Baoping, near the city of Yichang, Hubei Province, is a charming little village that has been preserved as much as possible in its original state in order to honor the memory of a woman who was born here and who became famous for her beauty: Wang Zhaojun. How Wang Zhaojun, who was a beautiful young lady-in-waiting in the imperial court (BCE 75–33) of Emperor Yuan (he ruled from BCE 48–33) of the Western Han (BCE 206 – CE 9) Dynasty, came to be married off to a Hun chieftain as a pawn in an imperial game of chess designed to divide and conquer the Hun enemies of the Han Chinese emperor, is a tale of mistaken identity, but a tale with a twist in which petty corruption is rather roundly punished.*
A small, gently-flowing tributary to the Yangtze River, named Fragrant Brook after a legend (see below) concerning Wang Zhaojun, runs through Baoping Village. The western bank of Fragrant Brook is bordered by a green hill, with a natural flat depression in the hillside on which a village emerged, and thus the village came to be known as "valuable level land", or Baoping in Chinese. A section of the village gate of Baoping is in the form of a platform made of earth, on which a door is engraved with the Chinese characters "Shu Zhuang Tai" ("dressing table"). It is said that this is the place where Wang Zhaojun used to sit for her morning toilet. The present-day platform has an added canopy, with stone tables and stools beneath it where visitors may pause for a rest – and perhaps to primp a bit at such an auspicious locale.
Nearby the village gate is the former dwelling of Wang Zhaojun, which had fallen into disrepair but which has since been restored to its original glory. The entrance-way to the house is marked by a palatial gate tower. The house itself is tall, full of rooms with high ceilings, and with winding corridors. A large garden park surrounds the house, with a terraced flower garden displaying hundreds of flowers, which, in season, blossom luxuriantly. Prominently placed in the garden park is a three-meter-high figure of Wang Zhaojun made of white marble, a later gift to the natal village of Wang Zhaojun by the city of Huhot, capital of present-day Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, but territory that was ruled by Huns, Altaic forbears of the Mongolians, during the life and times of Wang Zhaojun.**
Less than a hundred meters from the natal village of Wang Zhaojun is Nanmu Well, named after the nanmu tree that grows in it. The well has never dried up in all its long history, and its meter-deep waters are still clear enough that one can see to the bottom. Nanmu Well was the water source for the former residence of Wang Zhaojun, and remains an active, functional well, used by the villagers of Baoping to this day.
Wang Zhaojun is considered as one of the four most beautiful women of ancient China. There are many charming legends, some happy, some sad, regarding the beautiful and gentle Wang Zhaojun. Below are two of the more famous "Fragrant Brook" legends related to Wang Zhaojun.
How "Fragrant Brook" Became Fragrant
One day when Wang Zhaojun was bathing in the small stream near her home, she carelessly dropped a pearl that was immediately washed away. From that moment the stream was transformed into a calm, transparent brook, full of fragrance. Thus the stream was thereafter known as Fragrant Brook.
Whence the Minnows of "Fragrant Brook"
One day Wang Zhaojun was given extraordinary permission by her husband to visit her parents in her natal village of Baoping. When the visit ended, Wang Zhaojun duly bad farewell to her parents and proceeded to the boat anchored up in Fragrant Brook that would carry her back to the home of her husband, a Hun chieftain who lived far to the north. It was the month of March, when the peach blossoms are in full bloom and all of nature is joyous and steeped in beauty, yet Wang Zhaojun's heart was filled with sadness, for she knew that this would be her last ever visit to her parents and to her natal village, and therefore Wang Zhaojun broke into tears while stepping into the boat. Her tears fell into Fragrant Brook, where they mingled with the petals of the falling blossoms, which were immediately transformed into minnows.
* What we know of the real person who called herself Wang Zhaojun (she was born Wang Qiang, but styled herself Wang Zhaojun) can be gleaned from official records, where the girl was referred to simply as "Mingfei" (Concubine Ming) in the later annals of the Jin (CE 265-420) Dynasty. According to these later annals, which have preserved the history of the imperial court of both Emperor Xuan and his son, Emperor Yuan, Wang Qiang was a brave, devoted child who volunteered to enter into the harem of Emperor Yuan in exchange for the release of her father, a scholar and an official who was to be punished for something or another, perhaps a failure that was not owing to his own neglect, but simply because it was common practice in those times to name and punish a scapegoat.
Wang Zhaojun, as she called herself, remained an unknown quantity at the court of Emperor Yuan, simply because in those times, the emperor chose his consort for the night not in person, but by sorting through the portraits of the concubines that were painted by the court painter. It was the custom in the court of Emperor Yuan (and indeed, the custom surely existed before – though possibly not after, as the epilogue will suggest – the reign of Emperor Yuan) that the concubines – euphemistically termed "ladies-in-waiting" (in truth they were only waiting to be beckoned to the bed of the emperor) – paid the court painter a fee in order to have a flattering likeness, or perhaps unlikeness, made of them. Wang Zhaojun was a natural beauty – in fact, she was outrageously beautiful, and in fact, unusually intelligent – and therefore she did not feel compelled to pay a bribe to have her likeness improved by the court painter. Unbeknownst to Wang Zhaojun, the court painter took his revenge by rendering Wang Zhaojun as the ugliest concubine in the entire harem, and therefore Wang Zhaojun was never beckoned to the bed of the emperor, who thus remained unaware that among the concubines in his harem was such a rare beauty.
During those times, China, under the Han Chinese, had been besieged by a nomadic Altaic people to the north, the Huns. Battling the Huns had also been the fate of Emperor Yuan's father, Emperor Xuan. Already during the reign of Emperor Xuan, the Huns had split into five different kingdoms, each ruled by a chieftain, or Shan-Yu, and each vying for power over the others, and each continuing to battle their Han Chinese neighbors to the south whenever the opportunity presented itself. One of the Shan-Yus, a certain Khukhenye, had suffered defeat at the hand of his brother, Zhizhi-Guduhu, also a Shan-Yu, so in order to strengthen his position vis-à-vis his brother, not to speak of vis-à-vis the other Shan-Yus, Khukhenye sent a message to Emperor Xuan informing the latter of his plight and his plans, and entreating the Chinese emperor to grant him an audience.
The audience went remarkably well; Emperor Xuan even went to the edge of the capital city in order to meet his visitor half-way, as it were. Khukhenye stayed with his host for an entire month, as relations between the two men warmed. When Khukhenye decided to return to the north, Emperor Yuan sent a large army to escort him back home, and the emperor sent along generous quantities of food to be given to Khukhenye's vassals, who were impoverished due to the ravages of war. Thereafter Khukhenye remained a loyal friend of Emperor Xuan.
When the emperor died and his son, Emperor Yuan, ascended to the throne, Khukhenye continued his friendly ties with the new Chinese emperor. Khukhenye's position was strengthened in the meantime because the forces of Emperor Xuan had eliminated Khukhenye's ruthless brother, Zhizhi-Guduhu, because the latter had had one of Emperor Xuan's emissaries killed. With Khukhenye's brother and nemesis out of the way, Khukhenye's position continually improved, so he decided one day to make a second visit to the Han Chinese to the south in order to meet the son of the emperor who had befriended him, the new emperor, Emperor Yuan. Hoping to strengthen his ties to the new Chinese emperor, Khukhenye suggested that he be allowed to marry one of Emperor Yuan's daughter, but the emperor, though willing to permit his guest to marry a member of the imperial court, stopped short of permitting his guest to marry one of his daughters.
Instead Emperor Yuan instructed the caretaker of his harem to find a volunteer among the "ladies-in-waiting", or concubines, who would be willing to marry Khukhenye. None of the girls were particularly interested in volunteering, however, as they enjoyed their life at the imperial court, except for "Concubine Ming", who languished in boredom, having no contact with the emperor and therefore being consigned to spend the rest of her life in idle pursuits, a painful fate for a person as intelligent as Wang Zhaojun. Thus Wang Zhaojun became the bride of the Hun chieftain, Khukhenye.
The epilogue to the story is that when Emperor Yuan, who, out of politeness, was obliged to attend the marriage of Khukhenye to the rather ugly concubine (the story goes that the emperor had been presented with the portrait of the bride-to-be, and nodded his approval), laid eyes on the stunningly beautiful Wang Zhaojun, he demanded to know how such a rare beauty had escaped his attention. It was at this point that the corruption racket of the court painter, a certain Mao Yanshou, was revealed. The story also goes that the emperor was so enraged at learning of a petty corruption racket that had denied him the pleasures of such a rare beauty as Wang Zhaojun that he immediately had Mao Yanshou put to death.
** The Huns in question were none other than the nomadic Xiongnu horsemen tribes who had entered the area of present-day Inner Mongolia during the Western Han (BCE 206 - BC 009) Dynasty, driving out the relatively peaceful Scythian horsemen tribes of ethnic Persian origin who had settled among the indigenous hunter-pastoral Ordos people of the region. In fact, the first section of the Great Wall was erected specifically in order to keep out the aggressive Xiongnu tribes, who continually made violent raids eastward until this encroachment upon Han Chinese territory was eventually halted with the erection of the Great Wall.