Wang Zhaojun, Loyal Heroine
The “Belt and Road” is China’s initiative. The historic Silk Road isn’t only an ancient commercial trade route connecting Asia, Africa and Europe, but also a road between the East and West for economic, political and cultural exchanges. Many Chinese envoy
Wang Zhaojun’s marriage to Chanyu for peace has been a symbol of ethnic unity and friendship, and she has been widely acknowledged and respected over the years.
From the great Han Dynasty (206 BC–AD 220) to the prosperous Tang Dynasty (AD 618–907), many historical women hidden set foot on the long Silk Road with their stories that made people feel sorrowful yet sigh with yearning. Under the influence of these women, the Central Plains and the Western Regions became an inseparable region.
In 33 BC, a same story happened on Qinzhi Path from Chang’an ( present- day Xi’an) to Wuyuan Prefecture ( presentday Baotou). Qinzhi Path was the earliest expressway of the world built under the command of the First Emperor of Qin ( reign: 246– 209 BC) from 212 to 210 BC. In the Western Han Dynasty ( 206 BC– AD 24), this path must be passed if one wanted to come to the border area, and it was also the branch of the Silk Road and a channel for cultural exchanges. Wang Zhaojun ( c. 52– 15 BC), a legendary woman in Chinese history, went to the border area through the Qinzhi Path.
Leaving for the Border
The war between the Han Dynasty and Xiongnu (an ancient nationality in China) could date back to the Spring and Autumn and Warring States Period (770–221 BC). Quanrong, which destroyed the Western Zhou Dynasty (11th century–771 BC) in the famous history allusion “Fenghuo xi zhuhou (making fun of dukes by beaconfire),” was one branch of Xiongnu. At the turn of the Qin Dynasty (221–206 BC) and Han Dynasty, the border between Han’s and Xiongnu’s territory was always in wars, which forced the Western Han Dynasty to change its strategy from making peace by marriage and paying tribute at the founding of the nation to striking back in Emperor Wu’s reign (140–86 BC). The Han Empire went through three major wars, namely the Battle of Henan, Battle of Hexi and Battle of Mobei, struck back Xiongnu and finally obtained decisive victory; then it expanded its territory and opened up the Silk Road and entered a prosperous period. On the contrary, Xiongnu was beaten constantly and severely, and its royal court retreated to the north of the Gobi Desert. Civil strife broke out among the Xiongnu people, forming a situation in which five forces fought for leadership. The force of Huhanye (reign: 58–31 BC, chief of the Huns) decided to concede to the Han court.
In 51 BC, Huhanye led his tribe to cross the desert to live a nomadic life in Mount Yin (present-day Hohhot, Inner Mongolia), and he personally went to Chang’an to pay a formal visit to Emperor Xuan (reign: 73–48 BC) of the Western Han Dynasty to show that he was ready to submit to the Han court. The empire provided him high privilege and gifts, and allocated grains to his tribe to alleviate famine. With the support of the empire, Huhanye returned to the north of the Gobi Desert and became a prince of Han that ruled the whole territory of Xiongnu and had a position superior to all dukes.
In 33 BC, out of gratitude toward the Han Dynasty, Huhanye Chanyu (“Chanyu” means the leader of Xiongnu), who had already unified the whole territory of Xiongnu, went to Han’s capital Chang’an to pay a formal visit to Emperor Yuan of Han (reign: 48–32 BC) and proposed on his initiative to be a sonin-law of Han, so as to make the relationship between Han and Xiongnu more harmonious with a marital tie. The emperor and ministers all believed this was a good turn, so Emperor Yuan of Han acceded to Huhanye’s request and recruited a maid of honour willing to marry Huhanye.
At that time, the Xiongnu lived in the cold and remote northern frontier area, speaking their own language and practising their customs. Maids in the palace all refused to respond to the recruit except Wang Zhaojun who volunteered to marry Xiongnu. Wang Zhaojun’s original first name is Qiang, and “Zhaojun” is her style name. She was born in Zigui of Nanjun Prefecture (present-day Hubei Province).
Wang Zhaojun was smart enough to know all hardship of living in distant foreign land. She used to be sleepless in numerous nights, thinking about whether she should stay in the palace or get married in a distant area. Eventually, she made a selfish choice. Wang Zhaojun’s character of reason and decisiveness had something to do with her birthplace—zigui, previously under the jurisdiction of the Chu State.
The state of Chu had a deep root. As the saying goes, “Even though there were only three clans left in Chu State, they could also destroy the state of Qin.” People in Chu State were honest and frank with strong determination. The sages in Chu State had influenced Wang Zhaojun, making her an educated and reasonable woman. At first, she refused to bribe the painter, though bribery might have helped her become summoned by the emperor; years of life in the cold palace informed her that if she continued to live in Han’s palace, she would die among the pile of skeletons outside the palace walls. She would rather fight for change at the border area rather than waste her whole youth in the palace.
Life with Xiongnu
The Book of Han records such historic scene, “At the meeting when Huhanye was about to leave, the emperor showed him five girls. Among them, Wang Zhaojun was so beautiful that her beauty brought shine to the palace.”
When Huhanye was about to return to the grassland, The Han court held a grand farewell banquet for him. Officials of all ranks and numerous guests gathered here, and Wang Zhaojun in royal attire came to the royal court with the company of four maids of honour in joyous music. Huhanye had never expected to have such an elegant and peerless beauty from the great Han Dynasty, therefore he was overjoyed and grateful, and promised that he would guarantee the peace of Han’s border area stretching from west of Shanggu to Dunhuang (about 3,000 kilometres from present-day Shanxi Province to Dunhuang).
No matter it was for apologies and nostalgia for Wang Zhaojun or for the significance of friendly relationship between Han and Xiongnu, Emperor Yuan of Han paid great attention to Wang Zhaojun’s leaving for the marriage at border area and changed the reign title to “Jingning,” meaning that the border area would have eternal peace instead of war and chaos. Huhanye Chanyu granted Wang Zhaojun a title Ninghuyanzhi, meaning a queen for the
friendship between Han and Xiongnu. When Huhanye and Wang Zhaojun left Chang’an, the Han empire made another exception by granting Wang a wealth of dowry. The Emperor and all officials saw them off five kilometres away from Chang’an.
Later, Wang Zhaojun embarked on the road to the border area with the company of Huhanye Chanyu of Xiongnu. She went all the way to the north, passed Shuofang and Wuyuan and reached the foot of Mount Yin where Xiongnu’s royal court was located. It was rumoured that during the trip, Wang played with a musical instrument to entertain herself, attracting a flock of wild geese to fly low to listen. From then on, Wang walked into an unfamiliar world filled with strangers, but she began her brand-new life there.
Yanzhi, the formal wife of Chanyu, enjoyed a high status and power no less than that of Chanyu among the Xiongnu people. When Wang was married to Huhanye Chanyu, she made the best use of the power of Yanzhi and proactively committed herself to promoting the unity of Han and Xiongnu, and helping Xiongnu people increase their productivity. From then on, the Han and Xiongnu united and embraced harmony and peace, which was sustained for over 60 years, having an effect on the unity and friendship between the Han nationality and other northern nationalities. Wang Zhaojun was loved and respected by the Xiongnu people.
The Xiongnu people later accepted the Han Empire as their leader, breaking with old historic patterns, and promoted the unity of the northern border area and Central Plains. Marketing between the Han and Xiongnu was unblocked with mutual benefits. The Xiongnu people learnt to calculate, register and dig wells.
According to the Book of Han, after Wang was married to Chanyu of Xiongnu, she gave birth to three sons successively, one of them being Yituzhiyashi, who later became Rizhu King of Xiongnu. Sadly, after two years, Huhanye Chanyu died at age 42. According to the Xiongnu custom, when the old Chanyu died, Wang should be remarried to the son of Chanyu’s former wife.
Fuzhuleiruoge born by Huhanye and his former wife inherited the Chanyu position and proposed to marry Wang Zhaojun. Wang had been in Xiongnu’s homeland for merely two years and had not fully got used to the customs there; Chanyu died and she found it hard to accept the ideology of remarrying his son, therefore she wrote to the royal Han court in an attempt to return to the Han Empire. Unfortunately, at that time, Emperor Yuan of Han who once intended to ask Wang to stay, because her beauty already died, and the successor Emperor Cheng of Han (reign: 32–6 BC) commanded Wang to marry the younger Chanyu. The younger Chanyu was actually about 20 years old just like Wang Zhaojun, and he also adored Wang’s beauty. After their marriage, Wang later gave birth to two daughters, and the two daughters were married to nobles of Xiongnu. Their kinship with Han and Xiongnu played a positive role in bringing together the Han and Xiongnu.
In 20 BC, the younger Chanyu died. Wang lived as a widow ever since and died before long, and was buried in the present- day southern suburb of Hohhot, Inner Mongolia. Her tomb was called “Qingzhong” (green tomb) by later generations. During the Western Jin Dynasty (AD 265–316), to avoid the taboo of the name Sima Zhao (AD 211–265,
the founder of the Western Jin Dynasty), historians and scholars called “Zhaojun” as “Mingjun.” Later, Wang got a new name: “Mingfei (Imperial Concubine Ming).”
For thousands of years, Wang’s action of marrying Chanyu at the border area for peace has been a symbol of ethnic unity and friendship, and her contribution has been widely acknowledged and respected both before and after her death. Among the ancient buildings built in the late Western Han Dynasty and unearthed in recent years, there were words on those bricks reading “marriage to Chanyu brings eternity and long period of peace to the country” and words on tiles reading “happiness lasts forever.” It indicated that people of all ethnic groups along the Great Wall praised Wang’s action and hoped for friendship between Han and Xiongnu and peace in border areas, which exerted influence on later generations.
According to records of Wang Zhaojun bianwen ( bianwen is a popular form of narrative literature in the Tang Dynasty) discovered at Dunhuang, Wang Zhaojun’s funeral was held in accordance with Xiongnu’s custom, “A grand square coffin of supreme quality with a dome was used to hold her body. Five hundred jars of wine were made and one hundred thousand sheep were killed for a sea of people to drink and eat. Woollen blankets were laid down for 50 kilometres for people to see Zhaojun off. Gold and silver bottles made by Xiongnu were laid down for 250 kilometres, leaving no space for people to set foot. Chanyu personally came with all tribes. The whole nation was mobilised for the ceremony of burying Wang.” Emperor Ai of Han (reign: 6 BC–AD 1) also sent special envoys to offer condolences. The grand funeral was exceptional. People of all ethnic groups of Han and Xiongnu attended the burial ceremony on their own initiative, because they were sincerely grateful for Wang’s good deed that had brought peace at the border area for three generations in a period of 60 years around her peace- oriented marriage.
The Han Empire and Xiongnu stayed in a harmonious relationship without declaring any wars ever since, and prosperity came. People of all ethnic groups at the border area, who had endured too much pain in wartime, would surely and deeply respect and miss Wang. People attending the burial ceremony bagged dirt with their clothes and stacked a tomb like a hill, which now stands by the Dahei River south of Hohhot. Every cool autumn of September, grass on the border decays, but grass on the towering Wang’s tomb is still green. Therefore, Wang’s tomb has the name “Qingzhong (green tomb).”
Wang Zhaojun, decisively holding good expectations and a romantic mood, set foot on a long and great journey. Merely based on a marriage contract, she won longstanding peace and development for two nationalities. This is a fantastic contribution that no general or soldier could make even though they tried hard for an entire life. Today, Wang’s tomb becomes a magnificent monument, recounting the long-lasting friendship between the Xiongnu and Chinese nation.
Wang Zhaojun lived over 2,000 years ago. However, people have not forgotten about her over such a long period of time. This was not only because of her beauty, but also due to her huge contributions to ethnic peace and unity. Her hard work and sacrifice made her the greatest and most honoured among the “Four Beauties.” Her body played a role of an impregnable pass that brought 60 years’ peace on the frontier; therefore she did much better than the Great Wall and any great passes.
Wang Zhaojun’s legendary experience and historic contribution were recognised by the emperors and respected by the masses, and also aroused compliment among scholars in different dynasties. According to statistics, there are over 700 poems alone and over 500 writers and poets, including playwright Ma Zhiyuan (1250–1324) in the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368) who wrote the tragic drama Hangongqiu (Autumn in Han Palace) and modern playwright Cao Yu (1910–1996) who produced the play Wang Zhaojun. Li Bai (AD 701–762), Du Fu (AD 712–770), Bai Juyi (AD 772–864), Guo Moruo (1892–1978) and Lao She (also named Shu Qingchun, 1899–1966) are all famous literati who used to sing praises of Wang Zhaojun.
After the Silk Road formally came into being, it endured a difficult start-up period and also witnessed the peaceful and prosperous view that gates of the border towns were locked at night and people embraced prosperity and cows and horses were everywhere in the wild, just like what happened after the marriage of Zhaojun. During this period, the story that Ban Chao (AD 32–102) and his younger son Ban Yong (?–AD 127) had been to the Western Regions three times has always been eulogised. They made immortal contributions to linking the Western Regions with the Central Plains throughout the hard and bitter struggle for succeeding generations to keep the Silk Road open.