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Badass Ladies of Chinese History: Princess Taiping

From political mastermind to disgraced traitor, this Tang-dynasty princess lived and died for court politics

02·19·2016

People are back in the city after the Spring Festival break, and we’re back with another installment of “Badass Ladies”. After covering a wild-west Madame and a military hero, let’s return to China’s imperial roots.

Today we’re bringing to light some of the facts about Princess Taiping of the Tang dynasty. Although she never became an Empress herself, Taiping displayed a combination of ambition and cunning that allowed her to exert great political control from behind the scenes, but also lead to her death.

Princess Taiping was the youngest child and daughter of Emperor Gaozong and Empress Wu (who later became Empress Wu Zetian). Beautiful and accomplished, Taiping, like many other noble women of the time, began her life as a political pawn. To avoid a marriage alliance with the Kingdom of Tibet, her parents put her in charge of a Taoist temple, only to later marry her off to her cousin.

What sets Taiping apart from other women of the time was her mother’s affection for her. Although Taiping had several brothers, her mother, Wu Zetian, saw similar characteristics of intelligence and ambition in her daughter, and favored her over her sons. Wu Zetian kept Taiping close to her while discussing state affairs, and encouraged her daughter to join in the debates, therefore preparing Taiping for success in palace politics.

In 688 A.D., Wu Zetian killed Taiping’s husband after learning that he was part of a coup designed to remove her from power. While not involved with this coup, Taiping is believed to have participated in the 705 A.D. coup that removed Wu Zetian from power, and reinstated Emperor Zhongzong.

Taiping’s involvement in the coup resulted in Emperor Zhongzong’s loyalty to her. Upon his restoration to the throne, Emperor Zhongzong gave Princess Taiping the special title of Zhenguo Taiping Gongzhu, or “Princess Taiping who saved the state”. During Zhongzong’s second reign, Taiping gained a lot of power and prestige, quickly becoming one of the most powerful women at court, second only to  Zhongzong’s wife, Empress Wei.

Following the death of Zhongzong in 710, Taiping helped restore another brother, Emperor Ruizong, to the throne. This prevented Empress Wei from grabbing power for herself, while simultaneously cemented Taiping’s position in court. Just as she had during Emperor Zhongzong’s reign, Taiping enjoyed great political and material power during the short reign of Emperor Ruizong. In Ruizong’s court, Taiping was a trusted political advisor, to the point that Emperor Ruizong would not even rule on policy proposals that had not been discussed with Taiping and his son the crown prince. Taiping used her influence on Ruizong to reduce corruption in the palace by suggesting that he remove officials that had been improperly promoted during Emperor Zhongzong’s reign.

At this point, Taiping had enjoyed several years of influence in the Imperial court, and wanted to keep it that way. However, she faced several challenges, the biggest challenge being Emperor Ruizong’s son, and heir apparent, Crown Prince Li Longji (the future Emperor Xuanzong).

While there were concerns that Li Longji was Ruizong’s son through a concubine, rather than the Empress, Taiping’s biggest concern was the independence of the young crown prince. She worried that she would lose the influence she had in court when her nephew came into power, but ultimately decided that his young age left her plenty of time to convince him to listen to her counsel.

She was quickly proven wrong. Li Longji proved to have his own idea and opinions on court affairs, and chose to listen to his own advisors rather than Taiping. Having realized that Li Longji was not going to be easy to control, Taiping worked tirelessly to undermine and depose of him before he took the throne. She spread rumors about him around the court, and when that did not work, tried to use astrology to convince Emperor Ruizhong that his son was planning a coup to remove him from power.

That plan backfired, because instead of believing that Longji was planning a coup, Ruizong believed that the stars were telling him it was time for the throne to switch hands and in 712 A.D. willingly abdicated the throne in favor of his son, serving as an advisor to his son instead.

Power in the court was now split between Emperor Xuanzong (Longji), former emperor Ruizong and Princess Taiping. In 713, desperate, Taiping along with some loyal followers, planned a coup to kill Emperor Xuanzong and take power for herself. This plan was discovered by the Emperor, who killed all of her followers and then convinced Taiping to commit suicide in her home.

Princess Taiping lived a long and influential life, playing a role in reinstating the Tang dynasty after Wu Zetian, and then protecting it from the political ambitions of Empress Wei. However, her ambition eventually led to her death, and she left behind a legacy of being power-hungry. Despite that, her story still inspires curiosity and led to the production of the popular 2012 TV drama, The Secret History of Princess Taiping, which is based on events in her life.

 

Check out more badass princesses, like this military mastermind or this undefeated wrestler.

Cover photo from fsehome.com

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