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王昭君 (Wáng Zhāojūn)

Wang Zhaojun is one of the Four Beauties of ancient China, along with Xi Shi, Lady Yang Guifei and Diao Chan. Apart from her looks, she is also famous for marrying a tribal leader and going to live with him beyond the borders of China (which was a great deal at that time).

The lady

Wang Zhaojun was born Wang Qiang (王嫱 Wáng Qiáng) during the Han Dynasty. She became one of the many girls who were candidates for concubinage to the Han Emperor Yuan (汉元帝 Hàn Yuán Wáng). As a court lady, she was not allowed to wander around the palace; instead, all these ladies were kept in a special part of the palace where the Emperor could be sure that they would not have contact with any men besides the court eunuchs.

For a court lady to be able to meet the Emperor was impossible if he did not initiate the meeting. The only way they could arouse the interest of the Emperor was by having a flattering picture of them painted, as the Emperor would choose his partner only by this means. Therefore, the court painter at that time, Mao Yanshou (毛延寿 Máo Yánshòu), was used to receiving bribes from the ladies for this purpose.

Legend has it that Zhaojun refused to pay him the bribe he expected. To take revenge on her, one version of the story said that he deliberately painted a picture of her that paled in comparison with the other ladies. The other version said that he painted her just as she looked, with the addition of a mole just below her eye (seeming to resemble a teardrop). When the emperor took an interest in her, Mao pointed the mole out and said that it was not an auspicious sign, as it signified that the woman would cause the people close to her to suffer a tragic fate.

The result of this was that the Emperor never paid any attention to Wang Zhaojun all the time she was in his court.

The situation

During this period of time, an interesting political alliance had been made and was in the process of being cemented further. The predecessor of Emperor Yuan had helped the current Khan of the Huns, otherwise known as the Xiongnu Chanyu (匈奴单于 Xīongnú Chányú) to win a battle with his brother, thereby resolving a dispute over the succession of the Xiongnu throne.

The Xiongnu were then a nomadic people, and were considered barbaric by the Han Chinese. But now, both countries had become allies. The grateful Khan approached Emperor Yuan and asked for the hand of a royal princess to cement the relationship between them.

Emperor Yuan was reluctant to let any of his daghters marry this barbarian. (They must have protested.) He proclaimed that if any court lady would volunteer to marry the Khan, the emperor would grant her the status of a princess.

Upon hearing this, Zhaojun decided to apply. After all, she might never get to meet the emperor. Since there were no other volunteers, the court officials submitted her name to the Emperor, who approved it and arranged a date for the Khan and Zhaojun to be married.

Rumour has it that when the Emperor met Zhaojun for the first and only time, he was struck by her beauty and grace and immediately regretted his decision to let her marry the Khan. The occasion was when both the Khan and Zhaojun (now already maried) turned up to thank the Emperor for giving her hand in marriage to him.

Emperor Yuan was said to have marched back and demanded the execution of the court painter Mao.

The outcome

In the years that Wang Zhaojun lived with the Xiongnu, no wars took place between the two countries for about sixty years. After the death of the Khan, she remarried his heir, thus prolonging the peace. She bore a son and two daughters to the Xiongnu, and imparted Han culture to them. No one knows where she died, or when, but there are a few tombstones claiming to mark the place where she was buried. One of these is the Tomb of Zhaojun in Inner Mongolia.

The story of her going beyond the borders of China is known as 昭君出塞 (Zhāojūn chū sài). It was traditionally a tragic tale of a woman leaving her homeland due to circumstances she could not control; but in modern times it is seen as a woman choosing her destiny, or as the uniting of various Chinese minorities with the main Chinese race.

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