Saturday, February 10, 2018

Four Greatest Beauties of China: Diao Chan

It has been so long since I last wrote on this blog. In this span of four years (or more), so much has changed in my personal life. I have attended and graduated from university, found a job, and found a lot of topics that interest me other than history. Yup, history is still fascinating. But I have gained a new outlook on things. Citations, for one. I noticed how my previous posts contained no citations at all. Citations are everything in university. My supervisors would flip if I were to hand in a dissertation full of allegations and with absolutely no citations at all.

But I digress. Enough about me and my personal life. Time to end the 'Four Beauties' series with Diao Chan, the only one who is purely fictional.

(On that note, a reader asked in a comment if Xi Shi is fictional. I will look into that. Anyway, a lot of Chinese history is so mixed up with myths and folklore it sometimes is hard to distinguish fact from fiction. I promise to be more careful on that point in the future, and include references and disclaimers when necessary)

Also, before I begin, a shoutout to fellow blogger and friend Hanfugirl who is the impetus behind this post. She runs a lovely blog centred around 'Hanfu', i.e. Han Chinese traditional dress, and I cannot recommend it enough! Check it out.

One thing to keep in mind about Diao Chan: she is fictional, invented by the author of 'The Romance of the Three Kingdoms' to add some drama to the story. Like Xi Shi, she is a spy of sorts, used as a pawn to wreck havoc in the relationship of two powerful men. In order to fully understand her story, I will give a brief account of the historical background. Again, these are events lifted from the novel, based on history but also fictionalised to an extent.

The Han Dynasty was near its end. There was chaos everywhere, as everyone tried to exert their influence over the emperor, who was reduced to a dummy figure essentially controlled by anyone cunning or powerful enough. (He was eventually displaced by Dong Zhuo, who is one of the main players in this story)

Among these people was Dong Zhuo. He had an 'adopted son', Lu Bu whose martial prowess was legendary. He was so good at combat no one could defeat him single-handedly. Even the three protagonists of the novel, Liu Bei, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei could not defeat him in a three-to-one match.

Lu Bu acted as Dong Zhuo's bodyguard. As a result, no one dared cross Dong Zhuo, for they knew Lu Bu would cut them down instantly. And everyone hated Dong Zhuo, for he was cruel and power-hungry, displacing the emperor and installing another (a mere boy) in his place, tightening his control over the new emperor and moving the capital from Luoyang to Xi'an. He plundered and pillaged, robbed some innocent villagers of their families and possessions, built a pleasure palace and filled it with treasures (while everyone else was starving to death), killed and tortured people in sadistic ways, including two ministers who tried to speak out against him.

A minister, Wang Yun, was concerned over the state of things. His worry did not go unnoticed by a member of his household, Diao Chan. Diao Chan was a songstress, but was regarded by Wang Yun as his own daughter. She had been raised in the household since her childhood, where she was taught many skills such as singing and dancing.

Diao Chan swore to Wang Yun she would do anything to lighten his burden. Moved by her sincerity, Wang Yun hatched a plan with her, a plan that, if successfully executed, would turn Dong Zhuo and Lu Bu against each other.

A couple of days later, Wang Yun had Lu Bu over for a meal. Wang Yun began to flatter Lu Bu with good food and wine. Now, Lu Bu was a skilled warrior, but he had neither brains nor integrity. He was easily moved by flattery, material goods, and beautiful women.

That was when Diao Chan entered the scene. Lu Bu could not keep his eyes off her, as she poured wine and sat down at the table. Wang Yun, noticing Lu Bu's reaction, promised to give her to him as a concubine. All he had to do is to wait for an auspicious date. Lu Bu went home a happy man.

Wang Yun promises Diao Chan to Lu Bu

Wang Yun then invited Dong Zhuo to his place. Again, more food, wine and song, with flattery thrown in as well. Dong Zhuo was beginning to trust Wang Yun when Diao Chan made her entrance again, this time displaying her superb dancing skills. Dong Zhuo's reaction was to be expected. Like Lu Bu, he was transfixed. When the feast was over, Wang Yun presented Diao Chan as a concubine to Dong Zhuo, who accepted happily. He took Diao Chan home with him in a covered carriage.

Wang Yun sent them off and was intercepted by an angry Lu Bu on the way back.

"How dare you! You promised Diao Chan to me!" He huffed.

Wang Yun feigned complacence. "Your father wanted to have a look at his future daughter-in-law. He has taken her home and will present her to you shortly." Lu Bu, not being particularly discerning, was placated and went home.

Of course, he found out soon enough that Dong Zhuo had no intentions of this sort. Instead of confronting Dong Zhuo directly, he snuck into Dong Zhuo's back garden where he saw Diao Chan, applying her makeup by the window. Diao Chan noticed him. She pretended to look very upset, in a way that broke Lu Bu's heart. He could do nothing but leave.

One day, when Dong Zhuo was not around, Lu Bu snuck into the gardens again, and found Diaochan.

"Meet me at the Phoenix Pavilion," She whispered to him urgently, before slipping away.

Lu Bu made his way there. And she came soon enough, brushing aside leaves and flowers, looking like a goddess of the moon.

She began a tirade, lamenting and weeping about her fate. "I forced myself to live in shame, just so I could see you again," she sobbed. "Now that I have seen you, my wish is fulfilled! I'd die before you as an expression of my will." With that, she prepared to launch herself into the lotus pond.

Lu Bu caught hold of her and held her in his arms. He promised to free her from Dong Zhuo, swearing he was no man if he could not perform this task.

A tryst between Diao Chan and Lu Bu

Dong Zhuo arrived at the scene just as they were in the midst of it. He had been in the presence of the emperor; he grew suspicious as Lu Bu was nowhere to be seen. Enraged, he flung a sphere at Lu Bu; Lu Bu managed to fend it off. Dong Zhuo was severely overweight and was no match for the younger man. As he ran huffing and puffing out of the garden, he slammed into another man. It was his loyal friend and advisor, Li Ru.

After hearing all that had happened, Li Ru attempted to talk some sense into Dong Zhuo. "Look, if you were to give Diao Chan to your son, he will be ever so loyal to you!" Dong Zhuo deliberated it. It seemed to make sense. He decided to speak to Diao Chan first.

When confronted, Diao Chan put up a firm and cold stance. She accused Lu Bu of forcing himself on her. "I'd rather die than submit myself to that man!" She screeched as Dong Zhuo offered to send her over to Lu Bu. And she grabbed a sword, placed it against her neck, to prove her point.

Naturally, Dong Zhuo's heart melted and he decided to abandon the plan. Li Ru, the loyal advisor, was dismayed when he heard the news. In the meantime, Dong Zhuo took Diao Chan together with him to his pleasure palace away from his residence. As the household was beginning their journey, Lu Bu caught a glimpse of Diao Chan. She noticed him and covered her face with her sleeve, as though she were weeping. This broke Lu Bu's heart again.

Wang Yun, the mastermind of it all, noticed this and decided it was time to give the flames a little fanning. He invited Lu Bu to his home, where he began to provoke Lu Bu's sentiments. "Dong Zhuo has sullied my daughter and robbed you of your rightful wife. The whole world is laughing! Not at Dong Zhuo, but at you, general! I am but an old and useless man of no consequence. But you! A famed hero like none other, yet you are insulted as such!" Lu Bu was inflamed by Wang Yun's words. Together, they hatched a plan that would end in Dong Zhuo's death.

They faked a royal decree by the emperor. Dong Zhuo's presence was requested, for the emperor wished to abdicate his throne. Dong Zhuo would be appointed in his place.

Dong Zhuo fell for the trap. He bade Diao Chan and his mother goodbye, before hastening on his trip. Along the way, bad omens kept happening. A wheel fell off, forcing him to get off his carriage and ride his horse instead. The horse began neighing wildly. The sky grew dark, as clouds gathered and a fog settled upon the land. The official escorting Dong Zhuo, who was in the plan, manage to assuage his apprehensions by conjuring all kinds of counter-explanations.

Dong Zhuo arriving in style

Eventually, Dong Zhuo reached the palace, where he was escorted in by officials all dressed according to their rank. He noticed something amiss when he saw Wang Yun and the others standing guard, swords in hand. By then, only twenty or so of his followers were allowed in; the rest were barricaded outside by armed guards.

"Here comes the bandit! Warriors, show yourselves!" Wang Yun cried out. A hundred or so men closed upon Dong Zhuo. He called out for his son, Lu Bu, who emerged from the crowd. Instead of rescuing his adoptive father, he drew a sword and lopped Dong Zhuo's head off.

The story is now over for Dong Zhuo, but what about Diao Chan?

Well, Dong Zhuo's pleasure palace was ransacked, its goods stripped, its enslaved occupants returned to their respective families. Dong Zhuo's entire family, including his old mother, were implicated and sentenced to death. Diao Chan, however, was whisked away by Lu Bu to relative safety.

For the time being.

Both Wang Yun and Lu Bu eventually met with untimely deaths. It was a time of violence and turbulence after all, and peace was not magically restored with the death of Dong Zhuo. Diao Chan's eventual fate is unknown, just like Xi Shi. Without a protector, we can only guess that she was either enslaved by another warlord or killed in the chaos, as it was for many women of the time.

Diao Chan may be fictional, but her courage and cool-headedness even in the face of extreme danger (like when she was found out by Dong Zhuo) is striking. There is a strong sense of self-sacrificial spirit here. She must have known that, it was unlikely Wang Yun take her back even if she succeeded her mission, for Lu Bu would claim her as his own.

Disclaimer #1: I'm sorry it sounds like Diao Chan is some kind of thing to be possessed what with all the "give her to him", "take her back", "claim her as his own". Yup, I'm cringing at those phrases too. But it is just how things were at that time.

Fact #1: The name "Diao Chan", if broken down into its constituent words, means "mink" and "cricket" respectively. Legend (or rather, ancient Chinese fanfiction) claims Diao Chan was named such as she was found by Wang Yun as an abandoned orphan wrapped in mink. with a voice as clear as the crickets in summer. A more historical explanation would be this: her name derives from a kind of headdress worn by Han dynasty officials. The headdress were adorned by the wings of crickets and the tail of a mink. Perhaps the author chose this name to symbolise the force that orchestrated Dong Zhuo's fall: namely, the loyalty Wang Yun has to the Han dynasty.

Fact #2: While Diao Chan is fictional, Wang Yun is most certainly a historical figure. He got rid of Dong Zhuo by faking loyalty in his face while forming alliances in secret. Lu Bu already had the intention to get rid of Dong Zhuo; Wang Yun did fan the flames by assuring Lu Bu it was not immoral to kill Dong Zhuo, as Lu Bu is not his biological son. The whole process is recorded in 'The Book of the Latter Han'.

Fact #3: According to the 'Records of the Three Kingdoms' (do not confuse it with 'Romance'), There was a concubine/mistress of Dong Zhuo whom Lu Bu was involved with. The fate of the concubine is unknown. She might have been the inspiration for Diao Chan's character.

Fact #4: Diao Chan is often associated with the moon. In Chinese paintings of the four beauties, she is often seen praying to the moon. This image probably stems from a scene in the book when Diao Chan was introduced: it was a moonlit night, and Diao Chan was heard sighing all by herself in the garden.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting and inspiring! haha makes me feel like doing a little revamp and uplift of the blog myself as well!


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