We've been entertaining visitors for the last month, I almost didn't get to finish my monthly painting for my Legendary Figures series, but I did it! This month's subject is Wang Zhaojun, the second of the Four Great Beauties of Ancient China.
Unlike some of the other Great Beauties, Wang Zhaojun is consistently remembered and admired for her honesty and service to her kingdom. Her story is yet a sad one, and still inspires many creatives today with its many strange turns of events for this woman of incredible fortitude.
Hi everyone and welcome back to another inspiring story about a legendary woman in Chinese history. Today we're talking about Wang Zhaojun, who lived around 50 BC during the Han Dynasty.
For centuries, the Great Wall of China marked the border between the “civilized” Imperial Chinese empire and their “barbarian” neighbors to the north, also known as the Xiongnu, who were tribal peoples living in the northern steppes of the Eurasian continent, stretching across what is now modern day Mongolia, parts of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and northern parts of China.
Around the same time that the Han Dynasty of China was established in the early 200s BC, these tribes unified to form a confederation under one leader, catapulting it into a formidable position of power against Han China. For years the Xiongnu would raid the border and disrupt northern trade routes, despite Han attempts to placate them by marrying Han princesses to Xiongnu leaders and gifts of silk, liquor, rice, and other goodies.
Over time, due to a combination of incredibly costly wars waged by the Han to overpower the Xiongnu as well as an internal power struggle between Xiongnu clans, the balance of power eventually shifted in favor of the Han, and the positions were reversed. The Xiongnu was downgraded from a kingdom of equal prominence, to a tributary state that was expected to pay homage to the Han emperor every year. And this is where our story of our Great Beauty of Ancient China takes place.
See, back in the day, if you were a Han emperor, you had hundreds if not thousands of the most talented and beautiful women, daughters of prominent families or strategic connections, called up from across all the provinces to live in his harem. But as emperor, how do you decide who to visit and spend time with? Turns out the emperor Yuan of Han and his staff relied on portraits painted by the palace artist Mao Yanshou to select his companions.
In order to improve the odds of getting picked, women of the harem would bribe the artist Mao with large sums of money and other favors to paint them in a more flattering way so that the emperor would be more enticed to pick them and thus raise their status and the status of their families. It was like a really really old-school way of Photoshopping yourself to make you more beautiful.
Well, Wang Zhaojun was the only one who remained honest throughout her time in the harem. Not only was she was entrancingly beautiful, she was talented to boot as an adept musician, intelligent scholar, and painter. Confident in her own merits, Wang refused to bribe the palace artist, so the artist Mao decided to paint her with a really ugly mole on her cheek, and so she was never selected to spend the night with the emperor and remained a lady in waiting her entire stay at the harem.
Around this time, the Xiongnu leader was visiting and paying tribute to the emperor and in hopes of reestablishing peaceful relations with the now more powerful Han, asked to marry a Han princess and secure himself a position as an official Imperial son-in-law. The emperor, recognizing the Xiongnu's diminished status, was loathe to marry a daughter off to the “barbarians” denied his request and offered instead a lady from his harem.
Out came the portraits, and when shown the ugly picture of Wang Zhaojun, the emperor agreed that the Xiongnu leader could take her and her ugly mug out of the palace with good riddance. Now while most women of the time would have been terrified to leave the comforts of the Imperial palace for the wild unknown of the northern steppes to live with nomads, Wang was ready to step into her new role as a diplomat-wife. She packed her things and made ready to leave with the Xiongnu envoy, and only on the day of her departure did the Han emperor realize his mistake, but it was too late. Wang was gone, and along the way, she played the pipa – a stringed guitar-like instrument – with such sorrow at leaving her home, that a flock of geese was startled by her appearance and the sadness of her song. They forgot to flap their wings and subsequently fell from the sky. This is where the Chinese saying "Zhaojun luo yan" Zhaojun causes geese to fall, comes from and is often used to describe a beautiful woman.
As punishment for deceiving the emperor, the palace artist Mao was executed, but that couldn't bring Wang back either. Wang was well received in her new home by the Xiongnu people. She was favored by her husband, bore him several children, and relations between the Han and the Xiongnu were peaceful throughout this time. When the Xiongnu leader died, Wang wrote to the new Han emperor, the son of Emperor Yuan, and requested to return to her home. She was denied her request and ordered to follow the Xiongnu custom of marrying the next tribal leader – her own stepson – and continue her service as a diplomat for Han-Xiongnu relations. She lived the rest of her life on the outer grasslands under her death in 8 AD. Her burial site located in Inner Mongolia is known as the “Green Tomb,” where it is said that the grass grows green year round.
Even though as an outsider, you can admire the fortitude of Wang Zhaojun and her honesty and sacrifice for her kingdom, I can't imagine being her at the time – a woman of such intelligence as to make her remarkable even among her own cultured society, to live not just among strangers in a strange place, but most importantly with strange customs and habits so completely foreign to her own. I've had the opportunity to live in different countries, towns of less than 100 people to cities in the millions, and I've got to tell you that it is really really hard to adapt. But when you don't exactly have a choice, and the Son of Heaven orders you to do something, you just did it. And maybe it's not the just the sacrifice that makes Wang Zhaojun stand out among the other Four Great Beauties, it was really the grace with which she accepted the difficulties of her fate.
I really enjoyed painting her portrait, I made sure to leave out that ugly mole, but I did include the pipa instrument, which she holds lovingly as her only companion into the unknown beyond those doors.
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