Imagine your daughter being forcefully sent abroad to an absolutely foreign country, where she would be surrounded by people who spoke incomprehensible language, ate funny tasting food and worshiped strange gods. The probability of her coming back home is slim and contact with her is minimal. Tragic, isn’t it?
This, was exactly what women faced when involved in political marriages which were prevalent before the 18th century (“Encyclopedia of Gender and Society,” loc. 41-42). A political marriage, also known as a marriage of state, is a diplomatic marriage between two members of different nations or internally, between two states.
Besides forging alliance between two states, marriage helps to bring peace, safety and justification of many important political decisions. We will now look at how political marriage helped to bring peace between Xiongnu and Han China, which have been at disagreement for the longest time.
The Xiongnu are a group of nomads, made up of ferocious attackers. During the Qin dynasty (221-206 BC) and Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE), they resided in the northern parts of China. The nomads were very different from the rest of the Chinese.
They were much more barbaric and led a lifestyle of herding, whereas the Chinese led a laid-back life. Both groups had different languages adopted from different cultural groups. In addition, the Chinese were literate, whereas the Xiongnu had no written language system established. The stark differences between the two groups in these areas made maintaining a harmonious relationship difﬁcult. The tension between the two groups heightened in the Qin Dynasty and conflicts arose.
The Xiongnu served as a constant threat to China’s northern borders and the city-states of the Silkroad. When Modu Chanyu ruled the Xiongnu in the 3rd century (201 to 300 CE), the nomads united and became a greater threat to the Chinese.
In 200 BCE, there was a major military conflict called the Battle of Baideng between the Han and Xiongnu. Unfortunately, the Xiongnu defeated the Han in the battle. After the defeat, the adviser of the Han suggested the creation of a peace treaty and a marriage alliance with Chanyu, called the heqin agreement, in order to solve the problems between both countries.
Heqin (“The Mongols at China's Edge: History and the Politics of National Unity,” loc. 67) refers to a marriage alliance between two states, where the Chinese princesses will be married to rulers of the neighbouring countries in order to form ties between countries. This also prevents the outbreak of wars between the two countries. Political marriage can also bring about cultural exchange, friendship and unity between countries.
Now, let us look at some successful political marriages in ancient China.
An example of a successful political marriage involved the bride Wang Zhaojun.
She was renowned of her beauty and was one of the Four Beauties of ancient China. She made remarkable contributions in the developing and strengthening of friendly ties between countries.
Wang Zhaojun was initially sent to the palace as a lady-in-waiting. However, the emperor overlooked her for years due to a misconception of her looks from an unappealing portrait of Wang Zhaojun. A few years later, the leader of a Xiongnu tribe, Huhanye Chanyu made a request to the emperor to be an imperial son-in-law. He wanted to marry a Chinese princess.
If you were the emperor, would you give away your precious daughter to an enemy? OF COURSE NOT!
Hence, the emperor selected a concubine instead of gifting Chanyu a real princess. He choose Wang Zhaojun, thinking she was the plainest looking princess. When the emperor summoned Wang Zhaojun to court, he was stunned by her beauty and regretted his decision. Sadly, there was no turning back for the marriage.
Despite being in an unfamiliar country, Wang Zhaojun was popular and respected by the Huns. Being the favourite woman in Huhanye Chanyu’s life, she managed to persuade him to abandon violence and adopt a peaceful way of governing. This successful political marriage brought about decades of peace, harmonious trade relations and cultural exchanges between the Huns and Hans Empire. Wang Zhaojun’s political marriage was evidently successful in bridging two states together.
Next up, we will look at Princess Wencheng’s marriage (625 - 680 CE).
Princess Wencheng was a well-educated, beautiful, and intelligent princess of the imperial family in the Tang dynasty. She was ordered by her father, Tang Taizong, to marry to the King Songtsen Gampo in order to build a close diplomatic tie with the Tubo Kingdom. Her marriage alliance with Tubo greatly improved the relationship between the two countries.
Princess Wencheng brought along money and talents with her to Tubo Kingdom and introduced many traditional Chinese culture and religion (i.e. Buddhism) to the people in Tubo. In addition, she taught the people there a wide range of knowledge and production techniques, which helped to increase the overall agricultural productivity.
Before you think that political marriage is a foolproof way to stop conflicts, the sad truth is that not all political marriages can help to strengthen ties between countries successfully. Conflicts continued to ensue because a royal marriage alliance suggests an equal diplomatic status between the Chinese emperor and the foreign ruler.
This led to disputes and arguments as the Xiongnu became greedier. They were not satisfied (“Empires: Perspectives from Archaeology and History,” loc. 24-30) with the offering of royal princess as a marriage. They took advantage of Hans and tried to disrupt the peace between two countries. Therefore, political marriage did not cease the occurrence of battles completely.
Throughout history, there were many instances of political marriages. Although there was a fair share of successful and unsuccessful marriages, we cannot deny the importance of political marriage in preventing full-blown wars from happening and cementing two states together.