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).

Beijing (English) - - CONTENTS - Trans­lated by Cui Hao Edited by David Ball

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

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