The Real Story of Wu Zetian’s Right-Hand Woman
When the Shaanxi Archaeological Museum opened to visitors earlier this year, its biggest draw proved to be a thousand-year-old tombstone. Made of limestone, the square tablet measures 74 centimeters wide and 15.5 centimeters thick, and is decorated with delicate carvings of peonies, honeysuckle, and animals considered auspicious in Chinese culture, all surrounding a 982-character epitaph.
Of course, the real draw isn’t the faded engravings, but the person it was carved to commemorate: Shangguan Wan’er, a seventh-century politician, poet, imperial advisor, and one of the preeminent women in Chinese history.
Though her ancestral home was in northwestern China, Shangguan Wan’er was born in AD 664 in Shanzhou, in what is today the central province of Henan. According to legend, her mother, Lady Zheng, had a dream just as she was about to give birth. In it, a giant handed Lady Zheng a scale, saying, “Hold this, and take the measure of the world’s scholars.”
Lady Zheng believed the dream augured a son of extraordinary talents. She ended up with a daughter instead, one who would nevertheless grow up to become “the weight” against which all other scholars and literati were measured.
Before she was old enough to walk, both Shangguan Wan’er’s grandfather — a high-ranking official in the ruling Tang Dynasty — and her father were persecuted and put to death by then empress consort Wu Zetian. In a twist of fate, however, Shangguan Wan’er caught Wu’s eye a decade later. The empress took the young Shangguan under her wing, placing the then teenager under her desk during important meetings so she could record the proceedings.
As Wu’s power grew, she made Shangguan Wan’er the head of her collection of female officials. In this role, she drafted imperial edicts and participated in military and state affairs. Shangguan Wan’er thrived in Wu’s court, assisting the empress in paying homage atop the sacred mountain of Songshan, in conquering the Western Turks, and in quelling the restive Khitan tribes — all while making a name for herself as a poet.
The era that allowed Shangguan Wan’er and other women to rise to the status of prime minister was in many ways an unprecedented one in Chinese history. Wu Zetian held the reins of supreme power for nearly fifty years, from 656 to 705. Her daughter, the Princess Taiping, also wielded immense influence over the state.
Murals found in the tombs of Wu Zetian’s granddaughters — Princess Yongtai, Princess Fangling, and Princess Xincheng — offer evidence that noble ladies of the time often went on walks, sang and dance outside, hunted, ran, and played polo. They occasionally put their hair up in buns, wore buyao crowns, and bared their breasts. Sometimes they donned hufu, non-Han Chinese attire with narrow-fitting sleeves, and paraded as young boys. They would drink and pen poetry in restaurants or accompany their fathers and brothers to frontier fortresses — all activities unimaginable to the typical noblewoman of the later Song, Ming, and Qing dynasties.
Regrettably, ensuing generations of male scholars rarely credited Shangguan Wan’er for her resourcefulness or talent, instead zeroing in on her gender to tell lurid tales of palace intrigue and promiscuity. She was depicted as licentious, with some speculating she shared lovers with Wu Zetian; modern adaptations emphasize her good looks. In movies and on television, she is unfailingly portrayed as a great beauty. In the popular mobile game “Honor of Kings,” she wears knee-high boots and a skintight onesie that would make Black Widow blush.
Then there are the tortured readings of her relationship with Princess Taiping, with popular writers dissecting the ties between these two powerful, similarly aged women to declare they hated each other and that the Princess was ultimately responsible for ordering Shangguan Wan’er’s death.
It wasn’t until the discovery of her tomb nine years ago that the historical Shangguan Wan’er has gradually begun to reemerge in the public consciousness.
In June 2013, a large tomb was uncovered near Xianyang Airport in the Shaanxi provincial capital of Xi’an. Excavation officially began that August. The tomb, which was 36.5 meters long and 10.1 meters deep, consisted of passages, five tianjing enclosed courtyards, five overhead holes, four niches, tunnels, and a burial chamber. The nine seal characters on the tablet told archaeologists everything they needed to know: This, at last, was the resting place of Shangguan Wan’er.
The excavation team was thrilled, but their joy soon turned to disappointment as they discovered that the burial chamber had been completely emptied of all its burial objects. There was no trace of a coffin or any bones.
The current consensus is that this was the work of an imperial decree — an official desecration, rather than grave robbery — and was carried out not long after Shangguan Wan’er’s burial.
That the final years of Shangguan Wan’er’s life were tumultuous was no secret. The seven years between Wu Zetian’s death in 705 and her grandson Li Longji’s ascension to the throne as Emperor Xuanzong in 712 were treacherous. When Wu Zetian’s third son, Emperor Zhongzong, died in 710 after just five years on the throne, rumors swirled that he had been poisoned by his wife, the Empress Wei. Shangguan Wan’er was popularly believed to have sided with the Empress and her daughter, Princess Anle, before being killed when Li Longji executed a coup a few weeks later.
Her tombstone tells a very different story. After Emperor Zhongzong ascended to the throne, Shangguan Wan’er apparently advised him on four separate occasions to keep Queen Wei and Princess Anle from seizing power. She tried laying out charges, resigning from her post, shaving her head, and drinking poison. The last act nearly killed her, but Emperor Zhongzong sought out famous doctors to bring her back from the brink of death. It would seem that, far from being Empress Wei’s political ally, Shangguan Wan’er was actually her mortal enemy.
Given that fact, it’s unclear why Li Longji had Shangguan Wan’er killed. Some say that Li Longji wanted to stamp out the power that women had held since Wu Zetian’s time; others believe that he wanted to weaken Princess Taiping and clear the way for his own ascension.
Speculation can be fun, but the narrative etched into Shangguan Wan’er’s tombstone is ultimately silent on these historical issues. It does, however, offer a definitive and surprising new look at another important part of her life: her relationship with Princess Taiping. Following Li Longji’s coup, his father, Wu Zetian’s fourth son Li Dan, briefly took the throne as Emperor Ruizong and ushered in a period of stability. It was then that Princess Taiping financed Shangguan Wan’er’s burial and commissioned an epitaph praising her talent, wisdom, and virtue. It would seem that, instead of enemies, the pair were closer than many popular tellings of Chinese history would have you believe.
Two years later, in 712, Li Longji led another coup, forcing Emperor Ruizong to abdicate, killing Princess Taiping and her party, and naming himself the seventh emperor of the Tang dynasty. Archaeologists like Li Ming, who led the excavation of Shangguan Wan’er’s tomb, believe that the site was desecrated after Li Longji’s ascension to the throne, and her legacy smeared in the dynasty’s official histories.
It’s hard to say for certain where the truth lies in all of this, but the tombstone currently on display in Shaanxi offers a rare glimpse at a different side of Shangguan Wan’er. Her story is complicated, and she was certainly no stranger to the palace intrigue that ultimately claimed her life. But one thing is certain: she is far more than the bewitching beauty found in popular history books and on TV.
Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Left: A painting of Shangguan Wan’er by Hua Sanchuan. From @国画挂历专营店 on Kongfz.com; Right: A portrait of Wu Zetian. VCG)