Ancient China’s “Sex & the City’s” Sam – Shangguan Wan’er

Wu Zetian’s Right-hand woman – Was Shangguan Wan’er Ancient China’s “Sex & the City’s” Sam? The alpha female? Who was this Premier of China’s first and only female monarch?

Shangguan Wan’er’s (664 -710) fortunes changed forever when Wu Zetian (625 -705), China’s first and only female monarch, spotted her poem one day. She was so impressed that she summoned the young Shangguan to her palace and ordered her to compose a poem on the spot. And she did so with aplomb! Wu was so awed that Shangguan was appointed her personal secretary. Thus, Shangguan began her career at the tender age of 14!

 Shangguan Wan’er and her mother were made palace maids after her grandfather, Shangguan Yi was executed in his failed attempt to depose Wu during Emperor Tang Gaozong’s rule. Shangguan Wan’er’s father, Shangguan Tingyi, was also ordered to commit suicide.

 Having inherited her grandfather’s genes, Shangguan was a literary prodigy. She was well-versed in the classics (having been taught by her mother, Lady Zheng) and was an accomplished poet and outstanding writer. Besides talent, Shangguan also blossomed into a ravishing beauty.

 As Wu’s personal secretary, she drafted all imperial edicts and went through all court memorials. Eventually, she became the de facto Premier (though only in deed and not in name). How did she turn a failed assassination attempt to being Wu’s trusted aide? Wu, who valued talent, not only forgave her but made her the second most powerful woman in court.

 You must be thinking – Does this woman have any scruples left? Why did she choose to work with the enemy? But in reality, does she have a choice; if the other choice was death? Perhaps Shangguan herself looked up to the talented Wu too. Wu saw a little of herself in the young Shangguan – precocious, manipulative, talented and beautiful.

 In fact, Wu had even wanted to appoint her as female monarch at one point. She did incur the wrath of Wu though when her affair with one of Wu’s lovers was discovered. Wu was so incensed that she ordered her to be put to death. However, she couldn’t bear to do so and retracted her order at the last minute. She then changed the punishment to tattooing her face. The quick-witted Shangguan managed to change it to a tattoo of cinnabar on her forehead. In order to disguise that mark of disgrace, Shangguan cleverly painted a plum flower over it. Who would have thought that she inadvertently started a trend among the court ladies? They all found that it made her more alluring instead and wasted no time in imitating that beauty aid.

 After Wu was forced to give up her throne due to illness and old age, Emperor Zhongzhong returned to assume power. Shangguan sought the patronage of Empress Wei. Together with Empress Wei’s daughter, Princess Anle, they wielded even more power in court. Empress Wei tightened her grip on power, eagerly coveting the throne.

 By then, Shangguan was made a concubine of Emperor Zhongzhong. To prevent Empress Wei from being jealous; Shangguan offered her lover, Wu Sansi, to her. With the support of these two women, Wu Sansi attained the rank of Supreme Censor.

 With Sansi gone, the lonely Shangguan found another lover in Cui Shi. Together with his 3 brothers, they charmed Shangguan with their literary talent and good looks. Shangguan even established a mansion outside of the palace to facilitate her secret liaisons.

 Nevertheless she propelled literary standards to new heights. At her suggestion, Emperor Zhongzhong started an imperial academy. Literary competitions were often held where officials with literary talents were handsomely rewarded. Shangguan served as the judge in such competitions. Imperial scholars would often be selected from such events. Shangguan’s poems were lyrically beautiful and often recited by people who heard them. She was also said to have written poems on behalf of Emperor Zhongzhong, Empress Wei and Princess Anle.

 Her chequered love life mirrors the ups and downs of her political career. Her four lovers began with the tragic Li Xian and ended with the talented Cui Shi.

 It was rumoured that the teenage Shangguan once had a budding romance with the young crown prince, Li Xian. The alleged short-lived affair ended with the prince’s deposition. Ironically, the imperial edict was drafted by the 17 year old Shangguan. She learnt at that young age that love was a luxury she could ill-afford.

 Zhang Changzong – the lover who nearly caused her disfigurement. Shangguan must have gone too bold for her own good or was he too good to resist? – What was she thinking of (or rather, not thinking) when she hopped into bed with Zhang, who was also one of Wu Zetian’s lovers. As we all know, sleeping with one’s boss’s lover is never a good idea.  She was lucky to have escaped with merely a scar on her forehead.

 Shangguan had a rather complicated relationship with Wu Sansi, Wu Zetian’s nephew. They have ménage-a-trios with Empress Wei. However, it appears to be a liaison of convenience more than anything else – The two ladies to satisfy their desires; he, ostensibly to gain favour.

Eventually, Wu came increasingly under Empress Wei’s influence, so Shangguan sought the affections of Cui Shi. Charming and talented, it was no wonder she fell for him.

 Was Shangguan a sex-hungry Samantha? Who was her one true love – Her first love? Was there even room for love in the world of palace intrigues?

Her longest relationship seemed to be with Wu Sansi, yet she was forced to share him with Empress Wei. Did she love any of them? Was she capable of love, having long traded love for power? Perhaps she was just a lonely woman seeking companionship.   

 Although her rise lies solidly in her talents, she was not immune to the lure of power and seduction of wealth. Together with Empress Wei and Princess Anle, they sold government offices at will.

 Did power corrupt her or did she love power in the first place? Was she enticed by what power can do or haunted by the sufferings she had endured as a child when she had none of it? Was she actually suppressed under Wu Zetian’s rule and with her death; unleashed a floodgate of desires?

What was she really like? Does the poet in her reveal the real Shangguan Wan’er? Was she really the power-crazy and sex-hungry, manipulative Machiavelli that she’s made out to be? Unfortunately her poems did not reveal much. They were mainly poems that she wrote under the Emperor’s orders. What seemed clear is that she has long become adept at hiding her true emotions, even in her poems.

Despite her political shrewdness, she still fell victim to the web of power struggle in the end. When Li Longji’s rebel forces massacred Empress Wei’s clique, Shangguan wasn’t spared this time round. Her colourful life came to a tragic end at the age of 46. She had ingeniously talked her way out of the previous coup by crown prince, Li Chongjun, by uttering, “I believe he wants to first deal with me, and then move on to the Empress, and finally harm Your Majesty.”

Apparently, showing the coup unit commander, Liu Youqiu, the supposed ‘original’ will which she had co-drafted with Princess Taiping; in the hopes that it would prove her support for Li Dan (Li Longji’s father) wasn’t enough to save her. Though Liu was moved by her beauty and talent, Li knew that Shangguan would be nothing short of a threat to him if she was spared. Hence, she was executed immediately.

Nevertheless, it was clear that he had recognized her talents; for he ordered her poems to be compiled into a 20-volume anthology after her death.

Having lived a life of precarious balance in the dance of survival, perhaps death was a relief? After all, life on a constant tightrope with raging fire below; can prove too much in the long run even for the most formidable of woman.

Note: First published on on 11 July 2008


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