Wang Zhaojun
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Wang Zhaojun
- Qin Shi #71
琴史 #71 2 
Mao Yanshou paints Zhaojun (detail) 3       
Wang Zhaojun (1st C. BCE;
Wiki) was the nickname of Wang Qiang, also known as Mingfei or Mingjun. She is referred to as one of China's "four great beauties",4 supposedly the four most beautiful women in Chinese history. As often seems to be the case with Chinese accounts of beautiful women, her story was not a happy one.

Although Zhaojun was a concubine in the seraglio of Han emperor Yuan (Han Yuandi; r.48-32 BCE), he had never noticed her. One reason was that she refused to bribe a painter, Mao Yanshou, and so his painting of her did not do her justice. As a result when a Central Asian nomad prince named Huhanye5) came looking for a bride, the emperor volunteered her (by another account she was so desperate that she volunteered herself). She then had to spend the rest of her life in the barren lands of Central Asia. When her husband died she was married to her stepson, as custom dictated. She requested permission from Han Emperor Cheng to return home, but he refused. Some accounts say that she then committed suicide.6

The lower illustration at right is an old photograph showing a set of tombs near the Inner Mongolian capital, Hohhot, said to include the grave of Wang Zhaojun.7 The grave is mentioned as early as the Tang dynasty, by which time stories of Wang Zhaojun had become very popular. There are a number of poems about her. Most of them are sad, dwelling on her desire to return home. Typical is this poem by Li Bai, which at the end mentions her grave,8

The moon above the Han palace and land of Qin,
    Sheds a flood of silvery light, bidding Mingfei ("the radiant lady") farewell.
She sets out on the road of the Jewel Gate,
    a road she will not travel back.
The moon above the Han palace rises from the eastern seas,
    But the radiant lady wed in the west will return nevermore.
On the Mongolian mountains flowers are made of the long winter's snow,
    The moth-eyebrowed one, broken-hearted, lies buried in the desert sand.
Living she lacked the gold, and so her portrait was distorted,
    Dying she leaves a green mound, which moves all the world to pity.

Green Mound, the name given to the tomb of Wang Zhaojun, is also mentioned in a number of other early poems. The tomb itself was said always to remain a green oasis in the center of the arid desert.

The nomad account was probably always somewhat different. As told today, Zhaojun married the prince quite willingly and then becomes his powerful assistant, helping bring friendship between the Han people and their neighbors. Near her reputed grave, now a tourist spot, there is a statue of Zhaojun and her husband riding together on horseback.9

The story of Wang Zhaojun is told in connection to several qin melodies, the melodies themselves often being attributed directly to her. These melodies include,

  1. Longshuo Cao,10 also called Zhaojun Yuan (see next).
    Earliest published version, 1425, has no lyrics but the edition of <1491 adds some.

  2. Zhaojun Yuan11
    Taigu Yiyin (1511) sets a similar melody to lyrics by seven different poets.

  3. Qiu Sai Yin12
    This is an alternate title for Huangyun Qiu Sai, as well as a later melody

  4. Yuan Kuang Si Wei Ge13
    No surviving melody, only the introduction in Qin Cao (Hejian Za Ge #21);
    It tells the story of Zhaojun, then has the lyrics included with the 1511 melody.

  5. Xi Kang's Qin Fu mentions Wang Zhao as an apparent qin melody.

Other qin-related references to her include:

  1. Qinshu Daquan, Folio 17, #26
    Tells the story from another source.

  2. Yuefu Shiji, Folio 59

  3. Xijing Zaji (Record of the Western Capital)14
    Recounts the same story.
  Wang Zhaojun and her pipa        
In spite of these references, and the inclusion of a biography for her in Qin Shi, there do not seem to be any suggestions that Zhaojun herself played qin, only that she created a song (and/or its lyrics) that was later made into a qin melody (in this compare Cai Wenji). Instead there are many images of her with and/or playing pipa, as in the image of the ceramic plate at left.15

The original Qin Shi essay is as follows.

Wang Zhaojun, original name Wang Qiang, was from a reputable family serving in the court of Han emperor Yuandi. One day Khan Huhanxie came to the palace to ask the emperor arrange a marriage. (The emperor) gave him Zhaojun. Zhaojun was very beautiful but she had never had a response from Emperor Yuan, being like a distant concubine imprisoned in the palace. The khan considered her as princess (閼士 Yanshi, a royal clan), but until the end she was unable to forget (she was) Han. Thus she created Song of Resenting the Wilderness (see Yuan Kuang Si Wei Ge) as seen in Qin Cao. Later the rhapsodies of poets recorded in the Yue Fu (see Yuefu Shiji, Folio 59) were numerous.

Her story came to be told in many popular media, including Chinese opera.16

Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

1. Wang Zhaojun references
21295.1886 (no image); Bio/206 王嬙字昭君; also called 明君 Mingjun and 明妃 Mingfei.
    14172.47 明妃 Mingfei = 王昭君 Wang Zhaojun
    14172.161 明君 is given two meanings, a brilliant person in general, and Wang Zhaojun

2. 5 lines; much longer accounts are mentioned below.

3. The top image is a detail from 漢宮春曉 Han Gong Chun Xiao (Hangong Chunxiao; melody name), a long scroll by 仇英 Qiu Ying 故宮舊藏 in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taiwan.

Han Gong Chun Xiao is also the name of a qin melody (also called Han Gong Chun Yuan and Chun Yuan). However, it does not seem to be connected to the story of Wang Zhaojun.

4. Four Great Beauties 四大美女 or 四大美人 (Wiki)
4782.30 四大 but no 美女 or 美人; likewise 3/571. Likewise also with 四美 4782.335xxx. The four beauties (in chronological order) were,

The fact that three are historical figures while one likely fictitious adds to the mystery of the origin of the expression "four beauties". (The paintings by 唐寅 Tang Yin (1570-1523) of four beauties were done of other women.)

5. Huhanye 呼韓邪
The Qin Shi account below identifies him as 呼韓邪單于 Huhanye chanyu (單于 khan). 3572.92 呼韓邪 Huhanye says he was 匈奴 Xiongnu, but some later accounts say he was (or this is the same as) Mongol.

6. Various accounts of Wang Zhaojun are told in Paul Rouzer, Articulated Ladies, p. 182ff. In particular he translates the account in 西京雜記 Records of the Western Capital, and the longer one with the Qin Cao introduction to Yuan Kuang Si Wei Ge (discussed further below). Rouzer translates Qin Cao as "A Manual for the Harp".

7. Wang Zhaojun's tomb (pre-1949)
The image is from China: Land of Splendours, a Pictorial Presentation, Taiwan, 1975.

8. The translation is adapted from 楊剛,中國名勝詩詞大辭典,浙江大學出版社, 2001; p.161. The original is:

9. Wang Zhaojun and Hohhot      Zhaojun and her husband
The modern statue at right (photo by Rich Bartell with accompanying text), stands near 呼和浩特 Hohhot (歸化 Guihua on some old maps), the capital of modern Inner Mongolia. The statue is in the vicinity of a site claiming to have the grave of Zhaojun herself. Records of the grave, called the Green Mound (青冢 qingzhong 43517.287), apparently go back as early as the Tang dynasty.

10. 龍朔操 Longshuo Cao: Melody of Longshuo -- the North

11. 14172.41 昭君怨 Zhaojun Yuan: Lament of Zhaojun

12. 秋塞吟 Qiu Sai Yin: Autumn on the Frontier
This title is used for several extant melodies.

13. 怨曠思惟歌 Yuan Kuang Si Wei Ge
"Song Meditating on resentment of the wilderness" is a rough translation of the title of Qin Cao, Hejian Zage #21 (in Qin Fu, p. 751). Lyrics for it, attributed to Zhaojun herself, are included in Yuefu Shiji, Folio 59 (pp. 853-4), under the general title Zhaojun Yuan. They are also used for the first section of the melody Zhaojun Yuan in Taigu Yiyin (1511). The lyrics are translated in Paul Rouzer, Articulated Ladies, p. 182ff. Rouzer translates the title as Longing in Resentment and Loneliness. The melody may also be called 怨曠之歌 Yuankuang zhi Ge (10739.98xxx) or 怨思之歌 Yuan Si zhi Ge(10739.30 only yuansi).

14. Account in 西京雜記 Xijing Zaji (Jiaozhu, 6)
A perhaps early version attributed to 劉歆 Liu Xin is also translated in Rouzer, Op. Cit., pp. 182-3 (see the comment on the attribution). The version Rouzer translates is shorter than the one in YFSJ, Folio 29 (p.425), as part of the introduction to a Matching Song called Wang Mingjun. It makes the whole group of portrait painters guilty of false portraiture, with no mention of 毛延壽 Mao Yanshou.

15. Wang Zhaojun and her pipa
Porcelain plate hand painted in Hong Kong. She can also be seen with pipa here and here.

16. See Chinese opera images online


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