Help! I Married A Barbarian: Part III of Minnesota Couch Warmer’s Guide to China


Huns in battle with the Alans, 1870s engraving after a drawing by Johann Nepomuk Geiger (1805–1880). public domain

ImageWang Zhaojun
Artist: Zirun Feng
Year Created: 1990
Status: Available

You can purchase this art work here

The Chinese have spent a significant amount of resources throughout their history attempting to keep the northern barbarian hordes at bay.  The Great Wall of China was built for this purpose. Countless battles were fought for this purpose.  Another way the barbarians were kept at bay, though, was by buying them off.  Sometimes the Chinese rulers bought them with money.

Other times, though, they kept the peace by sending them a Chinese princess as booty.  W. Scott Morton and Charlton Lewis, for example, tell us that Xi-Chun was a Han Dynasty princess who lived around 100 B.C.  She was sent by Emperor Wu Di to be married to a chief of the Wu-Sun in the Ili Valley.  His people were considered barbarian, as was everybody else who was not Chinese.

Xi-Chun most likely had little say in the matter and she wrote this poem to express her misery.  (This poem has obviously been translated into English.)

  My family has married me off,
Alas! and sent me far,

To the strange land of the Wu-sun.
I’m now, woe is me, the king’s wife.

I  live in a tent, and a house wall
Have I exchanged for–felt.

My food is only meat;
Koumiss they give me to drink with it.

O, my heart burns since they sent me here;
I can only think of my home, over and over.

Could I but be a yellow crane,
Fast would I fly back to my own kingdom!

(68-69 Morton and Lewis: China: Its History and Culture, 4th Edition).

I know it was also common custom among the European royalty to marry off their daughters to other courts for dynastic reasons.  I wonder how many other poems (or stories or memoirs) of lament have been written by these lonely exiles.

Author: DebraB

I am a Professor of English at Concordia University-St. Paul. I have a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. My research interests include American literature, contemporary literature, Middle Eastern literature, African literature and feminist theory.

3 thoughts on “Help! I Married A Barbarian: Part III of Minnesota Couch Warmer’s Guide to China”

  1. OK. Now I know what koumiss is. It is often consumed in Central Asia. “Koumiss is a traditional drink of the nomads-cattle breeders. The mare milk turns into a very healthy drink after the process of lacto-acidic and spirit fermentation. Old koumiss or katik (yoghurt) diluted with water acted as the ferment and sometimes goat’s milk was added.”

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