Shangguan Wan’er is one of the most famous talented women in Chinese history, and also one of the more tragic. Her grandfather Shangguan Yi had assisted Tang Gaozong in a failed attempt to depose Empress Wu (Gaozong had grown sick of his wife’s domineering ways), and was executed for it. Wan’er’s father Shangguan Tingyi was also ordered to commit suicide. Wan’er and her mother Lady Zheng were spared but became slaves in the imperial palace.
Shangguan Wan’er was both beautiful and intelligent – she was well-versed in the classics and also an outstanding poet and writer. Empress Wu (Wu Zhao, posthumously Empress Zetian and popularly known as Wu Zetian) was very impressed by her and, after Wu became Emperor, made her a palace secretary (lantai lingshi) to handle the drafting of all her edicts and the reading of all the court memorials. Wan’er actually had an affair with one of Wu Zetian’s lovers, and when the female Emperor found out, she had her punished by tattooing a flower on her forehead. But this tattoo actually served to make Wan’er even more alluring to men.
Wan’er also began an affair with Wu Sansi, Wu Zetian’s nephew who had become very powerful and influential. After Wu Zetian was forced to give up her throne in her old age, her third son Li Xian (Zhongzong) became emperor, thus reviving the Tang dynasty and ending Wu Zetian’s short-lived Zhou. His wife Lady Wei, who had been selected for her beauty to replace Li Xian’s first wife Lady Zhao (who had been imprisoned and starved to death for offending Wu Zetian), now became Empress. Empress Wei also began an affair with Wu Sansi. To make matters more complicated, Wu Sansi decided to gain Zhongzong’s favour further by recommending Shangguan Wan’er to him as a concubine.
Zhongzong had long been attracted by Wan’er’s talent and looks, and eagerly took her as one of his concubines. Wan’er rose quickly in the ranks of the harem, but remained in her post of palace secretary – an unprecedented career for a concubine. Shangguan Wan’er and Empress Wei both continued their liaisons with Wu Sansi, who was now Supreme Censor (Sikong) and Empress Wei’s youngest daughter Princess Anle also was married to Wu Sansi’s son Wu Chongxun. These three women thus helped to perpetuate the power of the Wu family, including Sansi and also Wu Zetian’s other nephew Wu Chengsi. All who challenged the Wu faction or criticised the scandalous behaviour of Empress Wei and Wu Sansi were executed or banished.
Zhongzong was a weak man who dared not do anything about his wife’s infidelity and instead silenced those who brought up the embarassing matter, and Empress Wei soon began aspiring to follow in the imperial footsteps of Wu Zetian. In this she was encouraged by the equally ambitious Shangguan Wan’er and Princess Anle. Their main obstacle was the Crown Prince Li Chongjun. He was not Empress Wei’s biological son, and the son whom she herself had borne to Li Xian had been murdered by Wu Zetian. Empress Wei, Princess Anle, and Shangguan Wan’er were determined to eliminate Chongjun and found their own dynasty ruled by the Wei.
Princess Anle was much loved and pampered by Zhongzong because she was pretty and good with words. She began pleading with him to depose Li Chongjun and make her the Crown Princess. Zhongzong hesitated but eventually refused on the advice of Prime Minister Wei Yuanzhong. Princess Anle then began to hate her father and also stir up conflict with the Crown Prince. Li Chongjun saw that he was in danger from his scheming half-sister and stepmother, and finally launched a coup in 707 with Wei Yuanzhong and some generals in the Winged Forest imperial guards, exactly one year after he was made Crown Prince.
Li Chongjun claimed in a forged secret order from Zhongzong that Wu Sansi and Shangguan Wan’er were plotting to assassinate Zhongzong, and sent 300 imperial guard cavalry to Wu Sansi’s residence, where they killed Sansi, Chongxun and more than 10 of their lackeys. Princess Anle was more fortunate than her husband, and escaped because she was in the imperial palace. But Li Chongjun himself led an army to the imperial palace, demanding that Empress Wei and Princess Anle be handed over. Princess Anle had Zhongzong brought to safety at the Xuanwu Gate, and when Chongjun arrived there he saw Zhongzong sitting at the top of the gate tower with Shangguan Wan’er. Chongjun asked that Wan’er be handed over to them, and Wan’er fearing that Zhongzong would comply told him, “I believe he wants to first deal with me, and then move on to the Empress, and finally harm Your Majesty.”
Zhongzong believed this, and ordered the suppression of Li Chongjun’s coup. The eunuch Yang Sixu, who was known for his bravery, led a force of imperial guards in an attack on Chongjun’s vanguard, slaying the commander Ye Huli. The coup army’s morale began to waver. Zhongzong then stepped out to the parapet of the tower and addressed the imperial guards on Chongjun’s side: “You are supposed to be my guards, so why are you following these rebels? If you slay the traitors now, you need not fear that you will not become rich.” The imperial guards realised that it was not really Zhongzong’s order to kill Wu Sansi and company, and switched sides, killing most of their commanders. Chongjun fled from Chang’an with a hundred or so of his followers, but was murdered by one of his subordinates while sleeping under a tree. Wei Yuanzhong was banished to Guizhou.
Now that Wu Sansi was dead, Empress Wei decided to rely more on her own kinsmen, the Wei clan. Many of them were enfeoffed as princes, as part of her plan to replace the Tang with her own dynasty. Princess Anle, widowed with the death of Chongxun, remarried another Wu – Wu Chengsi’s son Yanxiu. Empress Wei, promiscuous as ever, began an affair with her new son-in-law Yanxiu, and also collected a string of other lovers, including a Central Asian monk, a fortune teller, a Deputy Head of the Imperial Kitchen, and a palace physician.
Zhongzong began to find this intolerable, and in 710 he decided to depose Empress Wei. When she heard of this, she and Princess Anle conspired to murder him. The palace physician prepared a deadly poison, and the Deputy Head of the Imperial Kitchen baked the poison into some delicious buns. Princess Anle then brought the buns to Zhongzong herself. The emperor happily ate the buns, and died.
Shanggua Wan’er forged a will by which Zhongzong bestowed the throne to his fourth son born to a concubine, Li Chongmao, then 13 years old. Empress Wei would handle state affairs as Empress Dowager Regent. But the empress dowager feared Zhongzong’s younger brother Li Dan, who had replaced Zhongzong as emperor after a reign of just one month in 684 (because Zhongzong was too independent-minded), and then reigned as a puppet emperor until 689, when Empress Dowager Wu finally made herself Emperor and demoted him to Crown Prince, even giving him the surname Wu. In 699, he had voluntarily given the Crown Prince position back to Zhongzong, and thereafter stayed out of politics.
However, Li Dan’s third son Li Longji was an ambitious man who felt that the throne should have rightfully gone to his father, and had been cultivating contacts and alliances in the Ten Thousand Riders (wanqi, also known as Longwu) unit of the imperial guards for some time in hopes of seizing power one day. Immediately after Li Chongmao’s accession, Empress Dowager Wei and Princess Anle began plotting to eliminate both Li Dan and Li Chongmao, as the final step towards founding their new dynasty. Li Longji found out about this from a defector, and together with his equally ambitious aunt (Zhongzong and Li Dan’s sister) Princess Taiping, launched a coup with the Ten Thousand Riders. These imperial guards were deeply resentful at being ill-treated by their commanders, who were Empress Wei’s relatives, and they readily joined in Li Longji’s cause. 18 days after the death of Zhongzong, they rebelled in the middle of the night and killed their commanders, and then marched on the Empress Dowager’s palace.
Empress Dowager Wei fled to the headquarters of the Feiqi detachment of the imperial guards, commanded by her younger brother Wei Qiong, but by the time she reached the place these guards had also switched to Li Longji’s side and killed Wei Qiong. They surrounded and killed her too. Other imperial guards charged into Princess Anle’s room and killed her before she even knew what was going on. Wu Yanxiu fled but was caught and killed as well.
Shangguan Wan’er found out from the palace women that a coup was taking place, and calmly led them out with candles to greet a coup unit led by Liu Youqiu. In her hand she held the forged will of Zhongzong that she had written with her own hand. During the drafting of the forged will, she had written that Li Dan would be a co-regent with Empress Dowager Wei – this had been one of the conditions laid down by Princess Taiping at the time for supporting Empress Dowager Wei’s position as Regent. But later, Empress Wei and her favourites had cancelled that line and excluded Li Dan from the government. Shangguan Wan’er showed Liu Youqiu the will, with the hope that the struck-out line (which was still legible) would prove that she herself had not been opposed to Li Dan. This just might be enough to persuade Li Longji to spare her life. Liu Youqiu was struck by her beauty and talent, and appealed to Li Longji to consider sparing her. But Li Longji knew she would never be anything but a danger to him, and ordered her killed on the spot.
Li Chongmao was deposed the next morning, and Li Dan became the new emperor (known posthumously as Ruizong). Li Dan’s eldest son voluntarily gave up the place of Crown Prince to Li Longji, who clearly had earned it by his actions the previous night.
In 712, Ruizong abdicated the throne to Li Longji, who was having increasing friction with both his father and his aunt Princess Taiping. In 713, Li Longji launched a countercoup to pre-empt a coup by Princess Taiping, who intended to overthrow him. The Princess’ followers were killed off, and she herself was forced to commit suicide.
Li Longji now had unchallenged authority, and changed the reign title from Xiantian to Kaiyuan. This was the beginning of the famous Kaiyuan reign of Tang Xuanzong. Shangguan Wan’er, a representative of the power that women held from the reign of Gaozong to the short reign of Li Chongmao, had to die to make way for the survival and second flowering of the Tang dynasty under the first dynamic male emperor since Taizong.
The Confucian, patriarchal historians of ancient China have traditionally seen Shangguan Wan’er as an example of the talented but immoral women who would be elevated to power under female rulers like Wu Zetian. Shangguan Wan’er’s four-sided relationship with Wu Sansi (her lover), Empress Wei (her ally and also her rival for Sansi’s affections) and Zhongzong (her emperor and husband) probably both scandalised and intrigued them. However, one might wonder if things would actually have gone much worse for the empire if Empress Wei and Princess Anle had really started a new dynasty under the Wei family. After all, Li Longji’s great Kaiyuan era was followed by the corruption and degeneration of his Tianbao reign, and then the catastrophic An Lushan rebellion, the effects of which the Tang dynasty would never fully recover from.
Shangguan Wan’er (664?–21 July 710) was a concubine/imperial consort to two emperors of the Tang dynasty. Although caught up in court intrigues and executed in 710, she is famous for her talent as a poet, writer and politician.
When Wan’er was 13 years old, she became a secretary of Wu Zetian, who was then the empress of Emperor Gaozong and later became an empress in her own right. At age 42, when Wan’er became imperial consort to Wu Zetian’s son Li Xian, later known as Emperor Zhongzong, she was given the imperial consort rank of Zhaorong (昭容).
Shangguan Wan’er’s grandfather Shangguan Yi had become a prominent official early in the reign of Emperor Gaozong and had become chancellor in 662. In 664, Emperor Gaozong was angry at the level of influence that his second wife Empress Wu (later known as Wu Zetian) was exerting over policies, and he consulted Shangguan Yi, who recommended that he depose Empress Wu. However, when Empress Wu discovered this, Emperor Gaozong changed his mind and instead blamed Shangguan Yi. At Empress Wu’s instigation, her allies, the chancellor Xu Jingzong falsely accused Shangguan Yi of plotting with Emperor Gaozong’s son Li Zhong, on whose staff Shangguan had served at one time, as well as the eunuch Wang Fusheng (王伏勝) (who had earlier reported Empress Wu’s wrongdoing to Emperor Gaozong) against Emperor Gaozong. Li Zhong was forced to commit suicide, while Wang, Shangguan Yi, and Shangguan Wan’er’s father Shangguan Tingzhi (上官庭芝) were put to death on January 3, 665.
After Shangguan Yi’s and Shangguan Tingzhi’s deaths, Shangguan Wan’er and her mother Lady Zheng—a sister of the official Zheng Xiuyuan (鄭休遠) — were spared but became slaves in the inner imperial palace. As Shangguan Wan’er grew older, she learned to read and write from her mother. She read extensively and showed a talent for writing prose and poetry at an early age, as well as in matters of civil service regulations. After Empress Wu stumbled upon poems written by the 13-year-old Shangguan Wan’er in the crown prince’s study, Empress Wu summoned Shangguan Wan’er and asked her to compose an essay based on a given theme right on the spot. Shangguan Wan’er performed marvellously, and the Empress was so impressed that she appointed Wan’er her personal secretary.
As Wu Zetian’s secretary
Later, after Emperor Gaozong’s death in 683, Empress Wu became empress dowager and deposed, in succession, her two sons, Emperor Zhongzong and Emperor Ruizong. In 690, she took the title of “emperor” herself, abolishing Tang Dynasty and establishing her own Zhou Dynasty. Particularly after the era Wansuitongtian (696-697) Shangguan Wan’er, as Wu Zetian’s secretary, was in charge of drafting imperial edicts, and her writing style was said to be exceedingly beautiful. On one occasion, she was supposed to be put to death after disobeying Wu Zetian’s order; Wu Zetian, caring for her because of her talent, spared her, but tattooed her face. Thereafter, Wu Zetian usually consulted with her on the officials’ petitions and important affairs of state.
As imperial consort
In 705, a coup led by Zhang Jianzhi, Cui Xuanwei, Jing Hui, Huan Yanfan, and Yuan Shuji removed Wu Zetian and returned Emperor Zhongzong to the throne. At that time, Shangguan Wan’er became an imperial consort, as a concubine of Emperor Zhongzong, carrying the rank of Jieyu (婕妤), the 14th rank for an imperial consort. (It is not stated in history whether she became his concubine before or after his return to the throne.) Emperor Zhongzong put her in charge of drafting edicts and other imperial orders. She carried on an affair with Emperor Zhongzong’s cousin and Wu Zetian’s nephew Wu Sansi the Prince of Liang, however, and through her, Wu Sansi became a trusted advisor of Emperor Zhongzong and a lover of Emperor Zhongzong’s wife Empress Wei as well. (As a result, Zhang and his cohorts soon lost power and died or were killed in exile.) Subsequently, at her suggestion, Empress Wei submitted formal proposals to Emperor Zhongzong to require the people to observe three-year mourning periods for their mothers who had been divorced by their fathers (previously, such a mourning period was not required for a divorced mother) and reducing the period where a man was considered an adult male (and therefore subject to military and labor conscription) from the ages to 20 to 59, to the ages of 22 to 58, in order to try to gain the people’s gratitude. Emperor Zhongzong approved the proposals.
Meanwhile, in addition to Empress Wei and Consort Shangguan, Empress Wei’s daughter Li Guo’er the Princess Anle became very powerful as well, as she was Emperor Zhongzong’s favorite daughter, and she had married Wu Sansi’s son Wu Chongxun (武崇訓). She often humiliated her brother Li Chongjun the Crown Prince on account that Li Chongjun was not born of Empress Wei, at times calling him “slave.” She also often suggested to Emperor Zhongzong that he depose Li Chongjun and make her crown princess. In summer 707, Li Chongjun’s anger erupted, and he, along with the ethnically Mohe general Li Duozuo and Emperor Zhongzong’s cousin Li Qianli (李千里) the Prince of Cheng, rose in rebellion, first killing Wu Sansi and Wu Chongxun. He then attacked the palace, seeking to arrest Consort Shangguan. Consort Shangguan, Empress Wei, Li Guo’er, and Emperor Zhongzong were protected by the imperial guards, and when Li Chongjun hesitated at what to do next, his forces collapsed, and he and his cohorts were killed.
Meanwhile, Consort Shangguan’s nephew Wang Yu (王昱) had been warning her, through her mother Lady Zheng, that her continued behavior in working with the Wus and Empress Wei would eventually bring disaster on her and her clan. Consort Shangguan initially took no heed, but after Li Chongjun had demanded, by name, to arrest her during the 707 coup attempt, she became fearful, and she began to distance herself from Li Guo’er and Empress Wei, aligning herself more with Emperor Zhongzong’s sister Princess Taiping. Despite this, she and her mother Lady Zheng, along with Li Guo’er, Empress Wei, the senior ladies in waiting Ladies Chai and Helou, the sorceress Diwu Ying’er (第五英兒), and Lady Zhao of Longxi, were described as powerful and corrupt women at court, selling governmental offices at will. Consort Shangguan and the other imperial consorts were also said to, against regulations, establish mansions outside the palace.
In 708, Emperor Zhongzong established an imperial academy, with four imperial scholars, eight assistant scholars, and 12 associate scholars, selecting officials with literary talent to serve as the imperial scholars. He often held feasts that would also serve as literary competitions, and he had Consort Shangguan serve as the judge at these competitions. Late in the year, he promoted her to the rank of Zhaorong, the sixth rank among imperial consorts. In addition to writing poems in her own name, she was also said to have written poems in the names of Emperor Zhongzong, Empress Wei, Li Guo’er, and Li Guo’er’s sister Princess Changning. The poems were said to be beautiful and often recited by people who heard them.
By spring 709, Consort Shangguan was having an affair with the official Cui Shi, and on account of that relationship, she recommended him to be a chancellor. Emperor Zhongzong agreed. By summer, however, Cui and another chancellor, Zheng Yin, were charged with corruption. As a result, Cui was set to be exiled to be the military advisor to the prefect of Jiang Prefecture (江州, roughly modern Jiujiang, Jiangxi). However, Consort Shangguan, Li Guo’er, and Li Guo’er’s new husband Wu Yanxiu (武延秀) then spoke on his behalf secretly, and Emperor Zhongzong instead made Cui the prefect of Xiang Prefecture (襄州, roughly modern Xiangfan, Hubei). (Zheng, who had been set to be reduced to commoner rank and exiled to Ji Prefecture (吉州, roughly modern Ji’an, Jiangxi), was instead made the military advisor to the prefect of Jiang Prefecture.)
In fall 710, Emperor Zhongzong died suddenly—a death that traditional historians assert to be a poisoning carried out by Empress Wei and Li Guo’er, to allow Empress Wei to seize power and eventually take the throne and Li Guo’er to become crown princess. In the aftermath of Emperor Zhongzong’s death, Empress Wei, who initially kept the death secret, tried to consolidate power, while Consort Shangguan and Princess Taiping were consulting each other in posthumously drafting a will for Emperor Zhongzong. Under their plan, Emperor Zhongzong’s youngest son Li Chongmao the Prince of Wen would inherit the throne; Empress Wei would serve as empress dowager and regent, assisted by Li Dan the Prince of Xiang (the former Emperor Ruizong). Once the will was promulgated, however, two chancellors closely aligned with Empress Wei—her cousin Wei Wen and Zong Chuke—objected and ordered the will revised, and Empress Dowager Wei became sole regent for Li Chongmao (Emperor Shang), without participation by Li Dan in the regency.
Meanwhile, Zong, Wu Yanxiu, and other officials Zhao Lüwen (趙履溫) and Ye Jingneng (葉靜能), were advocating to Empress Dowager Wei that she take the throne. They also believed that Li Dan and Princess Taiping were in the way and should be removed. The official Cui Riyong leaked their plans to Li Dan’s son Li Longji the Prince of Linzi, and Li Longji quickly formed a plan with Princess Taiping and her son Xue Chongjian (薛崇簡) to act first. Less than a month after Emperor Zhongzong’s death, they launched a coup, quickly killing Empress Wei, Li Guo’er, and Empress Wei’s clan members. When Li Longji’s soldiers, commanded by his associate Liu Youqiu, reached the pavilion where Consort Shangguan lived, Consort Shangguan came out of the pavilion to greet Liu and Li Longji, presenting to them the original will of Emperor Zhongzong that she had drafted, seeking to be spared. Li Longji refused to spare her, however, and she was dragged out and beheaded.
Soon, under the suggestion by Princess Taiping, Li Longji, and Li Longji’s brother Li Chengqi the Prince of Song, Emperor Shang was removed from the throne, and Li Dan took the throne again. In 711, he restored Consort Shangguan’s title as Zhaorong, and gave her the posthumous name of Wenhui (meaning “civil and benevolent”). Sometime after Emperor Ruizong in turn yielded the throne to Li Longji (who took the throne as Emperor Xuanzong), Emperor Xuanzong ordered that Consort Shangguan’s works be collected into a 20-volume collection, and he had the chancellor Zhang Yue write the preface to the collection.
In September 2013 it was announced that archeologists in China had discovered the tomb of Shangguan Wan’er near the airport at Xianyang, Shaanxi province. The tomb was badly damaged, perhaps deliberately according to Chinese archeologists, and only a very few burial goods were discovered inside, including some sculptures of people riding horses. The identity of the tomb’s occupant was determined from an epitaph discovered in the tomb, which was inscribed “Epitaph of the late imperial consort (Zhaorong) Madam Shangguan of the Great Tang dynasty” (大唐故昭容上官氏銘) on its lid.