During the Warring States Period, in a place called Qi, there once lived an extraordinary woman called Wu Yan. She was still unmarried at the age of 40 because she was so unsightly. As if her thick neck, upturned nose, sunken eyes, massive forehead, and thinning hair were not bad enough, she had thick fingers and was big-boned, with a hunchback, and even her skin was dark — something frowned upon in Asia.
One day, Wu Yan mustered up enough courage to travel to the capital, Linzi — today’s Zibo in Shandong Province — and entered the imperial palace. She planned to offer herself to the Emperor, hoping that he would take her as his wife. Seeing the guard, she said: “I’ve come from Qi and I am single. I’ve heard that the Emperor is wise and humble, and even sweeps the floor in the inner court. I can work as a sweeper, and hope to have permission to enter.”
Word was passed to Emperor Qi Xuan (319-301 B.C.) about Wu Yan’s presence. His ministers laughed, saying: “That woman is strong and strange. It’s obvious that those who offer to sweep the inner court have ulterior motives. This is self-deprecating diplomatic rhetoric.”
Out of curiosity, Emperor Xuan granted Wu Yan entry, and asked: “If you want to marry me because you are not able to marry in your own village, I would like to ask — what are your special strengths?”
“I have none; I simply admire your Majesty’s righteousness and wish to serve you,” she replied. “Even so, you must have some strengths,” said teh Emperor. Wu Yan thought for a while and said: “I’m good at the art of invisibility.” “Invisibility is what I am interested in, show me,” he responded.
The startled Emperor Xuan found himself talking to himself, as Wu Yan had vanished right before his eyes, even before he had finished his sentence.
The following day, the Emperor summoned Wu Yan to ask her about her art of invisibility. But she had something more pressing to talk about. She raised her eyes, gritted her teeth, and rubbed her knees nervously. She said: “There are four dangers threatening the safety of Qi.
The first is a strong enemy that may attack from the front. Your Majesty has not built enough strength and authority, even at the age of 40. The second is the conspicuous spending of money — at the expense of the people — on luxurious palaces. The third is that those sages who used to advise your Majesty have been replaced by flatterers and tricksters. And finally, your Majesty’s licentious behavior — drinking and womanizing — with such habits, one cannot focus on state affairs.
Emperor Xuan was impressed by Wu Yan’s analysis. “This isn’t just any woman; she was obviously sent by the heavens to help me rule,” he thought to himself.
The Emperor not only married Wu Yan, but also appointed her as Empress. He cleaned up the inner court and tore down his extravagant palaces. He disbanded the entertainers and untrustworthy characters. The Emperor then set up an altar to pray to the heavens and appointed an heir apparent. He also became more filial to his mother than ever before.
Emperor Xuan was able to raise the State of Qi to great heights, thanks to Zhongli Chun’s wisdom. It was even described as the hegemonic state with a thousand chariots.
In Chinese history, Qi was one of the seven kingdoms during the Warring States Period. It was the last state to be destroyed, during the reunification by Qin Shi Huang — the founder of the Qin Dynasty. Wu Yan’s real name was Zhongli Chun, from Wuyan County. Her biography is included in the Chinese Biographies of Eminent Women.
Translated by: Chua BC and edited by Emiko Kingswell