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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 buzzle.com on 11 July 2008

Link: http://www.buzzle.com/articles/wu-zetians-right-hand-woman-shangguan-waner.html

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Would the Real Wong Fei Hong please stand up?

Wong Fei Hong, the martial arts folk hero most famously portrayed by Jet Li in popular movies, “Once Upon A Time In China”, has become a larger than life character. In earlier decades, Kwan Tak Hing acted as Wong in over 100 of movies. How much of this legendary figure is myth and how much of it is fact?

 So who exactly is the real Wong Fei Hong? Martial arts expert and skilled physician no less, but did you know that he was rumoured to be a curse on his wives? All his three wives had died on him, the first one having died within months of tying the knot.  Superstition or not, it prompted him to address his fourth wife as “concubine” even though she was his full-fledged wife.

 Wong’s Wives

 His fourth wife, Mok Kwai Lan, was his partner in martial arts as well as in life. Having inherited the Mok’s Family Fists, her martial arts improved by leaps and bound under Wong’s coaching. Legend has it that he met his wife in a rather amusing encounter. According to the account, Wong was performing the Yiu’s Family Trident when his shoe flew off and hit Mok in the face. Incensed, she jumped up the stage and slapped Wong. She reprimanded him, “Do you know you could kill someone like this? What if the next time it’s your weapon that flew off and not your shoe? For someone of your skill, something like this should never have happened!” Though Wong’s disciple was infuriated at this young lady’s audacity, Wong fell in love immediately. Apparently he just smiled and said, “You’re right. I was careless.” Then Mok disappeared into the crowd. After that, Wong made enquiries, eventually found and married her. Now one wonders why no movie had ever depicted this feisty lady instead of the fictional Thriteen Aunt in “Once Upon A Time In China”.

 Wong’s Martial Arts

 If you were wondering about his actual prowess, he is indeed as formidable as he is made out to be. And yes, the famed, “Shadowless Kick” (无影脚), is one of his signature style. Perhaps what it less known is his mastery of all the Tiger style strokes, earning him the nickname of “Tiger Crazed”. Having learnt martial arts from his father at the tender age of 5, he started off life as a street performer at 12 before moving on to be martial arts instructor at various places including the army. When he was made the instructor at the Guangdong’s infantry regiment succeeding his father, he was the youngest instructor in the Southern Style kung-fu then. He was recruited by Jiming Provincial Commander-in-Chief, Wu Quanmei to be the medical officer and martial arts drill instructor of the local militia of Guangdong. He was also made the chief instructor at the Fujian province army by the Commander-in-Chief, Liu Yong Fu. Wong had even fought alongside Liu in Taiwan against the Japanese.

 The Hong Family Fist (also known as “Hong Gar” of “Hong Kuen”) which Wong learnt from his, father, Wong Kei Ying, was founded by Hung Hei Kwun. It was said to be originated from a group of deposed monks of South Shaolin Temple when the Qing dynasty government sacked the temple. From his father, he inherited the Single Bow Fist (單弓拳), Double Bow Fist (雙弓拳), Tiger Taming Fist (伏虎拳), Tiger Fist (.虎拳), Black Tiger Fist (黑虎拳), Mother & Son Butterfly Swords (子母雙刀) and Fifth Brother Eight Trigram Pole (五郎八卦棍). He was also known for his Yiu Family Trident (瑤家大扒)

 Although his father was one of the “Ten Tigers of Guangdong” – a group comprising of the top ten martial arts exponent of Southern China – Wong had taken lessons from various masters. He acquired the much celebrated “Shadowless Kick” (无影脚) from Song Fai Tong and the Iron Wire Fist (铁线拳) as well as the Flying Sling (双飞砣)from Tit Kiu Sam’s disciple, Lam Fuk Sing.

 Wong was often credited to be the Father of Modern Hung Fist as he systematized the form and rearranged certain aspects of the techniques. He choreographed his version of the acclaimed “Tiger Crane Paired Form Fist” (虎鹤双形拳), which incorporates his “Ten Special Fist” (十绝手). He is said to have added the bridge hand techniques and horse stance of master Tit Kiu Saam as well as long arm techniques, attributed variously to the Fat Ga, Lo Hon, and Lama styles. The “Tiger Crane” combined the prowess of the Tiger and the gracefulness of the crane; marrying strength and fluidity.

 He developed the “Five Animal Fist” (五形拳) which serve as a bridge between the external force of “Tiger Crane” and the internal focus of “Iron Wire”.  “Five Animals” refers to the characteristic of the Five Animals of Southern Chinese martial arts, namely the Dragon, Snake, Tiger, Leopard, and Crane. Together with “工character Tiger Taming Fist” (工字伏虎拳), “Tiger Crane” and “Iron Wire”; these formed the four pillars of Wong’s branch of the Hung Fist.

 Wong’s Sons

 Though Mok was a young bride of 19, she did not produce any offspring probably due to Wong’s considerable age when they got married. His other three wives bore him four sons before they passed on. Of his four sons, Hon Sum, his second son, was Wong’s favourite and inherited the most of Wong’s martial arts. He had worked as a bodyguard in a security firm. One of his colleagues had challenged him to a duel but lost badly. Harbouring resentment, he made Hon Sum drunk on Mid-Autumn Festival and shot him dead. He later convinced the authorities that it was Hon Sum who first shot him in his drunken stupor and in self-defence, had opened fire and killed Hon accidentally. Heartbroken over the death of his beloved son, Wong swore never to impart his skills to his other sons. That is why, his youngest son, who looked the most like him, does not possess any martial arts skills.

 Wong the Physician

 Besides being an accomplished martial arts master, Wong was also a skilled physician, especially in the art of ‘Tie Da’ or Chinese bone-setting. He set up “Po Chi Lam” (宝芝林), his clinic and medical shop, producing his own ‘Tie Da’ ointment. He soon became known as one of the top 4 Chinese physicians in Guangdong at that time.

 Wong’s Last Years

 An upright man of great virtue, sadly Wong died a poor and broken man. A riot broke out in 1924 and his medical shop fell victim to the fire set by the rioters. It was rumoured that it destroyed his only surviving photo. (Though some have disputed this.) Devastated from the blow of his massive losses, he took ill and died soon after. Having lost all his money, his disciple, Dang Sau Keng took care of Wong’s funeral arrangements. With the help of his disciples, the acclaimed Lam Sai Wing and Dang; Mok immigrated to Hong Kong with Wong’s two sons. She set up a martial arts school and continued Wong’s legacy.

 Wong’s Legacy

 A righteous man with a strong sense of justice and one who is always willing to lend a hand, especially to the weak and serve society, Wong was also a visionary who was ahead of his time. He believed that anyone who was capable could be a master and was against the establishment of sects in the world of martial arts. Besides milestones in martial arts, not many knew that Wong condemned the practice of matching one’s social status in marriage and was against the age-old Chinese custom of favouring males over female. He was one of the first to accept female disciples and formed the first female lion dance troupe. Well-known female disciples include Mok Kwai Lan and Dang Sau Keng. His other accomplished disciples include Lam Sai Wing, Leung Fun, ….

Arguably the most famous son of Nanhai County (now a District), Foshan City, Guangdong province; Wong has left an indelible mark on many around the world as his Wong branch of Hung Family Fist spread as far as the United States and Mexico, South East Asia, Hong Kong and Macao.


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