Ancient Women Are Confusing

Posted on September 16, 2013


At least, they are when they show up in positions of power.

On Wednesday September 11, Fox News published a report, originally by the AFP, about the discovery of the tomb of Shangguan Wan’er, a Tang dynasty imperial bureaucrat in the Chinese court of Empress Wu Zetian. AFP is the credited source for Fox. But the framing changed in the transition from Agence-France Presse to Fox.

AFP titled their version Tomb found of ancient Chinese female ‘prime minister’.

Fox went with Tomb Found of Ancient Chinese Female Plotter.

Now, maybe the good folks at Fox simply thought US readers would have no idea what a “prime minister” is. But other changes suggest something a bit more intriguing is going on.

AFP writes that Shangguan Wan’er was

a trusted aide to China’s first empress Wu Zetian and is sometimes described as effectively her prime minister.

Fox edits the story to replace the “prime minister” clause with other detail from AFP coverage:

a trusted aide to China’s first female emperor Wu Zetian, and married to Wu’s son, while having relationships with both the empress’s lover and her nephew.

Ahem. Being a political authority– ho hum. Having multiple sexual liaisons– tell us more…

There is an abundant body of writing about this important figure in Chinese history. She was a poet whose works were included in the 1999 book Women Writers of Ancient China, where the editors write that

despite the small size of her extant corpus of poems, Shangguan Wan’er probably played a larger role in male literary culture than any other woman in Chinese history.

Her poetry includes graceful lines about a woman missing her far-away lover, perhaps, the editors write, intended to suggest a woman writing to a soldier-husband:

When first leaves fall on Lake Dongting

I long for you, thousands of miles away

In heavy dew my scented quilt feels cold

At moonset, brocade screen deserted…

Given the abundant documentation, it is worth asking: what is the news here?

The Chinese newspaper Global Times describes the new archaeological find (under the headline: Tomb of Empress Wu’s Secretary Discovered). They describe it as a badly disturbed tomb, with few objects found intact, but including a memorial inscription.

The AFP adds to the basic description speculation by a historian at Shanxi University, Geng Qinggang that there had been a concerted attempt at “official destruction”. The most extensive version of Geng Qinggang’s comments I have found is from the Australian International Business Times:

“The roof had completely collapsed, the four walls were damaged, and all the tiles on the floor had been lifted up…Hence, we think it must have been subject to large-scale, organised damage … quite possibly damage organised by officials.”

Shangguan Wan’er did fall out of power when she was part of a plot against the Emperor Zhongzong, who deposed the Empress Wu Zetian in AD 705. The biography of Shangguan Wan’er in Notable Women of China says that Shangguan Wan’er was named zhaoyi by the new Emperor– described as the highest court title for a woman. She survived a power struggle within the imperial family, aligning herself with the new, equally ambitious empress. After the empress poisoned the emperor in AD 710, Shannguan Wan’er was executed as one of the Empress’ supporters.

That would all tend to support the idea of an official purge of some sort. But the same source ends by noting that the new Emperor, who ordered her execution, also oversaw the collection and publication of her writing. Apparently he shared a high regard for her poetry. And that makes it a little harder for me to imagine him having her tomb– which, after all, he had to have allowed to be constructed– to be attacked.

So. Back to the press coverage: Fox stays consistent, emphasizing the “plotter” narrative until the very last sentence, which adds as an afterthought that “Shangguan Wan’er was also recognized for her poetry”.

We could almost define a spectrum of coverage, from the articles that emphasize sex to those that describe the political and poetic roles that made Shangguan Wan’er famous.

NBC News characterizes her as “scandalous”, and her life “a soap-opera tale of slavery, redemption, intrigue and beheading”. Their story has one of the best photos showing Tang ceramic sculptures of horses and riders in the tomb. They report, and then question, the suggestion of official destruction of the tomb, quoting the response of Yu Gengzhe, a historian at Shaanxi Normal University:

If Shangguan Wan’er died in such shame, why would she have such an extensive tomb? And what happened to her body?

“I presume Shangguan Wan’er’s tomb might have been built during her lifetime…She died and was hastily buried, and the graves were officially destroyed.”

Yu Gengzhe is quoted by Chinese news service as well. There, he gives what I think is a more straightforward explanation of the damage:

“The tiles on the floor had all been ripped up. Perhaps grave robbers came for the treasures and did not have enough time.”

The prize in terms of salaciousness goes to the UK’s Daily Mail: its headline is practically a short story in itself. Tomb of China’s woman prime minister: The life and lovers of politician who served first female emperor and was eventually executed in a palace coup it reads.

The story highlights intrigue, and adds details I have found in no other source, including claims that the empress admired Shangguan Wan’er for her “qualities of being discerning and manipulative”. Chinese historical texts instead stress the regard the empress had for her ability to compose poetry on the spot. The Daily Mail story is remarkable, in fact, for not mentioning Shangguan Wan’er’s career as a poet at all. That omission helps the Daily Mail nudge Fox out of the running for least informative account of the new find.

The Daily Mail also “enhances” its coverage with an amazing sidebar article that purports to summarize women’s position throughout all of Chinese history, boiling it down to one word: “repressed”.

Which is a pity, since there is an interesting story to be told about the Tang Dynasty and the expansion of women’s scope of action explored by scholars.

Even relatively popular websites might have informed the Daily Mail writers that the Tang Dynasty was a time when women could not be described categorically as “repressed”:

the government allocated land to both male householders and widows….a couple wishing to divorce on the basis of mutual consent and a peaceful process were not to be punished. … it was not unusual for women to divorce or remarry at this time….a widow was not considered to be “unchaste” if she remarried… women were granted the same rights to, and opportunities for, education as men….writing poetry was not merely the privileged pursuit of noblewomen but was also practiced by those of common origins….Tang women also had the chance to learn history, politics, and military skills….They could drink wine to the limit of their capacity, and sing loudly in taverns; gallop through the suburbs with abandon; or even compete with men on the polo field. …women conducted social activities and carried on business independently. They even distinguished themselves within the political arena.

Women like Shangguan Wan’er. A poet, a politician, and a woman with enough sexual freedom to confuse modern reporters.