Empress Zhangsun – Emperor Taizong’s fine assistant




Miao Pu as Empress Zhangsun in Court Lady (screenshot/fair use)

Empress Zhangsun was the wife of Emperor Taizong of Tang. She has been the role model of a virtuous empress for many centuries. She gave her husband constructive advice that would help him run the nation effectively. Empress Zhangsun was also a prolific writer and poet. She wrote a ten-volume book called The Principles of Women. In this book, she focuses on the virtues of past Chinese women. Thus, Empress Zhangsun’s story proves that she was worthy of being a virtuous role model for later generations of women.

Empress Zhangsun was born in 601 C.E.[1] She was of Xianbei origins.[2] She was descended from the Tuoba clan that had once ruled the Northern Wei dynasty.[3] The Tuoba clan was from Luoyang, which is why some historians say that she was born in Luoyang.[4] Empress Zhangsun’s family later changed their name from Tuoba to Zhangsun due to the positions they held under the Sui dynasty.[5] Because Empress Zhangsun’s family worked for the Sui, other historians believe that she was born in the Sui capital of Chang’an.[6]

Empress Zhangsun’s father was Zhangsun Shen, who served under the Sui as a palace guard.[7] Her mother was Lady Gao, the daughter of the Governor of Yangzhou.[8] She had three half-brothers named Zhangsun Anye, Zhangsun Xinghu, and Zhangsun Heng’an.[9] She also had a full-blooded brother named Zhangsun Wuji. Her father died when she was nine years old, and Zhangsun Anye kicked Empress Zhangsun and her brother out of the house.[10] Their uncle, Gao Shilan, took the two children in and brought them up in his household.[11] 

Empress Zhangsun had a passion for reading.[12] She especially loved reading biographies about virtuous women, and these women were to serve as her role models throughout the rest of her life.[13] Empress Zhangsun also had a love of portraits and often looked at them.[14] When she was thirteen, she became a concubine to Li Shimin, son of the Duke of Tang.[15] When Li Shimin’s father, Li Yuan, decided to rebel against the Sui dynasty, he ordered all his sons to raise an army. Li Shimin raised an army, and Lady Zhangsun’s brother, Zhangsun Wuji, fought alongside him.[16] Thus, Li Shimin and Zhangsun Wuji established a deep friendship.[17]

In 618 C.E., Li Yuan overthrew Sui and founded the Tang Dynasty. He became Emperor Gaozu. Emperor Gaozu made Li Shimin the Prince of Qin.[18] Lady Zhangsun was made Li Shimin’s primary wife. Thus, she became the Princess of Qin. In 626 C.E., Li Shimin fought with his two brothers, Li Jiancheng and Li Yuanji, for the throne. Princess Zhangsun supported her husband’s cause as the next Emperor.[19] Li Shimin’s two brothers became allies to eliminate him. They gathered 500 men at Xuanwu Gate waiting to kill Li Shimin. However, Li Shimin quickly discovered his brothers’ plan. He gathered his own troops, including Zhangsun Wuji.[20] Princess Zhangsun gave a rousing speech that inspired many men to fight and die for Li Shimin.[21] Li Shimin’s army marched to Xuanwu Gate and fought his brothers’ army. His brothers died during the battle, and Li Shimin established victory.[22] He was made Crown Prince.[23] In 627 C.E., Emperor Gaozu abdicated in favour of his son. Li Shimin ascended the throne as Emperor Taizong, and Zhangsun became Empress.[24] 

Empress Zhangsun was known to be a virtuous empress.[25] When Emperor Taizong’s concubines fell ill, she would bring them food and medicine.[26] Empress Zhangsun also encouraged frugality within the palace and did not interfere in politics.[27] She did not believe in promoting her family members, and she often persuaded her brother to refuse court positions.[28] Instead, Emperor Taizong gave him an honorary title as “Commander Unequal in Honor”.[29] Empress Zhangsun gave birth to six children. Three of them were sons, and the other three were daughters. When one of her daughters named Princess Changle was about to be married, many courtiers wanted to give the imperial family extravagant gifts.[30] However, Prime Minister Wei Zheng disagreed with the extravagance.[31] Empress Zhangsun approved of Wei Zheng’s advice, rewarded him, and praised his virtue.[32] 

Empress Zhangsun loved to spend her time reading and discussing history with Emperor Taizong.[33] Empress Zhangsun also advised Emperor Taizong to listen to his officials’ advice and criticism.[34] She believed that by listening to constructive criticism, he could grow as an Emperor.[35] She also told him to rely on Wei Zheng as Prime Minister because he was a virtuous and skilled administrator.[36] Emperor Taizong was so impressed with Empress Zhangsun’s advice that he said to his officials, “Empress offers excellent advice. I benefit greatly.” [37]

One day, Emperor Taizong was about to execute one of his horsemen because his horse had died suddenly.[38] Empress Zhangsun saved the horseman by saying, “Honest words do not often please one’s ears, but every ruler of the state and head of the family should understand their importance. If one cannot act justly, then one cannot control society. If good advice is not heeded, politics will be chaotic. If your majesty learns this lesson well, it will benefit all people of society.” [39]

Empress Zhangsun also saved Wei Zheng and Fuan Xuanling from execution. The Emperor had a heated argument with them about state matters and wanted to execute them but was stopped by Empress Zhangsun.[40] She reminded the Emperor of their service to him.[41] Later, when Empress Zhangsun was on her deathbed, Emperor Taizong would reinstate Fuan Xuanling.[42]

In 636 C.E., Empress Zhangsun fell ill. As she lay dying, the Crown Prince proposed to pardon the criminals and heretics.[43] She refused to do so because, with all criminals and heretics set loose in the country, it could bring great ruin to the nation and its people.[44] Empress Zhangsun also asked for a simple burial.[45] Then, Empress Zhangsun died on 28 July 636 C.E. She was thirty-five. She was buried in the Zhao-ling Mausoleum.[46] 

Empress Zhangsun was known to be a prominent writer. During her lifetime, she composed a ten-volume book called The Principles of Women.[47] This book was about the virtues of past Chinese women.[48] When Emperor Taizong learned about her work after her death, he read it and believed it was good enough to be published.[49] Unfortunately, her book no longer survives.[50] Instead, we are left with one small poem that was recorded in The Poems of the Tang Dynasty.[51] It went:

“Peach flowers of the imperial garden, brilliant in the morning,

The glamorous orchid-room concubine has spring fever.

Her face steals the hue of the new peach flower by the well,

Her slight body moves like the tender willow branch under the eaves.

Watching butterflies flitting among the flowers,

Listening to the oriole’s songs, long then short, in the trees.

No need to ask in a faraway forest,

She has long been known as a fabulous romantic lover.[52]

Emperor Taizong deeply mourned the loss of his beloved wife.[53] He told his ministers that he had lost one of his best assistants.[54] He would always remember her advice and would never forget her.[55] Because of Empress Zhangsun’s wise counsel, Emperor Taizong was able to see both his strengths and weaknesses as a ruler.[56] Due to her wisdom, Tang China became a strong nation.[57] Her greatest legacy was her constructive criticism, and later generations would look up to her as a role model.[58] Historians have referred to Empress Zhangsun as “the fine assistant of the Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty” [59]. This is fine praise for a woman who put the welfare of the nation before her own interests.

Sources:

Ruizhi, S. & Li, M.. (2015).” Empress Shunxian”. Notable Women of China: Shang Dynasty to the Early Twentieth Century. (B. B. Peterson, Ed.). London: Routledge.

McMahon, K. (2013). Women Shall Not Rule: Imperial Wives and Concubines in China from Han to Liao. NY: Rowman and Littlefield.

Liu, N. & Cui, H. S. (2014). “Zhangsun, Empress of Emperor Taizong of Tang.” Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women, Volume II: Tang Through Ming 618 – 1644. (L. X. H. Lee, Ed.; A. D. Stefanowska, Ed.; S. Wiles, Ed.). NY: Routledge.


[1] Ruizhi & Li, p. 181

[2] McMahon, p. 188

[3] Liu & Cui, p. 606

[4] Liu & Cui, p.606

[5] Liu & Cui, p. 606

[6] Liu & Cui, p. 606

[7] Ruizhi & Li, p. 181

[8] Ruizhi & Li, p. 181

[9] Ruizhi & Li, p. 181

[10] Ruizhi & Li, p. 181

[11] Ruizhi & Li, p. 181

[12] Liu & Cui, p. 606

[13] Liu & Cui, p.  606

[14] Liu & Cui, p. 606

[15] Ruizhi & Li, p. 181

[16] Liu & Cui, p. 606

[17] Liu & Cui, p. 606

[18] Liu & Cui, p. 606

[19] Liu & Cui, p. 606

[20] Liu & Cui, p. 606

[21] Liu & Cui, p. 606

[22] Liu & Cui, p. 606

[23] Liu & Cui, p. 606

[24] Liu & Cui, p. 606

[25] Ruizhi & Li, p. 181

[26] Ruizhi & Li, p. 182

[27] Liu & Cui, p. 607; McMahon, p. 188;

[28] Ruizhi & Li, p.  182

[29] Liu & Cui, p. 607

[30] Ruizhi & Li, p. 183

[31] Ruizhi & Li, p. 183

[32] Ruizhi & Li, p. 183

[33] Ruizhi & Li, p. 183

[34] Liu & Cui, p. 607

[35] Liu & Cui, p. 607

[36] Liu & Cui, p. 607

[37] Ruizhi & Li, p. 183

[38] Ruizhi & Li, p. 183

[39] Ruizhi & Li, pp. 183-184

[40] Ruizhi & Li, p. 184

[41] Ruizhi & Li, p. 184

[42] Ruizhi & Li, p. 184

[43] Ruizhi & Li, p. 184

[44] Ruizhi & Li, p. 184

[45] Liu & Cui, p. 607

[46] Ruizhi & Li, p. 184

[47] Ruizhi & Li, p. 184

[48] Liu & Cui, p. 606

[49] Ruizhi & Li, p. 185

[50] Liu & Cui, p. 606

[51] Ruizhi & Li, p. 185

[52] Liu & Cui, p, 607

[53] Ruizhi & Li, p. 185

[54] Ruizhi & Li, p. 185

[55] Ruizhi & Li, p. 185

[56] Ruizhi & Li, p. 185

[57] Ruizhi & Li, p. 185

[58] Ruizhi & Li, p. 185

[59] Ruizhi & Li, p. 185






About Lauralee Jacks 93 Articles
I have a bachelor’s degree in Liberal and Civic Studies from St. Mary’s College of California, a master’s in Elementary Education from the University of Phoenix, and a doctorate in Educational Leadership from the College of Saint Mary. I live in Tennessee where I taught first grade. Because my family are from East Asia, I have a passion for historical Chinese and Korean television shows. I always wanted to separate fact from dramas. Writing articles from History of Royal Women gives me a chance to dig deeper and explore these royal women as they might have been in real life. Also, it gives me a chance to look at the history and culture of where my family originated. I love researching East Asian royalty because they rarely get enough attention in the West often being overshadowed by European royalty. I find these royal women to be just as fascinating and their stories deserve to be told. Thus, I am excited to write for History of Royal Women!

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