Princess Jieyou – How Han China was able to control the western regions




jieyou
Zhang Xinyi as Liu Jieyou in Princess Jieyou (Screenshot/Fair Use)

Princess Jieyou remains an influential and beloved figure in China. Her story is truly astonishing. It is no wonder why China has made a popular drama of her life called Princess Jieyou, starring Zhang Xinyi in the title role. Princess Jieyou was a Han princess who made a 3,000-mile journey to Wusun as part of a marital alliance. She was the replacement of Princess Xijun. Princess Jieyou was forced to marry three times for the well-being of her native homeland. Yet, she succeeded in building a dynasty in the Western regions.

Liu Jieyou was born in 121 B.C.E. She was from a disgraced branch of the imperial family.[1] Her grandfather, the Prince of Chu, was known for being involved in an incestuous relationship.[2] He also participated in the Rebellion of the Seven States. When the rebellion failed, he was forced to commit suicide in 154 B.C.E.[3] Since thirty-three years had passed between the Prince of Chu’s treason and Liu Jieyou’s birth, she escaped punishment.[4]

In order to protect Han China from being invaded by the Xiongnu (also known as the Huns in Western historical records), Emperor Wu allied himself with the Wusun kingdom (which was in modern-day Xinjiang).[5] He did this through a marriage alliance.[6] At first, he sent Princess Xijun to marry the King of Wusun.[7] Yet, when Princess Xijun died, Emperor Wu saw that it was imperative to continue the alliance with the Wusun kingdom.[8]

Emperor Wu chose Liu Jieyou to be her replacement.[9] In 87 B.C.E., Emperor Wu elevated Jieyou to the status of Princess. Then, she made the 3,000 mile trip to Wusun kingdom, taking with her silks and treasures, bodyguards, and servants.[10] One of these servants was Feng Liao, who would later prove to be a shrewd diplomat. She married Cenzou, King of Wusun and also the second husband of Princess Xijun.[11] Princess Jieyou was considerably younger than King Cenzou and outlived him.[12] 

Unlike her predecessor, Princess Jieyou did not protest when she had to marry Cenzou’s nephew, King Wengguimi.[13] He would be known in history as the “Fat King”.[14] King Wengguimi made his Xiongnu wife “The Lady of the Left”.[15] This was a more superior position than Princess Jieyou, who was made “The Lady of the Right”.[16] Even though she was of lesser status than “The Lady of the Left,” Princess Jieyou was still influential in politics.[17] Princess Jieyou became the unofficial ambassador between Han China and Wusun.[18] She repeatedly wrote to the emperor, asking for Han China to send troops to Wusun to protect them from the raiding Xiongnu.[19] Han China sent 150,000 troops led by five generals to defeat the Xiongnu.[20] In 71 B.C.E., they finally managed to achieve victory.[21] 

Princess Jieyou also made use of her maidservant, Feng Liao. Feng Liao was said to be very clever and was well-versed in the classics.[22] She was married to an aristocratic Wusun general. She often became an envoy for Princess Jieyou in the western region of Wusun.[23] She had also secured Princess Jieyou’s son the throne in 53 B.C.E. and strengthened Princess Jieyou’s grandson’s reign in 51 B.C.E.[24]

In 65 B.C.E., Princess Jieyou believed that her eldest son, Yanguimi, would succeed King Wengguimi.[25] She asked her husband for permission to write a letter to Han China asking them to send a princess to marry her son.[26] This would help strengthen the ties of Han China and Wusun. King Wengguimi agreed. Yet, before she could send her letter, King Wengguimi died. Princess Jieyou failed to make her son the King of Wusun.[27] Instead, the throne passed to Nimi, who was King Cenzou’s son by his Xiongnu wife. King Nimi would be known in history as the “Mad King”.[28]

In 64 B.C.E., King Nimi married Princess Jieyou. While historical records state that she had a son with King Nimi named Chimi, historians believe this statement is false.[29] This is because Princess Jieyou was 57 when she married King Nimi.[30] Princess Jieyou’s marriage with King Nimi was very unhappy, and he was very brutal.[31] Princess Jieyou tried to assassinate him at a banquet.[32] However, King Nimi escaped. Shortly afterwards, King Nimi was murdered by Wujiutu, who was Wengguimi’s son by his Xiongnu wife.[33] Wujiutu became King of Wusun. However, Feng Liao persuaded him to divide the Wusun territory.[34] Princess Jieyou’s son, Yanguimi, became the Greater King, while Wujiutu became the Lesser King.[35] King Yanguimi died of illness in 51 B.C.E.

In 51 B.C.E., Princess Jieyou asked the Han emperor if she could return to China.[36] She was 70.[37] She was homesick and wanted to die in her homeland. The emperor agreed. She returned to China as an imperial princess, bringing with her three grandchildren.[38] Princess Jieyou died in 49 B.C.E. Yet, Princess Jieyou’s legacy lives on.

Her descendants ruled the western regions and maintained good relationships with Han China. Princess Jieyou’s second son, Wannian, became king of the state of Suoju.[39] However, he turned out to be a bad king and was assassinated in 65 B.C.E.[40] Princess Jieyou’s elder daughter, Desi, married the King of Kucha (modern-day Qiuzi).[41] When their son, Chengde, ascended the throne, he believed himself to be a grandson of the Han dynasty.[42]  He established a close relationship with Han China between 32 to 1 B.C.E.[43] Thus, Princess Jieyou succeeded where her predecessor Princess Xijun did not. Through Princess Jieyou, Emperor Wu’s dreams of fostering a positive relationship between Han China and Wusun were realized.

Sources:

Jay, J. (2015). Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women: Antiquity Through Sui, 1600 B.C.E. – 618 C.E (L. X. H. Lee, Ed.; A. D. Stefanowska, Ed.; S. Wiles, Ed.). NY: Routledge.

Zhong, Y. & Peterson, B. (2015). Notable Women of China: Shang Dynasty to the Early Twentieth Century (B. B. Peterson, Ed.; W. Defang & F. Hong, Trans.). London: Routledge.

Rui, C. (2018). On the Ancient History of the Silk Road. Hackensack, New Jersey: World Scientific.


[1] Jay, p. 162

[2] Jay, p. 162

[3] Jay, pp. 162-163

[4] Jay, p. 163

[5] Peterson & Zhong, p. 69

[6] Peterson & Zhong, p. 69

[7] Peterson & Zhong, p. 69

[8] Peterson & Zhong, p. 69

[9] Peterson & Zhong, p. 69

[10] Peterson & Zhong,p. 69

[11] Peterson & Zhong, p. 69

[12] Peterson & Zhong, p. 69

[13] Jay, p. 163

[14] Jay, p. 163

[15] Jay, p. 163

[16] Jay, p. 163

[17] Jay, p. 163

[18] Jay, p. 163

[19] Rui, pp. 81-82

[20] Rui, p. 82

[21] Rui, p. 82

[22] Jay, p. 163

[23] Jay, p. 163

[24] Jay, p. 163

[25] Jay, p. 163

[26] Jay, p. 163

[27] Jay, p. 163

[28] Jay, p. 163

[29] Jay, p. 163

[30] Jay, p. 163

[31] Jay, p. 163

[32] Peterson & Zhong, pp. 70-71

[33] Jay, p. 163

[34] Jay, p. 163

[35] Jay, pp. 163-164

[36] Peterson & Zhong, p. 72

[37] Jay, p. 164

[38] Jay, p. 164

[39] Jay, p. 164

[40] Jay, p. 164

[41] Peterson 7 Zhong, p. 71

[42] Jay, p. 164

[43] Jay, p. 164






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