Guest post: “The Story under the Stone: the tomb of Empress Wu”


I’m excited to share today’s guest post with you. It’s written by Weina Dai Randel, author of “The Moon in the Palace” and “The Empress of Bright Moon”, historical novels about China’s only empress, Empress Wu, about her life before and after she becomes empress. To make sure to paint a realistic picture of what life might have been like for China’s only empress, Weina has done about a decade of research for her novels (you can read more about it in this fascinating interview on Speaking of China). In today’s guest post, she tells us more about Empress Wu’s tomb in Xi’an. Enjoy!


(Weina Dai Randel)

If you go to Xi’an, you may wish to visit the great Terra Cotta Army of the Qin Dynasty there. And maybe, you’ll want to visit the Qianlin Mausoleum too, which is the tomb of Empress Wu, the first and only female ruler in China. And you might hear that Empress Wu shared the same tomb with her husband Emperor Gaozong.

This may not sound like it is a big deal. But, to me, it is. I’ll explain it here.

Empress Wu was the only woman, the only consort of an emperor in the Chinese history who shared the same burial site with her husband – yes, that is to say, the Qianlin Mausoleum is the only mausoleum for a couple of imperial rulers, and none of the empresses, favorite consorts, concubines in the Chinese history had the honor to be buried with the emperors.

This has much to do with the ancient tradition that Chinese husbands and wives, even though they shared the same bedroom, the same bed in life, did not share the same burial site in death. They were often buried separately.

But Empress Wu had requested to be buried with her husband, and her son, Emperor Zhongzong, had granted her wish. Since I have followed Empress Wu’s journey in The Moon in the Palace and The Empress of Bright Moon, I have heard enough slander about her personal life, and how she kept one thousand male concubines in the inner court. But I thought it intriguing that in reality, she had chosen to be buried with her husband, almost twenty years after his death.

This is a picture* of the Qianlin Mausoleum, where Emperor Gaozong and Empress Wu, were buried. To many Chinese, Empress Wu is also known by her ruling name as Wu Zetian.

Qianling Mausoleum

The mausoleum, famous for its many astounding stone statues, exquisite murals and flooring, and abundant collections of gold, silver, pottery and glassware, also features the giant stele, Empress Wu’s memorial tablet. Commonly called The No Word Tablet, it has no inscriptions.


Some people said Empress Wu’s tablet was left deliberately blank because Empress Wu, upon her death, decreed no comments of her should be written; some said her son, Emperor Zhongzong, angry at her, declined to write anything for her. Anyway, even today, we shall see Empress Wu’s empty memorial tablet.

This is a picture* of Empress Wu’s stele. It contains no words.

Qianling Mausoleum

Catherine Coyne, who interviewed me for Library Journal, requested me to write the epitaph for Empress Wu. It was difficult for me to pay tribute to Empress Wu’s extraordinary life, but nonetheless, I was honored to give this chance.

This is the epitaph I had written: “The seasons shall change, the tides shall turn, and the wind shall rise and fall, yet the tales of mine, and the spirit of my kind, shall fly through the tunnel of time and reach the ears of eternity.”

What do you think of the epitaph Weina has written for Empress Wu? Let us know in the comments!

*The pictures of the tomb and stele of Empress Wu are copyright by 猫猫的日记本 (source) and have been adjusted in size and color for this blog.

Follow me on Facebook.


Hi, I'm Ruth, welcome to China Elevator Stories! I have been living in Kunming and Shenzhen in the past and am now staying in Northeast China with my Chinese husband and our baby and toddler son. Join us on our journey bridging worlds!


  1. I am reading The Moon in the Palace right now! I love it. And I enjoyed your post. Seems to me that if her son granted her wish to be buried with the emperor, which was highly unusual, that he wouldn’t be angry with her to deny any words on her tablet. Maybe she felt the blank tablet would be more powerful that words.

  2. Pingback: Past and upcoming blogs and interviews | Weina Dai Randel

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *