28 February 2018

A few words on Diaochan in Three Kingdoms

Diaochan 貂蟬

I lived and worked for two years in the city of Baotou, Inner Mongolia, as an English language teacher. The city has several claims to fame: it is, most recently, a centre for heavy industry; the centre of China’s rare-earth metals production and electronics industry; it sports some of the most polluted water on earth; it is also historically considered the ‘place where the deer live’, denoting its use as a hunting ground by the Mongols. But for a Three Kingdoms fan like me, it had a peculiar attraction. Baotou also happens to be the birthplace of one of China’s most-feared warriors, a man whose berserker strength and personal treachery both became infamous: Lü Bu 呂布.

Chen Shou’s 陳壽 Records of Three Kingdoms, considered to be one of the closest historical treatments of a contentious and still somewhat-shadowy period in China’s history which has turned to myth and folklore, has this to say about the assassination of the tyrant Dong Zhuo 董卓 at the hands of his foster-son, Lü Bu:
Lü Bu was an adept archer and rider and his arm strength was unmatched. He was nicknamed the “Flying General”. A little later, he was promoted to “General of the Interior”, and given the title of Marquis of Duting. Since Dong Zhuo knew that he treated others without much courtesy he was always in fear of being murdered, and for this reason had Lü Bu guard him wherever he went. However, Dong Zhuo was stubborn, easily enraged, and often expressed his anger without considering the consequences. Once, being vexed [by Lü Bu], he pulled out a short lance and threw it at him. Lü Bu, being strong and agile, dodged the lance and turned to apologize to Dong Zhuo. Dong Zhuo’s anger was relieved, but Lü Bu began to secretly harbor hatred toward Dong Zhuo. Dong Zhuo had often commanded Lü Bu to guard the inner houses, but Lü Bu had an affair with one of Dong Zhuo’s maids. Fearing that he would be found out, he lived in great anxiety.

Right from the beginning, Lü Bu was received warmly by
situ Wang Yun, as he knew Lü Bu to be among the strongest in the province. Soon after, during one of his visit to Wang Yun, Lü Bu confided to him that he had seen Dong Zhuo looking murderous on several occasions. At the time Wang Yun was actually plotting with pushe Shi Sunrui to kill Dong Zhuo. As such, Wang Yun wanted Lü Bu to act as an insider to facilitate their plan. Lü Bu was vexed because he felt that he and Dong Zhuo had a father-son relationship. To this, Wang Yun pointed out that despite the oath, the father-son relationship would not hold since both of them had different surnames and Lü Bu was not Dong Zhuo’s own flesh and blood. Lü Bu was convinced and subsequently killed Dong Zhuo with his own hands [details can be found in Dong Zhuo’s biography]. For this deed Wang Yun recommended that Lü Bu be made Fenwu Jiangjun and given a fujie (the action being known as jiajie). In addition, Lü Bu was given the title Marquis of Wen and he was honored with a ceremony similar to those performed for sansi. Together with Wang Yun, Lü Bu oversaw court affairs.
This brief, in-passing allusion to Lü Bu’s affaire de cœur is all the historical treatment we get, pretty much, of this anonymous maid. There’s not much independent reason to doubt Chen Shou’s account of her historicity, but even so it’s a fairly marginal rôle. Later, though, she is elevated, through the Three Kingdoms operatic tradition and the literary hand of Ming novelist Luo Guanzhong 羅貫中, into the bewitching beauty and femme fatale Ren Hongchang 任紅昌, also known by her cognomen Diaochan 貂蟬 (meaning ‘Sable Cicada’, probably a reference to an item of jewellery she wore). This maid who got such a brief mention by Chen Shou in his biography of Lü Bu, became one of China’s celebrated Four Beauties.

Even if she is at best semi-fictional, Diaochan’s story is still one which illustrates – as well as, if not better than, those of Yang Yuhuan 楊玉環 and Dou Duanyun 竇端云 – the precarious, treacherous and often contradictory positions held by women in China’s old society. In the operatic (and later novelistic) embellishment of Chen Shou’s work, Diaochan is not the hapless serving-girl that comes between Lü Bu and Dong Zhuo. She is Wang Yun’s 王允 sixteen-year-old adopted daughter, and a key co-conspirator in the assassination of the tyrant. Seeing her adopted father in distress at the tyranny of Dong Zhuo, she agrees to help him, even if doing so would mean ‘dying ten thousand deaths’. She is then tasked by Wang Yun with seducing both Lü Bu and Dong Zhuo and driving a wedge between them, such that Lü can be more easily manipulated by Wang Yun into betraying Dong.

She pulls this honeypot subterfuge off with aplomb. Wang Yun sees to it that she is taken into Dong Zhuo’s household after being promised to Lü Bu in marriage, and she deftly begins leading each man on. Lü Bu begins to turn against his foster father, and Wang Yun exploits his discontent to make him party to the conspiracy to kill Dong Zhuo. Dong Zhuo attempts to move Diaochan out of his foster son’s reach to Meiwo 郿塢, and at the same time usurp the Han throne for himself. Wang Yun, now knowing Lü Bu is on his side, moves to arrest Dong Zhuo – and Lü Bu himself, loudly declaiming an edict to exterminate a traitor, personally lands the killing blow with his halberd. He then sought out Diaochan and, having secured her, proceeded to exterminate Dong Zhuo’s family. This action earned him the enmity of Dong Zhuo’s few remaining loyal generals, who force him to abandon Meiwo and kill Wang Yun.

Diaochan’s fate is left unknown both in Chen Shou’s work and in most versions of the novel. In the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, she survived Meiwo and is present at Xiapi 下邳; in some versions she is killed alongside Lü Bu after Cao Cao 曹操 and Liu Bei 劉備 defeat him there. The operatic tradition embellishes this somewhat: having taken her as booty from Xiapi, Guan Yu 關於 himself decapitates Diaochan, either because he fears her ability to manipulate men, or because he fears she will drive a similar wedge between himself and his sworn brothers, who desire her for themselves.

Such an end for Diaochan obviously makes sense within the framework of operatic tragedy. Like Dou Duanyun, she is possessed of an unshakeable inner integrity which conflicts with her outward appearance and behaviour. Like Yang Guifei, even within a position wherein she can sway powerful men to her bidding, she is still vulnerable to abuse by those same powerful people. Unlike the traditional Confucian views of Consort Yang, however, Luo’s treatment of Diaochan is almost – almost, but not quite – entirely sympathetic. Historically, Confucian scholars have been notably unkind to women who gain undue sway over men by means of sexual attraction. But even as a seductress, Diaochan’s motivations are accounted as pure, and she embodies both private and public Confucian virtue from the orthodox standpoint preferred in the Han Dynasty. Here she stands in marked contrast to her lover Lü Bu, who is only ever motivated by self-interest and lust.

Luo Guanzhong portrays Diaochan’s seduction and double-cross of Dong Zhuo as an act motivated by selfless patriotism on behalf of the Han Empire, and of filial obedience to Wang Yun. Diaochan’s sexual allure and ability to mask her true feelings are skills which she uses in a virtuous cause. I say that Luo Guanzhong’s treatment of Diaochan is almost entirely sympathetic, but not completely, because at the same time Luo alludes to the entire intrigue as cause for ‘sighing’ or ‘lamentation’ (tan 嘆): Dong Zhuo’s tyranny could not be brought down by righteous generals, knights-errant or men-at-arms, but instead had to be defeated by the wiles of a woman. In the end, though, the woman who risked execution between two powerful and unscrupulous men to save the Han Emperor is deemed too dangerous to live by the ‘righteous heroes’ of martial ability who couldn’t destroy Dong Zhuo themselves. Diaochan’s patriotism, filiality and selflessness, praised by Luo, counts for precious little with them.

Diaochan may be almost wholly fictional, but her example even as an operatic fictional character is interesting, because Luo’s novel points to a certain radical potential for a Confucian appreciation of ‘unconventional’ virtuous femininity – under certain conditions and in certain extraordinary situations. On the other hand, there is an implicit critique of the prevailing conventional expectations of women. The reason Diaochan’s story is a tragedy, is because Lü Bu’s execution by Cao Cao as a traitor and a kinslayer was justified. Diaochan, sharing that fate, was blameless.

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