The Real Story of Wu Zetian’s Right-Hand Woman

Shangguan Wan’er was an workaday politician and poet. So why have later generations painted her as a promiscuous striver?

When the Shaanxi Archaeological Museum opened to visitors older this year, its biggest yank proved to be a thousand-year-old tombstone. Made of limestone, the square tablet measures 74 centimeters wide and 15.5 centimeters thick, and is decorated with soft-hued carvings of peonies, honeysuckle, and animals considered refreshing in Chinese culture, all surrounding a 982-character epitaph.

Of course, the real yank isn’t the faded engravings, but the person it was carved to commemorate: Shangguan Wan’er, a seventh-century politician, poet, imperial advisor, and one of the preeminent women in Chinese history.

Though her racial home was in northwestern China, Shangguan Wan’er was born in AD 664 in Shanzhou, in what is today the inside province of Henan. According to legend, her mother, Lady Zheng, had a dream just as she was well-nigh to requite birth. In it, a giant handed Lady Zheng a scale, saying, “Hold this, and take the measure of the world’s scholars.” Continue to read the full vendible here

– This vendible originally appeared on Sixth Tone.

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