Zhangsun, The Caring and Tolerant Tang Dynasty Empress

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Empress Zhangsun, (長孫皇后, (15 March 601 – 28 July 636, formally addressed as Empress Wendeshunsheng (文德順聖皇后, was the wife of Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty. Emperor Taizong was open-minded in the sense that any religion that a person chooses to believe in would be accepted.  The Empress distinguished herself by playing an admirable and independent role in the Emperor’s governing.

The Empress avoided interfering in national affairs. When approached, she only provided an independent opinion with thorough consideration.
She said, “A wise emperor should be ready for a crisis while living in peace, find talents, and embrace advice or even remonstrance.”
Throughout her life, Empress Zhangsun kept to her duty of kindly reminding her husband to make decisions on sense rather than emotion.

It was said that whenever Emperor Taizong’s concubines or ladies in waiting would be ill, she would personally visit them and reduce her own expenditures to treat them.

She often gave Emperor Taizong examples from history to inspire him to rule better. One day, Emperor Taizong returned home furious. When Taizong’s anger simmered down, the Empress gently enquired the cause of his displeasure.
The Emperor replied: “My favorite horse died with no sign of illness. It must be the fault of the groom’s carelessness and he must pay the price.”
Hearing this, the Empress said: “Please do not be furious. I was told that once upon a time there was a king who wanted to kill the groom for the death of a horse.
His prime minister listed the groom’s felony as such:
1. The groom deserves one death execution for not keeping the horse alive forever.
2. A second execution for making people aware of the king values a horse life over a human’s.
3. A third execution for causing the rulers of neighboring states to lose respect for the king for the same reason.

Thus the king examined himself and realized his mistake. He pardoned the groom and set him free.

The Empress turned to her husband and said, “Your Majesty has read the history books many times before and is familiar with this story.
How come forgot you forgot it today?”
Emperor Taizong replied: “Had it not been for you I would have made a bad mistake today and regretted it for the rest o my life.”

When Empress Zhangsun’s health began deteriorating, the princes suggested the emperor declare an amnesty and donate the money to temples in hope of calling divine blessings upon her.
However, the Empress firmly objected to the idea, and said, “Amnesty is an important national event, and to do this just for my sake would undermine the judicial system.
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,” she said.

On her deathbed, Empress Zhangsun spoke her last words to her husband, “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 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.” the Empress said.

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.

After she died, the palace authorities submitted Empress Zhangsun’s writings—a 30-volume work titled Examples for Women (女則, Nü Ze), and a commentary criticizing Han Dynasty’s Empress Ma – to Emperor Taizong.

When Emperor Taizong read her works, he was greatly saddened, and he stated:

“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.
He summoned Fang back to his chancellor position, and buried her with honors due to an Empress, but reduced the expenditures to the extent possible, as she wished.

He himself would eventually be buried at the same tomb, after his own death in 649.


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