Shangguan Wan'er — First and Only Female Prime Minister of Ancient China

Shangguan Wan'er (664 — 710) was a famous politician of the Tang Dynasty, a brilliant poet, and possibly an imperial concubine.

 

She impressed Wu Zetian (624 — 705), the only female emperor in Chinese history, and served Wu and her son as prime ministers for decades.

 

She was one of the few women in ancient history who gained power and a great reputation all from her own talent and wisdom.

Image of Shangguan Wan'er

Image of Shangguan Wan'er, Drawn by Peng Lianxi.

A Highborn Girl Growing up as a Slave

 

Shangguan Wan'er was born into a noble family, and her grandfather was a prime minister during the reign of Emperor Zhongzong of Tang (656 — 710).

 

Later, her grandfather helped the emperor to write a draft to abolish the current queen Wu Zetian.

 

However, Wu Zetian managed to let the emperor regret and cancel the idea of abolishing her, set up, imprisoned, and executed Shangguan's grandfather and father.

 

Her mother and Shangguan Wan'er, when she was still a baby, were all sent to be slaves to serve in the palace.

Building Complex of Daming Palace

Building Complex of Daming Palace, the Royal Palace of the Tang Dynasty, Based on Architectural Historian Yang Hongxun's Restored Model.

Exceptional Talent Impressing the Queen

 

Shangguan Wan'er grew up being a slave servant, but her mother never stopped teaching her to read and learn.

 

Her excellent poems gradually started to be spread and appreciated by others. Later, Queen Wu Zetian saw them as well and was impressed and shocked after hearing these were written by a 13-year-old slave.

 

Wu summoned Shangguan Wan'er and asked her to write a poem, and further impressed by this girl's exceptional talent.

 

Hence, Wu promoted her from a slave to a court lady with rank and kept her around as her secretary, even though Wu knew that this girl's family was her former enemy.

Pottery Female Figurine of the Tang Dynasty

Pottery Female Figurine of the Tang Dynasty — Xi'an Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Surviving and Thriving Among Power Contentions

 

Since then, Wan'er served Wu Zetian from being the queen, the empress dowager, and later the emperor, and had written all of her imperial edicts.

 

As the only female emperor in ancient history, Wu Zetian was quite strict and ruthless to everyone.

 

She had forced her second son and her grandson, to suicide; some of her grandchildren and her kids' spouses, many people from the royal Li clan, were executed by her, mercilessly.

Unearthed Gilding Copper Knocker (Fu Shou) From Mausoleum of Li Xian (the Second Son of Empress Wu Zetian and Emperor Li Zhi)

Gilding Copper Knocker (Fu Shou) From Mausoleum of the Second Son of Empress Wu Zetian — Qianling Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

However, once when Wan'er committed a crime that should have been sentenced to death, Wu couldn't afford to lose her and only tattooed her face instead.

 

Gradually, Wu trusted Wan'er with more power, who not only would draft imperial edicts, but also could publish policies and make some important decisions as a prime minister.

 

During this period, besides Wu's trust, Wan'er also managed to build good relationships with other ambitious royals and officials, such as Princess Taiping, Crown Prince Li Xian, Empress Wei, and Princess Anle.

Painting of Queen Wu Zetian Patrolling in the Royal Palace, by Court Artist Zhang Xuan of the Tang Dynasty

Painting of Empress Wu Patrolling in the Royal Palace, by Court Artist Zhang Xuan of the Tang Dynasty — National Museum of China

Political and Literary Influences of the Imperial Consort Shangguan Zhao Rong

 

When Emperor Wu Zetian was sick in bed, some powerful officials allied with her fourth son Li Dan and daughter Princess Taiping, initiated a coup to ask Wu to give the throne back to her third son Li Xian.

Li Xian was then enthroned as Emperor Zhongzong of Tang (656 — 710). Together with his Empress Wei, they trusted Shangguan Wan'er even more.

They nominated Wan'er in charge of imperial edicts, sometimes write poems and articles on their behalf, and made her a high-rank imperial consort Zhao Rong with even more power in regard to politics.

It was possible that Wan'er had served the emperor as a concubine, and also possible that the title was more of an honor.

Imperial Consort Title Zhao Rong on the Epitaph of Shangguan Wan'er.

Imperial Consort Title Zhao Rong on the Epitaph of Shangguan Wan'er. 

Moreover, her grandfather and father's old "crimes' were redressed, their names were cleaned and honored, and her mother was awarded with honorable titles.

 

With the emperor and empress' trust, Wan'er suggested and helped them publish some benevolent policies that were beneficial to civilians, recruited more talented women to be involved in politics, and established the imperial academy.

 

As a brilliant poet, she also served as a judge in the academy to select intelligent scholars, when she significantly influenced the literature of that period.

Inlaying Gold Ruler of the Tang Dynasty

Inlaying Gold Ruler of Tang — National Museum of China (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Fights and Changing Side

 

Her political power peaked during Emperor Zhongzong's reign period, and he contributed significantly to strengthening their authority.

 

Later, when Princess Anle, with the support of Empress Wei, demanded the emperor to nominate her as "crown princess", the legal heir of the Tang Empire, Wan'er strongly opposed, and even tried to commit suicide to beg the emperor not to do this.

 

Maybe she used her talent and made sense to the emperor, or maybe the emperor thought it through. Either way, Princess Anle didn't get the inheritance of the empire.

 

But Wan'er did severely offend powerful Empress Wei and Princess Anle.

 

It's not clear if this was the turning point of her decision to change sides, or like in some sayings that she had been spying on Wei.

 

In the end, she was in the team of Princess Taiping.

Brocade Embroidery of the Tang Dynasty

Brocade Embroidery of Tang — Datang Xishi Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Intense Fights Over Throne

 

After Emperor Zhongzong passed away suddenly, Wan'er and Princess Taiping together drafted an edict to support a young prince to enthrone, and let Empress Wei and the late emperor's younger brother Li Dan be regents.

 

It was a workable idea that tries to balance all royal forces.

 

However, Empress Wei and Princess Anle started to seize centralized power, and some officials suggested they enthrone as female emperor and the heir while eliminating other royals that may threaten them.

 

Hearing this plan, Li Dan's son, a brave prince named Li Longji, allied with Princess Taiping, initiated a successful coup and gave the throne to Li Dan.

 

Empress Wei and her clan, and Princess Anle, were all killed during this coup.

Unearthed Painted Pottery Figurines of Taming A Horse in the Tang Dynasty

Painted Pottery Figurines of Taming A Horse of the Tang Dynasty — Luoyang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Controversial Death After the Successful Coup

 

When Li Longji led the army and arrived, Wan'er showed the edict that she and Princess Taiping wrote together, showing that she was on their side, not Empress Wei's.

 

But Li Longji killed Wan'er without hesitation, even though one of his trusted, powerful officials pleaded with him to keep her alive.

 

Theoretically, Wan'er supported the winner's side, she tried her best to object Princess Anle from being the heir, and to support the Li clan and had enough proof to show her alliance with Princess Taiping.

Gold Sachet of the Tang Dynasty

Gold Sachet of the Tang Dynasty — Chengdu Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying) 

To kill a powerful prime minister that had been trusted by the two late emperors (Wu Zetian and Emperor Zhongzong), and the powerful ally of Princess Taiping, without any mercy, the most possible reason was that Li Longji worry that Wan'er might help the powerful political enemy of him.

 

This potential political enemy was Princess Taiping, the daughter of his grandmother Wu Zetian, and the trusted sister of his father Li Dan.

 

Wan'er obtained power because of her exceptional talent, and probably also lost her life for being too smart as a potential threat.

Unearthed Epitaph of Shangguan Wan'er Inscribed withHer Life Experience.

Unearthed Epitaph of Shangguan Wan'er Inscribed with Her Life Experience.

Reputation, Grave, and Literature of Shangguan Wan'er

 

Princess Taiping was very upset hearing about the death of Wan'er.

 

She commanded her brother emperor to give Wan'er a beautiful posthumous title "Hui Wen" meaning "benevolent and magnificent". Then she built a fancy grave and buried Wan'er properly near her family's cemetery.

 

Later, some poems of Wan'er were collected and published by Li Longji, after he won other coups and became the emperor. Others say the collection was edited and published with the support of Princess Taiping.

 

After Li Longji enthroned, he ended women's involvement in politics.

Inscriptions on Mount Tai, Written by Emperor Xuanzong of Tang

Inscriptions on Mount Tai Written by Li Longji (the Gold Characters on the Right) After He was Enthroned, to Memorize the Grand Fengshan Ceremony

Since then, Wan'er had been more remembered as a talented poet than an exceptional politician.

 

She had never officially gotten married, but in many gossips, she had romantic relationships with many powerful and handsome men, even some princes, which made her sometimes to be criticized for being promiscuous.

 

But her talent and achievement could never be disputed, just as the last sentences of her epitaph (possibly written by Princess Taiping):

 

千年万岁,椒花颂声。

 

Tens of thousands of years later, people still will praise your excellence.

Gilding Silver Hairpin (Chai) of Tang Dynasty

Gilding Silver Hairpin (Chai) of Tang Dynasty — Shaanxi History Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)