Diao Chan (貂蝉) — A Beauty in Three Kingdoms and Her Mysterious Ending
As one of Four Great Beauties of ancient China, Diao Chan (貂蝉) is the only one that stems from Chinese fiction and dramas with no historical reference. The other three, Wang Zhaojun (王昭君), Xi Shi (西施) and Yang Yuhuan (杨玉环) are well established in ancient Chinese history and are recorded in certain documents. They share a common feature: these women are all closely associated with political turmoil and thus meet a sad end due to their sacrifice. Let me begin with the story of Diao Chan in the period of Three States (184-280 A.D.). People apply metaphors to depict the four beauties; they believe that Diao Chan is so luminous lovely that the moon itself would shay away in embarrassment when compared to her face.
The narrative of this beauty is first found in the novel San Guo Yan Yi (三国演义, Romance of the Three Kingdoms), Chapters VIII and IX, and the story has been adapted into a traditional Chinese play, Yuan Drama, making her well-known among the ordinary Chinese population. In the novel, Dong Zhuo (董卓) has usurped supreme authority as Regent of Han dynasty and secretly aimed at the destruction of the young Emperor at that time. Wang Yun, an Imperial Councilor and Minister of State, is filled with a patriotic desire to rescue the Emperor and also motivated by fears for his own safety. He finds the means of realizing his purpose with the aid of a beautiful damsel – Diao Chan – who had been rescued by Wang as a babe and brought up as a singing girl. Wang’s plan is to create and foster a bitter and deadly animosity between Dong Zhuo and his adopted son, Lv Bu, the commander-in-chief of the army. Since both are slaves to beauty, Wang decides to offer Diao Chan in marriage to Lv Bu and, before the arrangements for the wedding ceremony, to give her to Dong Zhuo.
Lv Bu falls madly in love with Diao Chan and she often returns his feelings with amorous glances. It could be imagined how much he hates Dong Zhuo when he discovers that Dong has been keeping her as his favourite concubine. Wang manages to keep Lv Bu in the belief that Dong Zhuo does badly to him and induces him to join in a conspiracy against Dong. At the end of the novel we see the death of Dong Zhuo and later the death of Lv Bu by Cao Cao. However, Diao Chan’s story is left unfinished and she is not mentioned again in the novel, leaving much space for the reader’s imagination, and this becomes a good starting point for her adaptation into drama or other forms of art.
Thus, there are several versions of her ending in the history of Chinese literature. Roughly, one is a happy or peaceful ending and the other is her death at the hand of other generals. In one version of Yuan Drama (元杂剧, yuanzaju), ‘关公月下斩貂蝉’ (Lord Guan’s Killing Diao Chan Under the Moonlight), Diao Chan is givena sad ending, beheaded by Guan Yu, a general in San Guo Yan Yi. It is a quite popular saying among the ordinary Chinese. Yet in another version of Yuan Drama, ‘锦云堂暗定连环计’ (A Secret-laid Chain Plan at Jin Yun Court), she is given a happy ending — converting to Buddhism in a temple. Interestingly, the TV drama ‘San Guo Yan Yi’, produced in the 1980s in China, gave the beauty an ending of seclusion after the successful chain plan.
Now I’ll move on to the adaptation or translation of this beauty in the west. It is plausible to assert that the story of Diao Chan and the plot Chain Plan (lian huan ji) made by Wang Yun aroused much more interest in translators and western readers than any other chapters of San Guo Yan Yi. For instance, in 1869, Teaou-Shin: A Drama from the Chinese, composed by Robert Alexander, was published by Ranken and Company in London. A later English version in dramatic style was collected in a book Famous Chinese Plays, translated and edited by L. C. Arlington and Harold Acton, published by Henry Vetch in Peiping (Beijing). The excerpt is titled ‘Tiao Ch’an (Sable Cicada)’, among the other four drama excerpts of San Guo.
One of the translators of the drama version, Robert Alexander, gave a brief introduction of this play: “The period of the play being antecedent to the Tartar conquest, the costume properly belonging to it would be the rich flowing robes always employed by the Chinese themselves in their dramatic representations; and the range for selection is so great, that everything grotesque or unbecoming might be dispensed with, without a single essential characteristic being sacrificed. This is important, for were it not so, it would be difficult to place a Chinese play upon a European stage in any other form than a burlesque.”
Apart from the drama genre, Peter Perring Thoms translated this plot as part of his ‘The Death of Celebrated Minister Tung-Cho’ in 1820; in fact, this is the earliest partial translation of San Guo Yan Yi. Another translator Brewitt-Taylor selected this part as well for his translation, published as ‘The Deep-laid Plot and the Love Scene’ in 1892 in the journal China Review. Both fictional versions remained faithful to the original novel and did not give any hint of the beauty’s ending. Yet the drama version by Alexander put the beauty dying in Lv Bu’s arms, for she stabs herself at the very moment that the arrival of her lover would have rescued her from the tyrant’s power. But this is a more complex case as Alexander composed this drama version in English based on a free translation published in Once a Week in 1861. It is, therefore, difficult to assert whether the adaptation of the ending stems from the translator or Alexander.
Thanks to the unknown ending of Diao Chan, many plays, folk tales, animations and TV dramas find a sound lens to look at the story in various forms through dramatization. The lack of historical reference is an advantage and the mysteriousness of this beauty leads numerous readers to a world of endless imagination. As the poem in the novel San Guo Yan Yi goes, ‘司徒妙算托红裙。不用干戈不用兵。’ (Wang Yun staked the empire’s fate on a gentle maiden’s charm./ Spear and shield were set aside, no soldier came to harm.)