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Wang Zhaojun

Wang Zhaojun is perhaps the best known of China's "political brides". Many tales have been told about her life.

Her name was Jiang, her style Zhaojun but during the Jin Dynasty, she was referred to as Minghou as the name Zhao could not be used by ordinary folks since the king, Sima Zhao had the same surname. Later generations, however, addressed her as Mingfei.

A native of Zigui ( in Western Hubei province), she entered the imperial harem during the reign of Emperor Yuan of Western Han (48-33 BC). The emperor chose companions from his vast harem of maidens by looking at their portraits. As a result of this practice, it had become the custom for palace ladies to offer large bribes to court artists to ensure that they painted a flattering likeness. Wang Zhaojun, however, was confident of her natural beauty and refused to pay the court painter, Mao Yanshou, his customary bribe. As a result, from her finished portrait, she seemed to be the ugliest of all the palace ladies and thus, never received the emperor's favour.

When the Xiongnu chieftain, Huhanxie became a subject of the Han empire, he told Emperor Yuan: "I wish to take a Han beauty as my empress.

To cement relations with this barbarous nation, Emperor Yuan agreed to the request. Unwilling to pick out a real beauty, the emperor ordered that the plainest girl in the harem be selected for the marriage. When the lady-in-charge of the harem sent the unflattering portrait of Wang Zhaojun to the emperor, he merely glanced at it and nodded his approval.

Only when she was on the point of departure did Emperor Yuan set eyes on her. Much to his dismay, he realised that she was in fact the loveliest woman in his harem. Emperor Yuan was intent on finding out how such an error could have arisen. He discovered that the blame lay with the fraudulent behaviour of the court artist Mao Yanshou so Emperor Yuan ordered that he be put to death.

This redress, however, came too late for Wang Zhaojun. Dressed in the regalia of the Han court, clutching her Pipa to her bosom, she travelled beyond the Great Wall. Wang Zhaojun never returned and died in a distant barbarous land. There is a rich and poignant poem entitled Song of Mingfei:

When Mingfei left the palace of Han,
Face damp with tears, hair hanging loose,
Turning her lowered head she gazed back, expressionless.
And her sovereign could not restrain his anguish.
Blame lay in an artist's hand,
Few had he seen so pleasing to the eye.
Yet the source of such beauty was not painted;
Mao Yanshou was killed at once.
Departing, she knew, never to return,
Pitiable in the costume of the Han court.
Her plaintive voice asking for news of the south.
Where only the swan geese flew and returned each year.
Messages sent by her family, ten thousand li,
So that she in the foreign land will not pine.
Close by, Chang'an gate has locked out the beauty,
Life's aspirations thwarted by neither north nor south.

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