Great Empresses of China – Role Models for Traditional Women (Part 3)
3. Empress Zhangsun of Tang Dynasty (Part 1 of 2)
Empress Zhangsun was the daughter of the famous Sui Dynasty general Zhangsun Sheng, who passed away when she was eight years old. She was raised by her uncle, 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 the Zhenguan era (636 AD), 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 a noble family and received a formal, traditional education. As a young woman, she was learned, polite, virtuous, gentle, and kind. When she was still a child, a fortuneteller 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 second son of Taiyuan City's top official, Li Yuan. 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 the Wude era (626 AD), 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.
Because Empress Zhangsun’s upright and virtuous actions, Emperor Taizong 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. When 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.”
Minister Wei Zheng was famous for not being afraid of admonishing 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 guards and officials to hunt outside the city. 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 insisted on going, but Wei Zheng would not budge. 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 in a huff.
Emperor Taizong saw Empress Zhangsun and said angrily, “I must kill that stubborn old man to relieve my anger!" 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 while saying, “Congratulations your majesty.” 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 his anger disappeared.