Wang Zhaojun: a Selfless Beauty Who Brought Peace to Two Nations

Zheng Jian, Contributor, Laura Hatton, Contributing Writer, Dora Li, Contributing Translator

Did you know there was a woman of the Western Han Dynasty whose contributions some historians consider to be equal to those of the Han Dynasty’s greatest generals? It was not through a warlike demeanor that she earned this standing. Instead, Lady Wang Zhaojun's accomplishments were related to her gentle, cultured air and her great beauty and selflessness. The Shen Yun dance The Story of Lady Wang Zhaojun has shared the tale of this heroic gentlewoman with audiences worldwide.

Wang Zhaojun, also named Wang Qiang, was born during the Western Han Dynasty, in what is today Hubei Province.

In 35 BC, Huhanye unified the Huns, also called the Xiōngnú (匈奴), and became their leader, or Chanyu. He said that in exchange for forming an alliance with the Han Dynasty, he would like to be related to the Han Royal Family by marrying one of the Emperor’s daughters.

Emperor Yuan was faced with the fact that no man would dare to fight the Huns. Upon hearing Huhanye’s request, all the royal officials said, “We hope your majesty will have grace and save the people of our nation.” Thus, Emperor Yuan promised to fulfill Huhanye’s request and was determined to select one maiden from all the maidens in the royal palace. He gave an order to his ministers, “Go to the harem and ask who is willing to go to the Huns. She will be named a princess.”

All the maidens in the palace had been selected from throughout the nation. As soon as they entered the palace, they were like birds trapped in a cage. Indeed, they all hoped that someday they could be released from the palace and go home. But, when they heard that they would leave their civilized nation and go to a barbarian nation, they all refused and preferred to stay in the palace despite having no freedom.

At this time, only Zhaojun freely volunteered to go to the Huns. The ministers worried that no one would volunteer, so when they learned that Zhaojun was willing to go, they immediately presented her portrait to Emperor Yuan. Emperor Yuan had so many maidens that he could not look at them one by one. When looking at Zhaojun’s portrait, he felt she looked very common, thus, without any hesitation, he promised to let her marry Huhanye Chanyu.

Before she went away, Emperor Yuan asked Zhaojun to meet Chanyu. At the farewell meeting, Zhaojun walked into the main palace hall. Her young and beautiful appearance immediately commanded the attention of Emperor Yuan and all the officials in the palace. But, as Emperor, he could not break his promise, so he named her Princess Yongan. He selected a date for the wedding ceremony. When Zhaojun and Huhanye approached Emperor Yuan to express their thanks, Emperor Yuan had a close look and, finding that Zhaojun was indeed of a rare beauty, he felt uneasy. At any rate, Emperor Yuan was deeply moved by Zhaojun’s volunteering to live in the wild lands of the Huns and by her braveness in ensuring the peace of the nation.

It is said that after Emperor Yuan returned to the harem, he asked a maiden to take out Zhaojun’s portrait so he could look at it again. He then found out that the painter, Yanshou Mao, intentionally made a mark on her face because Zhaojun refused to pay him more money. Emperor Yuan became so angry that he had Yanshou Mao executed for cheating the Emperor and for his greed.

Zhaojun went all the way to the land of the Huns and became Huhanye’s wife. From then on, she lived with the Huns, far away from her home. She advised Huhanye not to fight with other nations and to rule his own nation virtuously. She passed on the culture of the Central Plains bit by bit to the Huns. She brought advanced agricultural techniques to them, which helped the Hun people grow crops and make farm tools. She also brought Chinese culture to the Hun people and, under her guidance and influence, the Hun population prospered.

Zhaojun lived with the Huns for more than 60 years, and she was deeply loved by the Huns. The Han Dynasty and the Huns lived in harmony during those 60 years without war. In this way, she made a major contribution to both the Han Dynasty and the Huns. Though the Chinese culture she brought with her was greatly impeded by cultural barriers, she adapted herself—as they say, “When in Rome do as the Romans”—and soon it was a case of the guest becoming the master. She was a woman with a broad mind and a great sense of learning, as well as high morality. For these reasons, she has been respected generation after generation and is regarded as one of the Four Great Beauties.


1 comment

What an amazing story. So much to be learned…
Thank you all for sharing such information.

JMP March 25, 2023

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