Wu Zetian started out as a concubine of Emperor Gaozong (649-683), eventually becoming his empress and gaining a high degree of influence over him.
After the emperor's death, Wu Zetian declared that she would rule China as Empress Dowager with her son, Emperor Ruizong. The epitaphs say that shortly after her declaration, a duke named Xu Jingye led a rebellion in Jiangdu (modern-day Yangzhou).
"The lord [Yan Shiwei] intentionally broke his own arm to resist the coercion from the rebel, showing that his loyalty to the imperial court had not been shaken," the epitaphs read in translation. [That would be a puzzling act, but I suspect it is a metaphor -- jcb]
In the ensuing conflict the duke's forces were defeated. Wu Zetian claimed power as Empress Dowager, and Yan Shiwei was promoted. "After the rebels were defeated, the lord received his reward. He was promoted to magistrate of Lanxi County of Wuzhou Prefecture and given the title of grand master for closing court," the epitaphs say.
In 690, Wu Zetian declared herself emperor in her own right and founded her own dynasty, which she called the "Zhou."
As Wu Zetian's power increased, Yan Shiwei became one of her favorite officials, taking on those who challenged her authority. The epitaphs say that at one point Yan Shiwei was charged with confronting "powerful families" near the capital city of Luoyang. The texts say that civil disorder was occurring.
"There were more spoiled young bullies in the counties near the capital, and the local officials feared those powerful families," the epitaphs say. Yan Shiwei resolved the situation, although the epitaphs are vague on how he did it, saying that "the lord was strict as the autumn frost, as well as warming as the winter sun, and got the people to learn self-control, and civil order was established."
By 699, Yan Shiwei had become a senior official who "was stationed in the capital area and controlled mountains and rivers."
"Before he started galloping, a tragedy descended upon him," the epitaphs say. Yan Shiwei's younger brother, Zhiwei, turned against the female emperor. The epitaphs don't specify precisely what Zhiwei did, but the consequences for Yan Shiwei and his family were severe.
"Due to guilt by association for the crime of his brother Zhiwei, he was executed under collective punishment," the epitaphs say, adding that "the entire family suffered collective punishment, and all were executed."
Yan Shiwei's wife, Lady Pei, had died a few years earlier, in 691, so she was not killed in the mass execution.
The epitaphs also suggest that murder was not enough of a punishment for Yan Shiwei's supposed betrayal. "The corpse and soul were carelessly buried, it being thought it would never be possible to move them for proper burial."
However, the female emperor was thrown out of power in 705, and died shortly afterward, bringing an end to her short-lived "Zhou" dynasty. The dynasty that had preceded her, called the "Tang," was restored to power.
"The resurrection of the Tang Dynasty brought exoneration [for Yan Shiwei]. Therefore, his remains were exhumed to be buried at his birthplace," the epitaphs say. The "tomb was built to house his remains," the writings say.