The Story of Wang Zhaojun
In history, numerous poems, songs, paintings and operas have been made about Wang Zhaojun (52–15 BC), which altogether was known as “Zhaojun culture.”
In 34 BC, Huhanye Chanyu (?–31 BC), chief of the Xiongnu tribe, went to Chang'an three times to express his wish to establish cordial relations with the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC–AD 24) through marriage. Emperor Yuan of Han (reign: 48–32 BC) agreed to his request and picked a beautiful girl to marry Huhanye. That girl was Wang Zhaojun (c. 52–15 BC). During the 60 years after Zhaojun married the Xiongnu leader, the Han people and the Xiongnu were at peace with each other. The border people lived in peace, with cows and horses everywhere in the fields, and for decades no unrest broke out and people no longer suffered from war.
In history, numerous poems, songs, paintings and operas have been made about Zhaojun, known as “Zhaojun culture.” It was also a popular topic for novelists and dramatists. Wang Zhaojun's popularity in literature comes from both her good looks and and the fact that she became an important symbol of harmony and unity between different ethnic groups.
A Love Tragedy by Ma Zhiyuan
In zaju (a form of Chinese drama) circles in the Yuan Dynasty, Ma Zhiyuan (1250–1321), known as “the best dramatist,” was a memorable figure. Ma Zhiyuan spent most of his youth seeking fame and fortune. In middle age, he worked in various official positions. In his later years, however, he showed no interest in status and wealth, claiming, “I used to enjoy being in nature, so I decided to spend my later years going back to nature.” Being a “refined” scholar, Ma could also create down-to- earth zaju and sanqu (a fixed-rhythm form of classical Chinese poetry). Therefore, he was admired by scholars and commoners alike.
Seven of Ma's zaju plays are extant, one of which is Han Gong Qiu (Autumn in the Han Palace). The play, based on Zhaojun's departure for the border area, tells the tragic story between Emperor Yuan of Han and Wang Zhaojun. In the play, Emperor Yuan of Han felt lonely and agreed to a suggestion by court painter Mao Yanshou to let him select beautiful girls for the emperor to choose from. Wang Zhaojun was not willing to bribe Mao, so Mao intentionally made her portrait ugly in the hopes that “the girl would be banished to the cold palace and have to spend the rest of her life in bitterness.” One night, the emperor happened to hear Zhaojun playing pipa (a four-stringed musical instrument) when he was strolling in the palace. The music itself was touching enough, but when he saw the girl, he found her adorable. When the emperor asked someone to bring him the girl's portrait, he understood what had happened and got so angry about what Mao had done that he ordered the painter to be beheaded.
As soon as Mao learned of this, he escaped to see the Xiongnu chief, Huhanye. He lied to Huhanye, saying that Wang Zhaojun was willing to marry him but that Emperor Yuan of Han would not agree, and that although he had urged the emperor to allow the marriage, instead the emperor was going to have him beheaded. Then Mao presented the portrait of Zhaojun to him, saying, “If you take this picture and demand her hand in marriage, I'm sure you will succeed.” Huhanye was so pleased that he led a group of men to the Han court, threatening the Han emperor with the words, “Unless you permit me to marry Zhaojun, I'll launch an attack and your land will fall into my hands.”
The emperor, of course, couldn't bear to see Zhaojun go, but he knew his country could not withstand an invasion by the Xiongnu. To avoid war, Zhaojun volunteered to be sent to marry Huhanye. The emperor had to see the girl off at Baqiao Bridge. Huhanye was glad to see Zhaojun come and withdrew his troops from the Han land. However, Zhaojun couldn't bear to leave her homeland and drowned herself somewhere between the Han land and the border area. Huhanye had no choice but to bury the girl by the river, and her burial place was named “green tomb.” Huhanye blamed Mao Yanshou for all of this. To prevent things from getting worse, he sent Mao back to the Yuan court. Emperor Yuan of Han was already grieved to hear of Zhaojun's death, so he immediately ordered that Mao be killed.
Although the play is based on the story of Zhaojun departing for the border area, Emperor Yuan of Han is the only hero, with Zhaojun, Mao Yanshou and Huhanye in mere supporting parts. Even in scenes like the selection of beautiful girls, the pipa playing at night and the farewell dinner at Baqiao Bridge are all intended to highlight the emperor. In the play, Emperor Yuan of Han is described as being fatuous and weak in politics, but affectionate and kind. After Zhaojun was sent to the border, the emperor was sad to see the girl go and angry with his ministers, complaining that, “You powerful ministers take
all the credit in times of peace but send my girl to the border to make peace; you've been paid handsomely, but you fail to share my worries.” Sighing, the emperor said, “Although I knew there would be failures like this as emperor, I never expected that I would have so little freedom.”
This male-role-oriented play isn't only a sad love story. Ma Zhiyuan was a poetic dramatist and he himself could be seen in many of his own works; Autumn in the Han Palace was no exception. The entire fourth scene is a dream in which Emperor Yuan of Han has a brief meeting with Zhaojun, then awakes with a start. This internal scene is a reflection of the dramatist's own thoughts and emotions. In the play, Ma uses the cry of a solitary wild goose and burning incense to create a sad and melancholy atmosphere, while the emperor's anger and helplessness after his dream shatters is a reflection of the author's own worries.
Different Versions of Zhaojun’s Story
In the yellow sand, a girl on horseback plays a melancholy piece with a pipa in her hands. She can hear the horses neighing and the wild geese crying. The wild geese are so fascinated by the music and the girl's beauty that they seem to forget to flap their wings. One after another, they fly over on the sandy beach. The Chinese phrase luoyan (“wild geese falling”) originated from this scene in the play, and refers to how a dazzling beauty—wang Zhaojun—can make wild geese fall to earth.
Zhaojun is not the leading character of the play Autumn in the Han Palace, but the whole story is about her. In fact, in history, no romantic love happened between the girl and Emperor Yuan of Han. Very little information about the girl can be found in historical documents. Even in Han Shu ( The Book of Han), there are only a few words about her, hardly adequate to know anything about her. That's understandable though. After all, as an official history, The Book of Han focuses on historical events regarding the establishment of cordial relations between the Han Dynasty and the Xiongnu through marriage. It's only natural then, that the Han emperor and the Xiongnu leader are the main characters. As for Wang Zhaojun, she appears only as one of the girls who were sent to accomplish an important historical mission. In the official history, there are no detailed records about the Han princesses who were sent to marry the Xiongnu, let alone a common maid like Zhaojun.
However, the information about Zhaojun is more detailed in Houhan Shu ( The Book of Later Han). According to this historical record, Wang Zhaojun volunteered to marry the Xiongnu leader. The reason she asked for the mission was that “even after being in the palace for years, she had never been able to see the emperor and therefore felt sad.” Upon her departure, she went to say goodbye to the emperor and her “beautiful looks brightened the whole palace.” Emperor Yuan of Han was so amazed by her beauty that he even had the idea of breaking his promise to the Xiongnu chief. Actually, to say that Zhaojun volunteered to marry the Hun leader is not plausible. How could a palace maid be powerful enough to affect relations between two ethnic groups? Therefore, the above record is usually considered to have been added by the author of The Book of Later Han based on folklore. It is said that during the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25–220) there were similar stories that inspired later poets to describe Zhaojun as a plaintive girl. In the Jin Dynasty (AD 265–420), stories about Zhaojun became richer in content. The stories were more literary and included more plots, such as the execution of court painters due to their acceptance of bribes and cheating in selecting beautiful girls.
Wang Zhaojun Bianwen (“Wang Zhaojun narrative”), a vernacular narrative literary work published in the Tang Dynasty (AD 618–907), was a big leap in the spreading of Zhaojun's story among ordinary people. Contrary to official history, Wang Zhaojun Bianwen describes the Xiongnu as a powerful nationality, while the Han court is portrayed as a weak power. The event of Zhaojun departing for the border is described as a humiliating compromise of the Han court. The story tells of how the Xiongnu leader married Zhaojun with the help of the Han court painter, how lonely and homesick the girl was after she was taken to the Xiongnu region, and how she finally died miserably. Based on both historical records and folk legends, Wang Zhaojun Bianwen, for the first time, described Zhaojun in the form of narration and song, which made the story more popular and was the basis for further creation of the character in opera and fiction. It can be said that before Wang Zhaojun Bianwen, poems about her emphasised emotional expression, while afterwards, narration became more important.
Historical records show that Wang Zhaojun died of illness in 15 BC, and the Xiongnu built the girl a tomb to commemorate her. Later in the Jin Dynasty, the word zhao was removed from her name, as it was a taboo to call emperors and other dignitaries by their personal name, so Zhaojun was instead called Mingjun or Mingfei. It is said that the grass to the north of her tomb was grey, but on Zhaojun's tomb the grass was green, so it is known as “the green tomb.” Modern Chinese historian Jian Bozan (1898–1968) once said, “Wang Zhaojun is more than an historical figure. She is a symbol of friendly relations between different ethnic groups. Her tomb is more than a tomb; instead, it is an historical monument of ethnic friendship.”
The Peking Opera Version of Zhaojun’s Story
The story of Zhaojun is so popular that it is also seen on the opera stage. It has been performed in Sichuan Opera, Shaanxi Opera and Yunnan Opera.
Among all the versions of Peking Opera about Zhaojun, the most widely known is Han Mingfei (“Concubine Ming of Han”) performed by the “Shang school,” named after Shang Xiaoyun (1900–1976). Shang Xiaoyun was one of the four most famous Peking Opera actors to play a leading male role, the other three being Mei Lanfang (1894–1961), Cheng Yanqiu (1904–1958) and Xun Huisheng (1900–1968). Shang was a witness and participant of the middle and late period of Peking Opera, and his performing career coincided with the golden age of Peking Opera.
Shang also played a role called qingyi, a demure female part, which was well received by his audiences. To play a virtuous and heroic female role well, the performer is required to
sing clearly, loudly and sound masculine. With a mellow and full voice, Shang was known for his “throat of iron and steel” and therefore established his own singing style. Shang learnt to play martial arts roles in his early years and then later switched to female parts. Based on his early practice and later self-study with Yang Xiaolou (1878–1938), a master in playing martial arts roles, Shang developed a series of unique steps in his performance that featured a perfect combination of “slowness and quickness” and “nimbleness and quietness” in movement.
Zhaojun Chusai (“Zhaojun departs for the border”) is a representative work of the Shang school and also a wonderful scene in Han Mingfei. Zhaojun Chusai was originally a Kunqu Opera (one of the oldest extant forms of Chinese opera). In 1919, the 19-year-old Shang Xiaoyun performed it for the first time in Beijing. In 1935, he used this scene as the basis of a complete opera by adding a beginning and an end, and this became Han Mingfei. Without changing its original Kunqu tune, Shang made use of all his talent in both martial arts and ordinary roles, while keeping a unique style of performance of the Shang school, with its characteristic strength and vigour.
The scene Zhaojun Chusai is not long, but it requires excellent dancing and singing skills. Shang Xiaoyun once said, “Performing Zhaojun is just like painting the beauty herself. Without professional skills, one can't paint the famous ancient beauty as gorgeously as she really looked. Likewise, a wild imagination or gorgeous costumes and makeup are useless if the performer himself is clumsy on the stage. That would be worse than how Zhaojun was made ugly by the court painter Mao Yanshou.” To make his performance perfect, Shang adopted almost all the movements involved in performing female roles and even some martial arts actions to suit the demands of plot, character, environment and emotions. The most popular part in this scene, called “Zhaojun mounts the horse,” was praised as a living “painting of the beauty and the horse.”
Peking Opera emphasises an impressionistic, free style. Performing the scene “Zhaojun mounts the horse” requires both the actor and the horse. Obviously, no real horse could be brought on the stage, so how can this scene be performed? In his performance, when asked by the groom to mount the horse, Shang stayed where he stood, “looking back like a peacock.” Then turning swiftly, with his back to the horse and his face to the road, he slowly “moved his hands like clouds” and “stretched his arms like a mountain” before retreating reluctantly to the centre of the stage. Then, all of a sudden, with his sleeves thrown in the air, he circled his wrists and moved his hands twice to finish the action of “rolling up his sleeves” and turned around. To the tune of traditional Peking Opera percussion, the performer finished a series of dazzling actions including adjusting his hat, twisting his wrists and tightening his silk belt.
Actions such as “moving one's hands like clouds” and “stretching one's arms like a mountain” are usually adopted by performers of martial arts roles before going to the battlefields. Shang's adoption of these two movements made his performance of the female role masculine and heroic. Instead of twisting his wrists twice as actors usually did, Shang made it more complicated by circling his wrists repeatedly, thus creating his own unique form of this movement. As for how many times the wrists should be twisted, Shang said “the more, the better” and “the more there are, the more exciting the performance will be as long as all the movements can finish before the music stops.”
Before Shang Xiaoyun, the scene of Zhaojun Chusai was known for “tiring Zhaojun in singing, Wang Long in moving and Ma Tong in turning.” In other words, the actor playing Zhaojun needed to sing a lot, and the other performers playing the supporting parts of Wang Long and Ma Tong were required to make a lot of movements and turns. Shang changed the performance of this scene greatly by having the performer playing Zhaojun dance more, and having her perform onstage with the other two actors at the same time. The whole scene was shown in a style different from before. Later, Shang's style was followed in both the Peking Opera Zhaojun Chusai and the Kunqu Opera called Chusai (“departing for the border”), a fact that reflects Shang's farreaching influence in the field.
A stage photo of the Peking Opera Zhaojunchusai (‘‘Zhaojun departs for the border”)