Friendly Ties forged
The stories of ancient China's first female diplomat Feng Liao of the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC–AD 24) have been handed down and told widely.
“The Belt and Road Initiative” is China’s national strategy. The historic Silk Road is not only an ancient commercial trade route connecting Asia, Africa and Europe, but also a road between the East and the West for economic, political and cultural exchanges. Many Chinese envoys once stepped on this road during the past 2,000 years or more, writing legends in world diplomatic history, still commemorated by later generations along the Silk Road. Women hold up half the sky,” proclaimed Chairman Mao Zedong (1893–1976). History testified to this. During the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC–AD 24), heroic men emerged, and in the meantime, many women played pivotal roles, with Feng Liao (once a maidservant, later ancient China's first female diplomat) and Liu Jieyou (a princess) as emblematic.
During the reign of Han Emperor Wudi (141–87 BC), Western Han troops counterattacked Xiongnu (an ancient nationality in
China), who then invaded southwards over a lengthy period. Wusun was the most powerful state in Xiyu (the Western Regions, a historical term for the regions west of the Yumen Gate in present-day Gansu Province, involving the southern area of today's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region and parts of Central Asia).
To form an alliance between Western Han and Wusun against Xiongnu, Liu Jieyou (120–49 BC), known as Princess Jieyou, arrived at the Western Regions in 101 BC for heqin
(a historical practice of Chinese emperors marrying princesses, usually members of minor branches of the imperial family, to rulers of neighbouring states to bring peace to border areas). Feng Liao (birthdates unknown), a maidservant of the princess, accompanied her to Wusun.
According to Hanshu ( Book of Han), Princess Jieyou was the only high-ranking lady empowered to take part in national defence and administration. The princess mainly turned to Feng Liao for help in devising schemes. The Traditions of the Western Regions in the Book of Han stated: “Feng Liao could read historical records and once held an insignia, and worked as an envoy on behalf of the princess. She granted rewards to people in various states and was honoured as “Madam Feng.”
Establishing an Alliance
As a Western Han envoy to the Western Regions, Zhang Qian (circa 164–114 BC) stayed in Wusun for long. Though the king of Wusun received Zhang and his escorts warmly, the king avoided discussing the founding of an alliance. In 115 BC, Zhang took gifts prepared by the king for Han Emperor Wudi, and left Wusun is disappointment.
Though Zhang had left, the king got more nervous. Actually, immediately after Zhang arrived at his state, the king became nervous. He was afraid that Xiongnu would hear of Zhang's arrival and cause trouble to Wusun. Considering prestige of Western Han in the Western Regions, he received Zhang. In fact, he was too nervous to go to sleep at night, hoping that Zhang would leave as soon as possible.
Wusun was cautious, but the news was disclosed. Xiongnu couldn't put up with that any state in its territory would betray it. Though the king of Wusun didn't take any action to set up an alliance with Western Han, Xiongnu was irritated.
Threatened by Xiongnu, the king of Wusun immediately drafted an edict aimed at founding an alliance with Western Han, and expressed his wish for heqin with Western Han. Pondering that, Han Emperor Wudi decided to marry Princess Jieyou to Junxumi, grandson of Liejiaomi, then Kunmo (king of Wusun). No specific historical materials could be found to indicate when each of them was born or died.
The princess was a granddaughter of Liu Shu (dates of birth and death unclear), king of Chu who once took part in the Rebellion of the Seven States to overturn centralised imperial authority. The princess was unwilling to go to the Western Regions. Considering the rebellion involving her family, she agreed with heqin to show her loyalty to the Western Han. After receiving the imperial edict, she submitted a written statement to the emperor for permission that her maidservant Feng Liao could accompany her to Wusun.
Though Feng was a maidservant of the princess, they treated each other as sisters. Feng could read, and had political talent. Knowing about Feng, the emperor allowed Feng to go with the princess. To take good care of the princess, Feng received quality education and training before heading for the Western Regions. She learnt languages spoken in the Western Regions, as well as kung fu. In 101 BC, Princess Jieyou and Feng arrived at the Western Regions. Feng looked after the princess, and helped to better relations between the Western Han and Wusun.
At the beginning, Princess Jieyou couldn't get used to life in Wusun and felt lonesome. Homesick, she often cried when her husband wasn't around. Feng knew well about the princess and gave her advice. At first, the princess didn't listen. When her husband was absent, she always stared into the distance, yearning to return to her hometown. Feng then thought of an idea.
Feng bought many books about myths, legends and official history of the Western Regions at local fairs. The princess was immediately fascinated by these books, because she had never read such books. Gradually, the princess got used to life in the Western Regions, and contributed to maintaining peace between the Western Han and Wusun.
Under this circumstance, Feng began to show her political talent. At that time, the Western Regions were home to over 30 states. Except Wusun, all other states were controlled by Xiongnu. Feng realised that a growing Xiongnu would do harm to the Western Han. With Wusun as the base, Feng held an insignia for envoys of the Western Han, and visited states south of the Tianshan Mountains on behalf of Princess Jieyou. Every time when Feng reached a place, she gave regards and gifts to people there, fully showcasing Western Han etiquette. Feng's demeanour won the respect of people in the Western Regions, and she was honoured as “Madam Feng.”
When the view that men were superior to women prevailed, it was rather hard for Feng to enhance the influence of Western Han in the Western Regions. Assisted by King Feiwang of Wusun and Princess Jieyou, Western Han and Wusun troops cooperated and defeated Xiongnu. Feng also contributed to winning the battle, because Feng's enhanced the prestige of the Western Han in the Western Regions.
When the Western Han and Wusun battled with Xiongnu, many small states in the Western Regions didn't provide Xiongnu with any practical aid. This battle removed threats to the north of the
Western Han. Xiongnu once again began to move about, temporarily keeping a distance from the Western Han. It was this alliance between the Western Han and Wusun that ensured victory.
Stabilising the Situation
When the Western Han and Wusun people were still excited at the victory over Xiongnu, King Feiwang died in 60 BC. The king and Princess Jieyou had a son named Yuanguimi (date of birth unknown, died in 51 BC). The king once promised to make Yuanguimi his successor, because he loved Princess Jieyou and their son, and had an intimate friendship with the Western Han. However, their son didn't ascend to the throne as smoothly as expected.
Nimi (birthdate unknown, died in 53 BC) and then Wujiutu (birthdate unknown, died in 30 BC) succeeded to the throne. Wujiutu, son of King Feiwang and another wife from Xiongnu, was always treated as a minority. The king didn't focus on Wujiutu or care about him.
Wujiutu hated Princess Jieyou since childhood. Influenced by his mother, Wujiutu trusted Xiongnu. After killing Nimi, Wujiutu convened followers, and went to Beishan Mountain, threateningning to invite Xiongnu troops to Wusun. If so, the alliance between Western Han and Wusun against Xiongnu would split.
Supposing that the Western Han took no measures, Wujiutu would destroy the alliance. Therefore, the Western Han sent 15,000 troops to Dunhuang (in today's Gansu Province) to keep close watch on Wusun. Zheng Ji (birthdate unknown, died in 49 BC) served as Xiyu Duhu ( Western Han's highest officer governing the Western Regions) at that time. Zheng was familiar with Wusun's situation, the good relationship between Wujiutu and the Right General, husband of Feng, and Feng's capability. So, Zheng asked Feng to change Wujiutu's mind.
Feng agreed to fulfil what she had been asked to do. After arriving at Wusun, Feng, with Princess Jieyou's permission, participated in political activities, mainly diplomatic events, and came up with ideas that the princess liked. Feng tried to solve the political crisis between the Western Han and Wusun as wife of the Right General of Wusun rather than as a maidservant of the princess.
When Feng came to the Western Regions with Princess Jieyou, she was still a young girl. After several years, Feng married with the Right General of Wusun. Both the Left and Right generals were important to the king of Wusun. The king ng regardedregar the Right General highly, often turning to the general for advice. They got along well in private. Thinking of these, Zheng Ji chose Feng to persuade Wujiutu.
Prior to the founding of the government office of Xiyu Duhu in 60 BC, Feng, over 50 years old, travelled across snowy mountains and endless deserts to visit more than 30 states, regardless of severe winters and hot summers. In each of the states, Feng promoted morality, and helped to solve its internal and external troubles. In this way, Feng gained people's respect, bettered their understanding of the Western Han, and contributed to establishing the government office of Xiyu Duhu.
This time, Feng decided to persuade Wujiutu. To make sure of the situation, Han Emperor Xuandi (reign: 74–49 BC), called Feng back to Chang'an (today's Xi'an, capital of Shaanxi Province). The emperor listened to Feng's report, and asked her for advice. To improve relations between Western Han and Wusun, Feng was appointed as the principal envoy to Wusun, while Zhu Ci and Gan Yanshou (dates of birth and death unknown) as assistant envoys. At that time, Wujiutu, a cross man, was too impatient to wait for Feng's news, threatening to take action. Hearing of this, Feng, Zhu and Gan immediately left for Wusun.
Before that, Han Emperor Xuandi had ordered Chang Hui (birthdate unknown, died in 46 BC, a diplomat and general) to lead troops to open up a wasteland and grow food grains in the city of Chigu (“red valley”), capital of Wusun, to garrison border areas. Immediately after Feng arrived in Wusun, she convened Zhu Ci, Gan Yanshou and Chang Hui to discuss how to resolve the crisis.
Receiving the emperor's edict given by Feng, Wujiutu came to Chigu. Feng spoke with him sincerely. Feng said, “I advise you to lay down weapons and stop this bloodshed. To seize power, you unexpectedly slaughter your relations. What you have done will benefit your enemy. If you won't follow my advice, you will be destroyed after of the Han troops arrive.”
Shocked at Feng, deterred by the Western Han troops, and opposed by domestic people, Wujiutu changed his mind. He said to Feng, “Madam Feng, please forgive me. I agree to a truce, only begging for a title as a minor king.” After negotiating, Yuanguimi became Da Kunmi (great king) of Wusun, while Wujiutu became Xiao Kunmi (minor king). Wusun had more than 100,000 households.
The great king governed 60 percent of them, while the minor king 40 percent. An end was put to the internal chaos of Wusun. Feng reported the result to the Han Emperor Xuandi at once. The emperor ordered to inform General Poqiang of the edict that there was no need to attack Wusun. Meanwhile, the emperor sent an envoy to Wusun to grant the great and minor kings official stamps and costumes, and to announce their titles.
To avoid the great and minor kings from fighting for power, Feng submitted a written statement to Han Emperor Xuandi to suggest strengthening control over Wusun. The emperor sent troops to the Chigu to be stationed there, and ordered the great and minor kings to rule Wusun individually. From then on, the position of the great king of Wusun was always taken by offspring of Princess Jieyou. This stimulated Wusun's development, and laid a solid foundation for friendly ties between Western Han and Wusun. It was Feng that did a lot to make the Western Han and Wusun troops to lay down weapons and coexist in peace, and thus created a colourful history featuring harmony among different ethnic groups.
In 51 BC, Yuanguimi and Chimi, sons of Princess Jieyou, both died of illness. About 70 years old then, she missed her homeland and wrote to Han Emperor Xuandi, expressing hope that she could return to her hometown. Considering the princess had lived in the Western Regions for several decades and contributed to the Western Han, the emperor ordered to take the princess and Feng back to Chang'an. The princess was treated well in her everyday life. Feng was revered, and granted valuable materials. Two years later, the princess died of illness, and was laid to rest.
After Yuanguimi died, his son Xingmi (birthdate unknown, died in 33 BC) became the great king of Wusun. Xingmi was too young to rule a state. Feng was worried about that she wrote to the emperor, hoping to go back to Wusun to support Xingmi. At that time, the Han Emperor Xuandi died, Liu Shuang ascended to the throne, known as Han Emperor Yuandi (reign: 49–33 BC). Though the emperor didn't aim to bother Feng, already over 70 years old, he allowed sending Feng back to Wusun for the sake of stabilising the Western Regions.
In 48 BC, Feng once again set foot on the Silk Road, and headed for Wusun, accompanied by more than 100 escorts. Hearing this, many Wusun people rode horses, and covered several hundred miles to greet Feng. In Wusun, Feng helped Xingmi to handle state affairs in the daytime, while teaching him Confucian classics and history in the evening. Feng did her utmost to make Xingmi a great ruler, bolster Wusun's development, and strengthen friendly ties between the Western Han and Wusun in her remaining years.
During Feng's lifetime, she contributed to the establishment of the military alliance between the Western Han and Wusun, and the victory of their allied forces over Xiongnu. With her talent and efforts, Feng persuaded Princess Jieyou to take her advice, pacified officers and officials of Wusun, educated offspring of the princess and the Wusun people. Her prestige benefitted both the Western Han and Wusun, as her speech and behaviour helped to maintain peace and unity between Western Han and the Western Regions, earning respect by people from other states.
In history, people had to fight hard battles or communicate calmly. Feng was devoted to intangible battlefields, solved crises between the Western Han and Wusun many times, and laid a solid foundation to develop friendly relations between the Western Han and Wusun. From a young girl to an elderly woman, Feng spent most of her time in the Western Regions. Facing complicated political situations, even the kings of Wusun had no idea. However, Feng, under pressure, played an effective role politically.
A Chinese saying goes, “The female can be as excellent as the male.” Due to Feng's efforts, the alliance between Western Han and Wusun was established, their allied forces were formed, and Xiongnu was defeated and weakened. In the meantime, the Western Han strengthened its ties with the Western Regions. As ancient China's first female diplomat, Feng has been revered from generation to generation, and her stories have been handed down and told widely.
No chapter for Feng can be found alone in the Book of Han. However, her description in the Traditions of the Western Regions of the Book of Han reflects her contributions to the Western Regions. During the Western Han, Xiyu Duhu were sent 18 times. Of them, only Zheng Ji and Duan Huizong (84–10 BC) could be comparable to Feng, when judged from their performances in stabilising and developing border areas.
Though once a maidservant, Feng wasn't bound by class. She read many historical records, and understood folk customs of the Western Regions. With an insignia for envoys of the Western Han, she visited states in the Western Regions, exerted her wisdom, and became a significant historical figure.
Feng was nominated as an official envoy several times, a one-of-a-kind in China's several thousand years of history. She devoted her life to strengthening unity between the Han and other ethnic groups in the Western Regions, leaving behind a notable chapter in China's history of national solidarity.
Feng Liao was considered ancient China’s first female diplomat, whose life experience was recorded in Hanshu(bookofhan).