Imperial Consort Shangguan Wan’er: China’s Female Prime Minister

Shangguan Wan’er was one of Tang dynasty’s greatest poets and was known to be “the first female premier in China.”[1] She also played a “larger role in male literary culture, both as writer and arbiter than any other woman in Chinese history”.[2] Shangguan Wan’er is one of the very few women in Chinese history who rose to a position of political power based solely on her ability rather than through marrying an influential man.[3] She served as personal secretary under Empress Wu, in which she dealt with important state matters.[4] After Empress Wu’s death, Emperor Zhongzong recognised her ability and made her his imperial consort when she was in her early forties. While she came to a sad end, she left behind her greatest legacy: her poetry.

Shangguan Wan’er was the granddaughter of the court poet Shangguan Yi, who served under Emperor Taizong and Emperor Gaozong. Her father and grandfather were executed under Emperor Gaozong for planning to topple Empress Wu.[5] Shangguan Wan’er and her mother were forced to enter into imperial servitude. At the palace, she received an excellent education in the classics and literature. Her intelligence eventually attracted the attention of Empress Wu. Empress Wu summoned Shangguan Wan’er for a test. She ordered the slave girl to write an essay in her presence. Without any hesitation or corrections, Shangguan Wan’er wrote a splendid essay that impressed Empress Wu.[6] Pleased with Shangguan Wan’er, Empress Wu kept her as her trusted aide.[7]

During the last years of Emperor Gaozong’s reign, Empress Wu’s reign as regent, and during Empress Wu’s reign, Shangguan Wan’er was Empress Wu’s personal secretary. She became involved in both administrative and literary matters.[8] When Shangguan Wan’er had “disobeyed the imperial will”, Empress Wu lessened her punishment from death to a face tattoo.[9] No one knows what her disobedience to the imperial will was. Some sources claim that Shangguan Wan’er was having an affair with Empress Wu’s lover.[10] However, other sources claim that it was because of her connection to Shangguan Yi.[11] Despite her crime, from the year 696 Shangguan Wan’er composed all the state documents in the name of Empress Wu.[12] She made all important decisions both military and civil affairs on her own.[13]

When Empress Wu’s son Emperor Zhongzong ascended the throne, he saw the value in Shangguan Wan’er. He made her his concubine and gave her the title of Zhaorong, where she was in charge of the women’s quarter.[14] He also made her mother the lady of Pei State. However, it seems that Shangguan Wan’er was a concubine in name only. She was already in her early forties, and many historians believe that she was having an affair with Empress Wu’s nephew, Wu Sansi.[15] Shangguan Wan’er also became a confidant for Empress Wei, and it has been suggested that the empress helped Shangguan Wan’er’s affair with Wu Sansi.[16]

One day in mid-707 A.D., Prince Jiming staged a palace coup. He killed about twenty members of the Wu clan, including Wu Sansi.[17] Prince Jiming demanded Emperor Zhongzong to hand over Shangguan Wan’er. She said to Emperor Zhongzong, “Now they want to kill me, then it will be your turn to die.”[18] The emperor, impressed with her words, gave her his protection. Later Prince Jiming was defeated, stripped of his royal title, and killed.[19]

Shangguan Wan’er continued to have considerable power throughout Emperor Zhongzong’s reign. She drafted decrees and official documents. She even served as a ghostwriter for the imperial family by composing poems on their behalf.[20] Shangguan Wan’er urged Emperor Zhongzong to create more positions at the Institute for the Glorification of Literature.[21] She was an examiner in the civil service examination and even served as a judge of an imperial poetry contest.[22]

The death of Emperor Zhongzong in 710 sparked two coups. Empress Wei made her husband’s son emperor and made herself regent.[23] Empress Wei’s power did not last long. She was killed two weeks later in a coup led by Li Longji, later Emperor Xuanzong, and supported by his aunt, Princess Taiping. While Shangguan Wan’er played no role in the political intrigues of the court, Li Longji still saw her as his political enemy. When Li Longji came after her with soldiers, Shangguan Wan’er tried to buy her pardon by showing him Emperor Zhongzong’s will, where he bestowed the power to assist in state affairs upon Li Longji father, Li Dan.[24] However, Li Longji still executed her.

Emperor Xuanzong valued Shangguan Wan’er’s talent. A year after her death, he posthumously reinstated her as lady of bright countenance.[25] He also honoured her with the title “benevolent and cultured”.[26] In 712, he also posthumously compiled a collection of her works. However, only a few of her poems survive today.[27]

One of her surviving poems is “Reproach in a Letter of Colored Paper”. It goes:

“When first leaves fall on Lake Dongting,

I long for you, thousands of miles away,

In heavy dew my scented quilt feels cold,

At moonset, brocade screen deserted,

I would play a Southland melody

And crave to seal a letter to Jibei.

The letter has no other message but

This misery in living long apart.”[28]

In September 2013, Shangguan Wan’er’s tomb was discovered near the city of Xianyang.[29] Her tomb was badly damaged. The roof had fallen in, the walls were damaged, and the floor tiles had been torn up.[30] One Chinese researcher said that this may have been the result of a “large-scale, organised, and possibly official destruction”.[31] The tomb had been identified because of an epitaph found in it.

Shangguan Wan’er had wielded considerable power under the reigns of Empress Wu and her successor Emperor Zhongzong. She is considered to be China’s first female prime minister. The end came about when she was a victim of factionalism at court. Thus, while her political influence came to a sudden and tragic end, she left behind lasting, lovely poems that can still be enjoyed by today’s readers.

Sources:

Chang, Kang-i Sun, et al., editors. Women Writers of Traditional China: an Anthology of Poetry

         and Criticism. Stanford University Press, 2001.

Muling, Shi, and Xu Kaiching. “Shangguan Wan’er.” Notable Women of China: Shang Dynasty

         to the Early Twentieth Century, edited by Barbara Bennett Peterson, Routledge, 2015, pp.

         199–201.

SK, Lim. Chinese Imperial Women. Asiapac Books Pte Ltd, 2013.

Wiles, Sue, et al. “Shangguan Wan’Er.” Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women, Volume II:

         Tang Through Ming 618 – 1644, edited by Lily Xiao Hong Lee, Routledge, 2015, pp.

          336–339.  


[1] Wiles, et. al., p. 339

[2] Chang, et. al., p. 49

[3] Wiles, et. al., p. 339

[4] SK, p. 151

[5] Wiles, et.al., p. 337

[6] Muling and Kaiching, p. 199

[7] Muling and Kaiching, p. 199

[8] Wiles, et. al., p. 337

[9] Wiles, et. al., p. 337

[10] Wiles, et. al., p. 337

[11] Wiles, et. al., p. 337

[12] Wiles, et. al., p. 337

[13] Wiles, et. al., p. 337

[14] SK, p. 151

[15] Wiles, et. al., p. 337

[16] Wiles, et. al., p. 337

[17] Muling and Kaiching, p. 201

[18] Muling and Kaiching, p. 201

[19] Muling and Kaiching, p. 201

[20] Chang, et. al., p. 49

[21] Wiles, et. al., p. 338

[22] Wiles, et. al., p. 338

[23] Wiles, et. al., p. 338

[24] Wiles, et. al., p. 338

[25] Wiles, et. al., p. 338

[26] Wiles, et. al., p. 338

[27] Wiles, et. al., p. 338

[28] Chang, et. al., p. 50

[29] Wiles, et. al., p. 339

[30] Wiles, et. al., p. 339

[31] Wiles, et. al., p. 339

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