21 August 2011

Classical Chinese Beauties: Zhao Feiyan and Zhao Hede

 Zhao Feiyan (the dancer) and Zhao Hede (the musician) as envisioned by a contemporary artist.  See his website at http://lanwu.deviantart.com/art/Zhao-Feiyan-and-Zhao-Hede-14882647 .

I don't know if these two beauties fall under our series "los ancianos malos," but they might make good candidates.

Born of very humble origin, the Zhao sisters were blessed with physical beauty.  Zhao Feiyan ("flying swallow") is described by history as being so slender and petite to the point that she could be blown away by the wind as she danced.  Zhao Hede, the younger sister, was even more beautiful and more importantly clever and well-spoken. (She had, to borrow a phrase from Shakespeare, "an oily tongue.")

One day, these mesmerizing beauties caught the eye of Emperor Cheng of the Western Han Dynasty.  Struck by their beauty and grace, he brought them back to the palace in Chang'an (now Xian) to become his concubines.  Through conniving, they became the emperor's favourite women in the palace.  Feiyan eventually became empress, and Hede became the emperor's favourite concubine. And together they used their power to depose the reigning empress (Empress Xu), which ultimately led to her death, murdered several heirs to the dragon throne in their infancy and caused the abortion of at least two pregnancies among the women of the imperial harem in order to secure their positions.   They persuaded Emperor Cheng to select one of their confederates as crown prince (the future Emperor Ai) whose reign was one of the most corrupt and brutal in the Dynasty.

But like so many previous and ensuing episodes in China's imperial history, their bad karma bit them with a wicked vengeance.   After Emperor Cheng's death, even with their ally (Emperor Ai) in office, the Zhao beauties' crimes were exposed.  Hede was given the honor to commit suicide (instead of being beheaded).  Empress Dowager Feiyan's life was spared.  (Like so many Chinese emperors, Emperor Ai died at a young age.  Six years into office, he died at 26.)  With Ai's death, Wang Mang, the usurper, came into power.  He quickly demoted Feiyan to commoner status and ordered her to be the keeper of her husband's (Emperor Cheng) tomb.  Humiliated, Zhao Feiyan, the impeccable beauty who is still remembered for her pulchritude, committed suicide.

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