China's Four Legendary Beauties

The first part of this two-part series can be found at 

Wang Zhao Jun (王昭君) (52-19 B.C.)

Wang Zhaojun is perhaps the best known of China's "political brides".  Many tales have been told about her life.  Among the four beauties, she was also the one most extensively recorded on.  Wang Zhaojun was a native of Zigui County (in present day Hubei Province) in the Western Han era (206 B.C – 24 A.D.).  A natural born beauty, she was the only daughter and the youngest in her family.  She was thus heavily doted on and received excellent education and training in the arts. 

Word of Wang Zhaojun's striking beauty and talents quickly spread throughout the region.  During the reign of Emperor Yuan (49-33 B.C.), at the age of 16, she was summoned to the imperial harem.  In ancient times, the emperor selected his concubines from the vast harem of maidens based on their portraits.  As a result of this practice, it had become the custom for palace maidens to bribe the court painters to paint them in flattering light.  However, Wang Zhaojun, who was forthright and confident of her beauty, had refused to bribe then-court painter Mao Yanshou.  Consequently, from her portrait, she seemed to be the ugliest of all and was overlooked by the emperor. 

In 33 B.C., Huhanye, one of the Huns chieftains from the northern steppes, proposed cementing relations with the Han Dynasty through "a marriage of state".  Although the latter had requested for a Han princess, Emperor Yuan decided to offer one of his "would-be concubines" instead.  The emperor ordered his officials to seek volunteers among the palace maidens, offering to accord the status of princess to any willing party.  None except Wang Zhaojun, who had been living in boredom and obscurity in the palace for several years, stepped forward. 

It was on the day of the couple's departure that Emperor Yuan first saw Wang Zhaojun in person.  Legend has it that he was floored by her looks and had somewhat regretted approving her union with Huhanye.  Thereafter, he investigated why he had previously not selected Wang Zhaojun to be his concubine.  Upon discovering the truth, he ordered that Mao Yanshou be put to death. 

Back at the Huns territory, Wang Zhaojun was conferred the title of the "Queen Who Brought Peace to the Huns (宁胡阏氏)".  A year after she bore Huhanye a son, the aged chieftain passed away.  In accordance with the Huns' customs, Wang Zhaojun married the chieftain's successor, who was Huhanye's eldest son.  In this second marriage, Wang Zhaojun gave birth to two daughters.  After her second husband's demise in 31 B.C., Wang Zhaojun lived in seclusion and eventually passed away in the northern grasslands at the age of 33.  Today, her tomb could be found in the southern outskirts of Horhot, capital of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.

Wang Zhaojun

Wang Zhaojun's journey to the grasslands inspired numerous poems and fables.  In particular, one story narrated how the melancholic music which she was playing on her pipa (a Chinese string instrument) while riding a horse had caught the attention of a flock of geese flying overhead.  Upon seeing her stunning looks, the geese plummeted to the ground.  There also remain today numerous poems and songs, some purportedly written by herself, narrating her longing for her homeland and her family.

Wang is highly revered for her selflessness.  She was upheld for her courage and diplomatic skills in helping to maintain peace between the Han Chinese and the Huns which lasted close to six decades.  Today, contemporary paintings of Wang Zhaojun always depict her holding her favourite musical instrument, the pipa.


Yang Guifei (杨贵妃) (719-756 A.D.)

Compared to the other three beauties who are revered for the sacrifices which they made for their homelands, Yang Guifei is more often vilified for her scandalous affair with Tang Emperor Xuanzhong and which led to the ruler's eventual downfall.  A subject of the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.), she was born to an official's family and given the birth name Yang Yuhuan (杨玉环).  Her more famous moniker "Guifei" actually means "imperial consort".  There are several different accounts of her birthplace, including erstwhile locations in present day precincts such as Sichuan Province, the Guangxi Autonomous Region or even Shaanxi Province.

 Apart from her looks, Yang Yuhuan was also well-known as an accomplished singer and dancer.  A popular story goes that one day while she was strolling in the palace garden, the leaves of the plants which she had touched curled up.  Marveled, the palace maids exclaimed that the plants had bowed in shame to Yang Yuhuan's beauty.  Of course we all know today that the latter had probably touched the mimosa plant.

Yang Guifei

At the age of 16, Yang Yuhuan caught the fancy of Li Mao, Prince of Shou, during one of the princesses' wedding.  The couple married and led a blissful life for some four years before fate landed a cruel twist on them.  Li Mao was the son of Emperor Xuanzhong and his favourite concubine Consort Wu.  When Consort Wu passed away in 737 A.D., Emperor Xuanzhong was devastated and mourned over her passing for quite a long time.  Among his vast harem of court ladies, he took fancy to no one.  Sensing the emperor's emotional void, a court official suggested Yang Yuhuan to him.  Smitten by her looks, the emperor decided to take his daughter-in-law as his own concubine but he had to first find some semblance of respectability in doing so.  

The emperor went through great lengths.  Under the cover of his own mother's 50th death anniversary, Emperor Xuanzhong ordered that Li Mao and Yang Yuhuan divorce and that the latter become a Taoist nun to participate in the death anniversary rites.  Clearly, this was a ruse to sever all ties between Li Mao and Yang Yuhuan.  During her nunhood, Yang Yuhuan was put up in the imperial palace.  Then, in 745 A.D., Emperor Xuanzhong arranged for Li Mao to wed a general's daughter and, thereafter, for Yang Yuhuan to renounce her nunhood.  Very soon after, Emperor Xuanzhong took the latter as his concubine.   

So doted was Yang Yuhuan that she was conferred a newly created title "Guifei" and enjoyed privileges equivalent to a queen consort.  Her kins also benefited from her high standing, receiving favours and rewards in the form of titles and riches.  One of the most controversial beneficiaries was Yang Guifei's cousin, Yang Guozhong, a notorious gambler, who was later appointed to the position of Chancellor.  The Yang family abused their power and wealth, thereby incurring the wrath of the other court officials.  The officials were also upset with the muddled emperor. 

It was upon Yang Guozhong's ill advice that Emperor Xuanzhong began to suspect his military commander overseeing the northern frontier, An Lushan, of treason.  The emperor repeatedly tested An Lushan on his loyalty, even resorting to beheading the latter's aides on fabricated charges.  Matters came to a head when An Lushan finally concluded that his appeasement tactics were ineffective and decided to rebel against the emperor.  An Lushan wielded a mighty troop and easily out-manoeuvred the other Tang generals.  In desperation, the emperor fled the capital for the southwestern city of Chengdu, taking with him Yang Guifei, Yang Guozhong and some other members of the Yang coterie.  However, during their escape, the imperial guards grew frustrated and turned against the ruler.  They blamed Yang Guozhong for the country's upheaval and believed that Yang Guifei was the curse of the nation.  The guards thus demanded that both Yang Guozhong and Yang Guifei be put to death.  To this, the emperor agreed with the guards on the chancellor's culpability but pleaded for Yang Guifei to be spared.  However, the guards would not be mollified.  Eventually, for self-preservation, the emperor had no choice but to order his favourite concubine to hang herself.  Yang Guifei thus died at the age of 38 at Mawei Station (in present day Shaanxi Province).