Shangguan Wan’er Discovered: Chinese Cultural Pre-Eminence Remembered

Archaeologists have made an interesting discovery in the northern Chinese province of Shaanxi; the tomb of Shangguan Wan’er, a 7th century Tang Dynasty imperial consort and political adviser. An epitaph on the tomb confirms the discovery and, although it has survived the cultural ravages of Maoism, it is in poor condition.

This is a pity, for not only was Shangguan Wan’er supposed to be beautiful but her cultural influence was unprecedented in an era traditionally dominated by politicians and warlords. A poet, writer and political theorist, Shangguan Wan’er’s talents made her the premier concubine of Emperor Zhongzong and a close confidante.

Shangguan Wan'er
Shangguan Wan’er

Such was her importance and political potential that, on her master’s death in 710, Shangguan Wan’er was poisoned by a rival political family fearful she would hold onto power.

For a woman to hold such influence in any seventh century court is remarkable, yet it is testament to the progressive cultural atmosphere that characterised China in the period before the Mongol invasions.

In early 11th century Japan, Murasaki Shibiku, a noblewoman, wrote The Tale of Genji, a classic piece of literature suggested by some to be the world’s first novel. Depicting court life at the height of the Heian period, Shibiku wrote her masterpiece in Chinese.

Copies of the Tale of Genji were accompanied by contemporary works of art
Copies of the Tale of Genji were accompanied by contemporary works of art

Such was the dominance of Chinese culture in Japan during the Heian period, with Buddhism and Taoism widely adopted, that the Chinese language became the Japanese language of government. Indeed, such a reality must still send shivers down Japanese spines today!

Nevertheless, despite women generally being precluded from learning Chinese – with politics reserved for the male caste – Shibiku self-taught and produced a work of startling complexity some three centuries before Chaucer was even born.

Shibiku, like Shangguan Wan'er, is elegantly remembered by history
Shibiku, like Shangguan Wan’er, is elegantly remembered by history

The Chinese are noted for their plethora of inventions and this came about largely due to a flourishing culture in which creativity was not restricted to men. Whilst Europe went through its so-called Dark Ages of religious obeisance and cultural persecution, women like Shangguan Wan’er and Murasaki Shikibu were at the centre of social and political life.

Rampaging Mongols and political infighting helped to destroy the cultural flowering of the Chinese, and the archaic Ming dynasty, with its rigid protocols and refusal to modernise, left China trailing the world by the 17th century.

Much the same can be said for Japan. Whilst the Kamakura period (1185-1333) ushered in a unique Japanese feudal culture and the way of the samurai, the creative expression of the Chinese-influenced Heian period was never recaptured. The Warring States period and persistent feudalism meant that Japan was isolated from the rest of the world until after the mid-19th century, by which time it had fallen into cultural and economic stagnation.

The samurai are seen as an essential ingredient of Japanese culture - yet it was often they who restricted cultural development
The samurai are seen as an essential ingredient of Japanese culture – yet it was often they who restricted cultural development

China and Japan have both recovered from their periods of isolation economically and politically and, despite some government-imposed restrictions in China, both countries can now be said to have a thriving cultural life.

Yet it is a culture based on Western technology – especially in Japan’s case and increasingly so in China’s case – rather than one that is wholly indigenous.

‘Traditional’ Chinese culture is by no means dead, yet it no longer has the pre-eminence  that it enjoyed during the years of Shangguan Wan’er and the succeeding centuries, when emissaries would travel from distant lands in search of Cathay and regional rivals Japan would adopt the Chinese language as a symbol of status.

Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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