Born of Xianbei minority origin and well educated, Empress Zhangsun (長孫皇后15 March 601 – 28 July 636) was an empress of the Chinese Tang Dynasty.
Her father was the Sui Dynasty general Zhangsun Sheng. In 614, she married Li Shimin, the second son of the general Li Yuan the Duke of Tang. (Li Shimin was 15, and she was 13.)
Li Shimin was Tang’s most capable general in its campaigns to reunite China following Sui’s collapse. He overshadowed his older brother Li Jiancheng, the crown prince.
Li Shimin was able to counter Li Jiancheng and others at Xuanwu Gate and kill them, and then essentially forced his father Emperor Gaozu to appoint him crown prince.
Two months later, Emperor Gaozu yielded the throne to Li Shimin, who took the throne as Emperor Taizong. Princess Zhangsun, consequently, became empress, and their oldest son, Li Chengqian, became crown prince.
As empress, Empress Zhangsun was said to be frugal and humble, taking only the supplies that she needed without living luxuriously.
It was said that she rarely got angry with the ladies in waiting and eunuchs who served her. At times, if Emperor Taizong got angry at the ladies in waiting or eunuchs for no reason, she would pretend to be angry as well and ask to personally interrogate them and hold them in custody; she would then wait until his anger had subsided, and then begin to plead on their behalf, thus reducing improper punishments within the palace.
Emperor Taizong would at times try to discuss with her matters of award and punishment to see what she opined, but each time she refused to do so, stating that it was not her place to do so.
On another occasion, after Emperor Taizong returned from an imperial gathering, he was angry and yelled, “Let me find a chance to kill this red-neck!” Empress Zhangsun asked whom he was referring to, and he replied, “I am referring to Wei Zheng. He always find a way to insult me in front of everyone in the imperial hall!” Empress Zhangsun retreated to her bedchambers and put on the official empress gown; standing solemnly, she prepared to bow to Emperor Taizong. He was surprised, and asked her what the reason was. She responded, “I have heard that only a most able emperor will have subordinates who have integrity. Wei shows this much integrity because you are an able emperor. How can I not congratulate you?” Emperor Taizong’s anger turned to happiness, and he did not punish Wei.
Emperor Taizong, for several years, had often suffered from severe illnesses, and Empress Zhangsun often attended to him day and night, carrying poison within her belt and resolving to commit suicide if the emperor should die. Empress Zhangsun herself was said to suffer from severe asthma, and her conditions were exacerbated in 634 when she was ill, but nevertheless attended to Emperor Taizong when he was forced to wake up in the middle of the night and put on armor and weapons due to an emergency report by his brother-in-law.
As she came close to death, she bid Emperor Taizong goodbye with these words:
“During my lifetime, I made no contributions to the people, and I should not harm them in my death. 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. 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.”
Edited by staff translator