The Story of Wang Zhao­jun

Beijing (English) - - CONTENTS - Trans­lated by Wu Li, pol­ished by Roberta Raine, pho­tos by Mao Yu

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”)

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