The Princess Who Might Have Ruled China
In December 2019, the Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology announced the discovery of a large Tang dynasty (618-907) tomb on the grounds of a planned “Airport New City,” not far from the provincial capital of Xi’an. An intact memorial tablet revealed the tomb as the resting place of Xue Shao, the first husband of the powerful Princess Taiping.
The discovery caused a nationwide stir, in part due to a relatively recent upsurge in popular sympathy for the Princess. The daughter of Empress Wu Zetian — the only woman ever to rule China in her own name — Princess Taiping was a formidable politician, but most Chinese know her story only from sudsy TV dramas like the critically acclaimed “Palace of Desire” from 2000. That show portrayed Princess Taiping as a tragic figure — a woman blinded by passion — and devoted significant airtime to the poignant love story between her and Xue. It’s fair to say that without this TV series, the discovery of Xue’s tomb would not have generated quite so much interest.
The image of Princess Taiping as a besotted lover would have raised eyebrows as recently as a century ago. For more than a millennium, she was consistently described as a ruthless, ambitious woman who sought to gain power through political intrigue. Traditional Chinese historiography emphasized the supposed similarities between her and her mother: The 11th century “New Book of Tang” stated “The Empress Wu often said that Princess Taiping, with her masculine features and penchant for intrigue, was like her.” Sima Guang, author of the 11th century “Comprehensive Mirror in Aid of Governance,” wrote: “The Taiping Princess had a sensitive grasp of political strategy that led her mother to view her as an equal. As a result, she received a love that Wu Zetian’s other children didn’t.”
These descriptions, written a few centuries after the Princess’ death, raise a question that has fascinated her modern fans: Why, if Princess Taiping enjoyed her mother’s favor, was she never under consideration to succeed Wu Zetian on the throne? The answer may lie in the newly discovered tomb of her first husband and the circumstances surrounding Xue’s burial.
Xue’s funeral took place on Feb. 9, 706 A.D., some 17 years after his death. Braving the bitter winds of the northwest Chinese winter, two young men dressed in mourning garb — sons of Xue and Princess Taiping — led a large procession of carriages to the Xue ancestral cemetery in Xianyang County, north of the Tang capital, for a state funeral.
Princess Taiping was not present at the ceremony, as by that point she had remarried, but Xue’s memorial tablet and other recently discovered historical sources suggest they had shared a happy union beset by external turmoil. In eight years of marriage, Princess Taiping gave birth to two sons and two daughters, all of whom lived into adulthood. But the world around the couple was falling apart. After her father, Emperor Gaozong, passed away in 683, the Princess’ mother, Wu Zetian, carried out a violent purge of her political enemies at the imperial court, including many members of the imperial family. A year after the birth of Princess Taiping’s youngest daughter, in 688, Xue Shao was arrested on suspicion of planning a rebellion. According to historical accounts, he starved to death in prison the following year.
This tragic turn of events irrevocably altered Princess Taiping’s fate, and her mother quickly married her off to a relative bearing Wu’s family name. Remarkably, Princess Taiping’s twenty-year marriage to Wu Youji seems to have been as harmonious and drama-free as her first — though without the same level of mutual affection. Throughout her second marriage, the princess courted a number of male lovers, often to the great scandal of the court, and even recommended those whose services she’d particularly enjoyed to her mother.
Her husband, who was far too occupied with his own hedonistic pursuits to mind his wife’s behavior, nevertheless steadfastly supported the Princess in all political disputes until his own death of old age. In return, Princess Taiping maintained order in the family and raised her stepchildren as her own.
In the early spring of 705, ministers loyal to the victims of Wu’s purges launched the Shenlong Coup, imprisoning the empress and forcing her to cede the throne. Amid the chaos and confusion of the post-coup period, Princess Taiping moved quickly to rehabilitate her first husband by ordering the construction of an extravagant mausoleum. Upon its completion, she entrusted her and Xue’s two sons with the task of retrieving Xue’s remains and reinterring them. For the date of the funeral, she chose the anniversary of the coup that had ended her mother’s reign.
Clearly, the Princess was not over her mother’s role in the demise of her first husband. Reinterring Xue’s remains was both an expression of her love toward him and a political statement. Her method was soon emulated by a number of former court royals, including her brother and sister-in-law, who amid great pomp and circumstance re-interred their own relatives who’d been killed on Wu Zetian’s orders.
All this suggests that the Empress and Princess weren’t as similar as once thought — and may explain why Wu Zetian never sought to pass the throne to her daughter. After Wu Zetian’s death in late 705, Princess Taiping became deeply involved in the battles among her heirs for the right to the throne. She was even able to gain a degree of decision-making power of her own before she met her demise in a coup organized by her nephew. Calling her life “relatable” would be a stretch, but it should come as no surprise that so many Chinese, and especially Chinese women, can empathize with the compromises she made between hierarchical social norms, her individual interests, and the needs of her family.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: A still shows Princess Taiping from the 2000 TV series “Palace of Desire.” From Douban)