Entire Family Executed by First Female Emperor of China: Tomb Reveals Bloody Past
1,300 years ago Yan Shiwei was an honored magistrate dedicated to supporting the first (and only) female Emperor in Chinese history—until she had him and his family executed. His bones have now been found in the family tomb in Xi'an city, China.
The tomb, found within a cave, contained the remains of Yan Shiwei and Lady Pei, his wife. Inscriptions on bluestone epitaphs recount the turbulent lives of the deceased, telling of the rise and fall of Yan Shiwei.
According to LiveScience, archaeologists excavated the tomb in 2002 but the findings were not reported until 2014. Details have now been published by researchers from the Xi'an Municipal Institute of Archaeology and Conservation of Cultural Heritage in the English-language journal Chinese Cultural Relics .
The Politics of Power in Ancient China
Empress Wu (Wu Zetian) Reign: 16 October 690 to 22 February 705 AD. ( Public Domain )
Wu Zetian was a formidable woman who ascended the throne in 690 AD after the death of her husband Emperor Taizong. Going from influential concubine to Empress Dowager and then officially becoming the first and only female Emperor in China’s 4000 year history, Wu Zetian founded the Zhou Dynasty. Her reign was short-lived, however, as she ruled as effective sovereign until she was forced out 15 years later.
The translated inscriptions in the family tomb reveal that after the old emperor’s death and Wu Zetian’s declaration of taking the throne with her son, not all were receptive to the change. Duke Xu Jingye rebelled against Wu Zetian in Jiangdu (now Yangzhou, China).
Yan Shiwei was a military official at the time, and was not persuaded by the duke to join the rebels. Instead, he strongly supported Wu Zetian (Empress Dowager), and challenged the rebellion.
Images of men in a mural in Li Xian's (exiled son of Wu Zetian) tomb at Qianling Mausoleum, dated 706 AD. Representational image. ( Public Domain )
The epitaphs read, “The lord [Yan Shiwei] intentionally broke his own arm to resist the coercion from the rebel, showing that his loyalty to the imperial court had not been shaken.”
Rubbing of inscribed bluestone epitaphs found within the family tomb of Yan Shiwei. Credit: Chinese Cultural Relics
For this Yan Shiwei was “promoted to magistrate of Lanxi County of Wuzhou Prefecture and given the title of grand master,” reports LiveScience.
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Favored, But Not for Long
Newly installed as Emperor, Wu Zetian consolidated power and the loyal Yan Shiwei became a court favorite. Yan Shiwei put down any challenges to her authority, and kept powerful families in line.
Tomb epitaphs describe him as, “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.”
NYTimes.com reports that Yan Shiwei served the Emperor for nine years before “a tragedy descended upon him.”
“Though the details are unclear, his brother, Zhiwei, had turned against the female emperor. ‘Due to guilt by association for the crime of his brother…he [Yan Shiwei] was executed under collective punishment,’ the epitaphs say. ‘The entire family suffered collective punishment, and all were executed.”
The entire family was executed, save Yan Shiwei’s wife Pei who had died years previous in 691. Adding insult to injury, to ensure he did not receive a proper burial, the inscriptions say his body was carelessly buried.
The first female Emperor of China was ultimately deposed by a son she had exiled years earlier, and she died shortly thereafter. With the return of the Tang Dynasty, Yan Shiwei was exonerated and his body buried properly in the family tomb with his wife.
The inscribed epitaph for Yang Shun, a general to Empress Wu Zetian, China, Luoyang, Tang dynasty, 693 AD, limestone. Representational image. (Public Domain)
Little remain of the skeletons, but several artifacts were recovered from the tomb in 2002, including brightly colored ceramic statuettes of tomb guardians, warriors and animals. A gold plaque mirror, and the invaluable epitaphs were recovered, notes LiveScience. A headdress was found disintegrated into three hundred pieces.
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The Emperor’s Legacy
Wu Zetian’s legacy remains a mixed one; she was a successful ruler who helped unify China, but history reveals her to be as ambitious and cruel as she was capable.
Mass executions were the norm under her rule as she eliminated rivals (as well as supporters, and her own family) through death or exile; she manipulated religion and is said to have used propaganda to secure her position; and she consolidated her power through a secret army of spies.
For all that, Wu Zetian is credited with many important effects regarding class in Chinese society, including education, literature and writing, as well as support and opportunities for the lower classes. She was a successful ruler who expanded borders, and raised three sons who would all serve as Emperor.
Building in the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda complex, Xi’An, China. Ancient Buddhist pagoda built in 652 and rebuilt in 704 under the rule of Empress Wu Zetian. ( Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0 )
By: Liz Leafloor