Among all of China’s dynasty’s, the most influential and grand is said to be the Tang dynasty. Its founding father was Emperor Taizong; the woman by his side, Empress Zhangsun. Known for her magnanimity and an understated influence on her husband, and, indirectly, China, she wrote a 30-volume work titled Examples for Women. When, upon her death in 636 AD, Emperor Taizong was presented with her writings admist the throwes of mourning, he said: “This book, written by the Empress, is capable of being an example to generations. It is not that I do not know the will of heaven and mourn uselessly, but now, when I enter the palace, I can no longer hear her corrective words. I have lost a wonderful help, and I cannot forget her.”
For weeks prior, she was dying of a worsening illness that had plagued her for years. Every procedure known to man to extend her life had been exhausted until drastic measures involving sending prisoners to temples to pray for her recovery were suggested. To this she said: “Life and death are a matter of destiny; and wealth and honor the will of heaven. 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 one woman?”
All were in tears who heard her words. Emperor Taizong and the Tang court did not lose her suddenly or unexpectedly which meant Empress Zhangsun had time to carefully impart her last words to her all-powerful husband, some of which were recorded for posterity. You can almost see the concern and resolve in her eyes, hear her soft, deliberate words, feel the contained power, the poise.
“Many of my Zhangsun family members enjoy high salaries and high positions on account of our marriage, not because of their great virtues. They could crumble easily,” she warned him. “For their own sake, I hope that you will not put them in powerful positions. During my lifetime, I made no contributions to the people and I should not harm them in my death.” She strove to do well only within the palace walls and stayed out of the political limelight. This did not stop the Chinese people from feeling her positive presence in other ways. “I hope that you will not build a tomb to cause the people to labor and the empire to waste resources. Make a hill my tomb, and only use brick or wooden implements in the tomb. I hope that Your Imperial Majesty will continue to be close to honest men and stay away from those lacking virtues; that you will accept faithful words and reject wicked flattery; that you will decrease labor and stop hunting.” This direct implore to her husband was extremely rare for Zhangsun. She preferred to keep her thoughts on these matters to herself. “Even as I go into the underworld, if these things happen, I will have no regrets. It is not necessary to summon the sons and daughters back here; if I see them mourn and cry, I will only be saddened.”
If her previous words brought people to tears, these and her passing brought bittersweet heartache to all. Emperor Taizhong did build her tomb inside Juizong Mountain and reduced the expenses for her funeral but he also showered her memory with all the honors and symbols deserving of a great Empress. Let us look back at some examples of how she earned so much respect from one of the greatest Emperors in China and all of his subjects.
Zhangsun was the daughter of a decorated general. She was given a complete advanced education. When she was still a child, a psychic calculated her star signs and said that she “had boundless virtue and would become indescribably noble.” As arranged, she married the young man who would become Emperor Taizong. They established a life together that encompassed three sons, four daughters, and a glorious era in human history.
As soon as she arrived in her royal post, still a very young woman, Zhangsun nimbly attended to her grand duties. She visited her aging father-in-law twice everyday and frequently reminded the servants to take good care of him. When ladies in waiting or other court attendants were ill, she personally visited them and arranged their medical treatment which she paid for from her personal allowance. Her kind-heartedness took root in the palace and helped create a harmonious atmosphere. This enabled Emperor Taizong to focus on governing the country instead of spending energy on internal issues.
Although Empress Zhangsun grew up in a rich family and was the wife of an Emperor, she lived frugally. She cared little for luxury and never went in for extravagant celebrations or meals. With the meritorious Empress overseeing it, the entire imperial palace was run economically. Her son would one day become Emperor but his living quarters were no exception. Those responsible for overseeing his palace asked many times to have the funds for her son increased. But Empress Zhangsun did not agree. “He is the future ruler of the country,” she said, “and he should focus on virtue and good reputation, not a shortage of things or lack of money!” Her fairness and wisdom was admired by everyone in the palace and all were happy to follow her arrangements.
Empress Zhangsun desired to stay out of government matters. But the Emperor knew his wife had well-founded and valuable ideas. When pressed by the Emperor for her opinion on a particular government matter, she reiterated that she did not wish to be involved. Emperor Taizong insisted, so she said, “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, on the other hand, was famous for fearlessly giving his opinion to Emperor Taizong as often as possible, something few officials would dare to do. Emperor Taizong usually respected him and called him “a loyal official with good advice.” Wei and Emperor Taizong butted heads one spring when the Emperor wanted to go hunting. He gathered his hunting party and headed out toward the countryside. When they were about to exit the palace gate, they encountered Wei. When Wei found out where they were going, he 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 refused, but Wei would not give in. He stood firmly in the middle of the road to block the emperor’s entourage, adamant that the emperor’s choice was flawed. Emperor Taizong was outraged. He jumped off of his horse and stormed back to the palace.
When he passed Empress Zhangsun, he shouted, “I’m going to kill that upstart!” and told her about the incident. Empress Zhangsun listened to what happened but did not comment immediately. Instead, she retreated to her room and donned her official Empress gown. She then walked up to the fuming Emperor and solemnly bowed. He looked surprised and asked her, “What is the special occasion?” She rose and 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 turned to happiness. That was just one example of how Empress Zhangsun used her grace, compassion, and intelligence to influence others gently and positively.
After her death, Emperor Taizong was heartbroken. He built an elevated platform and stood on it everyday to look in the direction of her hillside tomb. Although he was eventually advised by Wei to take the platform down, it symbolized how much he missed Empress Zhangsun.