Princess Taiping – The most powerful Princess of the Tang Dynasty (Part one)




taiping
Zhou Xun as Princes Taiping in Palace of Desire (Screenshot/Fair Use)

Princess Taiping was the most powerful and influential princess of the Tang Dynasty. She has left a tremendous mark in Chinese history that is impossible to overlook. No princess in Chinese history has ever wielded as much political influence or changed the course of history compared to Princess Taiping. Princess Taiping was a significant key player in the events of the Tang Dynasty. She helped dethrone her mother, Empress Wu, and restore both of her brothers, Emperor Zhongzong and Emperor Ruizong, to the throne. Yet her greatest legacy was her boldness in trying to become a female emperor of China, and she ultimately lost.

It is no wonder that Princess Taiping has managed to capture the imagination of popular media and why she is featured in many Chinese dramas, including a drama based on her life called Palace of Desire, in which she is played by Chen Hong. Because no Chinese princess has ever come close to matching her in history, I have decided to spend three articles discussing her life and the role she played. It makes one wonder why she would dare to try to usurp the throne for herself. In this first article, I will focus on the relationship she had with her mother, Empress Wu Zetian, and the role she played in restoring her brother, Emperor Zhongzong, to the throne.

Princess Taiping was born sometime after the year of 662 C.E. The date of her birth year and her personal name are unknown.[1] We only know her surname Li because that was the surname of the imperial family. She was the youngest of the three daughters of Emperor Gaozong and Empress Wu. At the age of six, the princess’s maternal grandmother, Lady Rong, died. The princess was sent to a Taoist Temple to pray for her grandmother.[2] When she was thirteen, the King of Tibet asked for the princess’s hand in marriage.[3] Empress Wu was very attached to her youngest daughter and did not want to send her to a foreign land. Empress Wu and Emperor Gaozong built a Taoist temple which they named Taiping, and appointed the princess as the head of the temple.[4] This was how she became known as Princess Taiping[5]. Princess Taiping was a nun only in name because her parents had marriage plans for her that were closer to home.[6] Princess Taiping was also not serious about being the leader of Taiping Temple and performed none of the duties that were required of her within the temple.[7]

Princess Taiping was known to be tall, and plump, and she had a chubby face (which was seen as “a richness and honour in ancient China”[8]).[9] She was said to be “bright, courageous, and resolute.”[10] She was Empress Wu’s favourite because the empress believed Princess Taiping took after her in personality and looks.[11] Empress Wu often discussed politics with Princess Taiping, and Princess Taiping became adept in politics.[12] 

In 681 C.E., Princess Taiping married her first cousin, Xue Shao (the son of her paternal aunt, Princess Chengyang).[13] Princess Taiping loved him, and their marriage was very happy. She bore him two sons and two daughters.[14] In 688 C.E., Princess Taiping’s husband, Xue Shao, was sentenced to die of starvation for being part of a rebellion against Empress Wu.[15] Empress Wu planned to marry Princess Taiping to her nephew, Wu Chengsi.[16] When Wu Chengsi contracted a disease, Empress Wu found him an unsuitable candidate.[17] Empress Wu chose Wu Youji, her brother’s grandson, to be the next husband of Princess Taiping.[18] There was an obstacle to the match as Wu Youji was already married.[19] Empress Wu hired an assassin to kill Wu Youji’s wife.[20] Immediately after Wu Youji became a widower, he married Princess Taiping.[21] Princess Taiping bore him two sons and one daughter.[22] 

Late in Empress Wu’s reign, Princess Taiping often found herself losing influence with her mother.[23] Empress Wu preferred her male favourites, the Zhang brothers, over Princess Taiping.[24] Princess Taiping disliked the Zhang brothers.[25] She was appalled by the Zhang brothers’ extravagant lifestyle and believed that her mother’s court should promote morality.[26] In 705 C.E., she joined a coup that killed the Zhang brothers, ousted her mother from the throne, and restored her brother, Emperor Zhongzong, to the throne.[27] Emperor Zhongzong recognised the role his sister played in restoring his throne (Emperor Zhongzong was emperor before in 684, but his mother deposed him in favour of his younger brother, Li Dan).[28] He gave her the honorary title of Princess Zhenguo Taiping (which meant “Princess Taiping Stabilized the Nation”[29]). He rewarded her with more territory.[30] Princess Taiping also had her own office and staff.[31] Princess Taiping was rewarded immensely for the throne. However, she would soon realize that she had a new rival, Empress Wei.[32]

The early life of Princess Taiping showed that she was the protégé of Empress Wu. Empress Wu often discussed politics with Princess Taiping and had moulded her to be a capable politician. She had Empress Wu’s looks and temperament. Still, Princess Taiping could not control the events of her life. Her husband, whom she dearly loved, died of starvation at the hands of her mother. Empress Wu forced her to marry another. The death of her first husband and her forced remarriage seemed to have had a profound effect on her. This had made her ambitious and power-hungry.[33] It is no wonder that she turned to politics, which she found more controllable.[34] In my next article, I will describe the rivalry between two powerful women, Princess Taiping and Empress Wei. The two of them fought each other for power. However, only one of them proved to be victorious.

Read part two here.

Sources:

Aiwen, L. (2015). “Princess Taiping.” Notable Women of China: Shang Dynasty to the Early Twentieth Century. (B. B. Peterson, Ed. Y. Jun, trans.). London: Routledge. pp. 206-209

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

Lee, L. X.H. (2014). “Li, Princess Taiping.” 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. pp. 200-203.

 


[1] Lee, 2014

[2] Aiwen, 2015

[3] Lee, 2014

[4] Lee, 2014

[5] Aiwen, 2015

[6] Lee, 2014

[7] Lee, 2014

[8] Aiwen, 2015, p. 206

[9] Aiwen, 2015

[10] Aiwen, 2015, p. 206

[11] McMahon, 2013

[12] Lee, 2014

[13] Aiwen, 2015

[14] Aiwen, 2015

[15] Lee, 2014

[16] Lee, 2014

[17] Lee, 2014

[18] Aiwen, 2015

[19] Lee, 2014

[20] Lee, 2015

[21] Aiwen, 2015

[22] Aiwen, 2015

[23] Aiwen, 2015

[24] Aiwen, 2015

[25] Aiwen, 2015

[26] Aiwen, 2015

[27] Aiwen, 2015

[28] Lee, 2015

[29] Lee, 2014, pp. 201-202

[30] Aiwen, 2015

[31] Lee, 2014

[32] McMahon, 2013

[33] Lee, 2014

[34] McMahon, 2013






About Lauralee Jacks 98 Articles
I am a third grade elementary teacher in Tennessee. 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. 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 fiction in 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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