Princess Taiping — Fight and Sorrow of the Most Powerful Princess of Tang

Princess Taiping (? — 713) was the youngest daughter of Emperor Gaozong of Tang (628 — 683) and Wu Zetian (624 — 705), the only female emperor in Chinese history.

She was deeply loved by her powerful parents, and later, willingly or forced, participated in many important political fights that influenced the empire significantly.

She was portrayed, in many documents, as being ambitious, aggressive, and obsessed with power, just like her mother.

However, despite her honorable status and paramount power, she failed in protecting all the close people that she wanted to protect.

Golden Chinese Phoenix Fenghuang Decoration of the Tang Dynasty

Gold Chinese Phoenix Fenghuang Decoration of the Tang Dynasty — Xi'an Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Perfect and Honorable Early Life of Princess Taiping

As Emperor Gaozong's youngest daughter, and queen Wu Zetian's only daughter (Wu's first daughter died only a few months after being born), Taiping was deeply loved by her parents.

After Wu's mother passed away, she asked her beloved little daughter to pray.

Taiping was the Taoist nun name for this little princess.

When the king of Tufan pleaded to marry Taiping, her parents immediately built the grand Taiping Temple in the royal palace for her to practice, and rejected this marriage plea.

Building Complex of Daming Palace

Building Complex of Daming Palace, the Royal Palace of the Tang Dynasty, Based on Architectural Historian Yang Hongxun's Restored Model.

A few years later, Taiping implied that she was old enough to get married, then her father chose a noble and excellent husband named Xue Shao (661 — 689), the youngest son of Emperor Gaozong's sister.

Taiping and Xue's wedding was extremely luxurious and fabulous, and their marriage was happy and perfect.

In 7 years of their happy married life, they had 2 boys and 2 girls.

Gilding Gourd Shaped Vessels of the Tang Dynasty

Gilding Gourd Shaped Vessels of the Tang Dynasty — Changsha Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying) 

Abrupt and Huge Changes in the Royal Family

Two years after their marriage, Taiping's father passed away.

Her third brother Li Xian ascended to the throne (her first brother died young, and the second brother displeased Wu and was forced to suicide), and was abolished by Wu less than two months after the enthronement.

Then Wu supported her fourth son Li Dan (also Taiping's fourth brother) to be a puppet emperor, later planning to abolish him and be the first female emperor.

During this period, some royals and officials strongly opposed her and rebelled, and Xue's big brother participated as well.

After Wu defeated their rebellion, Xue's family members were all executed.

Painting of Queen Wu Zetian Patrolling in the Royal Palace, by Court Artist Zhang Xuan of the Tang Dynasty

Painting of Empress Wu Patrolling in the Royal Palace, by Court Artist Zhang Xuan of the Tang Dynasty — National Museum of China

Xue Shao himself didn't participate in this rebellion, and Taiping was pregnant with their youngest child, but Wu didn't spare his life.

Xue was caned 100 times and later starved to death in prison.

No one knows what Taiping experienced during that time, nor what she really felt about these tragedies.

But it was quite obvious that she started to participate in politics and seize power.

Gilding Silver Cup of the Tang Dynasty

Gilding Silver Cup of Tang — Metropolitan Museum of Art (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Second Marriage as Political Alliance

A few months after Xue died, Wu Zetian started to find a new husband for Taiping.

This new husband, however, could only be a man of the House of Wu.

Wu planned to marry her close nephew, whom she once wanted to nominate as her heir, to Princess Taiping. That way, Taiping would be the queen later.

But Taiping refused, another saying was this nephew got sick around that time.

On the contrary, Taiping chose another man from the House of Wu, who was quite behaved and never involved in politics but was already married.

Wu agreed, executed this man's wife, and hold a grand wedding ceremony for them.

Inlaying Gold Ruler of the Tang Dynasty

Inlaying Gold Ruler of Tang — National Museum of China (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Indulgence Life and Political Awareness

Unlike in her first marriage, Princess Taiping acted like a different person in her second marriage.

She lived a very luxurious life, had affairs with officials, and kept many male lovers.

If she found someone who was extremely good at serving women, she would contribute them to her mother Wu, who enthroned as the first and only female emperor in the history of China a few months after Taiping's second wedding.

Emperor Wu mentioned many times that Taiping's appearance and personality are quite like hers, so she always would talk to Taiping about political affairs.

Taiping, on the contrary, showed enough care and talent, but never revealed any ambition in obtaining power or manipulating politics in front of her mother.

However, from years of observation and conversations with Emperor Wu Zetian and her trusted prime minister Shangguan Wan'er, Taiping for sure learned a lot from the best.

Vairocana Buddha of Longmen Grottoes, built from 672 to 675, was supported by and modeled on Queen Wu Zetian.

Vairocana Buddha of Longmen Grottoes, built from 672 to 675, was supported by and modeled on Wu Zetian., Photo by Wuye.

Counterattack and Intense Coups

In some historical documents, Taiping was recorded as a woman obsessed with power and great at political schemes.

 

Mainly because of some influential coups that she was involved in.

In the year 697, an official tried to collect evidence and accuse Taiping and some kings from the House of Wu of planning to rebel.

 

So Taiping allied those kings and Wu's two favorite male lovers (including the one Taiping contributed to), counterattacked that powerful official and had Wu execute him.

Unearthed Painted Pottery Figurines of Taming A Horse in the Tang Dynasty

Painted Pottery Figurines of Taming A Horse of the Tang Dynasty — Luoyang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying) 

In the next few years, these two male lovers kept expanding power, and framed and had some people executed, including Taiping's third brother's son and daughter, and Taiping's lover.

Then, in the year 705, some officials allied with Wu's three alive children, Taiping, and her two brothers, initiated a coup to ask Wu to give the throne back to Li Xian.

A few months later, Wu passed away.

 

Taiping redressed her first husband Xue's name, migrated his grave, and properly buried him in her family graveyard.

Epitaph of Xue Shao Inscribed Happy Married Life of Him and Taiping.

Epitaph of Xue Shao Inscribed Happy Married Life of Him and Taiping.

New Threat and Enemy

Li Xian, the third brother of Princess Taiping, was enthroned as Emperor Zhongzong and trusted her with more power.

Li Xian for sure liked his little sister and was grateful for Taiping's contributions in eliminating Wu's lovers, revenging his wrongfully executed children, and supporting him to be the emperor.

However, Li Xian also loved his queen and daughter, now Empress Wei and Princess Anle, who were ambitious as well.

 

They were not satisfied with being the empress and princess, Anle wanted to be the heir of the empire, modeled by Wu Zetian.

Therefore, the only daughter that looked and behaved like Wu Zetian, became a big obstacle and threat.

Tang Dynasty Painted Figurine of Noble Woman Riding Horse

Tang Dynasty Painted Figurine of Noble Woman Riding Horse — Art Institute of Chicago (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Emperor Li Xian tried his best to balance the forces from different sides.

When his favorite daughter Anle tried to frame Taiping and his younger brother under the name of the rebel, he didn't believe nor blame them.

Li Xian's trusted female prime minister Shangguan Wan'er later joined Taiping's side.

 

Many people also believe that she had been supporting Taiping secretly the whole time.

Either way, Taiping stayed safe and powerful and lived her luxurious, indulgent life during her third brother's reign period.

Gold Sachet of the Tang Dynasty

Gold Sachet of the Tang Dynasty — Chengdu Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying) 

Gaining and Losing After A Successful Coup

Later Li Xian died suddenly, some said that Empress Wei and Princess Anle poisoned him to death after he rejected to nominate Anle as the legit heir.

Empress Wei and Princess Anle then started to seize centralized power, and some officials suggested they enthrone as female emperor and the heir while eliminating other royals that may threaten them.

The biggest threats are obviously Wu Zetian's two remaining children, Princess Taiping and her fourth brother Li Dan.

Brocade Embroidery of the Tang Dynasty

Brocade Embroidery of Tang — Datang Xishi Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Li Dan was not an ambitious nor aggressive person, but his third son Li Longji was.

So Li Longji allied with Princess Taiping initiated a coup, killed Empress Wei and Princess Anle, and supported Li Dan to enthrone.

However, in that coup, Li Longji also killed Shangguan Wan'er, the first and only female prime minister in history, who was also the long-term ally and friend, some say even romantic lover, of Princess Taiping.

Taiping commanded her brother Li Dan to clean Wan'er's name and publish her literary work and buried Wan'er in her family's graveyard.

Unearthed Epitaph of Shangguan Wan'er Inscribed withHer Life Experience.

Unearthed Epitaph of Shangguan Wan'er Inscribed with Her Life Experience.

Paramount Authority, Honor, and Crisis

Just like her third brother, her fourth brother Li Dan rewarded Taiping with more power.

It was possible that he liked and appreciated this little sister; it was more reasonable that he needs someone to balance his extremely ambitious third son Li Longji.

Anyhow, Taiping became one of the real sovereigns of the Tang Empire, who participated in most of the political affairs and gained support from over half of Tang's officials.

It was not clear when Taiping and her nephew Li Longji became enemies.

Many people suspected when Li Longji killed Shangguan Wan'er, he had already seen Taiping as the biggest potential enemy or at least tried to reduce her power.

That was also a turning point of Taiping started to initiate attacks and actively seek more power.

Golden Dragons (Zou Long) that used as Ritual Implements of Taoism Religion Ceremony in the Tang Dynasty

Golden Dragons (Zou Long) that Were Used as Ritual Implements of Taoism Religion Ceremony in Tang — Shaanxi History Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Fights and Death of Princess Taiping

Contention between Taiping and Li Longji became more and more intense.

Taiping, several times, tried to persuade or trick her brother to nominate another son as the crown prince but didn't work out.

Two years later, to correspond to a special celestial phenomenon, her brother Li Dan resigned and gave the throne to Li Longji.

Taiping paced up her plan to abolish Li Longji from the crown.

But Li Longji heard and attacked first. He and his supporters ambushed and killed most of Taiping's supporters, including many talented officials and generals.

Then he commanded Taiping to suicide.

Li Dan finally realized his son's ambition and firmness, gave up all his remaining power, and fully retired.

Except for one son that had been supporting Li Longji, the rest of Taiping's children were executed as well.

Inscriptions on Mount Tai, Written by Emperor Xuanzong of Tang

Inscriptions on Mount Tai Written by Li Longji (the Gold Characters on the Right) After He was Enthroned, to Memorize the Grand Fengshan Ceremony

It was not sure if Taiping had any desire for politics and power at all, but her powerful parents, noble origin, her talent, and personality brought her countless wealth and honor, as well as threats and enemies.

Taiping had contributed significantly to gaining the throne back to the House of Li, and gained paramount power through those coups, though in most conditions, she fought to counterattack and protect herself.

She was very powerful and smart, but she wasn't able to protect the people she wanted to protect, her beloved first husband, her great friend Shangguan Wan'er, her kids, and herself.

She had controlled many people's lives and the politics of the empire, but it also seemed that most of the time, she had few choices.

Gilding Silver Hairpin (Chai) of Tang Dynasty

Gilding Silver Hairpin (Chai) of Tang Dynasty — Shaanxi History Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)