Wang Zhaojun: the Beauty who Brought Peace
Wang Zhaojun was created by dramatist Cao Yu (1910–1996). It tells a story about Wang (52–15 BC). She married the leader of the Xiongnu (northern nomadic tribes) to ensure peace during the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC–AD 24).
Wang Zhaojun (52–15 BC) was a lady-in-waiting who was selected to marry the leader of the Xiongnu (northern nomadic tribes) to ensure peace during the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC–AD 24). Wang was known as one of the Four Beauties of ancient China, with the other three being Diao Chan,
Xi Shi and Yang Yuhuan. Wang Zhaojun’s marriage with the head of the Xiongnu turned her into a national peace envoy and helped stabilise relations between the Han and Xiongnu. The story of Wang Zhaojun departing for the frontier has also been passed down through the ages.
In 1978, as part of the 30th annual National Day celebrations, the “Shakespeare of China,” Cao Yu (1910–1996), created a fiveact historical drama titled Wang Zhaojun and brought this legendary figure to the stage. The work became the playwright’s most representative work in his later years as Cao Yu took the “sobbing Wang Zhaojun” from history books and turned her into a sensible and considerate envoy who married the leader of the Xiongnu for the sake of national peace. On its premiere, the play was warmly received with rapturous applause.
Departing for the Frontier
Wang Zhaojun was born into an ordinary family in Zigui County (present-day Xingshan County, Hubei Province) in the south of the Western Han Empire in 52 BC and was selected to enter the Yeting Palace as a lady-in-waiting at the age of 14. According to Xijing zaji ( Miscellaneous Records of the Western Capital), since there were so many women in the imperial harem, the emperor could not see them all very often. As such, he ordered artists to paint their portraits and then would summon them based on these paintings. Almost all the women in the palace bribed the painters, but Wang Zhaojun was unwilling to do so. For that reason, the artist painted her as an ugly woman, thus depriving her of the opportunity to meet the emperor.
Later on, the leader of the Xiongnu visited the Han court wanting to seek a marriage alliance. The emperor consulted his portraits and selected Zhaojun for the task. Only when she was summoned to the court was Wang Zhaojun’s real beauty revealed. The emperor deeply regretted his decision, but it was too late. As a result, the painters Mao Yanshou and Chen Chang were both executed. However, this story came from a book of literary sketches and is likely to have been embellished.
According to historical records, Hu Hanye, leader of the Xiongnu, visited the Han court in 33 BC and requested permission to marry a Han woman. The emperor thus offered Wang Zhaojun to him. Hu Hanye was satisfied, promised to cease fighting and guaranteed peace in the border areas. Thus, Wang Zhaojun departed for the north. Along the way, the sand billowed, the horses brayed and the wild geese honked. Zhaojun was unable to control her emotions and began to play the tune “Pipa Yuan” (“Sorrowful Lute”). A flock of geese flying south heard the music and saw the beautiful young woman riding the horse, immediately forgot to keep flapping their wings and dropped to the ground. From then on, Zhaojun acquired the nickname “the beauty who can make geese fall from the sky.” After Wang Zhaojun arrived, she was honoured as Ninghu Yanzhi, a position equivalent to the empress of the Han Empire. Zhaojun lived with Hu Hanye for three years and gave birth to a son. Two years later when Hu Hanye died, Wang Zhaojun requested permission to return to her native land, but Emperor Cheng of Han (reign: 32–6 BC) ordered her to “follow the customs of the Xiongnu.” According to Xiongnu tradition, Zhaojun had to marry the eldest son of Hu Hanye— her step son. They lived together for eleven years and had two daughters, Xubu Juci and Dangyu Juci.
In AD 8, Wang Mang seized control of the Western Han and established the Xin Dynasty. After Wang Mang (reign: AD 9–23) ascended the throne, he ordered the new leader of the Xiongnu to send back Xubu Juci, the eldest daughter of Wang Zhaojun, to serve Empress Dowager Wang, whom Wang Mang intended to please. As Wang Mang was not a descendant of the old dynasty, the Xiongnu raided the frontier and launched a war. This new situation greatly angered Wang Zhaojun, for the peace she had secured was all but gone and she died in sorrow and desperation soon after. She was buried on the south bank of the Dahei River, nine kilometres (km) south of the old city of Hohhot today. Her mausoleum was positioned near the Daqing Mountain and the Yellow River, and became known as the “Green Tomb.”
Wang Zhaojun’s marriage greatly contributed to harmonious relations between the Han Empire and the Xiongnu, which not only ended the turbulence between the Xiongnu tribes for many years, but also laid the foundations for the unification of the ruling dynasties across the
Central Plains. The story of Wang Zhaojun promoting national unity has been widely told throughout Chinese history.
The Rehabilitation of Wang Zhaojun
Stories about Wang Zhaojun have been passed down for many centuries. The first known reference to her appeared in the Hanshu (AD 111, Book of Han). In this book, she is simply referred to as one of the “presents” that Emperor Yuan gave to the Chanyu (Xiongnu leader). It reads: “Emperor Yuan sent the court’s lady-inwaiting Wang Qiang, courtesy name Zhaojun, to the Chanyu.”
At the end of the Eastern Han Dynasty, the scholar Cai Yong (AD 189–192) wrote Qincao (“Principles of the Guqin”) in which Wang Zhaojun was cast as a woman who believes in the idea of equality of personality. The explanatory notes state that Wang was a lady-in-waiting in the State of Qi and was well-known for her beauty at the age of 17. Seeing Zhaojun was graceful and of above-ordinary beauty, her father presented her to Emperor Yuan of Han. However, Zhaojun did not meet the emperor for five or six years. Later when the leader of the Xiongnu sent an envoy to the Han court to pay respects, the emperor invited the imperial musicians to play and the ladies in the harem to dress up. Zhaojun intended to take this opportunity to go to the frontier and so dressed in her very best clothing. In the court, the envoy expressed his leader’s wish to marry a Han woman. The emperor agreed, proclaiming that anyone who wanted to go could stand up. The words were barely out of his mouth when Wang Zhaojun rose up, approached the emperor, and said: “Emperor, it is my great honour to be a lady-in-waiting in your harem, but I am too ugly for your liking. I am here to ask for your permission to go to the frontier.” The emperor was stunned by her beauty but it was too late and the emperor had to send Zhaojun to the Xiongnu. The leader of the Xiongnu was greatly pleased with Zhaojun’s arrival, regarding it as a generous treatment from the Han. He drank and revelled and ordered the envoy to send the Han a pair of white jade stones, 10 fine horses and local jewellery, thereby promoting friendly relations between the two sides.
The Houhanshu ( History of the Later Han) was compiled by Fan Ye (AD 398–445) and depicted Wang Zhaojun as a cautious rather than reckless woman. Although she volunteered to leave for the frontier with the Xiongnu, she did not meet either the emperor or the envoy until Emperor Yuan issued the decree and the eunuch in charge of the harem agreed with her request. Later, few documents recorded Wang Zhaojun’s adventurous actions. Like the History of the Later Han, later writings did not mention her adventurous nature, challenging spirit or ideas on the equality of personality. On the contrary, future references incorporated characters such as court painter Mao Yanshou who took bribes and advised Emperor Yuan to summon the ladies according to their portraits. All these features could be found in Miscellaneous Records of the Western Capital written by Ge Hong (AD 283–363) in the Jin Dynasty. From then on, the image of a weeping Wang Zhaojun departing for the frontier became the standard model in literary works and on stage.
In 1923, Guo Moruo (1892–1978) created the drama Wang Zhaojun, in which the titular character criticises Emperor Yuan for “looking upon human lives as if they were grass.” The play symbolised the people’s awakening after the May Fourth Movement (an anti-imperialist, cultural and political movement growing out of student participants in Beijing on May 4, 1919) and it laid bare the hypocrisy of the feudal rulers.
In 1962, the playwright Cao Yu followed Premier Zhou Enlai’s direction to “throw off Han chauvinism and megalomania” and revisited the idea of equality of personality by creating the play Wang Zhaojun. In order to finish the work, Cao Yu visited Inner Mongolia twice, as well as Wang Zhaojun’s mausoleum. He also listened to a tune about Wang Zhaojun played by the famous morin khuur (horsehead fiddle) master Bajie and spoke with old people in Mongolia. It emerged that Wang Zhaojun was well-known and considered a respectable lady in Mongolia. Her mausoleum was called the “Green Tomb,” with legend saying that those too poor to eat could always find food there, and women who were infertile could become pregnant that year if they stayed on the mound overnight. Wang Zhaojun was no longer a weeping lady in Inner Mongolia but rather, a respectable Han woman popular amongst the local people. In the past, however, all Cao Yu had read or heard about Wang Zhaojun from poems, plays and novels, was about a lady filled with sorrow and tears who left her country reluctantly. Therefore, Cao Yu created a play which was more in line with the
historical truth in accordance with the spirit of “promoting national unity.”
In 1978, Cao Yu served again as the president of the Beijing Theatrical Company when it was restored to its original name of the Beijing People’s Art Theatre. That year, he went to Xinjiang in the west of China for his work Wang Zhaojun, and completed the first draft, which was published in the 11th issue of Renmin wenxue ( People’s Literature). The play changed the tragic image of Zhaojun, depicting her as a brave and kind peace envoy. In addition, the story was mainly set after Zhaojun had arrived in the Xiongnu territory. Cao Yu used his magical writing pen to cast Wang Zhaojun as an envoy promoting national integration, something which not only tallied with historical facts, but also gave Wang a new image in most people’s eyes.
Cao Yu’s Historical Play
On July 31, 1979, Cao Yu’s historical play Wang Zhaojun premiered in the Beijing Capital Theatre to mark the 30th annual National Day in China. Directed by Mei Qian and Su Min, the famous performing artist Di Xin took on the lead role as Wang Zhaojun. In fact, as early as the 1960s, historians like Jian Bozan launched a debate into the evaluation of Wang Zhaojun, which, coupled with the play Wang Zhaojun, helped Zhaojun finally “wipe away her tears.”
The play is set in the first year of the reign of Emperor Yuan of Han. Hu Hanye, leader of the Xiongnu, visits the capital Chang’an and asks to create an alliance with the Han through an arranged marriage. The emperor agrees in the hope of promoting friendly relations between the Han and Xiongnu peoples. That time was the third year since Wang Zhaojun, a lady-in-waiting, had entered the harem. She laments the fate of the 3,000 girls in the hare, and is unwilling to remain with them for the rest of her life. She then recalls her father’s dying words: “Someone must go to the frontier to establish peaceful relations between both sides.” It is for this reason that Zhaojun volunteers to marry the leader of the Xiongnu. In the court, the emperor and the Xiongnu leader are both deeply touched by Zhaojun’s song when she sings that “only mutual understanding can dispel doubts.”
Wang Zhaojun is honoured as a princess, enjoying the same treatment as imperial concubines and being chosen to marry the Xiongnu leader, to the astonishment of the officers in the court as well as the Xiongnu envoy. After entering the Xiongnu’s territory, Wang Zhaojun follows local customs and etiquette, wears traditional Xiongnu clothing, learns horsemanship and archery, and even personally visits herdsmen affected by disasters. However, national unity is undermined by Han chauvinist Wang Long, the emperor’s brother-in-law, who accompanies Zhaojun to the Xiongnu territory; and by the conspiring Xiongnu general Wen Dun who tries to topple the Han’s authority. However, when Hu Hanye begins to miss his late-wife Yuren Yanzhi, Wang Zhaojun brings her statue back— this moment touches Hu and helps the two become even closer.
On the eve of the grand ceremony at which Wang Zhaojun is to be made empress, General Wen Dun tries to accelerate his plan to destroy the relationship between the Han and the Xiongnu. As his conspiracy comes to light, he hastily instigates a rebellion. Zhaojun bravely rushes to the battlefield and stays with Hu Hanye. As the grand ceremony approaches, Zhaojun and Hu Hanye’s quilt flies up into the sky, covering both sides of the Great Wall and warming the hearts of the two peoples. Wang Zhaojun’s marriage to Hu Hanye then guarantees stability and peace for more than 60 years.
In his play, Cao Yu had Wang Zhaojun volunteer to marry the leader of the Xiongnu. Wang Zhaojun was born into a poor peasant family. Her father went to battle three months after getting married and died in a foreign land, which deeply scarred young Zhaojun. When she was still a child, Wang Zhaojun was already well aware of her father’s will for the two nations to live in peace. She became determined to achieve her father’s ambition and do what he could not, which explains why she volunteers to go to the frontier and devote herself to national unity. When her aunt, who had raised her since she was a young child, heard of her decision and tried to obstruct her, Zhaojun claimed that she “would fly like Dapeng (a giant mythological bird) up in the sky for 90,000 li (45,000 km).”
In order to help present Zhaojun’s character, Cao Yu also created the figure of a young man named Wang Long who accompanies Wang Zhaojun to the frontier. Wang Long is the brother of the empress who is constantly trying to display the majesty of the Han Dynasty, refuses to respect the Xiongnu officers and their customs, advises Wang Zhaojun not to eat the Xiongnu food, wear their clothes, laugh with or get close to them, and never forget that she is a Han princess. However Wang Zhaojun does not follow his advice and instead does exactly the opposite.
Cao Yu also created a character named “Beauty Sun” who stood in stark contrast to Wang Zhaojun in the play. Sun was chosen by the late emperor to enter the harem when she was only a teenager. After more than fifty years waiting, she never got the opportunity to meet the emperor. But she always lived in her own dream-world: “She used to say that her mother gave birth to her when the sun dropped into her mother’s bosom. Later, she was brought into the imperial harem, raising the whole family’s hopes that she might become empress. She would get dressedup every day, waiting to be summoned by the emperor. She lived in such a way for over fifty years.” She continued to insist that she was only nineteen years old, wore the same clothes for fifty years and played the old pipa (a four-stringed Chinese musical instrument). However, ahead of her lay nothing but death. “The late emperor appeared in Emperor Yuan’s dream, requesting that he send Beauty Sun to accompany him in the afterlife.” Beauty Sun took a very different path from Wang Zhaojun, with the vivid image of Sun providing much food for thought.
“Her heart beats like those of the Xiongnu and her blood is as red as ours.” Wang Zhaojun wins the affection of the Xiongnu with her broad mind and kind heart in the play, and also shows off her charming personality. The geese dropping from the sky demonstrate Zhaojun’s beauty, but her devotion to peace between the Han and Xiongnu proves to be the most beautiful thing. Compared to previous works, Cao Yu’s play puts a different spin on the life of Wang Zhaojun, making it a great representative work for the new era.
A dance drama about the story of Wang Zhaojun