. She used him for her pleasure and political schemes. Baoluo hadn’t felt emotions this raw since when he played “The Ambush from All Sides” for the Emperor and Empress, over twenty years before. Unable to accept the fact that he had been deceived, Dong Baoluo committed suicide in 686CE. His song was passed down for generations, without a single person recognizing him as the original composer.

            Empress Wu used Xue Huaiyi to her advantage the same way she used Dong Baoluo, as an advisor, lover, co-designer of the bright hall[xxix], and even a general at one time[xxx]. Once he overstepped his place, with wild public displays of throwing coins, which ultimately caused people to be trampled to death, and for that she had him murdered[xxxi]. She then found a new lover in a physician and the cycle love and deception continued until her infatuation with the Zhang brothers[xxxii] and her death in 705CE from old age[xxxiii]. Empress Wu’s repeated affairs demonstrated more than just her sexual promiscuity, but how her numerous relationships with men gained her power and dominance over men as a woman. The most definitive of her relationships, however, was her clandestine affair with Dong Baoluo, and to many, it remains cloaked in secrecy, even to this day.


[i] Hansen, Valerie. The Open Empire: A History of China to 1800. Second ed. New York City: Norton, 2015. Print. Page 182.

[ii] Cosmo, Nicola Di. Military Culture in Imperial China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2009. Print. Page 181.

[iii] “The Pipa” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, link:

[iv] “The Pipa” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, link:

[v] “The Pipa” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, link:

[vi] Wills, John E. Mountain of Fame: Portraits in Chinese History. Princeton, NJ.: Princeton UP, 1994. Print. Page 134.

[vii] “Liu Fang pipa solo “The Ambush”, traditional Chinese music” Youtube,

[viii] “Li Zhong” Wikipedia, link:

[ix] Wills, 134 Hansen, 182

[x] Wills, 134

[xi] Wills, 136

[xii] Wills, 138

[xiii] Wills, 136

[xiv] Wills, 136

[xv] Wills, 136

[xvi] Wills, 137

[xvii] Wills, 137

[xviii] Wills, 137

[xix] Wills, 137

[xx] Wills, 137

[xxi] Wills, 138

[xxii] Wills, 138

[xxiii] Wills, 139


[xxv] Wills, 139

[xxvi] Hansen, 182

[xxvii] Wills, 141

[xxviii] Wills, 141

[xxix] Hansen, 182

[xxx] Wills, 144

[xxxi] Wills, 144

[xxxii] Wills, 146

[xxxiii] Wills, 147

Paul Edward Joseph-Bernard Dunham is a student at the University of Rochester with an expected graduation date of 2020. He is currently focusing on studying both Mathematics and Chinese. He is also a passionate rock climber and nature enthusiast, as well as an avid guitarist and overall musician.