Queen Wang Zhaojun – The precious jewel that the Emperor deeply regretted losing




Wang Zhaojun as portrayed during a performance by Shanghai Jingju Theatre Company (陈文 CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons)

Queen Wang Zhaojun was known as one of the four most beautiful women in ancient China. She was originally the concubine of Emperor Yuan. However, she remained unfavored and was never summoned to the Emperor. She was chosen to marry the Khan of Xiongnu as part of a marital alliance. When Emperor Yuan finally saw her, he immediately became smitten with her. He would always regret giving her away to the Xiongnu khan. Queen Wang Zhaojun has become one of China’s patriotic heroes because she made a tremendous sacrifice for her country.[1]

Queen Wang Zhaojun was born around 50 B.C.E. Her actual name was Wang Qiang.[2] Historians debate her place of birth.[3] One chronicler claims that she was born in Shandong, but another chronicler claims she was born in Zigui (modern-day Hubei Province).[4] Wang Zhaojun was from “a good family.” [5] She had two brothers, Wang Xi and Wang Sa.[6]

Sometime before 33 B.C.E., Wang Zhaojun entered the palace as a concubine to Emperor Yuan.[7] However, she was not favoured and was never summoned into his presence.[8] It seemed that Wang Zhaojun’s destiny was to live out her days forgotten both in the palace and history. Yet, Emperor Yuan would soon need her in 33 B.C. E. Emperor Yuan did not need her for physical intimacy but as a bride for an important political marital alliance.[9]

For almost a thousand years, the Xiongnu (also known as the Huns in Western sources) had raided China’s northern regions.[10] To stop the Xiongnu from the northern invasions, Emperor Yuan decided to have a marriage between a Princess of the Chinese royal family and the Xiongnu khan.[11] The marriage would establish peace between the two nations. The problem was finding a Chinese Princess. Emperor Yuan did not want to give a direct member of the imperial family to the Xiongnu khan.[12] Instead, he looked among his concubines who were not in favour. He chose Wang Zhaojun because she had a good family background.[13] Thus, it was decided that Wang Zhaojun would marry Huhanye, the Khan of the Xiongnu. One chronicler stated that Wang Zhaojun was unhappy with being the prospective bride of the Khan of the Xiongnu but saw it as a sacrifice that she was willing to make for the good of her homeland.[14] Another chronicler claimed that it was Wang Zhaojun who volunteered herself to marry the Xiongnu Khan because she would rather live out her days in another land than remain in obscurity inside the palace.[15] Emperor Yuan raised her status from Concubine to Consort.[16] This was to ensure that Consort Wang Zhaojun’s parents would have a more favourable treatment whenever they entered the Han court.[17]

Before Consort Wang Zhaojun embarked on her journey to marry the Khan of Xiongnu, Emperor Yuan gave her a farewell banquet. It was the first time he saw her.[18] He was so stunned by her beauty that he immediately became smitten with her.[19] He realized that he had lost a precious jewel. Emperor Yuan wanted her for himself, but it was too late.[20] Emperor Yuan had already made the wedding arrangements, and he was bound by honour to give her to the Xiongnu Khan.[21] However, he would always deeply regret losing her.[22] 

Consort Wang Zhaojun left the palace with four of Emperor Yuan’s unfavoured concubines.[23] The concubines would be her servants. In honour of the marriage, Emperor Yuan declared her a new title, “Lady of Peace at the Border”.[24] Legend has it that she was so sorrowful about leaving her homeland that she strummed her pipa during her journey.[25] This detail appears to be a fictional invention by Tang poets.[26] Nevertheless, it has become intertwined with Queen Wang Zhaojun’s image.[27] The earliest portrait of Queen Wang Zhaojun holding the pipa was by Han Gan.[28] Since then, artists have usually inserted a pipa when painting her portrait.[29] 

Lady Wang Zhaojun married Khan Huhanye.[30] She shared equal rank as Queen consort among his many wives.[31]  Khan Huhanye had at least ten sons.[32] Queen Wang Zhaojun gave birth to a son named Yitu Zhiyashi.[33] Huhanye died, and his eldest son named Diaotaomogao became the next Khan as Fuzhulei Ruoti.[34] It was custom for the widows of the previous Khan to marry the new Khan.[35] Queen Wang Zhaojun was so dismayed at having to marry her step-son that she petitioned the new Chinese Emperor to let her return home.[36] The Emperor rejected her petition because she was the property of her Xiongnu husband.[37] Thus, Queen Wang Zhaojun had no choice but to marry the new Khan.

Queen Wang Zhaojun bore Khan Fuzhulei Ruoti two daughters.[38] The older daughter, known as Princess Xubu, married a Xiongnu nobleman named Xubu Dang.[39] Princess Xubu and Xubu Dang would work to build positive relations between Han China and the Xiongnu.[40] They were often invited to Chang’an and met with the imperial royal family. Emperor Wang Mang (the Usurper) even married his daughter Princess Lulu to Princess Xubu’s son and gave his son-in-law the title of Duke of Hou’an.[41] This provided the Duke of Hou’an with enough military aid that would help him to become the Khan of the Xiongnu.[42] Both Princess Xubu and her son, the Duke of Hou’an, would be killed in the rebellion that overthrew Emperor Wang Mang in 23 B.C.E.[43] Queen Wang Zhaojun’s younger daughter, Princess Dangyu, bore a son named King Yidu.[44]

Queen Wang Zhaojun’s death remains unrecorded. Archaeologists are still trying to find the location of her Green Grass tomb.[45] Queen Wang Zhaojun was successful in establishing peace between Han China and the Xiongnu.[46] Her story has been retold many times through plays, operas, and television and has remained one of the nation’s favourite characters in Chinese drama.[47] She has been portrayed by the famous Yang Mi in the television drama Wang Zhaojun and by Li Caihua in the drama Zhaojun Chu Sai. Queen Wang Zhaojun remains one of China’s greatest patriotic heroes because she sacrificed her personal happiness for the well-being of her country.[48]

Sources:

Besio, K. (1997). Gender, Loyalty, and the Reproduction of the Wang Zhaojun Legend: Some Social Ramifications of Drama in the Late Ming. Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient40(2), 251–282. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3632684.

Li, Y., L. Lee. X.H., & Wiles. S. (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.

Lei, D. P.-W. (1996). Wang Zhaojun on the Border: Gender and Intercultural Conflicts in Premodern Chinese Drama. Asian Theatre Journal13(2), 229–237. https://doi.org/10.2307/1124527.


[1] Li, et. al., p. 212

[2] Besio, p. 255

[3] Li, et. al., p. 209

[4] Li, et. al., p. 209

[5] Li, et. al., p. 207

[6]Li, et. al., p. 207

[7] Li, et. al., p. 208

[8]Li, et. al., p. 208

[9]Li, et. al., p. 209

[10] Li, et. al., p. 208

[11] Lei, p. 231

[12]Li, et. al., p. 209

[13]Li, et. al., p. 208

[14]Li, et. al., p. 212

[15] Li, et. al., p. 209

[16] Li, et. al., p. 209

[17] Li, et. al., p. 209

[18] Lei, p. 231; Li, et. al., p. 209

[19] Lei, p. 231;Li, et. al., p. 209

[20] Li, et. al., p. 209

[21]Li, et. al., p. 209

[22]Li, et. al., p. 209

[23]Li, et. al., p. 209

[24] Li, et. al., p. 208

[25] Li, et. al., p. 210

[26] Li, et. al., p. 210

[27] Li, et. al., p. 210

[28] Li, et.al., p.210

[29] Li, et. al., p. 210

[30] Besio, p. 255

[31] Li, et. al., p. 208

[32] Li, et. al., p. 208

[33] Lei, p. 230

[34] Besio, p. 255; Li, et. al., p. 208

[35] Li, et. al., p. 208

[36] Lei, p. 231

[37] Lei, p. 231

[38] Besario, p. 255

[39]Li, et. al., pp.208-209

[40] Li, et. al., p. 209

[41] Li, et. al., p. 209

[42] Li, et. al., p. 209

[43] Li, et. al., p. 209

[44] Li, et. al., p. 209

[45] Li, et. al., p. 211

[46]Li, et. al., p. 209

[47] Lei, p. 230

[48]Li, et. al., p. 212






About Lauralee Jacks 83 Articles
I have a bachelor’s degree in Liberal and Civic Studies from St. Mary’s College of California, a master’s in Elementary Education from the University of Phoenix, and a doctorate in Educational Leadership from the College of Saint Mary. I live in Tennessee where I taught first grade. Because my family are from East Asia, I have a passion for historical Chinese and Korean television shows. I always wanted to separate fact from dramas. Writing articles from History of Royal Women gives me a chance to dig deeper and explore these royal women as they might have been in real life. Also, it gives me a chance to look at the history and culture of where my family originated. I love researching East Asian royalty because they rarely get enough attention in the West often being overshadowed by European royalty. I find these royal women to be just as fascinating and their stories deserve to be told. Thus, I am excited to write for History of Royal Women!

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