Heqin (和亲, literally meaning “peace marriage”) refers to the diplomatic practice in ancient China of the Chinese Emperor marrying off a “princess” (more often than not, a pseudo-princess of imperial descent, or a concubine that the Emperor had never met before and had just been newly created “Princess” for the very purpose of heqin) to a chieftain or ruler of an aggressive barbarian neighboring state. The political marriage was expected to appease the chieftain, who, in return, would cease his aggression against China in the next few years.

Over the past two millennia and more, the Silk Road, as the communication lines connecting ancient China to various foreign states, witnessed dozens of such incidences of heqin marriage alliance.

Wang Zhaojun has been the most well-known personality among these “friendship princesses”. Initially a common palace lady-in-waiting ignored by the Emperor, she was married off to Huhanye Chanyu as an imperial princess. (“Chanyu” was the title of ruler of the Huns”) She became a favorite of Huhanye, and was honored as Ninghu Yanzhi (宁胡阏氏, literally meaning “the Hu-Pacifying Chief Consort” of the Chanyu). The heqin marriage alliance was followed by decades of peace, trade and cultural exchanges between the Huns and the Han Empire. When she died, peasants/herdsman on both sides of the borders came to pay their homage. The Chinese people recognized Wang Zhaojun’s great contribution, and her case of marriage alliance ranks among the most-lauded stories in Chinese history.

Princess Wencheng is another successful case of heqin marriage alliance between the central China regime and the neighboring ethnic groups. Relations between the Tang Empire and the Tubo Kingdom (today’s Tibet) were greatly improved. Princess Wencheng was well liked by both King Songtsen Gampo and the Tibetan people, as she brought to Tibet not only a rich dowry but a grand team of scholars, musicians, technicians and craftsmen who taught the Tibetans a wide range of knowledge and agrarian/production techniques. Seventy years later, Princess Jincheng followed Princess Wencheng’s path and became the second Tang Dynasty friendship princess to Tibet. She achieved equal success, as peace between the two regimes was maintained during her three decades’ stay in Tibet.

However, all friendship princesses were not as lucky as Princess Wencheng. To begin with, they were married off to a distant, strange land, and suffered longstanding homesickness and uncertainty.

Heqin marriage alliance was a political/diplomatic mission for the friendship princess, whose effect was subject to the political circumstances of the time. Princess Ning’guo was married off to Ouigour chieftain, who proposed in 756 CE for marriage alliance with the Tang Empire after helping the Empire put down the An Lushan-Shi Siming Rebellion. However, the chieftain died only three months later, and the Ouigours demanded her to follow local customs by being interred with the deceased chieftain. The Princess protested, on which the Ouigours cancelled the requirement. However, as a compromise, Princess Ning’guo disfigured herself to manifest her determination of remaining single throughout her life thereafter.

A worse case was Princess Taihe, who was married off by his brother, Emperor Muzong of Tang Dynasty, to Ouigour. She spent twenty years in Ouigour, and endured numerous insults and scares in the midst of war. Though rescued back to Chang’an, she had suffered immense harms, both mental and physical, and died not long after.

Though mostly political & diplomatic missions, heqin marriage alliances were often matched by economic and cultural exchanges between the state parties to the alliance. Many friendship princesses, like Princess Wencheng as above-mentioned, usually brought with them a large team of attendants, including scholars, musicians, technicians and craftsmen, etc. Advanced production techniques were carried by these people from inland China to the distant lands. Silk production techniques were believed to have been spread to Xinjiang with a Han Dynasty friendship princess who was married off to Keriya despite the Han government’s ban on the export of silk production techniques. The delegation on the mission of proposing a marriage alliance with the Chinese empire often comprised hundreds of merchants who were eager to trade with China. Furthermore, Heqin marriage also meant the marriage of two nationalities. Marriage alliance between two royal families encouraged the intermarriage on the grassroots level.
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