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Zhao Feiyan – A Fascinating History

She was an outstanding dancing beauty of low class birth. He was the powerful Emperor of China. The two met completely by chance, and thus began the rise and fall of the famous Empress Feiyan.

Zhao Feiyan was born during the Han Dynasty, c.32BC, as a daughter to servants, and considered unworthy of anything to do with the royal palace or its prestigious family. Born in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, China, even Feiyan’s own parents abandoned her at birth, but on seeing that she was still living after 3 days, took her back and raised her, along with her twin sister Zhao Hede.

Stories about Zhao Feiyan vary, so while in China, I interviewed a Chinese friend regarding Feiyan, to hear the history that is taught in schools in China. Interestingly, I learned a few new pieces of the story that I have been unable to find elsewhere on the internet.

The story goes that Emperor Cheng simply chanced upon Zhao Feiyan one day while she was dancing, and was instantly captivated both by her beautiful figure and the outstanding agility shown in her dancing. He at once desired
to bring her to his palace, but she did not wish to go. Hence, her equally beautiful (yet somewhat fuller-figured) twin sister Zhao Hede went in her place to the palace. Later on, the Emperor chanced upon Zhao Feiyan once again, and this time ensured she was brought to his royal home. He fell for the stunning beauty of both her, and her sister, but it was Feiyan’s remarkable dancing that made her stand out above her fellow concubines.  Thus she was made Empress of China.

Feiyan (literally meaning ‘Flying Swallow’) earned her name by her the graceful movement of her slender figure as she danced. Anyone who watched her were enchanted by the talented display of her svelte figure and its movements.

Both Feiyan, and her sister Hede were unable to bear children. This gave rise to the plotting and carrying out of unthinkable crimes within the palace walls. Any children born to concubines within the palace were quickly ‘taken care of, along with their mothers, by Feiyan and her sister, to ensure that no other rival would produce an heir to the Emperor’s throne. Although Feiyan, and even Emperor Cheng himself, were both believed to be involved in these killings, it was Feiyan’s sister, Hede who bore the brunt of the accusations and blame for these actions.

Emperor Cheng died suddenly, in 7BC, leaving Feiyan and her sister vulnerable and at the mercy of Grand Empress Dowager Wang, who wanted nothing more than to see their end. Zhao Hede, fearing the repercussions for the murders of many concubines and their sons, committed suicide around 6BC. Over time, Wang maneuvered things her way, and saw to it that Feiyan was stripped of all titles and privileges, eventually being completely demoted to ‘commoner’, when after Feiyan commit suicide.

The history of Zhao Feiyan is one full of intrigue. The rise and fall of this famous beauty all stemmed from the graceful movement of her slender figure while she danced exquisitely, and caught the eye of an Emperor. She is known mostly in the West by the tea named after her, Chinese Feiyan Slimming tea.