The legend of Wang Zhaojun

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The Four Great Beauties

Caroline Young, artwork and text

QFWF, May 5th 2019 © Source: The art of Caroline R. Young (2002), Heritage Four Great Beauties
Peerless Beauty

Madam Wang Zhaojun is one of the Four Great Beauties of ancient Chinese history.

Wang was born in Hubei Province in 52 BC, during the Han Dynasty. She was an exquisitely beautiful woman, a gifted painter and calligrapher, a master chess player and a virtuoso on the pipa (a musical instrument popular in ancient China).

At the age of sixteen, Wang Zhaojun was selected as a royal maid to serve the imperial family. Because of her exceptional beauty, she was also chosen to be a concubine to Emperor Xuan of the Western Han dynasty. At this time, the Han’s were at war with the Xiongnu State.

It was mandatory that each concubine have her portrait painted, for that was the manner in which the king would select his companion for the evening.

Imperial court painters were responsible for painting the portraits of the more than 2,000 concubines that made up the royal harem. One of these artists, Mao, was very corrupt. He tried to solicit bribes from all the women he painted. When it came to Wang Zhaojun, she steadfastly refused to succumb to his extortion attempts, confident that her incredible natural beauty would win out in the end.

In malice, Mao retaliated by painting an ugly birthmark on Wang Zhaojun’s face in her official portrait, all but guaranteeing that she would never receive the emperor’s favors.

Farewell my Concubine

The warring Emperor Xuan eventually negotiated peace with the Xiongnu State a few years later.
To cement the deal, he agreed to give “a Han beauty” to the Xiongnu king as a peace offering. Not wishing to give a real beauty, the emperor closely examined all the portraits of the women in his harem, and chose the ugliest he could find: Wang Zhaojun. Wang was chosen to be the sacrificial lamb.

On the appointed day, the Xiongnu king’s retinue came to escort their new queen home. When Wang Zhaojun emerged from her chambers, Emperor Xuan saw her in person for the very first time. Xuan and everyone present gasped, for she was the most beautiful woman anyone had ever seen.

The emperor immediately wanted to renege on his promise, but his advisers warned of possible further bloodshed and warfare. Reluctantly, he let her go.

Wang Zhaojun got on famously well with the Xiongnu people and she made great contributions towards maintaining the peace and economic ties between the Hang Dynasty and the Xiongnu State. Because of her warmth and intelligence, she facilitated peace and prosperity between the two kingdoms for many, many years.

Caroline Young

As an adopted child of Chinese-American expatriates living in Hong Kong, I have always been intrigued by how the Chinese culture explained the mysteries of the universe.