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Great Empresses of China—Worthy Role Models for Traditional Chinese Women (Part 3 of 3)

December 20, 2011 |  


(Continued from Part 2-http://www.clearwisdom.net/html/articles/2011/12/19/130216.html )

3. Empress Zhangsun of Tang Dynasty

Empress Zhangsun was the daughter of Sui Dynasty general Zhangsun Sheng, who passed away when she was eight years old. She was raised by her mother's brother, Gao Shilian, and she married Li Shimin at the age of 13. Thirteen days after Li Shimin inherited the title of emperor, he named her as the empress. As an empress, Zhangsun often gave Li Shimin examples from history to encourage him. She also rectified his ruling mistakes and was known to protect honest and loyal officials. She gave birth to three sons and four daughters. She died on the 10th year of Zhenguan (636), and was given the posthumous title of Empress Wendeshunsheng (literally “the civil, virtuous, serene, and holy empress”) or, in short, Empress Wende. Li Shimin praised her as the “perfect spouse” and a “great help” and built an elevated platform so that he could see her tomb from a distance.

Empress Zhangsun grew up in an official's family and received a formal, traditional education. As a young woman, she was polite, virtuous, gentle, and kind. When she was still a child, a fortuneteller calculated her birth date and said that she “had boundless virtue and would become indescribably noble.”

At the age of 13, she married Li Shimin, who was 17 at the time and the son of Taiyuan City's top official. Although she was still very young, she could already carry out her role. She served his mother- and father-in-law, assisted her husband, and educated their children.

In August of the ninth year of Wude (626), Emperor Li Yuan passed the crown to Li Shimin, who was known as Emperor Taizong, and Zhangsun became the empress of the nation. She stayed humble and frugal. She served the aging Li Yuan conscientiously, going to greet him every morning and evening and frequently reminding the servants about how to take good care of him. She paid her filial piety just as an ordinary daughter-in-law. She was very kind and tolerant to the ladies-in-waiting and eunuchs in the palace, and her virtue touched everyone. This helped create a good atmosphere behind the scenes, which enabled Emperor Taizong to focus on governing the country instead of spending energy on family issues. Although Empress Zhangsun grew up in a rich family and was the wife of an emperor, she lived frugally. She never paid much attention to luxury and never went in for extravagant celebrations or meals. This set a good example for others in the palace.

Emperor Taizong also respected her a great deal and often talked with her about national affairs. Although she had great understandings and good opinions on many things, she did not want to interfere in national affairs. She thought that men and women were different and were responsible for different things. Once Emperor Taizong insisted on hearing her opinion. She could not refuse to respond, so she told the Emperor, “Think of danger even at peaceful times; choose honest and capable officials and accept their opinions. That's all I know as your wife and nothing else.”

Official Wei Zheng was famous for not being afraid of giving his opinion to Emperor Taizong. Wei Zheng often directly pointed out Emperor Taizong's mistakes and insisted that he correct them. Emperor Taizong respected him and called him “a loyal official with good advice.” One time Emperor Taizong wanted to go hunting. He gathered many people and they were about to go to the countryside. When they got to the palace gate, he encountered Wei Zheng. Wei Zheng asked where he was going and then said, “It is springtime now. Everything has just started to grow, and the animals are raising their young. It is not a good time for hunting. I ask your majesty to return to the palace.” Emperor Taizong said he would go anyway, but Wei Zheng would not give in. He stood firmly in the middle of the road to block the emperor's entourage. Emperor Taizong was very angry. He got off the horse and went back to the palace.

Emperor Taizong saw Empress Zhangsun and said angrily, “I'm going to kill that upstart!" Empress Zhangsun asked what had happened but did not comment immediately. She retreated to her bedchambers and put on her official empress gown. Standing solemnly, she bowed to Emperor Taizong. He was surprised and asked her, “For what occasion are you so serious?” She responded, "I have heard that only a most able emperor will have subordinates with integrity. Wei shows so much integrity because you are an able emperor. Therefore, I congratulate you." Emperor Taizong was stunned for a moment. As he thought about it, he agreed with her and then his anger turned to happiness.

Empress Zhangsun's oldest son, Li Chengqian, was named crown prince when he was young. At the time the entire imperial palace was run frugally, and the prince's palace was no exception. Those who were responsible for it asked many times to have the funds for the prince increased. But Empress Zhangsun would not agree, even though Li Chengqian was her beloved son. She said, “He is the crown prince and he should worry about his virtue and his name and not think about a shortage of things or lack of money!” Her fairness and wisdom was admired by everyone in the palace, and everyone was willing to go along with her arrangements.

Zhangsun Wuji was the older brother of Empress Zhangsun. He was both a civil and a military official and made great contributions in helping Li Shimin and the Tang Dynasty to establish the nation. Based on his accomplishments, he should have been a high official. However, because he was the brother of the empress, he often had to avoid arousing people's suspicion. Emperor Taizong wanted him to be the chancellor, but Empress Zhangsun said, “As your wife, I'm inside the imperial palace and in an extremely important position. I really don't want to see all my brothers standing in the imperial court, which would make it look like one family. The Empress Lu in the Han Dynasty was a lesson for us. I ask your majesty to not appoint my brother to be the chancellor!” With no other choice, Taizong agreed to appoint Zhangsun Wuji to another high level office with no real power. But Zhangsun Wuji refused this position as well. His reasoning was: “I'm the brother of the Emperor's wife. If I'm named a high level official, then I'm afraid that everyone will talk about your majesty favoring your family members.” Emperor Taizong responded very seriously, “When I choose officials, I choose the people who fit the positions. I employ them if they have the ability. If they don't have the ability, then I will not use them even if they are my family members. Li Shenfu is a good example. If one has the ability, then I'll use him despite any previous private conflicts. Wei Zheng is another such example (previous to Li Shimin becoming the emperor, Wei Zheng was on the opposing side that supported Li Shimin's brother to be the emperor). This decision is not due to the family connection between us.” Zhangsun Wuji finally agreed.

Princess Changle was the beloved daughter of Emperor Taizong and Empress Zhangsun. When she was getting married, she asked her parents to make her dowry twice the size of Emperor Taizong's sister, Princess Yongjia. Emperor Taizong originally agreed. But Wei Zheng said to Emperor Taizong in the imperial court, “Due to their age and birth order, it is not appropriate for Princess Changle's dowry to be more than Princess Yongjia's. There are rules about these things, and I hope your majesty will not do this as it will just give people something to talk about!” At first, Emperor Taizong didn't take these words very seriously. He later casually told Empress Zhangsun what Wei Zheng had said. But Empress Zhangsun took Wei's words very seriously. She praised Wei Zheng, saying, “I often hear that your majesty treats Wei Zheng with a lot of respect and I didn't know why. Today I heard what he said, and it is really true as to following the principle and disregarding private sentimentality. As an official, he is truly a treasure to this country. I am your original wife, and we have a great bond. But even so, before I say something to you, I often have to take into account to your majesty's expression and temper, since I'm afraid of offending you. But Wei Zheng could disagree with you about a family affair as an ordinary official, and that is very difficult to do. Your majesty indeed should consider his words.” In the end, as arranged by Empress Zhangsun, Princess Changle got married without an excessive dowry.

After this, Empress Zhangsun rewarded Wei Zheng with 400 pieces of silk and 400 min of money. She also passed along to him these words: “I've heard that you are very honest and upright. Now I see it and thus I reward you for it. I hope that you will stay the same and never change.” With Empress Zhangsun's support and encouragement, Wei Zheng was even more dedicated to the country.

In the eighth year of Zhenguan (635), Empress Zhangsun went with Emperor Taizong to visit Jiucheng Palace and she got sick on their way back. Soon after, it caused a recurrence of an old illness. As her condition got worse, Crown Prince Chengqian asked Emperor Taizong to grant amnesty to all the prisoners and send them to a temple to ask heaven to restore Empress Zhangsun's health. All the officials agreed, and even Wei Zheng did not object to it. But Empress Zhangsun was firmly against it. She said, “Life and death are a matter of destiny; and wealth and honor are the will of heaven. If doing good deeds can indeed extend one's life, then I have never done bad deeds in my life. If doing good deeds does not affect one's life span, then what's the good of seeking fortune? Giving amnesty to prisoners is a national affair and the Taoist temples are quiet places. There is no need to interfere with these places because of me. Why violate the rules and principles of this country because of a woman?” She knew clearly the principles and insisted on not interfering with national affairs. Everyone was in tears when they heard her words, and Emperor Taizong eventually decided to listen to her and canceled the original plans.

In her last minutes, Empress Zhangsun still asked Emperor Taizong again and again to treat the good officials kindly and not let her family members hold high positions. She also asked for only a simple funeral.

Emperor Taizong was very sad. He gave orders that a small house be build on the road to her tomb. He had servants stay there for the empress just as they did when she was still alive. He then built an elevated plateform and stood on it everyday to look in the direction of her tomb. Although he was eventually advised by Wei Zheng to take the platform apart, it showed how much he missed the Empress Zhangsun.

The three great empresses described in this article were all able to strictly follow the moral values and rules passed down from the heavens. They were gentle, sensitive, honest, kind, virtuous, and rational. They took good care of their husbands and educated their children well. They not only won the respect of their husbands but also were highly regarded by all the generations up to today. They are therefore referred to as the greatest Chinese empresses of all times and have been models for traditional Chinese feminine values.