Wang Zhaojun

In the popular mind Wang Zhaojun has always been a tragic figure: a Han Dynasty court lady married off to a Chanyu (Khan) of the Xiongnu (Huns) who left her home and died in the far north. Perhaps this is because historically, a number of such women were so married in the interest of diplomacy. Wang Zhaojun, despite the persistence of the counter-legend, was the exception: she chose her life.

Wang Zhaojun, born Wang Qiang in Zigui county, Hubei province. This much is in the official records, for in her teens she entered the palace as one of the numerous candidates from whom Emperor Yuan Di chose his concubines, said to number in the thousands.


Verses by the Eastern Han Dynasty poet Cai Yong (132-102 picture her as a daring and determined young woman who entered the court willingly to save her father, a scholar-official, from persecution. The most romantic tale about her comes from the Jin Dynasty writer Ge Hong (284-364)She was beautiful, intelligent and well read. So sure was she of her beauty - or perhaps so straightforward - that she refused to bribe the court painter Mao Yanshou as the others did when he did portraits of the candidates for the emperor to choose from. As a result he painted an unflattering picture and she was passed over by the emperor. She didn not like the thought of wasting her life in court, and hoped that some day something would happen that would free her from it.

In the year 33 BC the Xiongnus, a nomadic people to the north, wanted to establish friendly relations with the Han court. The Chanyu came to the Han capital Chang'an and requested a Han princess as a bride, a way of cementing relations frequently used in those times. Instead, Han Emperor Yuan Di said he would send one of his imperial concubine candidates, and give her away like his own daughter. He asked for volunteers. The idea of leaving their homeland and comfortable life at the court for the grasslands of the far north was abhorrent to most of the young women. But not to Wang Zhaojun: she saw it as a chance to leave the empty palace life and possibly play a more important role than she would ever in Chang'an.

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