An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

Wang Zhaojun 王昭君

emberDec 29, 2011 © Ulrich Theobald

Wang Zhaojun 王昭君, actual name Wang Qiang 王嬙 (Zhaojun is her courtesy name), also called Mingjun 明君 or Mingfei 明妃, is a Chinese heroine that figures in a lot of literary writings. She was a court lady of Emperor Yuan 漢元帝 (r. 49-33 BCE) of the Han dynasty 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE), but never enjoyed the favour to meet the emperor.

History goes that Emperor Yuan used to select his concubines with the help of portraits. Applicants for selection therefore bribed the painter Mao Yanshou 毛延寿 to create a more beautiful picture, while those girls not bribing him were painted in a less attractive manner. The honest and fair-minded Wang Zhaojun relied on her natural beauty, so that the emperor was given a less favourable picture and did not select her. She therefore served in the inner chambers without ever having access to her lord.

Only when an envoy of the steppe federation of the Xiongnu 匈奴 arrived at the court in 33 CE and asked for a Chinese princess for khan (chanyu 單于) Huhanya 呼韓邪, in order to conclude peace by marriage (heqin 和親), Wang Zhaojun was chosen as a candidate for the khan. She was presented to the emperor, and only then he perceived what a beautiful girl he had among the court ladies. Mao Yanshou was executed, but Wang Zhaojun was, nevertheless, sent out to marry the khan.

She took with her a lute (pipa 琵琶) to serve her to make her days in the foreign country. Arrived at Huhanya's court she was made Ninghu eshi 寧胡閼氏 (wife of a khan). According to the custom of the Xiongnu, she became the wife of Fuzhulei 復株累 khan after Huhanya's death. Wang Zhaojun had intensive contacts to the Han court and helped keeping up the good relationship between the Chianese and the steppe empires. During her life at the khan's court she composed a song Yuankuang siwei ge 怨曠思惟歌 (also known as Zhaojun yuan 昭君怨). She died in the land of the Xiongnu and was buried there.

A lot of "tombs" for Wang Zhaojun were erected there in commemoration of her, the most important of which is the Qingzhou 青冢 tomb near Hohhot 呼和浩特 in Inner Mongolia. Her story was early recorded, like in the Jin period 晉 (265-420) collection Xijing zaji 西京雜記, Ma Zhiyuan's 馬致遠 opera Hangongqiu 漢宮秋 from the Yuan period 元 (1279-1368) , or the theatre play Wang Zhaojun 王昭君 by the Republican writer Cao Yu 曹禺.

Han Zhaoqi 韓兆琦, ed. (2000). Zhongguo gudai wenxue mingzhu renwu xingxiang cidian 中國古代文學名著人物形象辭典 (Zhengzhou: Zhongzhou guji chubanshe), 881.
Shang Zhi 尚志 (1995). "Wang Zhaojun 王昭君", in Lu Leshan 盧樂山, ed.Zhongguo nüxing baike quanshu 中國女性百科全書, Vol. Wenhua jiaoyu 文化教育 (Shenyang: Dongbei daxue chubanshe), 468.