Shadow of the Empress 1: The Empress from Hell 韦后之乱

The Empress seethed upon the throne, supreme yet full of worries- she saw daggers everywhere. A Daoist proverb echoed endlessly in her head: "There is no set pattern to bad and good fortune," -all who is lowly will one day be lift up, and conversely, all who have risen must one day be cast down. Such is the nature of fortune, such is the nature of the universe. It is this thorn within her heart that would instigate one of the most intrigue- filled periods in Tang history. Rather than open warfare and expansionist campaigns- the kind often seen in the early periods of Tang history, this would be a war of shadows, where powerful women vied with each other to reign over the entire realm, of escalating assassinations, purges and counter purges until real blood- royal blood were drawn within the imperial palace itself by thousands of warring guards.


The year is 705, the august and megalomaniacal Empress Wu (the first Woman "Emperor" of China who founded her own dynasty) had just passed at the ancient age of 81 after 48 years of presiding over the affairs of the Tang Empire. Her death would have seemed to many as a shock, for in an age where the average lifespan was 40, she would have lived so long that she outlasted the lifespan of her many children and many, many generation of enemies. She would have destroyed so many of rival kingdoms that many simply thought she couldn't die.

The Empress' sheer force of personality was so immense that even when one of her sons unseated her power in a midnight coup, the empress simply emerged out of her palace in front of all his generals and soldiers- without any words or gestures, just the fiery gaze of her eyes cowed them all to apologize for rudely awakening her slumber- then returned to her bed in peace. In her final days, though removed from direct rule, Wu still finished her career as an "Emperor," whose edicts are still regarded as the de facto policies of the realm.

The Massive Longmen Grottoes, constructed during Empress Wu Zetian's rule:.For size comparrison- click here. Wu's megalomaniacal ambition was nothing short of the First Emperor of China or Mao Ze Dong.

In her death- the Empress still casted a vast shadow over the Empire, for many characteristics that existed during her 48 year reign still remained in the political climate of the restored Empire- that of weak, easily manipulated men and a whole cast of extremely ambitious women who wanted to emulate Wu's daring example. To these women- who would be the main players of this scramble for power, even in Wu's ultimate failure, her career only represented a failed experiment, a path to be retrod, a road map to be better charted by themselves. The war over the monumental (literally) power-vacuum once held by the Empress - would be a war of shadows and absolute ruthlessness. To them, their own rise to power would surely eclipse that of the fallen Empress.


Our story began in the spring of 698, a humble carriage sped along the backwater roads of the Fang Precture escorted by hundreds imperial guards. A family- a small clan sat within its bouncing interior. All of them- from father to mother to the several concubines riding with them and the half dozen children within were all disgraced exiles. It was only recently that they had been given permission to leave their residence of exile and summoned by the reigning Emperor back to the capital.

On there way back they would have passed the Longmen Pass 龙门 ("Dragon's Gate") along the shores of the Yellow River, and even in the distance, all the passengers would have no problem distinguishing the massive carved statues that jutted over the river cliffs.

Music: ← Tribute

The parents would have led the gaze of their children up at the grimacing faces that loomed above them and sought for a single face among the thousands of carved reliefs, the massive Sphinx sized Buddha that was enthroned at the center of the entire valley, flanked by dozens of armored celestial guardians and thousands of stone carved Buddhas. 

"That's the face of your grandmother," the parents would have explained- that "his" face, was carved based on the features of their Grandmother (never call her by that unless she told you to do so!) The reining "Emperor" (for she style herself as such) of the entire realm, light of the Empire, and ruler of hundred races, and millions of souls. One who- if fate would smile upon them, they would finally have the privilege of seeing in person. 

The father of the family was Li Xian, and once he had been an Emperor of all of China. It might be surprising to imagine a former Emperor be granted permission from his own exile, but if one were to regard him up close and observe his unassuming bearing and tendency to vacillate when faced with choices, his current woes might slowly become apparent to the viewer. In all manners, he was a feckless man, and it was particularly because of his timidity- or more plainly his malleability that his mother, the Empress Dowager Wu elevated him to the position of Emperor so she could wield power from behind the throne in his name. His "Emperorship" had been a choice he had virtually no saying in, for when Li Xian was named his father's Heir Apparant, his mother had already poisoned two of her eldest son- Li Xian's brothers Crown Prince Li Hong and Li Xian (spelled differently), and had a dozen of other princes exiled.

All within the carriage- even the children would also knew that the singular reason for their father's dethronement and by extension the family's banishment was the woman that sat beside Li Xian, the Princess Wei (formerly Empress Wei) - who had managed nearly a decade and half ago to arouse the fury of Empress Wu. A woman who many had said Empress Wu had hated because she was exactly like Wu in cunning and ambition.

As the crammed wagon was tossed along the backwater roads, there would be suffocating tension within the carriage, the parents would have genuine fear for their lives, they would've know well Empress Wu never had any qualms about killing her own children- even the wives and concubines of her sons...was the Empress genuine in her pardon, to recalling them back to Chang An? Or was their long trek simply a ruse for their escorts to dispose of them all beside some remote detour of the path, after all, "being tragically waylaid by bandits" has always been a favorite method for undesirables to be disposed of while en route along the dangerous frontier roads. Their long fears would be misplaced, for soon, the bumpy country road linked up with the finely laid imperial highway.

Then, they saw it, the massive gates of Chang An unfolded like before them like an ever oncoming spectacle. The hundreds of white washed watchtowers with red interlaced beams shimmered in the spring sun.

→ Music: ← Metropolis

Before their official entrance to the imperial capital, which would have been a gigantic state- sponsored event seen by many of its 1 million populace, the royal couple were again given their royal trappings, gem studded robes of rich silk and crowns woven by gold threads that befitted their royal rank, trappings that they have not seen, less than held in nearly 15 years- and for the chidren- something they would have never seen in their entire lives. Swiftly they were paraded through the wide avenues of Chang An, where the citizenry would have came in seething waves of thousands. After receiving their feverish welcome, the royal couple was conducted into the massive red washed enclosures of the Daming Palace- massive in the sense that the Palace itself covered almost 350 hectares, or 4 km2, to put matters into perspective, the Forbidden City is currently the largest palace anywhere in the modern world, the Daming Palace during the Tang dynasty was more than 4.5 times the area of the Forbidden City (72 hectacres, itself already being 4 times bigger than the Versailles Palace of France which is 17 hectares) and 22 times the size of the Acropolis.

To the couple's surprise, the person welcoming them was none other than the 74 year old Empress herself, flanked by her ten thousand 羽林 or "Feather Forest" imperial guards and 1,000 elite 千骑 "Thousand Riders." She received Li Xian and Wei's deep bows, it was then she dropped her facade as the august head of state and was introduced to her fresh faced grand children for the first time, she dotted on them, then welcomed the royal couple back as residents within the Daming Palace. One could easily guess, for Li Xian (now Crown Prince Li) and Princess (now Crown Princess) Wei who had seen nearly endless years of harshness, the Daming Palace must have looked like a dream: a birthright that they had long forgotten and could hardly imagine again. But Empress Wu had thought that she finally had nothing to worry about from the Wei woman, she was fatally mistaken.

In spring 705, merely 5 years after the royal couple's return, Empress Wu would been completely uprooted by a coup that was supported and orchestrated by none other than the Wei woman. Some how, Wei and Li Xian was not only able to turn a major faction of ministers to go against her, but they were also able to turn her elite 千骑 "Thousand Riders"- now ballooned into the newly styled 万骑 "Ten Thousand Riders" under Li Xian's private patronage and put her under house arrest, where she would die of old age later in the fall of 705.

This would mark the end of the first- and so far only female sovereign's reign of China, with the second ascension of Li Xian, the Empire was again returned to the hands of the Li clan, which had by then almost been slain to extinction through Wu's purges. May the former Empress find repose through the teachings of the Amitāh Buddha, long live the new Empress!  In the end, it would seemed Wu was right to fear this woman. But who really is this woman? Who is Empress Wei?


In all manners, Empress Wu was right to regard the Wei woman as extremely dangerous, not only does Wei possess the same ambition as Empress Wu when Wu began her ascent, but she also possessed much of the same cunning and ruthlessness that enabled her to detect apertures in any given system, variables to exploit to quickly bolster her advantage, and mostly a host of a weak imperial- blooded man to climb to the very center of power. In broad strokes, it was the same template- the same roadmap to power that Wu had once used to reach the status of supreme ruler of the Empire- In some ways, the old Empress may have even appreciated this gameswoman for her strategic mind. But that's all they would have in common, for upon closer scrutiny, Empress Wu would have been (and knew) much, much more than her younger foe, and these series of distinguishing secrets was something Wu would have willfully taken to her grave. Distinguishing secrets which would have been made clear only at the conclusion of our tale.

In 705, at Empress Wei's ascension, she would have been in her late 30s or early 40s, though she had lost a bit of her youthful charms, she was still described by contemporary chronicles as ravishingly beautiful. She was recorded to have exuded a cool- mature demeanor and the years of suffering at the fringes of the Empire's frontiers had given her a dimension of toned musculature to her body. She would have been pleased by what she would have seen as the stubborn "persistence" of her beauty. Despite these natural advantages however, the Empress was greatly worried.

Tang court lady in silk negligee and form fitting dress, her hairstyle full decorated with  golden hairpins and crowned with a bejeweled silk lotus.

She would have imitated her predecessor's public projects by throwing many festivals and fetes, from elaborate Buddhist procession where thousands would march and chant for days in an effort to purify their spirits, to exotic acrobatic performances from the nomadic Turks and Khitan people from the north where trickshot riders would take turns to fire upon a bright red trophy impaled upon a sumptuously decorated maypole. The public would have attempted to resurrect the dances of the ancient Han and Zhou dynasties, and daily, the unrestrained laughter of the homosexual quarters at Chang An's Eastern quarters would have mingled with the singsong like siren calls from the same district's well bred- well powdered courtesans. Wei would have paid scant attention to all of it.

The Empress Wei was foremost a hard woman, hard through what she had seen and experienced far far away from the privileges of the imperial capital. For one who had felt the bottom, all of the pageantry and fanfare would have been nothing more than a foolish illusion. For a woman whose life was devoted to courting power, who believed that her very safety rested solely under a bed of authority, she was concerned with only the evanescent iota of power which she holds. 

Instead, she was bothered by a Daoist proverb she had once uttered so long ago- the very same that had brought her and her husband back from the brink of many suicides, "There is no set pattern to bad and good fortune." a view she had always held in regards to fortune and power -all who is lowly will one day be lift up, and conversely, all who have risen must one day be cast down. She would have remembered the context which she had uttered these words. Those were more real to her than anything else. 


When the couple was banished by the Empress in disgrace 15 years ago,  Li Xian was constantly in fear in exile, as Empress Dowager Wu had previously shown willingness to kill her own children—having forced one of her son Li Xián (another son, spelled in different characters)  to commit suicide in 684 and having been rumored to have poisoned another son, Li Hong, in 675— thus whenever there would be imperial messengers arriving from then-capital of Luoyang, Li Xian would consider committing suicide, fearing that the riders would bring orders for even worse fates. Princess Wei would repeatedly tell him:

There is no set pattern to bad and good fortune. Since we will all die one day anyway, why hasten death?

At this point, they were deeply in love with each other, and at another point, he told her:

If we will see the light of day again, I will not stop you from doing anything.

While Li Xian was in exile, many of the conservative loyalists at court would rebel in his name and used him as a symbol of their resistance. For example, when Li Jingye the Duke of Ying rose against Empress Dowager Wu later in 684, he declared that his goal was to restore Li Xian. Other examples included Yang Chucheng (楊初成) in 687 and Li Yin (李諲) the Duke of Poyang (one of Li Xian's uncles) in 689. Whenever such an incident happened, the Empress would rotate Li's family to an even more remote backwater of the Empire. At first the family was delivered to Fang Prefecture (房州, in modern Shiyan, Hubei), and then Jun Prefecture (均州, also in modern Shiyan), to be held under house arrest.

At first- the facade of the Tang-rule continued when Li Xian was replaced by his equally weak brother Li Dan (the newly made Ruizong Emperor)- to serve as another of the Wu's puppets- In 690, Empress Dowager Wu became tired of ruling through her weak sons and forced Li Dan too into retirement and officially took the throne as the "Emperor" (herself known thereafter as Wu Zetian) of a newly founded "Zhou Dynasty," that were to be headed entirely by members of her own Wu clan- interrupting the Tang.

At every turn, Wei protected her only son, Li Chongrun (Pronounced Chong Run,) as there were genuine worries that in order for Wu to firmly secure her clan's status she would purge all the remaining claimants of the Li clan. Chongrun was also the only son born between Wei and Li Xian- Though Li Xian's family was small, Xian had other sons and daughters born from his concubines. Li Chongrun's safety thus not only cemented her favor with her husband, but also ensured that should one day (however unlikely) should Li Xian was restored as the Crown Prince- and then became Emperor, Chongrun- being the eldest would become the new Crown Prince. He was the only one born of hers that would one day reap the prestige of the imperial throne. 

→ Music: ← The Water Dragon

But Empress Wu remained paranoid, and in 685, she moved the entire family back to Fang Prefecture again. On the extremely difficult mountain road,Wei gave birth to a daughter. There was nothing to wrap the baby with, so Li Xian took off his own shirt and wrapped the baby in it. To commemorate this, the daughter was subsequently named Li Guo'er 李裹兒 (Guo'er meaning "the child that was wrapped," or the "babe that was swaddled"). Her humble name clearly reflected her parent's plight during this journey, perhaps an indication that should- Heaven forbid her parents perish one day, fate, and simultaneously the imperial court may somehow shoe mercy and ignore this plain- named child, and that she would be free to live a life away from the murderous court. Li Xian and Princess Wei both greatly favored this child born in distress.

But it seemed fate could still be cruel to those who had already fallen. During the family's long exile, they were not only followed by several servants and concubines, but also followed by Princess Wei's entire family, her father Wei Xuanzhen (韋玄貞), her mother, and several of her brothers and sisters- for they too, had stirred up the ire of the Empress.

Back in the spring of 684, when Li Xian was made Emperor for the first time, Wei had tried to manipulate him to make her father Wei Xuanzhen (韋玄貞) chancellor. A court official staunchly resisted this commission, as they argued, Li Xian, in anger, remarked: "What would be wrong even if I gave the empire to Wei Xuanzhen? Why do you care about him being Chancellor so much?" This was quickly reported back to the then Empress Dowager Wu and she was greatly alarmed by the Wei clan's influence. In just less than two months after Emperor Zhongzong had taken the throne, Empress Dowager Wu summoned the officials and generals and issued an edict deposing him as emperor. As generals loyal to her physically removed Zhongzong from his throne, he violently struggled and yelled, "What crime have I committed?" The Empress Dowager merely responded, "You wanted to give the empire to Wei Xuanzhen. How can that not be a crime?" 

Wei Xuanzhen would die soon on the difficult journey. But what happened next to the Wei clan was nothing short of soul shattering. A local barbarian chieftain, Ning Chengji (寧承基), had forcefully demanded to marry Princess Wei's younger sister. When Princess Wei's mother Lady Cui refused, the barbarian chieftain killed her and slaughtered Wei's four brothers Wei Xun (韋洵), Wei Hao (韋浩), Wei Dong (韋洞), and Wei Ci (韋泚).

Meanwhile, the Emperor (Empress) Wu was not having much success in her new dynasty. During the first year of her reign she had tried to purge most of her son's influence and their families, she turned her fury against her recently deposed son Li Dan, and in 693, she killed his wife Crown Princess Liu and concubine Consort Dou, and further investigated him for treason by torturing his servants, the investigation only stopped when during a prolonged torture, Li Dan's loyal servant, An Jinzang in an unfathomable act of protest grabbed a blade and violently cut open his own belly while swearing that Li Dan would never commit treason. Wu, greatly stunned by this act of loyalty promptly halted the purge and ordered her own physicians restore the disemboweled and howling An back to health.

It was then that Wu was informed by her daughter- the guileful Princess Taiping that the Empress' own Wu clansmen were plotting against her- at least three of her Wu nephews- one of being them her own designated future heir was secretly planning to have her assassinated! Instead of continuing her purges against her own Li sons, the totality of her wrath was turned against her nephews, all of the suspected nephews- including her heir were slaughtered and all of their plot's ringleaders hunted down. The situation worsened when the Turks, Tibetans, Khitans all invaded, while an internal rebellion erupted within the Zhou in 697- with the Khan of the Khitan Sun Wanrong, issuing a public declaration all the way along his invasion path questioning why Wu Zetian was keeping the rightful prince Li Xian in exile.

By 698, Wu's chancellor Di Renjie had convinced the Empress that it was to her Li clan sons, not her nephews, that she should turn for support. Di's fellow chancellors as well as Wu Zetian's lovers Zhang Yizhi and Zhang Changzong- but mostly her favorite daughter the Princess Taiping also supported the idea of summoning Li Xian from exile. In spring 698, after destroying all four incursions, Wu Zetian summoned Li Xian and his family back to the imperial capital amidst much public fanfare.  That same month, Li Dan, Li Xian's brother, the once- Ruizong Emperor officially offered the position of Crown Prince to him,


This is where our story began, and it must have seen to the entire family- the now restored Crown Princess Wei that she had crawled back from the very depth of Hell itself, half a world and half a life lost, merely 15 years and she had lost so much of all who she held dear. Unfortunately for Crown Princess Wei, if she had believed that her torment would cease after her small family's restoration, she was greatly mistaken.

In 701, Empress Wu, in her ancient age of 77, had entrusted much of the affairs of state to her two powdered lovers, the two brothers Zhang Yizhi and Zhang Changzong. These two infamous figures- who had no experience what so ever other than being the twin bedfellows of the Empress (some say they had been professional gigolos) were universally hated by all at court for brutalizing and executing all who threatened their shadow rule in the Empress' name.

Li Chongrun, Wei's young son was greatly outraged by this state of affairs and would often angrily discussed this with his sister Li Xianhui and her husband, Wu Zetian's grandnephew Wu Yanji (武延基). When the Zhang brothers found out and informed the Empress. Wu became furious and in the fall of 701, ordered Li Chongrun, Li Xianhui, and Wu Yanji all to commit suicide  (or, possibly, be caned to death). It was said that Li Chongrun had been handsome, loved his parents, and cared for his siblings, and that his death was much mourned by the common people. He was also only 19.

Chongrun's death devastated the Crown Princess Wei, worse yet in all of this, his death would also leave the Crown Princess Wei without an heir born of her blood for her husband, as all of Li Xian's others sons- Li Chongfu, Li Chongjun, and Li Chongmao were all born of concubines. This time- though, Wei would have not been the only one who would have wanted the old crone gone.

In spring 705, Wu Zetian became seriously ill, and the Zhang brothers, fearing with her death they would have been purged in a reactionary terror, began to slowly marshal soldiers and loyalists to swear loyalty to them. There were many rumors that they were seeking to displace Li Xiǎn.

To preserve the last embers of the Tang dynasty, five powerful counselors who yet retained important positions at court and yet remained loyal to the Tang contacted Li and plotted to overthrow Wu and the Zhang brothers. Most importantly, the Princess Taiping- who had then served for 20 years as Empress Wu's unofficial spymaster threw her weight in as well to utterly root out these two consorts.

The coup leaders bribed the officers of Empresses' newly formed 万骑 "Ten Thousand Rider" bodyguards and acted on 20 February, killing Zhang Yizhi and Zhang Changzong, and then (very politely) woke the old Empress to inform her of her dethronement. On 21 February, an edict was issued in her name that made Li Xian regent, and on 22 February, an edict was issued in her name passing the throne to Li Xian.

On 23 February, Li Xian formally retook the throne as the Zhongzong Emperor (meaning the "middle sovereign.") and the next day, Wu Zetian, under heavy guard, was moved to the subsidiary palace, Shangyang Palace (上陽宮), On 3 March, Tang dynasty was restored, fully ending the Zhou.

Despite her installment as the new Empress though, the Empress Wei must have felt that all she had earned had not been more than a hollow victory. The old woman had- before dying taken all that mattered away,

In the winter of 705, Wu Zetian died. Her "emperor" title was subsequently removed and empress title restored, and Emperor Zhongzong buried her at Qianling, with his father Emperor Gaozong. And our story again returned to her contemplating that single familiar Daoist proverb. Something else also echoed in her mind, now that she was received by all as the new reigning Empress.

Would she have done anything different from what Wu had done now that she's Empress? Would she have treated those who would oppose her with any difference?


In 705, after Emperor Zhongzong was formally enthroned, he posthumously honored Empress Wei's father Wei Xuanzhen as the Prince of Shangluo and her mother Lady Cui as the Princess of Shangluo, reburying them in grand ceremonies, he had her four brothers properly re-interred with ranks due to dukes and high nobles. 

He also ordered to have his deceased children, Li Chongrun and Li Xianhui be reburied with honors usually only due emperors near the tomb of Emperor Gaozong. He had the deceased daughter of his mother- in law be posthumously married to Li Chongrun and had her buried with Chongrun. Then he posthumously honored Li Chongrun as Crown Prince Yide and Li Xianhui as Princess Yongtai. 

In some ways, at last, it seemed that after 15 years of hell and suffering, Wei had finally put her family on the same level next to the august house of Emperors. That by positioning them, and rearranging them, their names and their resting forms were elevated to be equal to anyone who would look at them in the future when they regarded some family tree or cast their gaze upon the imperial mausoleums. It seemed, if one were to not look too closely...they would have belonged there all along.

These gestures would have not changed her worries as she tried to readjust to the gilded interiors of the Daming Palace, to the sound of thousands of muffled shuffling feet of the Palace Servants. Now after having finally attained power, she became aware of the implication of power, of presiding at the crest of a triumphant wave that she had never contemplated. Of actually having power- and knowing that all power would one day will fall.

→ Music: ← Omen

How did the saying goes? Something to the effect of: "ruling was like lying in a bed of weeds and pulling them out one by one before they strangle you in their sleep?" Again the question echoed in her mind, Would she have done anything different from what Wu had done now that she's Empress? Would she have treated those who would oppose her with any difference?

No, probably not (according to her reign)
After all, she's not going anywhere
and the old woman was right,

It's just such an annoyance that it had taken the old crone so long to die for this day to come. On the matter of power the old woman had been absolutely right of course, how else were you going to deal with dangers except uprooting them and crushing them all? She as Empress would not have done anything different, it was never in her character to do anything less. 

Besides, she had not been idle in her long climb back, considering the list of thousands of names she had made. If she would be half as "merciful" to them as that old crone, Amitāh Buddha have mercy on them all.


Once restored, Empress Wei became a dominant figure at her husband's court, immediately after her enthronement she would have unleashed her vengeance against her list of enemies with the veracious hunger of a hungry tiger. All of her enemies would soon became enemies of the new Tang regime.

To avenge her mother's and brothers' deaths, Empress Wei had Emperor Zhongzong order Zhou Rengui (周仁軌), the commandant at Guang Prefecture in the south (廣州, roughly modern Guangzhou, Guangdong), to take a force of twenty thousand men to pursue the barbarian chieftan Ning Chengji and his brothers. Zhou mobilized his cohorts and promptly marched south, defeating Ning in battle and continued on a genocidal warpath slaughtering all of Ning's clansmen they encountered.

After Ning Chenji was caught and killed, Rengui exterminated Ning's whole clan. This marked the end of the Nings as a powerful local dynasty- in fact they were so utterly wiped out that many of the local chieftans who soon descended on the Ning remnants were surprised that the Tang didn't even stay to raise new native regime loyal to the Tang- as the common protocol dictated, the Tang simply came like a wind, killed, then left, not even bothering to loot or to "nation build" it had all been a message. Rengui offered Ning Chenji's head as a posthumous sacrifice at Lady Cui's grave (the Chinese has always had a primal superstitious that the unrequited ghost of those horribly wronged and those who suffered a violent death would not be placated- would be locked in a perpetual state of torment until their enemies have been disgraced before their graves- either in genuine contrition or to have their life taken,) For his action in utterly rooting out Ning's clan, in gratitude, Empress Wei bowed to Zhou, honoring him like a father, and had Emperor Zhongzong elevated Zhou to the Duke of Ru'nan.


Next, within the same year, Empress Wei set out to remove and isolate all who could challenge her. Immediately after the coup, the five ringleaders of the coup- Zhang Jianzhi, Cui Xuanwei, Jing Hui, Huan Yanfan, and Yuan Shuji were placed by Zhongzong into prominent positions and created dukes, -with Zhang becoming the minister of defense (夏官尚書) while remaining chancellor, and now enoffed as of Duke of Hanyang and with Cui becoming (內史) the head of the legislative bureau, and attaining the new title of Duke of Boling.

But Empress Wei and her lover Wu Sansi (Yes- her lover, and incidentally Zhongzong's closest personal adviser: remember this character, his last name of WU as we will surely discuss him later) repeatedly warned Zhongzong that the coup leaders were overly powerful and dangerous. If they could unseat the Empress in one night, why not your, your Majesty?

→ Music: ← The Black Deserts of Kara Korum

After orchestrating an intensive whispering campaign where she made the palace servants spread the same rumors among each other, "tales" were circulated that the ministers had been murdering innocent people through mistrials and took exorbitant bribes, that they had bent laws so that each were secretly amassing powers within their local jurisdiction, and most alarmingly they- through their contacts and insiders slowly conspiring with the palace guards- points that was almost word for word parroted of the Empress's previous warnings, soon the Emperor began to believe the strong worded caution from his wife and her lover.

In fall 705- merely months after unseating the now- late Empress, Emperor Zhongzong agreed, and under the instruction of Wu Sansi created the coup leaders princes under guise of honoring them, but removed them far from their chancellor positions. It does make one wonder, did they all realize that it was the Empress herself and Wu Sansi who was the one secretly offering offices for sale, buying their own officers and making influential legislative decisions with the seal of the Emperor? Regardless, the Emperor probably did, but then again, dynasty is foremost a family affair.

In spring 706, with all five of the coup leaders already out of the capital, Wu Sansi and Empress Wei made further accusations against them, and they were demoted to more remote prefectures (although Zhang was not moved).

Wu Sansi then had his strategist Zheng Yin further accuse the five of them of having participated in the plot of Emperor Zhongzong's son-in-law Wang Tongjiao (王同皎) -- who was executed early in 706 after having been accused of plotting to kill Wu Sansi and deposing Empress Wei. The five were further demoted with the provisions that they would never be allowed to return to the capital Chang'an, Wu Sansi then had accusations that Empress Wei was having affairs posted publicly in Luoyang (now eastern capital, with the capital moved back to Chang'an), with the intent of incensing Emperor Zhongzong—and then accused the five coup leaders of being behind this public humiliation.
He then had his associates propose that the five be killed. 

Emperor Zhongzong, struck with mercy, cited that the five had been previously awarded iron certificates that guaranteed that they would not be executed in recognition of their contribution, ordered that they be reduced to commoner rank and permanently exiled to the southern penal colony of the Lingnan region with their families— but their secretaries, servants and close associates were all promptly executed under the Empress' orders.

In Zhang's case, to Long Prefecture (瀧州, in modern Ganzhou, Jiangxi), in Cui's case, to Gu Prefecture (古州, roughly modern Lạng Sơn Province, Vietnam), in Jing's case, to Qiong Prefecture, on the island of modern Hainan, in Huan's case, to Rang Prefecture (瀼州, roughly modern Chongzuo, Guangxi) in Yuan's case, to Huan Prefecture (環州, roughly modern Hechi, Guangxi).

Wu Sansi then sent the imperial censor- (a Grand Inquisitor) Zhou Lizhen (周利貞) to the Lingnan region under guise of reviewing the affairs of the region but with instructions to kill the five. By the time that Zhou reached the region, though, Zhang Jianzhi and Cui Xuanwei had already died under mysterious circumstances- or- it was suggested they each commited suicide when they heard Zhou was coming for them, so when Zhou was finally able to get his hands on one of them he had Huan Yanfan bound and then slid over sharpened bamboo roots, tearing Huan's flesh off until bones were showing; he then caned Huan to death- Huan would have been the luckier one. Upon meeting Jing Hui at his place of exile, he had Jing's flesh cut out piece by piece for days until Jing died.

At last Zhou arrived at Yuan's place of exile, he forced Yuan to drink the juice of the poisonous plant Gelsemium elegans- which slowly strangles the victim, but Yuan did not die immediately—a fact that traditional historians attributed to Yuan's frequently taking an alchemist medication known as "yellow gold" (黃金). However, he suffered immensely from the poison and was angry over how he was treated, and he toiled on the ground, scratching it, causing his nails to fall off. Zhou then had him caned to death. The Empress was not done after their disposal, for soon- she turned her vengeful eye on her husband's other concubines.


These chilling details, the exact words which I faithfully have quoted above are sourced to the "Old Book of Tang," vol. 91. and the Song dynasty historian Sima Guan's "Zizhi Tongjian," vols. 207, 208. Though it was indeed what was written in the texts- as a lover of history I find myself having to challenge the authenticity of those Mafia-eque scenes which are utterly reminiscent of an edgy HBO drama.

For one thing- they were written after Empress Wei was no longer in power and probably by those who had long hated her and thus wanted to control her story as they try to attach as many debauched, flamboyant scenes to her career as possible- reminescent of- say: a Biblical Jezebel or Athaliah- the very image of a domineering "bad queen" that should be "properly" toppled in order to restore the old conservative order, history was written by victors is you recall. 

Secondly I challenge how exactly does the chronicler- being a scribe who was not intimately familiar with the court knew of those exact details to such grotesque and gory extent? ~A bit of sensationalist revisionist propaganda perhaps? As for Sima Guan- since he was a chronicler from 400 years later after the Tang dynasty, it seemed he largely just parroted the Old Book of Tang. 

Though that's all I could say in defense for Empress Wei. For it was also incontrovertibly true that all five of the ministers who were instrumental in toppling Empress Wu and shoring up Li Xian and Wei as legitimate Tang successors were all exiled and all assassinated and nearly all tortured until all died by the spring of 706- certainly under order direct from the Wu Sansi- Wei clique. 

Their deaths- officially reported as death from sickness or through redemptive labor likely did not fool any commoners, but as shocking as the colorful deaths of these once- honored and illustrious ministers, it was nothing compared to the...well, other bit of scandalous gossip that was eagerly traded and devoured by the everyone- that of the brazen lust of the Empress and her inner court of lovers. 

Thank you for reading the first part of Shadow of the Empress! 
Join us next chapter as we delve into Zhongzong's inner harem of bedfellows- who would literally became another "inner court" that advised on his imperial policies, the extravagance of a magnificent Princess with expensive appetite for riches and men and even greater hunger for power. 

Finally to the shadowy smooth talker and killer-charmer Wu Sansi himself- who, in the year of his greatest danger was able to made out with more power, more prestige, a host of his rival's women and hundreds of dead enemies. 

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➢ ☯ Stephen D Rynerson
➢ ☯ SRS (Mr. U)


It seems the Tang are very harsh in regards to collective punishment- especially in the instance of, say...the purging of an entire clan. 

Indeed so, but like all madness, there is a method. The political landscape of China during this time concentrated the majority of power within the hands of the different princes, or the sub- clans of the imperial family where each brother, each uncle not only retained a large staff of his own ministers, great contingents of bodyguards, but also hosts of powerful women and loyal children around them. 

Being near- equals in power to each other and all being potential heirs to claim the throne made them great threats not only to each other but to the realm itself- after all, didn't the greatest of Tang Emperors, Emperor Taizong slew two of his own brothers and forced his own father to abdicate- just to almost have one of his sons try to displace him in a similar manner? 

Consider that if the sitting Emperor is having trouble maintaining the confidence of his officers and his nobles, what's stopping these "deep state" bureaucrats from...say, replace him with an uncle or a brother after they get rid of him? Consider that the empire is the body of a giant fighting machine, while the Emperor's small immediate family its brain, another clan could literally be another brain to be swapped to make the entire empire behave differently.

Thus- like feudal Japan it was not uncommon for great punishments such as mass forced suicide and mass execution to pass down collectively to all the clan members born from this male heir, the protocol usually goes that if elements within the clan- be they servants, ministers, or kinsmen would report of treason to the authorities beforehand, only the conspirators at the top would be punished, but if they remained silent and acted suspiciously in a conspiratorial manner collectively, then all- ringleaders + staff would be executed.)


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