Four Beauties of Ancient China: Wang Zhaojun

Four Beauties of Ancient China: Wang Zhaojun

Wang Zhaojun was one of the four classic beauties of ancient China.

Her beauty not only comes from her appearance but also from her spirit and courage. She had used herself in exchange for a peaceful and united relationship between Xiongnu and Han-Chinese, which were two different nationalities back in ancient China.

Today, the name of Zhaojun not only symbolizes physical beauty, but also a spirit of goodwill to bridge different cultures, even at the expense of one’s own interests. She has been dead for thousands of years yet her life contribution remains an interesting story even till this modern age.


Four Beauties of Ancient China: Wang Zhaojun
Painting of Wang Zhaojun playing her pipa

Wang Zhaojun, whose original name Wang Qiang, was from a reputable family serving in the court of Han Emperor Yuan Di (reigned 49–33 B.C.)

At that time, the Xiongnu on China’s northern border were beginning to respond to military pressure from the Han Empire.

The Xiongnu (匈奴 Xiōngnú) were a confederation of nomadic tribes from Central Asia who were considered so dangerous and disruptive that the Qin Dynasty began construction of the Great Wall to protect China from Xiongnu attacks.

In 33 BC, Huhanye (Xiongnu’s ruler) visited Chang’an, where the Han Palance is, on a homage trip, as part of the tributary system between the Han and Xiongnu. He asked to marry one of Emperor’s Yuan’s daughter to form good relations between Han and Xiongnu.

Even though Zhaojun was a concubine of The Han Emperor Yuan, he had never noticed her. One reason was that she refused to bribe the Imperial painter, Mao Yanshou. So his painting of her did not do her justice. As a result, when Huhanye came looking for a bride, Emperor Yuan skimmed through the pictorial directory and found Zhaojun to be unattractive. Hence, he decided to present Huhanye with Zhaojun instead.

When Zhaojun appeared at the farewell banquet in Chang’an, her beauty stunned Emperor Yuan. He was very regretful that he allowed Wang Zhaojun to be married to Huhanye. He wondered why he had not seen her for review before. When he found that the portrait did not match Wang Zhaojun, he launched an investigation. It turned out that the Imperial painter, Mao Yanshou would paint a prettier portrait for those who bribed him. As Zhaojun refused to do so, he did injustice to her beauty so that the Emperor would never know her existence in the palace. Enraged, Emperor Yuan had Mao Yanshou executed.

Although Emperor Yuan regretted betrothing Zhaojun to Hanhuye, in his eyes, the dignity and credibility of an emperor were more valuable than a beautiful concubine. Thus he merely watched as she was escorted out of his palace to begin her long journey. Regretful as he was, Emperor Yuan blessed the inter-racial marriage. He admired Zhaojun’s courage and was thankful for her willingness to serve the interests of Han in spite of her own.

Escorted by officials sent by the emperor, Zhaojun embarked on a long journey to the north on horseback. They braved bitter cold and heavy snow storms and finally reached Xiongnu. Huhanye bestowed Zhaojun with the title of “Peaceful Queen” in hope she would bring them peace and security. She did so by persuading Huhanye and his people to abandon violence.

During her life in Xiongnu, she lived in yurt, wore blankets and furs, and drank milk, showing her respect for local customs. As a result, peace reigned on the border with her homeland for over half a century.

After Huhanye’s death, Zhaojun married his eldest son in according to the custom of the Xiongnu. However, this custom is abhorred by the Han-Chinese moral norms in which she was brought up. Therefore, it must have taken a lot of courage and political insight for her to do so.

It has been popularly believed that she did so for the sake of Xiongnu’s stability, therefore she earned the respect of her compatriots not only in her generation of her time, but generations to come. In order to commemorate her, the local people built the tomb after her death.

Wang Zhaojun's monument statue
Wang Zhaojun’s monument, Zhaojun Tomb (昭君墓)

The Zhaojun Tomb is located by the Da Hi River nine kilometers south of Hohhot, Inner Mongolia.

It is called the Green Tomb 青塚 (Qīng Zhǒng) in Mongolian which means “iron fortress” because it is said that each year when the weather gets colder, the grass  becomes yellow and withered, while only the grass on this tomb remains lush and green. Hence, the name of Green Tomb. The tomb has been one of eight famous scenes in Hohhot.

In front of the tomb, bronze statues of Wang Zhaojun and her husband, Huhanye depict a vivid picture of them riding horses and talking to each other intimately. The statues are the symbol of the friendly relations between the Han-Chinese and Xiongnu, which was greatly promoted by Wang Zhaojun.

Art Works based on story of Wang Zhaojun

Wang Zhaojun was a historical influential figure, hence there are a few well-known Chinese art & literature works that were based on her life story such as Beijing Opera, Chinese poems & poetries, even TV dramas in the modern era now.

  • Beijing Opera: 《昭君出塞》 (zhāo jūn chū sāi)

Zhaojun bids farewell to her home. She climbed over mountains and crossed rivers on her way, she expressed her deep love for her country and her wish for a lasting friendship between her motherland and her new home.

Story of Wang Zhaojun in form of Beijing Opera
  • Sanqu Poems:《汉宫秋》(hàn ɡōnɡ qiū, full name: Autumn in the Han Palace (破幽梦孤雁汉宫秋 Pò Yōu Mèng Gū Yàn Hàn Gōng Qiū)

This is one of the ten famous tragedies in Chinese Literary Works wrote by Ma Zhiyuan, Yuan Dynasty.

The story of Wang Zhaojun told in Autumn in the Han Palace was completely different from the historical fact of Wang Zhaojun marrying to Ruler of Xiongnu, Huhanye.

Autumn in the Han Palace by Ma Zhiyuan was created on the basis of sketch novels, poems, and folk tales of the past dynasties. However, Ma Zhiyuan reflected about the social reality by describing the changes of story plot through the eye of his created character of Wang Zhaojun: The Xiongnu forces approaching the borders of Han, and the country was about to collapse. The Xiongnu also forced the Han Kingdom to establish good relations with them by marriage.

As an excellent classic tragedy, Autumn in the Han Palace had gained great artistic achievements. This script was not only well organized and fine-grained, but was also detail-oriented and vivid in delineating characters. Especially Ma Zhiyuan did not follow the stereotyped ending of drama by letting the characters getting together happily in the end, but made the story a complete tragedy instead.

The story came to an end as Emperor Yuan of Han was startled by the honks of wild geese when he was missing Wang Zhaojun in palace, making the script in a thick tragic atmosphere from the beginning to the end, which was rare in traditional Chinese drama. The dramatic language of Autumn in the Han Palace was also praised for its poetic emotional expression.

  • Tang Poetry: 《咏怀古迹》 yǒnɡ huái ɡǔ jì by 杜甫 dù fǔ

群山万壑赴荆门,qún shān wàn hè fù jīnɡ mén,

生长明妃尚有村。shēnɡ zhǎnɡ mínɡ fēi shànɡ yǒu cūn.

一去紫台连朔漠,yí qù zǐ tái lián shuò mò,

独留青冢向黄昏。dú liú qīnɡ zhǒnɡ xiànɡ huánɡ hūn.

画图省识春风面,huà tú xǐnɡ shí chūn fēnɡ miàn,

环佩空归月夜魂。huán pèi kōnɡ ɡuī yuè yè hún.

千载琵琶作胡语,qiān zǎi pí pá zuò hú yǔ,

分明怨恨曲中论。fēn mínɡ yuàn hèn qǔ zhōnɡ lùn.

Some explanations on the above poem.

1. 群山万壑 qún shān wàn hè :Great rivers and mountains, as Chinese nation environment ensure one’s success, so this sentence show Zhaojun was born of noble background.

2. 明妃 mínɡ fēi :Zhaojun’s imperial name that meant Concubine Ming.

3. 紫台 zǐ tái: where the empire lived in

4. 朔漠 shuò mò:the vast desert

5. 青冢 qīnɡ zhǒnɡ:Zhaojun Tomb, is famous for its green coverage. This sentence using the change of the color exhibits her life change, from luxurious to solitary.

6. 春风面 chūn fēnɡ miàn:shows it is a beauty.

7. 月夜魂 yuè yè hún :like a ghost spirit in the evening

8. 胡语 hú yǔ :The Xiongnu language which Zhaojun listened for many years

  • TV Drama

In recent TV Drama production in China, Yang Mi, a budding young Chinese actress plays the character of Wang Zhaojun in this 85-episode drama that is highly acclaimed throughout the country.

Yang Mi as Wang Zhaojun
Yang Mi as Wang Zhaojun
Wang Zhaojun wears a trademark winter cape
Wang Zhaojun wears her trademark red winter cape

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