Fanshipping a historical couple: Li Shimin and his beloved Empress Zhangsun

I have a strong habit to "ship" people together. This involuntary desire to ship couples can range from real life celebrities, characters in dramas or movies, characters in manga/books to famous historical figures! Fortunately, I have no interest to ship individuals I know in real life. PHEW! There are quite a few historical couples that I shipped, but my ultimate favorite is the Tang Dynasty Emperor Taizong 唐太宗 (personal name Li Shimin 李世民) and his Empress Zhangsun 长孙皇后. I'm not sure if you've heard of this couple since many existing Chinese period dramas tend not explore their relationship. They are often written as major characters in a series but Li Shimin ALWAYS gets paired up with some fictitious female character. -_-

In case you never heard or know little about Li Shimin and his wife, Empress Zhangsun, you may have indirectly heard about them in a passing. (Note: Empress Zhangsun's personal name never got recorded in history, so I'll just refer to her as Zhangsun 长孙氏.) They lived during an era of civil unrest between late Sui and early Tang Dynasty early 7th century AD. The Tang Dyansty was known for being the Golden Age of China and for its infamy in royal scandals/ promiscuity. For instance, one emperor killed his brothers and took his sister-in-law to be his concubine, one emperor married his father's concubine and promoted her to empress (Li Zhi 李治), and finally another emperor (Li Longji 李隆基) forced his daughter-in-law to become a nun and then took her as his concubine. And guess what? All three of these men were directly related to Zhangsun (husband, son, and great-grandson). LOL.

Zhangsun was associated with many other famous historical figures, particularly the only female emperor in Chinese history Wu Zetian 武则天. She was Wu Zetian's mother-in-law. But they never met in their lifetime since Zhangsun died when she was only 35 before her son reached manhood. Her great-grandson was the Emperor Xuanzong who was married to one of China's four great beauties, Yang Guifei 杨贵妃. Lastly, I'm sure you are quite familiar with my rant on Gao Zhan 高湛 in Female Prime Minister. Through her mother Lady Gao 高氏, Empress Zhangsun belonged to the same royal household of Northern Qi. Thus, her maternal bloodline made her Gao Zhan's great-great-great great something grandniece.

As for Li Shimin, he was a successful military commander who aided his father in the founding of the Tang Dynasty. He later infamously launched a military coup (a.k.a. Incident at Xuanwu Gate 玄武门之变) against his older brother the crown prince(太子李建成), whom he personally killed with an arrow along with his younger brother (齐王李元吉).  He then forced his father to abdicate the throne and began his successful reign called Zhenguan 贞观之治. (Real history ain't pretty! And karma gonna to get back at him later in his life) Because of the "evils" he committed (i.e. slaying of his full-blood brothers and all of their male off-springs), Li Shimin feared historians would badmouth him and probably wanted to atone for this bad record. Consequently, he worked hard to become an accomplished ruler. He was willing to take harsh criticisms for his indiscretion or bad decisions. Nowadays, he is often ranked as one of the best emperors in Chinese history. His reign, known as "Zhengguan," became the model era for later Chinese emperors and officials to follow. There are a plethora of Chinese TV series featuring his rise to become the Tang Dynasty emperor. The most recent one was Xuan Yuan Jian starring Hu Ge and Liu Shishi. Due to SARFT's intervention, Ma Tianyu's character Li Shimin had to change his name to Lu Chengzhi.

How did I start to fanship them?
My initial interest in Li Shimin and Zhangsun sprang from an old TVB period series called The Grand Canal starring the now super famous Tony Leung, Sean Lau, Felix Wong, Lawrence Ng, and Idy Chan. This uber LONG series introduced me to late Sui and early Tang Dynasty history as well as this lovely couple. The Grand Canal's version of Li Shimin and Zhangsun's relationship seemed like the predecessor of 5th Prince and Xiaoyanzi in Huan Zhu Ge Ge, which was a total antithesis  of history. Zhangsun was a rash, vivacious troublemaker with a strong sense of justice. This series impinged in my memory because it was my very FIRST TV drama I ever watched in my life.

By chance a few years later, I began to watch a Taiwanese biographical TV series about the life of Li Shimin. The series managed to convey the major events accurately but tended to sugarcoat the ugly stuff and fictionalized the romance. To my great disappointment, Zhangsun was not the #1 female lead. The OTP of the series became Li Shimin and his concubine, Consort Yang 杨妃. Nevertheless, I like the series. The actors who played Zhangsun and Li Shimin were eye-candies and the music was also fabulous! This series made enough impact and triggered my curiosity to dig deeper into the real history. I wasn't born a history lover. My love for history was actually acquired through fanshipping historical couples and interesting historical gossips.

The following is a list of some dramas I watched featuring Li Shimin and Zhangsun as major characters. I've watched more than what I listed and only included the more "memorable" (good and bad) series.

The Most Adorable Version
The Grand Canal 大运河 (1987) - Sean Lau 刘青云 & Margie Tsang 曾华倩
Zhangsun Wugou's evil stare juxtaposed with Li Shimin maintains his straight face is absolutely hilarious
Li Shimin was one of Sean Lau first leading roles in his acting career. As a child, I really enjoyed his performance. Today, I still do. Sometimes when I get bored with the new dramas, I would rewatch the his parts in the Grand Canal. Margie Tsang was also breathtaking beautiful as Zhangsun Wugou. Though her character wasn't perfect with her annoying moments, she was still terribly CUTE! I just loved to watch the bickering scenes between Li Shimin and Zhangsun in the Grand Canal. They were such a fun couple with their petty jealousies and innocent mushiness!

The Grand Canal Theme Song:

The Most Eye-Catching Version
Emperor Tang Taizhong Li Shimin 唐太宗李世民 (1993) - Wilson Lam 林俊贤 & Tong Ailing 童爱玲
This series definitely has some nice costumes and sets. Unfortunately for moi, Li Shimin spent the entire drama in love with another woman. He harbored only familial love for Zhangsun. This fact still didn't deter me from liking this series because I was fond of the actress who portrayed her. She embodied the elegance and subtle beauty very fitting of her character. Check out the theme song below! It remains one of my all time favorite songs.

Theme Song:

The Most Historically Accurate
Control by Zhenguan 贞观之治 (2006) - Ma Die 马跌 & Miao Pu 苗圃
This series is perhaps the only one I've seen where the scriptwriter decided to make Zhangsun and Li Shimin the OTP of the story. T_T For once, I get to see this historical couple onscreen without their business-as-usual interactions and rather superficial "formality". They actually acted like a "normal" married couple with tastefully done intimate scenes. Let me define this "intimacy" as the soulmate-type  mixed with some Oedipus Complex elements. They often chat about politics with Li Shimin's head resting on Zhangsun's lap or Zhangsun would help Li Shimin change out of his formal robes.Li Shimin, who is characterized with a more dominant persona, could act like child sometimes. He loved to throw tantrums and his ever rational wife would gently chide him back to his senses. LOL. I thought the actors in this series, particularly the actor for Li Shimin, did a wonderful job.Unfortunately, this series was a low-budget production with horrible CGIs that degraded entire feel of drama. And for the general audience, the writing of this drama could get too dried and boring. The storytelling is rather documentary in style. Definitely not a series for non-history fans. Nevertheless, for ardent Zhangsun/Li Shimin shippers like me, I savor every minute they have a scene together.

End Theme Song:

The Most "Blood-Spitting" Version
Prince of Qin Li Shimin 秦王李世民 (2005) Peter Ho 何润东 &  Chen Xiuli 陈秀丽
Peter Ho's Li Shimin is perhaps the worst Li Shimin I've ever seen. His character was annoying and stupid. LOL. Sorry Peter Ho's fans! I just couldn't restrain my boiling emotions every time I talk about this particular adaptation. Add to the blasphemy is the fact that the writer "demonized" my favorite Zhangsun. I know I shouldn't take this adaptation too seriously because it is classified as an historical "idol" drama. Once again, Li Shimin and Zhangsun aren't the OTP in the series. Our hero could not help himself but fall in love with the beautiful 高圆圆 Gao Yuanyuan's Princess Yang Ruoxi of the Sui Dynasty. The princess wasn't a bright pup either. In other words, I pretty much dislike every single major characters in this series including Zhangsun.
Peter Ho with his two leading ladies Gao Yuanyuan  and Chen Xiuli (Zhangsun Long'er)
So why do I like the historical Li Shimin and Zhangsun so much?
My answer to this question isn't exactly simple. I hope I haven't bore you all with my babble above because there is more babble to come. The truth is I don't even know why I ship the historical Li Shimin and Zhangsun so much. Unlike other famous couples, they were not known in history for their love relationship but more for their political rapport as emperor and empress. They were arranged to marry at a very young age (Zhangsun at 13, Li Shimin at 15) and the 23-year marriage  produced 7 children. Li Shimin had plenty of concubines and children born by other women as well. His offspring numbered 36 (almost tied with the Emperor Kangxi of the Qing Dynasty who had over 40) with a few dying in infancy that never got counted in the total.  Some questioned if Li Shimin ever "loved" his wife. He wasn't exactly a "faithful" husband. But we cannot use today's standards to judge an imperial emperor. Based on the materials I read, he seemed to really trust his wife for advice on matters of the state and often needed her to calm his anger when his officials pissed him off. After her death, the vigor and effectiveness of his reign and his willingness to take criticisms noticeably declined. He even constructed a sighting tower in the palace so he could climb high everyday to take a peak at her tomb. I believe he was also the emperor who started the precedent to be buried in the same tomb vault with his empress. I believe most emperors and empresses prior to Li Shimin shared the same tomb but were buried in separate vaults within the tomb.

Furthermore, history has transformed Zhangsun into this perfect empress image without any records of her flaws. Because of this perfect image historians painted of Zhangsun, scriptwriters found her boring and would rarely choose her to be the #1 female protagonist in their stories. Because she was the epitome of traditional Chinese female virtues, some people actually found her too virtuous for their liking. Her immaculate record was a major turnoff. In their eyes, the perfection she alluded seemed overly feigned that it speckled pretension.  Therefore, drama writers tend to pick a more obscure Consort Yang, who was also the former princess of the short-lived Sui Dynasty, to be their favorite female protagonist. The fact that Consort Yang's father was the emperor of the previous dynasty and her husband was the emperor of the succeeding Tang Dynasty provided the necessary recipe for hot messy MELODRAMA.

If I was a typical viewer, I think I would be more attracted to a "forbidden and passionate" love story between a Sui Dynasty princess and the rebel Li Shimn than some conventional story about a powerful man and his virtuous wife. Unfortunately, I don't fall in this category and utterly hate this Sui Dynasty princess formula that drama writers love.  Records of Consort Yang in history are minimal.  Only two facts written in less than 10 Chinese characters survived the test of time: she bore two sons and she was the daughter of Emperor Sui Yangdi 隋炀帝. Other than these two facts, there are no other information, tomb eulogy, legend, stories about her life. We also don't know anything about Li Shimin's attitude toward her. We don't know when she died nor where she was buried. Her tomb remains a mystery since it has not been located within the Zhao Mausoleum 昭陵 (burial place of Li Shimin, his wives, children, and his officials). I really think this historical obscurity of Consort Yang gives writers more creative freedom to come up with whatever they want without having to abide to history.

Despite Zhangsun's "unpopularity" with drama writers, I'm still a huge fan. I feel the perfectionism she exhibited was enigmatic and her true nature shrouded in mystery. She artfully wielded substantial influence on her husband yet still earned endless praises from those anti-feminist historians. For instance, she convinced Li Shimin to spare her half-brother's life  after he committed the unforgivable act of treason.

After her death, her children continued to enjoy unprecedented privileges. Li Shimin showered them with affections and favors. Actually, too much affections and favors that some officials protested at Li Shimin's partiality. Because three of her children did not reach adulthood when she died, Li Shimin decided to raise therr youngest son and second youngest daughter himself. (I found it odd that Li Shimin did not personally raise her youngest daughter, who was less than 2 years old at the time. I guess he didn't want to change her diapers?! Just kidding! ) In the history of imperial China, it was EXTREMELY rare for any emperor to personally raise his own children and to have them live with him in the same palace. The normal thing to do would be to assign a high-ranking concubine to care for the motherless children.

Anyway, the youngest son who grew up under the emperor's direct care was Li Zhi, the future Emperor Gaozong 唐高宗. Most dramas depicted Li Zhi as an unfavored son of Li Shimin, but I found the historical evidence pointing to the contrary. The man loved to stick to his son like glue! Li Zhi grew up living in the same palace with his younger sister and father. When he came of age as prince, he was required to leave the capital Changan 长安 (present day Xian 西安) to go to his princely territory in present day Shanxi Province and govern the area. Of course Li Shimin refused to let Li Zhi leave his side. And to the chagrin of his remonstrance officials, Li Shimin even forbade Li Zhi from moving out of his palace when decorum required the crown prince to live in his own designated residence (Eastern Palace 东宫) not too far away.

After reading a short letter written by Li Shimin to Li Zhi, I couldn't stop laughing. I was quite shocked to see how attached Li Shimin was to Li Zhi and could never imagine an almighty powerful emperor writing in such lovey-dovey manner to his son. This letter was originally written in classical Chinese. Luckily, some kind netizens translated into modern Chinese. I based my English translation of the letter on the modern Chinese version and my limited understanding of classical Chinese.

Li Shimin's letter sent to his 9th son, Li Zhi during his military campaigns against Korea.

I already received a series of memorials from the palace two times, but did not see any of your letters. Your Daddy (referring himself in 3rd person) was worried to death.  A moment ago when I suddenly received your personal letter saying that Niangzi (unidentified woman, maybe Li Zhi's wife?) got sick, my extreme worries and fears immediately evaporated. It was like I died and got revived again. From this moment onward, if a migraine (headache) occurs, you must immediately report it to me. If your Daddy (referring to himself in 3rd person again) falls sick, Daddy would also write a letter to tell you. Today, I also received some news about Liaodong (referring to some battle in northeast China). I'll write a copy for you. I really MISS you to death that I don't know how to express it. (Read the original text)

(Signed) Daddy.  <------ Li Shimin simply referred to himself as "Daddy" or 耶耶 Ye Ye in classical Chinese. He did not use the proper "Imperial Father" nor "Father." To me, this letter exhibited a familial warmth uncommon in Chinese royal families.

So what am I trying to say with the miscellaneous stuff? Well...I'm trying to demonstrate that Li Shimin shared a very close and productive relationship with his wife - almost loving relationship. At Zhangsun's deathbed, she revealed that she carried poison at her side and would use it to follow Li Shimin to the grave.
Now that gesture definitely surpassed that "Till death do we part" promise!

Li Shimin/Zhangsun became unique to me because they remained devoted to each other despite all the temptations surrounding them and the various political variables that could break them apart. They practically grew up together and experienced many hardships together before climbing to the top. It was also endearing to know that Li Shimin's devotion toward his wife did not end in her death but extended to her surviving children and beyond her death.

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