Tomb details official’s dealings, drama and death tied to China’s only female emperor
Many tombstones include some brief biographical data, such as dates and perhaps a compliment or two, but few can hold a candle to the inscriptions found on the tomb of Yan Shiwei. Living in the 7th century AD, Yan Shiwei’s tomb tells the tale of epic dramas, power and betrayals. The military adviser’s fortunes rose and fell thanks to his support thanks to the brief reign of China’s only female emperor, Wu Zetian, making for a very dense but fascinating epitaph.
Wu Zetian’s political career started as a concubine of Emperor Gaozong. Their relationship intensified, and Wu eventually became the Empress, wielding a fair amount of influence in the capital. When Emperor Gaozong died in 683 AD, Wu took over, ruling China as the Empress Dowager with her son, Emperor Ruizong. This unusual arrangement was not well received, and the popular support against the Empress Dowager created an opportunity for rebellion by the exiled Duke of Ying, Xu Jingye.
Enforcer for the empress
Yan Shiwei entered the story then in defense of the Empress Dowager. Yan stood against the rebelling duke, and is said to have intentionally broken his own arm to prove his loyalty, although it’s unclear if this was a literal injury or a metaphor. The rebellion was squashed, and Yan was promoted to help secure and enforce Wu’s power with regional authorities.
The relationship between Empress Dowager Wu and Yan Shiwei continued for a few more years, being beneficial to both parties. By 690, Wu promoted herself to Emperor, founding the Zhou dynasty, named after her birth name. Yan was granted more land and influence, serving the new Emperor until 699, when betrayal ended it all.
Reversals and ruination
Yan Shiwei’s younger brother was accused of working against Emperor Wu, which was enough to condemn the loyal official as well. In a case of collective punishment, the Yan family was executed. To further punish the perpetrator’s family, Yan Shiwei’s body was denied a proper burial in order to shame and injure the man’s soul as well.
The existence of this detailed tomb, of course, gives away the final reversal in this saga. Six years after Yan Shiwei’s execution, Emperor Wu was finally overthrown, cutting off the Zhou dynasty before it really started. The Tang Dynasty was restored, and pardoned the Yans. This allowed for Yan Shiwei’s remains to be reburied with his wife, in the adorned tomb that revealed his life story to researchers when it was excavated in 2002.
Source: Tomb Tells Tale of Family Executed by China's 1st Female Emperor by Owen Jarus, Live Science