Empress Zhangsun, a native of Luoyang, was a daughter of Zhangsun Cheng, Right Commander of the Imperial Guards in the Sui Dynasty (581-618). In her teens, she married Li Shimin (599-649), who was later to become Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty. Given the title Princess Consort in 618, she became empress when her husband succeeded to the throne in 626. She died in 636 at the age of 36 after living a short but fruitful life.
Many empresses in Chinese history played significant roles. Often referred to by Confucian scholars as "secondary monarchs," they were usually given special prominence in the official histories of the dynasties. Empress Zhangsun's valuable contribution to China's prosperity and stability in the early seventh century won her the name "good assistant to the emperor," a name she justly deserved as she was one of the best empresses in Imperial China.
The Tang Dynasty marked the period of great prosperity of China's feudalism. Emperor Taizong was described by historians as the best monarch in a thousand years. This was largely due to his capability in choosing good officials and his readiness to follow their advice. It was in this field that Empress Zhangsun distinguished herself as an intelligent adviser and critic.
Wei Zheng (580-643), a celebrated statesman and Emperor Taizong's prime minister, was known for his keen observation and his outspoken criticism of whatever he considered wrong in the emperor's behavior. When Princess Changle, the emperor's daughter, was about to marry in 632, Taizong ordered a dowry twice that he had granted her sister, Princess Yongjia, to be prepared. Wei Zheng objected. When Taizong was about to accept Wei Zheng's idea, he thought it best to consult his wife.
Empress Zhangsun, instead of approving the rich dowry for her daughter, told him, "I have been aware of Your Majesty's high respect for Wei Zheng for a long time, but it is only now that I see why. I must say that Wei Zheng is a competent statesman who shows you the way to adhere to principles and overcome favoritism." She told the emperor that she admired the prime minister for having the courage to speak out at the risk of hurting the emperor's dignity, a courage she herself needed, even though she was the imperial consort. She proposed that Taizong grant him gold and silks in appreciation for his criticism. Later, in an audience with Wei Zheng, she told him, "I've heard of your integrity and candor before. Now I've seen it for myself, which is why I asked His Majesty to grant you the gift. I hope you will always keep to your principled stand."
One day Taizong returned angry from an imperial council and announced, "Some day I'll execute that old, rustic Wei Zheng! He never misses a chance to oppose and insult me!"
The empress walked off quietly. Soon she reappeared in his ceremonial robe. The astonished emperor asked why.
"I heard," the imperial consort replied mildly, "that only a wise monarch has an outspoken minister. Now that Wei Zheng is outspoken, that shows that Your Majesty is wise––so it would be wrong for me not to congratulate you formally."
The emperor's wrath vanished and he smiled. The empress's ingenious move helped her husband overcome his rashness.
Fang Xuanling (579-648), another great statesman, was a leading member of Taizong's intellectual advisors. It happened, however, that Fang Xuanling offended Emperor Taizong on a minor issue, which led to the prime minister's dismissal, ending his glory and power. In spite of his appeal for leniency, the emperor refused to withdraw the decision. At the time, Empress Zhangsun was mortally ill. But on her deathbed she told her husband, "Fang Xuanling joined Your Majesty's staff very early. He is prudent. He played a vital part in drawing up your secret master plans and never betrayed it to anyone. I hope you will keep him unless he has committed a big crime. I will die in peace if Your Majesty continue to trust the honorable and not the treacherous, listens to honest criticism instead of flattery, and abstains from overburdening your subjects with over indulgences such as hunting." Taizong tearfully accepted her last advice and soon after Zhangsun's funeral he announced Fang Xuanling's reinstatement.
The reign of Emperor Taizong was one of plain and simple living, and the personal example of Empress Zhangsun had a lot to do with it. As reported by a historian, the empress was known for her thrift, for demanding nothing more than she needed. She taught her children to be frugal and imposed strict limits on their living standards. Every time the nurse for Prince Chengqian, the emperor' son, asked for more furniture and utensils for his palace, the empress turned him down. "A crown prince," she said, "should focus his attention on cultivating morality and winning support of the people rather than on furniture and utensils."
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