Zhangsun, the Caring, Tolerant and Wise Empress

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The stereotype images of empresses and imperial concubines in ancient China are always territorial, brutally fighting for emperor’s favour and court power. Contrary to this, Empress Zhangsun (601-636), the wife of Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty, distinguished herself for playing an admirable independent role for the emperor’s governing.

Despite being valued as an insightful observer, Zhangsun avoids interfering national affairs as the empress. When enquired, she only provides independent opinion with thorough consideration. "A wise emperor should be ready for crisis while living in peace, find talents, and embrace advice or even remonstrance." Such are her advices to the emperor, and throughout her life she sticks to her duty of a great reminder for the emperor of making decision on sense rather than emotions.

Zhangsun, The caring and tolerant empress (Illustrator: Catherine Chang)

One day, Taizong returned to Palace with a look of anger. Empress Zhangsun asked all maids to withdraw, and patiently serve Taizong in person. When Taizong’a anger receded, she gently enquired the cause. Taizong replied: "My favourite horse died suddenly with no sign of illness. It must be the fault of the groom’s carelessness and I want to have him executed." Hearing this, Zhangsun said: "Your Majesty, please do not be furious. I was told that once upon a time there was a king who also wanted to kill the groom for the death of a horse. His prime minister listed the groom’s felony as such: the groom deserves one death execution for not keeping the horse live forever; and a second execution for making people aware the king values a horse life over a human’s and a third execution for causing the rulers of neighbouring states lose respect to the king for the same reason. Thus the king realized his wrong and set the groom free. Your Majesty has read all the history books many times and is familiar with this story. How come forgot it today?" Emperor Taizong replied: "Had it not been you I would have made mistakes and regretted.”

When Empress Zhangsun’s health was badly deteriorating, the princes suggested the emperor declare an amnesty and donate more money to temples in hope of calling divine blessings upon her. However Zhangsun firmly objected to the idea, "Amnesty is an important national event, and to do this just for the sake of me would undermine the judicial system. We believe life and death are determined by fate while wealth and glory are decreed by heaven. I have avoided evil doings all my life, so just let it be,” said she.

At her death bed she left her last words to Emperor Taizong. "Some members of Zhangsun family have not proved themselves enough but are enjoying privileges simply because of our marriage. In order to preserve my family’s reputation, I sincerely plead you not to give them powerful positions. As your wife, I made no contributions to the national affairs, so please don’t waste imperial treasure on my tomb. Bury me under a hill, use brick or wooden materials for the tomb only, and no treasure inside please. A simple and plain tomb would be my ultimate wish."

Over her short-lived 36 years, Empress Zhangsun won a high reputation and admiration from the emperor and her people for her tolerance and wisdom. She was regarded as a role model for the empress in Chinese history.

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