1,300-year-old tomb reveals tragic fate of family, executed by China’s only female emperor

Tomb Sheds Light On The Reign Of China's Only Female Emperor-3

Artifacts and epitaphs found inside a 1,300-year-old tomb shed light on the brief, yet incredibly eventful, reign of China’s only female emperor, Wu Zetian. Located inside a cave, in the city of Xi’an, the tomb holds the remains of Yan Shiwei, a senior official during Wu’s Zhou dynasty, and his wife, Lady Pei. In addition to stunning ceramic figurines and an ornate mirror with gold frame, the site contained several epitaphs carved on bluestones, which tell the sorrowful fate of Shiwei and his family.

The discovery, which was originally made by researchers from China’s Xi’an Municipal Institute of Archaeology and Conservation of Cultural Heritage back in 2002, was only recently reported in the Chinese Cultural Relics journal. The study describes Wu Zetian’s rise to power from her position as a concubine of Emperor Gaozong, and later his empress, to the rank of the Emperor of China. After Gaozong’s death in 683, Wu Zetian retained her position as the Empress Dowager, while instating her youngest son Li Dan as the ruler.

Tomb Sheds Light On The Reign Of China's Only Female Emperor-1

The epitaphs found inside Yan Shiwei’s tomb

During this time, Yan Shiwei served as a military officer in Jiangdu (situated in present-day Yangzhou). When approached by duke Xu Jingye to join a rebellion against Emperor Ruizong, Shiwei refused, pledging his allegiance to Wu Zetian. According to the epitaph, he had to go so far as to break his own arm, in order to avoid succumbing to the coercion of the rebels. After the revolt was crushed, Wu Zetian reclaimed her power as Empress Dowager, and Shiwei was rewarded with a promotion. The epitaphs continue:

After the rebels were defeated, the lord received his reward. He was promoted to magistrate of Lanxi County of Wuzhou Prefecture and given the title of grand master for closing court.

In 690, Wu Zetian assumed the position of the monarch of the newly-founded Zhou dynasty. Despite widespread opposition from the defenders of the traditional order of succession, which forbids women from ascending to the Chinese throne, Wu Zetian’s reign witnessed massive expansion of the empire, all the way to Central Asia. Yan Shiwei soon become one of her favorite officials, and was entrusted with the responsibility of eliminating those who challenged and opposed her authority. The epitaphs state:

The lord was strict as the autumn frost, as well as warming as the winter sun, and got the people to learn self-control, and civil order was established… [he] was stationed in the capital area and controlled mountains and rivers.

Tomb Sheds Light On The Reign Of China's Only Female Emperor-2

A tomb guardian, with ornate flame-shaped mane, was also found inside the cave

Before long, however, the emperor order Yan Shiwei’s execution. According to the epitaphs, Shiwei and his family were condemned to death when it came to be known that his younger brother, Zhiwei, had turned against Wu Zetian. To punish them further, they were denied proper burial, and their corpses were left carelessly inside the cave. The epitaphs say:

Due to guilt by association for the crime of his brother Zhiwei, he [Yan Shiwei] was executed under collective punishment… The entire family suffered collective punishment, and all were executed.

It was only in 705, fifteen years after she became the Emperor of China, that Wu Zetian was removed from the throne, soon after which she died at the age of 81. This marked the end of the tumultuous Zhou dynasty, and the restoration of the Tang dynasty. The epitaphs state:

The resurrection of the Tang Dynasty brought exoneration [for Yan Shiwei]. Therefore, his remains were exhumed to be buried at his birthplace… [The] tomb was built to house his remains.

Source: Chinese Cultural Relics

Via: Live Science

  • John Dennis Roberts

    The article does not make it clear, but did Wu actually take on the male title EMPEROR or did she retain the female title EMPRESS, albeit using it has the female equivalent of its male counterpart signifying real and rightful power? Or is it the case that historians are using the word in a gender-neutral way?

    I have heard that at least one woman in ancient Egypt took on the (exclusively male) role of Pharaoh and explicitly referred to herself in public using masculine pronouns and had herself portrayed in statuary wearing male royal insignia, but did the ruler of that very short lived dynasty do the same? I just think it odd that the founder of a new dynasty ruling in her own right would have used male forms of address when referring to herself.

    • Sukanya Mukherjee

      Wu Zetian was the only female emperor in Chinese history. She held this title for a brief period during the Second Zhou dynasty (690 – 705). Wu’s Zhou dynasty was founded by her and lasted only 15 years until her abdication in 705. She died shortly after that.

      • John Dennis Roberts

        Thanks for that very insightful info. 😀

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1,300-year-old tomb reveals tragic fate of family, executed by China’s only female emperor

Artifacts and epitaphs found inside a 1,300-year-old tomb shed light on the brief, yet incredibly eventful, reign of China’s only female emperor, Wu Zetian. Located inside a cave, in the city of Xi’an, the tomb holds the remains of Yan Shiwei, a senior official during Wu’s Zhou dynasty, and his wife, Lady Pei. In addition to stunning ceramic figurines and an ornate mirror with gold frame, the site contained several epitaphs carved on bluestones, which tell the sorrowful fate of Shiwei and his family.

The discovery, which was originally made by researchers from China’s Xi’an Municipal Institute of Archaeology and Conservation of Cultural Heritage back in 2002, was only recently reported in the Chinese Cultural Relics journal. The study describes Wu Zetian’s rise to power from her position as a concubine of Emperor Gaozong, and later his empress, to the rank of the Emperor of China. After Gaozong’s death in 683, Wu Zetian retained her position as the Empress Dowager, while instating her youngest son Li Dan as the ruler.

Tomb Sheds Light On The Reign Of China's Only Female Emperor-1

The epitaphs found inside Yan Shiwei’s tomb

During this time, Yan Shiwei served as a military officer in Jiangdu (situated in present-day Yangzhou). When approached by duke Xu Jingye to join a rebellion against Emperor Ruizong, Shiwei refused, pledging his allegiance to Wu Zetian. According to the epitaph, he had to go so far as to break his own arm, in order to avoid succumbing to the coercion of the rebels. After the revolt was crushed, Wu Zetian reclaimed her power as Empress Dowager, and Shiwei was rewarded with a promotion. The epitaphs continue:

After the rebels were defeated, the lord received his reward. He was promoted to magistrate of Lanxi County of Wuzhou Prefecture and given the title of grand master for closing court.

In 690, Wu Zetian assumed the position of the monarch of the newly-founded Zhou dynasty. Despite widespread opposition from the defenders of the traditional order of succession, which forbids women from ascending to the Chinese throne, Wu Zetian’s reign witnessed massive expansion of the empire, all the way to Central Asia. Yan Shiwei soon become one of her favorite officials, and was entrusted with the responsibility of eliminating those who challenged and opposed her authority. The epitaphs state:

The lord was strict as the autumn frost, as well as warming as the winter sun, and got the people to learn self-control, and civil order was established… [he] was stationed in the capital area and controlled mountains and rivers.

Tomb Sheds Light On The Reign Of China's Only Female Emperor-2

A tomb guardian, with ornate flame-shaped mane, was also found inside the cave

Before long, however, the emperor order Yan Shiwei’s execution. According to the epitaphs, Shiwei and his family were condemned to death when it came to be known that his younger brother, Zhiwei, had turned against Wu Zetian. To punish them further, they were denied proper burial, and their corpses were left carelessly inside the cave. The epitaphs say:

Due to guilt by association for the crime of his brother Zhiwei, he [Yan Shiwei] was executed under collective punishment… The entire family suffered collective punishment, and all were executed.

It was only in 705, fifteen years after she became the Emperor of China, that Wu Zetian was removed from the throne, soon after which she died at the age of 81. This marked the end of the tumultuous Zhou dynasty, and the restoration of the Tang dynasty. The epitaphs state:

The resurrection of the Tang Dynasty brought exoneration [for Yan Shiwei]. Therefore, his remains were exhumed to be buried at his birthplace… [The] tomb was built to house his remains.

Source: Chinese Cultural Relics

Via: Live Science

  1. John Dennis Roberts says:

    The article does not make it clear, but did Wu actually take on the male title EMPEROR or did she retain the female title EMPRESS, albeit using it has the female equivalent of its male counterpart signifying real and rightful power? Or is it the case that historians are using the word in a gender-neutral way?

    I have heard that at least one woman in ancient Egypt took on the (exclusively male) role of Pharaoh and explicitly referred to herself in public using masculine pronouns and had herself portrayed in statuary wearing male royal insignia, but did the ruler of that very short lived dynasty do the same? I just think it odd that the founder of a new dynasty ruling in her own right would have used male forms of address when referring to herself.

    1. Sukanya Mukherjee says:

      Wu Zetian was the only female emperor in Chinese history. She held this title for a brief period during the Second Zhou dynasty (690 – 705). Wu’s Zhou dynasty was founded by her and lasted only 15 years until her abdication in 705. She died shortly after that.

      1. John Dennis Roberts says:

        Thanks for that very insightful info. 😀

Comments are closed.

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