Nos. 59 & 60 (Spring & Autumn 2003) The Faces of a Chinese Beauty: Wang Zhaojun

Wang Zhaojun: Patriotic Heroine of China
By Hu Shi
Translated by Janice Wickeri

READERS of this biography will, for a certainty, find it odd that the name 'Wang Zhaojun' is here joined to the phrase 'patriotic heroine'. Wasn't Wang Zhaojun the Han dynasty court lady who found no favour with the emperor? It was she, was it not, who suffered at the hand of the court painter Mao Yanshou, failed to catch the fancy of Emperor Yuan and was then sent to pacify the barbarians? How could she be considered a patriotic heroine? Readers, your doubts are not without foundation, but you've been hoodwinked for thousands of years by those ancients who wrote the books, and you repeat the story even to this day. The simple fact is that this patriotic heroine, Wang Zhaojun, has been done 2,000 years of injustice, neglected right up to the present. Since I have now found conclusive evidence to prove that Wang Zhaojun was indeed a national heroine, I dare not but commend her to you, that you may all worship at her altar. And this is the reason I wrote the biography that follows.

First, the old version, which has it that Wang Zhaojun was a court lady to Emperor Yuan of the Han dynasty. In those days, there were simply too many in the women's quarters; one couldn't get to know them all in a short while. Thereupon, a number of artists were summoned to put the likenesses of all the palace ladies into an illustrated manual, making it easy for the emperor to look at the person's likeness in the book and summon her to his presence by picture.

sired. Emperor Yuan's heart lay heavy within him, but he had promised the Xiongnu Khan and it wouldn't do to break one's word to a barbarian. He could do nothing but give Zhaojun to the Xiongnu. Afterwards, the more Emperor Yuan thought on it, the greater pity it seemed, and he had all the painters rounded up and executed.

Thus the tale of Wang Zhaojun as it used to be told. Imagine the colossal nerve of those painters, presuming to flog their wares in the very palace of the emperor. Besides, once Emperor Yuan had a look at Zhaojun, why on earth didn't he find somebody else to take her place? This story is not to be relied upon. The evidence I've mustered comes from the old books, too, so it's not baseless nonsense. Lend your ears, then, to my tale.

Wang Zhaojun, named Qiang, was a native of Zigui in Shu County. Her father was Wang Rang; Zhaojun was his only child. From childhood, Zhaojun was different from other little girls. Her every move and gesture were in accordance with the rules of etiquette. She grew into a woman of both outer beauty and inner intelligence, peerless in grace and charm. She was just as the writer Song Yu put it: 'A soupçon more would be excessive; a tad less too little. Powder would make her too pale and rouge too rosy.' On top of this, she was gentle, chaste; so much so that before she turned seventeen, she was famous throughout the land. When she put up her hair and became a woman, the scions of gentry and kings came in droves to seek her hand. But her father could never bring himself to grant his permission. It chanced that Emperor Yuan was then choosing ladies for his court. When Wang Rang heard this news, he sought his daughter out to tell her of his wish to send her to the palace. When Wang Zhaojun heard this and weighed it up in her own heart, she thought to herself that her father had only one daughter and, as the old saying aptly puts it, 'When one has a daughter and no son, he has nothing to fall back on in an emergency.' Since mother and father had only me, how can I just leave my debt to them unpaid? I may as well take this opportunity to go into the palace. Perhaps I'll capture the favour of the Son of Heaven and be granted a fairly high rank, like Zhaoyi or Jieyu. Wouldn't this bring glory upon my parents and all my ancestors? Then my parents won't have given birth to me in vain. Her mind was made up and she eagerly to Wang Rang's idea. Seeing that she was willing, Wang Rang presented his daughter to the palace.

You should realize, Readers, that Zhaojun had acted out of filial piety, desirous of being a daughter who brought honour upon her house. How was she to know that the depths of the emperor's palace were a most wretched and piteous place, a place of which scores of poets, since ancient times, had written scores of poetic 'palace laments', long ago exhausting the possibilities of the form? And then there's The Story of the Stone where the imperial concubine, Jia Yuanchun spoke to her father of 'that day you sent me away where no one gets to see me'. That phrase, how mournfully it's put. If no one sees you, it goes without saying that any joy in life is gone.

Each and every one of the several thousand ladies in the harem is on the alert; they keep watching out for the emperor's approach, even going so far as to set bamboo leaves across the doorway and scatter salt water over the ground to attract the goats pulling his cart. In truth, however good a person you may be, once you are in this place, how can you hope to catch the Son of Heaven's gaze, if not by foul and improper currying of favour? Ah, how could our patriotic heroine, Wang Zhaojun, bring herself to stoop to such sordid and despicable actions as these?


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