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

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

When the Shaanxi Archaeological Museum opened to visitors earlier this year, its biggest draw 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 delicate carvings of peonies, honeysuckle, and animals considered auspicious in Chinese culture, all surrounding a 982-character epitaph.

Of course, the real draw 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 ancestral home was in northwestern China, Shangguan Wan’er was born in AD 664 in Shanzhou, in what is today the central province of Henan. According to legend, her mother, Lady Zheng, had a dream just as she was about to give 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 article here

– This article originally appeared on Sixth Tone.