A Legendary Tang Dynasty Princess: 'A Gathering of Beauty in One Person'

Liu Xiao

PureInsight | August 1, 2023

[PureInsight.org] Among the many princesses of the Great Tang Dynasty, in addition to the famous Princess Wencheng, Princess Hezheng was also a special princess. She was born noble, but did not rely on favoritism to become spoiled. Instead, she possessed many virtues. Emperor Tang Daizong regarded her as a "national treasure," and the famous Tang statesman Yan Zhenqing even wrote an epitaph specifically for her. In his article, he praised Princess Hezheng, saying that she possessed "virtue, beauty, achievement, righteousness, benevolence, filial piety, and loyalty. She was gentle, humble, and respectful, and had a broad and inclusive mind," and that "a gathering of beauty in one person" described her perfectly. What kind of story did Princess Hezheng, who possessed many virtues, leave behind?

Princess Hezheng (approximately 729-764 AD, or possibly born in 728 AD), whose given name is unknown, was the third daughter of Emperor Tang Suzong Li Heng and his empress consort Wu. She and Emperor Tang Daizong Li Yu were siblings. When Wu was still an infant, her father was an official in Shu. A Taoist priest who predicted her future exclaimed, "This girl is so noble that words cannot describe her. She will have two children: a boy who will become an emperor and a girl who will become a princess and marry someone with the surname Liu."

As prophesied, Wu's father committed a crime and Wu was taken to the imperial palace as a slave. Later, she was given as a reward to Li Heng, who was then the Prince of Zhong. Wu gave birth to a boy and a girl, who were later known as Emperor Tang Daizong and Princess Hezheng, respectively. Destiny indeed had a plan.

When Princess Hezheng was three years old, her mother died, and she was raised by Wei, one of Li Heng's consorts. Even as a child, Princess Hezheng was very clever and filial, and she was extremely devoted to her father and respectful and attentive to Wei, treating her like her own mother. Therefore, Li Heng was very fond of her. As she grew up, she not only had an outstanding appearance, like a lotus in the water, but also had a sharp mind and noble character.

Princess Hezheng was also talented and versatile. She loved reading and learning, believed in Buddhism, and studied Buddhist scriptures. In addition, she had a remarkable ability to remember what she heard and saw, whether it was the sound of metal and stone, silk and bamboo, or the art of painting.

The Love between Husband and Wife

In the ninth year of the Tianbao era (750 AD), Princess Hezheng was conferred the title of Junzhu (a rank below princess) and was married to Liu Tan of Hedong. Liu Tan was born into a prominent family; his father, Liu Cen, held the position of Tongshi Sheren (a government official responsible for organizing court audiences) and was later promoted to be the Minister of the Secretariat. Liu Tan's older brother was married to Lady Qin, the eighth sister of Yang Guifei (imperial concubine). Liu Tan was known for his good looks, talents, and especially for his modesty, kindness, and consideration for others. He was highly regarded among the literati and had served as a clerk in the prince's household and as a military officer before being chosen as a fu ma (a title given to a princess's husband).

After Princess Hezheng and Liu Tan were married, they respected and loved each other, and their relationship was very good. They had five sons and three daughters. The epitaph of Yan Zhenqing (a famous calligrapher) said, "The phoenix flies together, and the parasol tree depends on each other." This means that the phoenixes fly together in the sky and depend on each other on the parasol tree, which refers to the love between husband and wife.

Compared with her sister-in-law, Lady Qin, who loved to wear luxurious clothes, Princess Hezheng's attire was not fancy. However, her extraordinary beauty could not be hidden, even without the adornment of gold and jade. It was said that the princess had always adhered to the virtues of diligence, thrift, and frugality at home. She personally sewed her family's clothes, and her children did not wear silk clothes.

Respecting and Serving the Elder Sister, Courteous to the Younger Sister, and Treating the Nephew Kindly

In the 14th year of the Tianbao era (755 AD), the An Lushan Rebellion broke out, and Emperor Xuanzong of Tang, Crown Prince Li Heng, imperial relatives, courtiers, and ministers fled from Chang'an. On the way, Princess Hezheng met her elder half-sister, the recently widowed Princess Ningguo. Princess Ningguo's horse was taken by refugees, so she had to walk, and she also fell ill, which made her very miserable.

Princess Hezheng asked Liu Tan to dismount and give his horse to Princess Ningguo, and left her three children to walk on their own, while she stayed by her sister's side to take care of her. Feeling guilty towards her husband, Princess Hezheng walked with Liu Tan on foot. They had to walk a hundred miles a day, but Princess Hezheng never complained. Instead, when they rested, Liu Tan personally fetched water and chopped wood, while Princess Hezheng cooked and served Princess Ningguo. Every time they encountered danger, Princess Hezheng would let her sister go first and stay behind herself. With the care of Princess Hezheng and Liu Tan, Princess Ningguo and they all arrived safely at their destination.

After the rebellion of An Lushan, Emperor Tang Xuanzong fled to Sichuan while Crown Prince Li Heng went north to gather the remaining soldiers and defeated enemies. Li Heng was then enthroned as Emperor Tang Suzong and honored Xuanzong as the retired emperor. Princess Hezheng and her entourage followed Emperor Tang Xuanzong to Sichuan, where she was conferred the title of Hezheng Princess, and her husband Liu Tan was appointed as the Commandant of the Imperial Guards, the Grand Master of Splendid Happiness, and the Minister of Ceremonies.

Shortly after arriving in Sichuan, they discovered that the leader of the Sichuan army, Guo Qianren, had already rebelled and surrounded them. Princess Hezheng and Liu Tan fought alongside the soldiers, and withstood the siege until reinforcements arrived.

In the second year of Zhide (757 AD), after Chang'an was recaptured, both Emperor Xuanzong and Emperor Suzong returned to the capital. One day, Emperor Suzong fell seriously ill, and Princess Hezheng insisted on staying by his side and refused to leave. Emperor Suzong was deeply moved and said, "Your filial piety is so admirable." He then issued an edict to reward her with a manor, but Princess Hezheng declined and asked that it should be given to her younger sister, Princess Baozhang, who had not received any reward. Emperor Suzong appreciated her kindness and granted the manor to Princess Baozhang.

Previously, Princess Hezheng's sister-in-law, Lady Qin Guo, relied heavily on her favor with Yang Guifei and acted very arrogantly, but Princess Hezheng never used this relationship to benefit herself. Before the An Lushan rebellion, Lady Qin Guo passed away, and her husband, Liu Cheng, had already died. When Lady Qin Guo was dying, she entrusted her son to Princess Hezheng and Liu Tan, and Princess Hezheng raised her nephew as if he were her own child.

Speaking out for Justice

During the Tang Dynasty, the court was fond of military plays, and the imperial family often gathered to watch. The actors included professional performers as well as family members of convicted criminals who had been brought into the palace.

One day, a military play was performed in the palace, and among the actors was a woman who was the wife of Abu Si. Abu Si was originally from the Huihe people and had been executed for treason, and his wife was brought into the palace and forced to wear a green outfit and a fake beard to act in the play, playing the role of her husband. As a former noblewoman, how could she act in a play? This caused a burst of laughter from the audience.

Princess Hezheng was also present in the audience, but she did not laugh. Instead, she advised Emperor Suzong, "If Abu Si is guilty of treason, and then his wife should not be allowed near the emperor. If his wife is innocent, then she should not be forced to act in a play and be publicly humiliated and ridiculed." Emperor Suzong agreed with her reasoning and pardoned Abu Si's wife, sending her out of the palace.

Paying Attention to National Affairs and Contributing Wealth to the Country

Although the An-Shi Rebellion was gradually quelled, the consequences of the war were evident. The national treasury was empty and the country was in disrepair. The astute and capable Princess Hezheng earned a large sum of money through business during the An-Shi Rebellion, but it was not for her personal life, but to defend the country, so she almost donated it all to the national treasury. For example, to help the Tang army resist the invasion of the Tubo, she donated millions; when repairing the imperial tomb, she donated millions again.

In the first year of Baoying (762), Emperor Tang Xuanzong and Emperor Tang Suzong passed away one after another, and Emperor Tang Daizong ascended to the throne. After Emperor Tang Daizong ascended to the throne, Princess Hezheng repeatedly explained to him about the suffering of the people and the rise and fall of the country, and Emperor Tang Daizong listened to them one by one. Once, Emperor Tang Daizong planned to give Princess Hezheng a reward on the grounds that her family was not wealthy, but she refused.

Emperor Tang Daizong trusted his capable sister very much and often discussed military and political affairs with her. In the second year of Guangde (764), the Tubo invaded. After hearing this news, Princess Hezheng, who had just given birth to her son and was less than a month old, insisted on going to the palace to discuss the border defense plan with Emperor Daizong despite the worries and strong opposition of her husband, Liu Tan. She said, "My brother’s affairs are my affairs. Don't you have a brother?" She analyzed the pros and cons and proposed a plan, which Emperor Tang Daizong readily accepted. After returning home, she felt that she was not satisfied, so she went to the palace again.

At the time of midsummer, the back and forth trips made Princess Hezheng, who had not fully recovered, sick. Although Emperor Tang Daizong sent imperial physicians to treat her, she passed away a few days later, at the age of 36, on June 25, 764 AD.

Strange Occurrences before Death

Upon hearing the news of his sister's passing, Emperor Daizong was overwhelmed with grief and said, "My sister was the treasure bestowed upon our country by the heavens. I was looking forward to enjoying our blessings together in the future, but who would have thought she would leave us so suddenly? How could heaven be so cruel and how can I bear it?" He therefore suspended court for three days in mourning and commissioned the renowned calligrapher Yan Zhenqing to write an epitaph for his sister's tomb. On August 19th, he had Princess Hezheng buried in the Tongrenyuan of Yifeng in the jurisdiction of Chang'an.

Liu Tan, who had a close relationship with the princess, was also saddened to the core and cried until he had no tears left, wishing to follow his beloved wife. Their children also called out for their mother. When the news of the princess's death spread throughout the court and the people, everyone wept in mourning.

Princess Hezheng, who was a devout Buddhist during her lifetime, had told Liu Tan, "Life and death are a natural cycle, but it is a matter of sequence. If I die before you, please wrap me in Buddhist clothes and bury me in a temple. Remember my words and cherish my memory. If you die before me, I will visit your grave often and pay my respects."

Many strange events occurred before and after Princess Hezheng's death. Her horse died when she was near death; the ox that pulled her carriage knelt down and shed tears, refusing to eat for three days; and some of her deceased servants seemed to have reappeared.

In Yan Zhenqing's epitaph, we see a noble, elegant, beautiful, gentle, wise, responsible Tang princess who exuded warmth and kindness to those around her, whether as a wife, mother, daughter, or sister. She left a precious page in the history of the Tang Dynasty and became a legend. Even Yan Zhenqing himself said that he had never seen a princess like Hezheng in all his years of reading historical books since his youth.

The literary scholar Lyu Kun, who wrote the "Guidelines for Women" during the Ming Dynasty, also praised Princess Hezheng, saying that her good deeds were too many to recount.

Four years after Princess Hezheng's death in 768, Liu Tan also passed away and was posthumously appointed Shangshu Zuo Pushe. Their eldest son, Liu Sheng, became a Junior Supervisor in the Imperial Workshops; their second son, Liu Yun, became the tutor to the Prince of Yong; their third son, Liu Gao, married Princess Yiqing, the daughter of Emperor Tang Daizong; and their fourth son, Liu Yu, married Princess Yidu, the fourth daughter of Emperor Tang Dezong.

"Shen Dao Bei of Princess Hezheng"
"New Tang Dynasty, Volume 83, Biography 8: Imperial Princesses"
"Twenty-Four Examples of Ti"

Chinese version: https://big5.zhengjian.org/node/282233


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