Shangguan Wan'er

Shangguan Wan'er (664–21 July 710)[2] was a Chinese politician, poet, and imperial consort of the Wu Zhou and Tang dynasties. Described as a "female prime minister,"[3] Shangguan rose from modest origins as a palace servant to become secretary and leading advisor to Empress Wu Zetian of Zhou. Under Empress Wu, Shangguan exercised responsibility for drafting imperial edicts and earned approbation for her writing style. She retained her influence as consort to Wu's son and successor, Emperor Zhongzong of Tang, holding the imperial consort rank of Zhaorong (昭容). Shangguan was also highly esteemed for her talent as a poet.[4] In 710, after Emperor Zhongzong's death, Shangguan was killed during a palace coup that ended the regency of Empress Dowager Wei.

Shangguan Wan'er
Shangguan Wan'er.jpg
Shan County, Shan Prefecture
Died21 July 710AD (aged about 46) [1]
SpouseEmperor Zhongzong of Tang
Posthumous name
Huiwen (惠文)
HouseHouse of Li (by marriage)
FatherShangguan Tingzhi
MotherLady Zheng (elder sister of Zheng Xiuyuan)
Shangguan Wan'er
Chinese name
Traditional Chinese上官婉兒
Simplified Chinese上官婉儿
Vietnamese name
VietnameseThượng Quan Uyển Nhi
Japanese name


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 very above level of controlling influence that his second wife Empress Wu (later known as Wu Zetian) was exerting over policies, disregarded the emperor's decisions, and violated the law, 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 that, Empress Wu's political power and influence was unavoidable and she ruled in practice instead of her husband.[5]

After Shangguan Yi's and Shangguan Tingzhi's deaths, Shangguan Wan'er and her mother Lady Zheng—an elder 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 read extensively and showed a talent for writing prose and poetry at an early age,[6] as well as in matters of civil service regulations. After Empress Wu stumbled upon poems written by the 13-year-old Shangguan Wan'er, Empress Wu summoned Shangguan Wan'er and asked her to compose an essay based on a given theme right on the spot.[7] Shangguan Wan'er performed marvelously, and the Empress was so impressed that she appointed Wan'er her personal secretary. Wan'er wrote half of the Imperial decrees, and took on the task of accepting most of the proposals and petitions of the officials. She was also a member of the Empress Literary Society and oversaw the cultural and political works given by the Empress Wu.

As Wu Zetian's secretaryEdit

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 the Tang Dynasty and establishing her own Zhou Dynasty. Particularly after the Wansui Tongtian era (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.[8]

As imperial consortEdit

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 powerful 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. However, she carried on an affair with Emperor Zhongzong's cousin and Wu Zetian's nephew Wu Sansi, the Prince of Liang; through her, Wu Sansi became a trusted advisor of Emperor Zhongzong and a lover of Emperor Zhongzong's wife Empress Wei as well.[9] (As a result, Zhang and his cohorts soon lost power and died or were killed in exile.) Subsequently, at her suggestion to Empress Wei for the latter to emulate Wu Zetian, 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.[10]

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.[11] 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.[12]

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.)


As depicted in the album Famous Women (1799)

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; she immediately ordered that the palace and the capital be sealed. All the gates were blockaded and exit of the capital forbidden. Days later, Empress Wei and Princess Anle proclaimed a new Emperor, a teenager no more than 11 as the new Emperor of Tang. Immediately, many began to whisper that the Emperor had died because of poison. Consort Shangguan and Princess Taiping were consulting each other in drafting a posthumous will for Emperor Zhongzong. Under their plan, Emperor Zhongzong's youngest son Li Chongmao the Prince of Wen would inherit the throne and he had absolute power; 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;[13] because of the ruling power of the now Empress Dowager Wei, the absolute power of the young emperor was abolished.

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.[14]

Posthumous recognitionEdit

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.


Epitaph of Shangguan Wan'er, with lid. The lid reads: 大唐故昭容上官氏銘 "Epitaph of the late imperial consort (Zhaorong) Madam Shangguan of the Great Tang dynasty".

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.[15] From the epitaph it was written that Princess Taiping (Wu Zetian's daughter) arranged Shangguan's burial and gave her a proper funeral. Princess Taiping was clearly in extremely close relationship, some think in love, with Shangguan, as at the end of the epitaph, it was revealed that Princess Taiping likely wrote her obituary and described her death: "The mountain of muse collapsed, the River Xiao Xiang discontinued, a pearl concealed, a jade broken asunder." Princess Taiping also movingly added: "I will sing the song a woman sings to her spouse, for thousands of years to come."[16]

In Fiction & Popular CultureEdit

Notes and referencesEdit

  1. ^ Volume 209 of the Zizhi Tongjian recorded that Shangguan was killed on the gengzi day of the 6th month of the 1st year of the Jingyun era of Tang Ruizong's reign; this date corresponds to 21 July 710 on the Gregorian calendar.
  2. ^ Historical sources indicate that Shangguan Wan'er was an infant when her grandfather Shangguan Yi and father Shangguan Tingzhi were killed in the winter of 664, implying, but not establishing with certainty, that she was born in 664. See Old Book of Tang, vol. 51 "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2007-10-11. Retrieved 2007-10-11.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link) and New Book of Tang, vol. 76."Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2008-02-19. Retrieved 2008-02-19.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  3. ^ "Tomb of China 'female premier' found". BBC News. 12 September 2013.
  4. ^ "Far more influential in her day than any of these [ Xue Tao, Yu Xuanji, Li Ye], though barely two dozen of her poems are now preserved, was the elegant Shangguan Wan'er (ca. 664-710), granddaughter of the executed courtier and poet Shangguan Yi (?-665) who had paid the ultimate price for opposing empress Wu Zhao's (625-705) usurpation of imperial privileges." Kroll, Paul W. "The Life and Writings of Xu Hui (627-650), Worthy Consort, at the Early Tang Court" in Asia Major, Third Series, Vol. 22, No. 2 (2009), p. 35.
  5. ^ Kroll, p. 35.
  6. ^ (天性韶警,善文章。) New Book of Tang, vol. 76
  7. ^ (年十四,武后召见,有所制作,若素构。) New Book of Tang, vol. 76
  8. ^ (尝忤旨当诛,后惜其才,止黥而不杀也。然群臣奏议及天下事皆与之。) New Book of Tang, vol. 76
  9. ^ (三思既私韦后,又与上官昭容乱,...) New Book of Tang, vol 206
  10. ^ (上官婕妤劝韦后袭则天故事,上表请天下士庶为出母服丧三年,又请百姓年二十三为丁,五十九免役,改易制度以收时望。制皆许之。) Zizhi Tongjian, vol.208.
  11. ^ (婉儿常劝广置昭文学士,盛引当朝词学之臣,数赐游宴,赋诗唱和。) Old Book of Tang, vol. 51
  12. ^ (婉儿常劝广置昭文学士,盛引当朝词学之臣,数赐游宴,赋诗唱和。婉儿每代帝及后、长宁安乐二公主,数首并作,辞甚绮丽,时人咸讽诵之。)Old Book of Tang, vol. 51
  13. ^ (太平公主与上官昭容谋草遗制,立温王重茂为皇太子,皇后知政事,相王旦参谋政事。宗楚客密谓韦温曰:“相王辅政,于理非宜;且于皇后,嫂叔不通问,听朝之际,何以为礼?”遂帅诸宰相表请皇后临朝,罢相王政事。) Zizhi Tongjian, vol. 209.
  14. ^ (昭容执烛帅宫入迎之,以制草示刘幽求。幽求为之言,隆基不许,斩于旗下。) Zizhi Tongjian, vol. 209.
  15. ^ "China finds ancient tomb of 'female prime minister'". BBC News. 12 September 2013. Retrieved 2013-09-12.
  16. ^ "大唐故昭容上官氏銘".

External linksEdit