Politically-arranged marriages were very very common in the ancient world, be it China or other civilisations. Such is the fate of political brides to become the playthings of chance. To be sent off bearing a multitude of riches to a faraway land,a hostile court and perhaps, a ruthless husband is a nightmare that many had to endure. Some marriages might have been happy, but it is more likely that many suffered in obscurity and silence. Out of so many disastrous affairs, now and then there would be a bride whom, upon bringing upon lasting peace and prosperity to the nations,is granted eternal fame in historical texts and movie adaptations.
Like Wang Zhaojun, Princess Wencheng was a political bride. Like Yang Guifei, she was born during the Tang dynasty, albeit earlier. She is remembered for her contributions rather than her beauty, and her tale is as interesting as the aforementioned duo.
During that era, there were a couple of kingdoms which were established alongside the Chinese empire. One of those kingdoms was Tufan, led by the capable king Songzan Ganbu. He was made king while he was still a minor, at the age of 13. (12, by Western standards) During his reign, he conquered many minor kingdoms in the region and became the founder of the Tibetan empire.
The king already had a couple of wives, but he wanted to form an alliance with the Tang dynasty. A matrimonial alliance, specifically. The lady of interest here is Princess Wencheng, who wasn’t the emperor’s daughter, but a close relation. When it comes to this matter, there are two versions of the story.
The Chinese Version: Songzan Ganbu attacked some lands belonging to the Tang dynasty, and was promptly put into his rightful place. Realising his error, he repented and begged forgiveness. He also voiced his wish of being accepted as a son-in-law of the Chinese Emperor Taizong, and his wish was granted.
The Tibetan Version: Songzan Ganbu managed to defeat the Chinese, and the Chinese were made to hand over the princess as a result.
There is also another uhm, neutral version that omits all the fighting, and jumps into the proposal scene directly. So there we go.
It is said that there was a number of other foreign suitors vying for the princess’ hand in marriage. Each of them sent their envoys, and the Chinese emperor decided to test their abilities. A series of tests were set for them. (On a side note, wouldn’t it be interesting if there were reality show ‘Who Wants to Marry A Princess’ back then?)
Test #1: The envoys were given a large pearl and a thread. Their task? Thread it through the pearl. There was a catch–the hole through the pearl is bended.
Solution: The Tufan envoy tied the thread to an ant, wiped some honey on the other side, and prompted the ant to walk through the tunnel by gently blowing on it. Round 1: Success.
Test #2: 100 mares and their ponies were prepared. The envoys were required to divide them into pairs based on parentage.
Solution: The other envoys tried to distinguish the mother-and-child pairs based on height, colour and so on. The Tufan envoy rounded up the ponies separately for a day without giving them anything to drink. The following day, upon their release back into the field where the mares were,the ponies immediately sought out their mothers for suckling. Round 2 was won, hands down.
The remaining tests were successfully completed, with the clever Tufan envoy winning every time. In the end, when the envoys were told to identify Princess Wencheng from a group of women, the Tufan envoy obtained descriptions of her features from her nursemaid, and successfully pointed her out.
The emperor was impressed with his wisdom, and believed that his leader, Songzan Ganbu would be wiser still. He decided to agree upon the marriage proposal.
The Princess was escorted from her homeland to the wilderness of Tibet. Her entourage included a number of musicians, scholars and farmers. Along with her enormous dowry, she brought along books, musical instruments, cloths and seeds. After a long and arduous journey, they arrived at the source of the Yellow River, where they were greeted by the bridegroom and his entourage. Songzan Ganbu was extremely glad to have his wish fulfilled, and a great wedding took place in accordance with the custom of the Han Chinese. To commemorate the event, the king commissioned the building of a palace for her. He also exchanged his outfit for a Chinese one.
When they returned to the capital, Lhasa, they received a warm welcome from the people, who celebrated by dancing and feasting. After everyone had settled down in their new home, the princess and her entourage began their mission of spreading the Chinese culture.
They taught the people various skills, including agriculture, architecture, weaving, papermaking, pottery, winemaking and so on. The musicians played courtly music in the Tufan palace, which was greatly appreciated by Songzan Ganbu. He commanded a couple of talented youths to learn from the Chinese musicians. The princess also introduced the Chinese classical works to Tufan. A number of scholars were sent to the Tang palace to study the classical books of China.
The people of Tufan had a habit of smearing their faces with a red substance as protection against the cold weather (Some say it’s to ward off evil). They found it a mark of beauty, but the princess decided that it was unhygienic and non-beneficial. She talked to her husband about this matter, and he agreed to abolish the custom.
But perhaps her most memorable contribution is her success in introducing Buddhism to Tibet.The princess was a devout Buddhist before her marriage, and the Tang dynasty was a major adherent of Buddhism.The princess brought along with her a golden statue of Sakyamuni Buddha and various Buddhist sutras. A number of Tibetan temples were constructed, including the Jokhang temple which still stands this day as an amazing work of architecture. Some sources say that the famous Potala palace was also built during Songzan Ganbu’s reign, but apparently it wasn’t so. Instead it is constructed on the site where one of Songzan Ganbu’s palaces used to stand.
Another wife of Songzan Ganbu, the Nepalese princess Bhrikuti Devi is also credited with the introduction of Buddhism into Tibet. During later times, another political bride Princess Jincheng also helped to strengthen the influence of Buddhism, and the entire history of Tibetan Buddhism is a long story that we shall not go into.
Perhaps Princess Wencheng had been very happy in her marriage–many contemporary sources seem to think so. Assuming she was, her happiness was cut short after a mere nine years of marriage. Songzan Ganbu passed away, and the princess was widowed. She remained at Tufan until her death 30 years later, at the age of 56.
During her life, the princess was successful in cementing ties between the Tufan kingdom and the Tang dynasty. However the hard-won peace was short-lived. After the death of Songzan Ganbu, his prime minister Lu Dongzan (the smart envoy who helped him win the princess’ over) took over the affairs of the state as the crown prince was still very young. After the death of Lu Dongzan, his son took over and things began to go awry at that point. There was this neighbouring kingdom, ‘Tu-Yu-Hun’ (A-zha in Tibetan) which threatened Tufan’s safety. Tufan consulted the Tang emperor, who was rather slow in deciding, and out of impatience they launched an attack on their pesky neighbour. The Tang emperor felt rather insulted that they did not consult his majesty’s authority, and ordered an attack to be launched on Tufan. Tufan managed to counter the attack and started invading the Tang’s borders. The relationship between the Tufan and Tang became strained from that point onwards.
Anyway Princess Wencheng wasn’t forgotten by the people, even though the official Tibetan records did not credit her as the propagator of Chinese culture as the Chinese records did. (Note the disparity between the Chinese and Tibetan records)The people considered her as a incarnation of the White Tara, while the Nepalese princess Bhrikuti is considered an incarnation of the Green Tara. Temples were built to commemorate her, and her story is told by beautiful paintings on temple walls.
Crash course in Tibetan Buddhism:A ‘Tara’ is the female manifestation of Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva (Better known as ‘Kwan-yin’ to Chinese practitioners)
All in all, it is not to be denied that Princess Wencheng had played a major role in the history of the diplomatic relationship between ancient China and Tibet. We may never know her feelings about marrying a foreign king, but we can guess at the determination which fuelled her efforts of fulfilling her mission. She is indeed, a figure who stands out amidst the other political brides, whom, due to circumstances or other factors, never left a name or a mark in the historical books. Which reminds us–a thought should be given to the nameless and faceless many who had suffered her ordeals but never basked in the glory of fame or remembrance.
Disclaimer: After returning from another time travel trip to witness the allure and mystery of Ancient China, allow me to say a few words.
Supposing you have this historical celebrity whom you are absolutely smitten with. You do not know the exact details of your idol’s life, but you simply cannot get enough of the news written in the tabloids. So some people resort to writing fanfiction.
The problem arises when these ‘fanfictions’ get handed down many generations until they become facts. In some cases, some imaginative playwrights may add certain scenes to liven up their dramas. Taking Wang Zhaojun as an example: a drama, ‘Autumn at the Han Palace’, ends with her drowning herself in a river, which is absolutely historically inaccurate, although it adds to the melodrama of the story.
My point is that there are so little historical records of these ancient Chinese women that sometimes it is impossible to discern whether they are solid textbook facts or just myths. The life of Princess Wencheng is such a case, and there is even speculation about her existence! Historians also claim that the Nepalese princess, the other wife was also a fabrication of imaginations.
Well I guess it does not really matter, for her story is such a memorable one that will be passed on to future generations, whatever those historians might say.
By Celine Wan & Xuelin Yeong