Consort Zhang (637-692): A Life under the Shadow of Emperor Wu

It was a splendid era in Chinese history during Tang dynasty. Thanks to the ruthless Taizong’s governance, Tang became enriched more and more. The Tang dynasty brought China ceaseless pride all the way for two thousand years, for its richness in wealth, diplomacy, arts, politics and one other thing: The Empress. We have heard stories about women governors from early Xianbei, and the wonderful life of Mulan, yet there has been only one empress in Han-written Chinese history, who was Wu Zhao. Due to her status and mythical and complex life in a feudalistic system, she encountered countless women who were extremely different from her, each of them was more than a simple character, Queen Consort Wong, Consort Xiao, and this article’s main character: Consort Zhang.

Consort Zhang was born in an authentic Han family in the year 637. Zhang’s father, Minister Zhang served in the military at the time when Zhang was born and fought at the side of Liyuan. Minister Zhang used to be a soldier in Li Yuan’s military, then he got promoted for his bold and loyal characters. When Li Shimin overthrew his brother, the former Prince Li Jiancheng, and killed him, Minister Zhang did a great favor with his bloody hands too, thus Zhang became a minister and one of Taizong’s favorite character in the court. Around year 628, Minister Zhang married a maternal relative to Zhangsun Wuji, Ms. Gao, who was brought up elegantly in a fancy Han family. Unfortunately, Consort Zhang was the only child they had throughout their lives.

By the time Consort Zhang was born, Wu Zhao had just become a consort to Taizong, but then no one noticed the unimpressive her, only one of Consort Zhang’s maid once revealed Wu Zhao’s affair with Li Zhi. Zhang’s father was always upset about Prince Li Zhi for he was too weak a character to be an emperor like his father, he never showed a strong mind nor brilliant intelligent even in controlling himself.

In the year 650, one year after Taizong’s demise, shocking news was carried home by one of her gossipy maids, saying that Wu Zhao was sent back to the palace[1], then her father confirmed that. Zhang still remembers her father’s face with frown and words: “Li Zhi and Wu Zhao, they will not make our country great, that is against the tradition, the Mandate of Heaven, to remarry his father’s consort”. There was a great deal of characters in the court who disapproved this movement. Li Zhi’s maternal uncle Zhangsun Wuiji who helped Li Shimin during Xuanwu Gate Incident, for example, and Zhang’s father, gathered around and wrote a report to Gaozong for this is violated the traditional value and ancestors’ roles, but what happened had happened.

Years had passed. In the year 652, Zhang’s father gathered her mother and his brother together after lunch for a family meeting and asked whether it was a good idea for Zhang to go into the palace with Emperor Gaozong: “Gaozong is nothing like his father, nor his grandfather, he is obsessed with ladies and nonchalant about our country, and Wu Zhao’s family was going to be famed by this trend since she just got promoted, I cannot imagine how her family could take power in the court due to her evil personality”. They all nodded their heads and agreed.

Zhang was sent to the palace to Gaozong in 652, by the time Wu Zhao just had a son, and the palace was not peaceful at all. Queen Consort Wong, Consort Xiaoshu and Wu Zhao had been fighting against each other. Consort Zhang was a new girl, and quite young then, and with her family background, she was promoted quickly to a high status in the palace, a Guifei (a Royal Consort), just like Consort Xiaoshu. Consort Zhang was of no interest in playing tricks with each other, all she knew from her education was not to mess with women, but only to protect herself. She was quiet, envied by other consorts at first, but as time went by, she was too quiet to be dramatic in the palace. In 654, Wu Zhao’s newborn baby girl was heard to be killed by Empress Wong, as smart as Consort Zhang, she felt that Wu Zhao’s power in the whole palace was already overwhelmed and, she suddenly feared that, Wu’s power might reach further since Wu was not a simple woman at all.

In Zhang’s mind, she portrayed Wu might become a dowager after Gaozong died. Rumor also said that Wu killed her own daughter, Zhang was not sure, she became afraid of Wu gradually. Meanwhile, Emperor Gaozong had no real power in his hands, his privilege to handle court affairs had been taken away by those old ministers such as Zhang’s father, Zhangsun Wuji, and Lai Ji.[2] They harbored hatred towards Wu when Gaozong tried to promote her, Zhang did not think that those court officials should be mingling with palace affairs, thus she felt Wu was more and more a somehow different, yet important character.

Shortly after that incident, Zhang returned home for vacation, and her father, her uncles from both her mother and her father’s side told her to be silent no more, to get pregnant in order to help them overthrow Wu’s power. Zhang tried to convince them that Wu could not be defeated easily, she was the smartest person she had ever met.

In the early spring, in the year 655, Zhang encountered Wu and they had a nice, long walk and talk for the first time. Wu called her name and started chatting with her: “you don’t like to act too much, yet I was surprised by your pace of getting promoted at first”. Zhang: “It doesn’t surprise me, it makes sense since my family is somewhat important in the court, it is all politics.” Wu: “you are smart and straightforward than the rest of the consorts, they are just too stupid to be in a fight.” Zhang: “I’m flattered, yet I don’t want to fight with you, we already ended up in this lonely palace, why hurt each other like that?” Wu: “I don’t believe what you said, you are not passive to me at all, you are just smart enough to know how to protect yourself.” Zhang: “We’ll see.”

In year 655, Wu gave birth to her daughter. Empress Wong’s status was abolished, she and Consort Xiaoshu were cut off limbs and then dumped into a wine vat[3]. For all those who supported Wong and defeated Wu, their power was abolished, too, including Zhang’s father and her maternal uncle, they both went into exile to Hainan, the ultimate remote corner of the empire, also including Wong’s family members who held important positions in the court.

Consort Zhang became closer to Wu, on one hand, she felt lonelier and more insecure due to her family’s fall, on the other hand, Wu had taken more and more power from Li Zhi, both sexually and politically, she felt that there was a necessity to maintain harmless relation, in the meantime Gaozong had been sicker and sicker.

In year 660 when Wu Zhao was almost abolished by Gaozong that was the first time Zhang saw her upset, a strong, ruthless woman being upset. Wu came to see Zhang, saying she played wrong chess when she started to interfere with court affairs too fast and that made her look too thirsty for political power, and the weak Gaozong, the one knew her well, was upset by her strong intention. Zhang told her to take it slow and stay away from court affairs for a short while and tried to comfort Gaozong by a close court official who disapproved of Wu. To make that happen, Wu had to choose a spy official in the court, who served Wu with his loyalty yet appeared to serve Gaozong and Gaozong’s power, to convince Gaozong that Wu had no strong intention at all.

Consort Zhang, or should we call, Royal Consort Zhang was a quiet woman without ambitions in neither fame nor politics, but her world in the Palace was so complex due to Wu’s existence. In her life, she never met a woman who was so thirsty for power. Wu’s passion for politics and obsession with fame, made Zhang feel confused. Comparing to Consort Lv, Empress Dou from the Han Dynasty, this woman seemed to make her mind to do something bigger in this unprecedented avant-guard time. Zhang never conceived, after her father’s exile and her family’s collapse, she expected no more than a peaceful life for herself.

Peaceful years have passed by, Consort Zhang had witnessed up’s and down’s in Wu’s life to power, in the year 660, Wu took Gaozong’s power in the court due to Gaozong’s disease.[4] Then in the year 666 Consort Zhang went to Mount Tai with consorts and the Emperor to celebrate the Feng Shan ceremony, which impressed Zhang, she thought Wu was going to make a history unprecedentedly. “Feng Shan”, Wu claimed, according to Daoist, are Yong and Yin respectively. Empress Wu formally dominated women’s equal, inevitable status confronting men’s. Wu legitimized herself political power as a female by this action, and as Gaozong had been becoming physically weaker, Wu Zhao had leaned in more and more. In the year 674, Wu proposed a “Twelve-Point Memorial” to fix the problems of ignorance in agriculture from the government and lessened the government expenses so that labors and taxes problems were fixed in the meantime. Emperor Gaozong approved this wholeheartedly.[5]

Consort Zhang was called in by Gaozong in the year 674, Gaozong back then was a lonely Emperor full of regrets who was still confused about his relationship with Wu. Gaozong asked Zhang, what kind of person Wu was. Zhang replied, simply, she was trying to carry all the burdens of this country on her own shoulder. Gaozong sighed, said he had no idea, during that year, Wu reached the equal status with Gaozong: Heavenly Empress.[6]

Consort Zhang finally conceived in 674 during that night with Gaozong, she gave birth to a son named Li Huai in year 675. Growing up in the Palace, Li Huai was taught archery and everything by Prince Li Xian, Wu’s third son. He was also the close friend to Li Xian’s other friends. As a big brother, Li Xian always said to Consort Zhang that Li Huai was a super intelligent boy.

In year 683 Gaozong died, Consort Zhang, who did not want to intervene the palace affairs anymore, felt herself getting old and peaceful, she became a nun with all other childless consorts. However not long after 683, in only a year, on day Li Huai came to temple to look for Consort Zhang, privately telling her: “Prince Li Xian, my best brother, has been in trouble, it seemed that he was going to be abolished or might be killed by his mother, mom, you are close to Empress Wu, I know you are aloof from the rest of the world, but please saying something to Empress, helping my brother, helping me”.

Zhang had no idea what to do, she had made her mind to be a nun for the rest of her life, coincidentally meanwhile, Wu wrote her a letter, claiming that she missed her much, wanted her as Wu’s company for a longer time since Wu felt that no one around herself was trustworthy, not even her own son Li Xian. Zhang was unwilling to come back to the Palace, but Wu came to her in person, and after thinking twice, Zhang thought her son might be in trouble since her son was young, and was with good relations to Li Xian, she came back. Li Xian ended up in the prison by innocence, he is not smart enough to play tricks with his mother. [7]

In the following years, Wu had killed, abolished many powered Li people, Li family’s power was further eliminated before year 691 when Wu officially became the unprecedented female Emperor in history. Zhang had been feeling that Wu always strived to place Buddhism high, and Buddhism was part of her enhanced political power, Unlike Taizong’s beginning year when Buddhism was prohibited that Xuanzang could only escape from China to India to practice Buddhism[8]. Wu used Buddhism to legitimize and make sense of her status. She ordered the establishment of seven ancestral tempos for the Wu ancestors. In year 690 Empress Wu ordered a new rich Temple named the Great Cloud Temple.[9]  In year 691, Wu claimed that herself was the reincarnation of the bodhisattva Maitreya[10], thus she became the Emperor, and the new palace was built in Luoyang. [11]

Consort Zhang had become Wu’s close maidservant. She became more worried about her son since Li Huai always harbored unspeakable hatred to Emperor Wu since former Prince Li Xian’s exile.

One day in early spring of year 692, Zhang had a nightmare that her son Li Huai came and waved goodbye to her saying that: “mother, take care for I will leave you.”  The following days, Li Huai did not come to her and she could not find her son, the only thing she knew was Prince Li Dan’s two consorts were killed and many royal Li people, such as Li Longji, Li Longye’s political power was abolished. Zhang could not find her son, something unfortunate grew in her mind day by day.

Li Huai was put into a death sentence, Zhang’s close maid told her one day, according to that maid, Emperor Wu did not want her to know so soon otherwise she would be hard to accept all of sudden. Wu was going to talk to her in person one day, but it was too late.

Being quiet, considerable, introversive, flinched and meticulous all these years, Zhang finally understood that in a lifetime, she could only protect herself well, the world was too complex to deal with, and her son died, she lost her last hope to live in the world. On a bright dawn in September, after living like a dead woman for almost a year, she strangled herself.

She admired Wu Zhao, feared Wu Zhao, and befriended with Wu Zhao for all these years, she could not tell that it was Wu Zhao who after all manipulated her, or herself was mistakenly born in this time.


[1] Laura Biondecci’s diaries were preserved in the library of the Southern Church in Beijing before being discovered in an archive in the late 1980s.

[2] Wills, John E. “Chapter9, Empress Wu.” Mountain of Fame: Portraits in Chinese History, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1994, pp. 131.

[3] Hansen, 181.

[4] Wills, 134.

[5] Wills, 135.

[6] Wills, 137.

[7] Wills, 139.

[8] Hansen, 179.

[9] Wills, 142-143.

[10] Hansen, 184.

[11] Wills, 142.

Hangyuan Zhang majors in English-Literature.  Growing up in Xi’an (China), she went to high school in Hong Kong and has always been interested in learning more about her own culture and society. She is an art person for life, mainly enjoying contemporary dance and reading.