Let us unfold history’s scroll to find the elegance and beauty of the ages. Throughout Chinese history, many legendary, talented, elegant, and beautiful women possessed great virtue. One of the “Four Great Beauties” who graced ancient China was Wang Zhaojun.
Wang Zhaojun was born in 51 BC at the banks of the beautiful Xiangxi River that flowed at the foot of Jingchu Mountain. Legend has it that Mrs. Wang had dreamt of a bright moon falling into her arms not long after she gave birth to Zhaojun.
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The baby’s name was Haoyue. She was beautiful and kind-hearted as a moon fairy, which was attributed to the nurturing qualities of the surrounding picturesque mountains and pristine waters of the river. Moreover, she was accomplished at reciting poems and playing stringed instruments at the tender age of ten. This was due to the positive influence of Chu-Han culture. Her beauty and intelligence were well-known by all the towns’ people.
In 38 BC, Wang Zhaojun was chosen to be a maid at the Imperial Palace and thus traveled to the prosperous capital Chang’an. It was customary at that time for the Emperor to select the maids based on their portraits.
Being likened to the phoenix, Wang Zhaojun was so pure that she didn’t need to bribe the artist Mao Yanshou, as did the other maids. Mao deliberately made an unflattering portrait of her, causing her to become an ordinary maid arranged to do chores at the palace corner. She was often treated coldly and given challenging assignments. Such adversity only served to temper her mind and body. This could probably be seen as Heaven’s will to fortify her in this hour of darkness; for her predestined future had not yet come to pass.
In 33 B.C., after fighting with Xiongnu in the north for over a century, the Han Dynasty grew more potent by the time of Emperor Yuan. However, the Sothern Xiongnu weakened, and the people longed for a stable life. To establish friendly relations with the Han Dynasty through marriage, Chanyu Huhanye, the Monarch of the Xiongnu, came to Chang’an to meet Emperor Yuan.
Wang Zhaojun was chosen to marry the Emperor
As a court lady in waiting, Wang Zhaojun was chosen for the marriage. When the matron of the harem sent her unflattering portrait to the Emperor, he merely glanced at it and nodded his approval. But when she appeared in the hall, her beauty and demureness shocked and amazed the Emperor, monarch, and ministers. Huhanye was delighted and promised to keep the peace along the frontier.
Wang Zhaojun followed the Emperor’s order to make peace with the Xiongnu through marriage. As a result, she was honored with the title “Ninghu Yanzhi” — meaning queen who could bring peace to Xiongnu. After that, Wang Zhaojun undertook her mission of maintaining the stability of the Han-Xiongnu border and spreading the Han culture.
Two thousand years ago, the Huns lived a nomadic life in the desolate and cold northern desert. Their lifestyle caused them to lag behind the more prosperous and civilized Han Dynasty. On her way to Xiongnu, Zhaojun quietly observed her surroundings; the north wind swept across the land, the grass withered and white, an utter contrast from Chang’an’s prosperity.
Moreover, her hometown Jingchu and Chang’an Han palace were far away. All this made her homesick for her hometown and family. So she played a sorrowful melody with her pipa (Chinese lute). A flock of geese flying above heard the beautiful music and, upon seeing a beautiful woman riding on the horse, forgot to flap their wings, causing them to fall to the ground.
After reaching Xiongnu, Zhaojun faced a harsh living environment and very different customs. Nevertheless, she righteously stuck to her mission, put down her homesickness, and set about fitting into the Hun’s life with courage, persistence, and kind-heartedness. From Han’s ordinary palace maid, she turned into a virtuous and kind Queen of the Xiongnu and assisted the monarch for two generations.
She advised the monarch to cease the war and passed on Han’s advanced cultural etiquette system to the Hun people. Equally, she taught them to plant millet and hemp, breed domesticated animals, weaves cloth, and dig wells. As a result, there ceased beacons and wars along the frontier; instead, a scene of “the wind blowing grass and seeing cattle and sheep” eventually enabled the people to live a peaceful and prosperous life.
Wang Zhaojun’s ability to soothe the Xiongnu through marriage and making the border harmonious were manifestations of ‘harmony’ in traditional Chinese culture. The fairy-like Wang Zhaojun lived up to the entrustment of the Han Dynasty, melted the conflict between Han Dynasty and the Xiongnu, and spread the culture of the Han. Her achievements have become shining beacons for future generations.
Being instrumental in forging the Han-Xiongnu border peace and creating prosperity for half a century, she earned the love and respect of the people during that time and for later generations to come. In her honor, the Huns built ‘The Tomb of Wang Zhaojun’ at the bank of the Big Black River. In the northern desert, she was regarded as a Goddess sent by Heaven to help Xiongnu. It was said that there would be abundant water and beautiful grasses wherever she passed.