In a 1,300-year-old tomb discovered in China’s Xi’an city, epitaphs recently deciphered by the journal Chinese Cultural Relics describe how the nation’s only female emperor executed the family of a man who helped her rise to power. Yan Shiwei and his wife, Lady Pei, were laid to rest in the tomb along with figurines, a headdress, a mirror and the epitaphs inscribed on bluestones, which chronicle his life’s journey — including his demise at the hands of Wu Zetian.
Before she became China’s first (and only) female emperor, Wu Zetian was inducted to court by Emperor Gaozong (649-689 AD), first as his concubine and then as an empress who held influence over the ruler. A duke named Xu Jingye led a rebellion to take power after Emperor Gaozong’s death, but was defeated and Wu Zetian became Empress Dowager, founding her own “Zhou” dynasty in 690.
Yan Shiwei, an official who had demonstrated particular loyalty when Wu Zetian was first in power, was rewarded for his devotion and served for nine years as a magistrate before “a tragedy descended upon him,” according to the epitaphs. 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.”
After Yan Shiwei’s death, Wu Zetain’s empire was short-lived. She was thrown out of power in 705 and the “Tang” dynasty restored its reign.
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