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The Many Fates of Diaochan

Published onApr 08, 2021
The Many Fates of Diaochan

The Many Fates of Diaochan

Diaochan is probably the most famous female character from The Three Kingdoms, though little is known about her as a historical personage. She is renowned for her beauty, but is she a heroine or a scheming temptress?

Diaochan’s final scene: juxtaposing a happy smile with a tearful expression of vengeance

In Three Kingdoms: A Historical Novel, Diaochan appears as a forthright young maiden who speaks boldly to her adopted father, Wang Yun, in his moment of despair over the “great affairs of state.” Proactively offering to repay Wang Yun’s kindness with sacrifice, she declares: “if there is any way I can serve you, I would welcome death 10,000 times before declining” (vol. 1, 63). Inspired by her offer of sacrifice, Wang Yun then deploys Diaochan in the "double snare” to trick Lv Bu into assassinating Dong Zhou out of jealousy over the young beauty. Having played this pivotal role in taking down the usurper, where the three heroes and even Cao Cao had failed, Diaochan then fades into the background of the narrative. By chapter 19, following Lv Bu’s death, Diaochan “is not heard from again.” In other words, her ending is an unknown.

As one of the most famous uses of the "beauty trap” and "double snare" stratagems in Chinese literature, the Diaochan subplot has been retold many times and in many genres. Yet, she does not always meet the same end.

“The Fengyi Pavilion”

In Romance of the Three Kingdoms: Pictorial Series in English and Chinese (1989), the Diaochan subplot is told in the chapter "The Fengyi Pavilion.” At the conclusion of this chapter, Diaochan is embraced by Lv Bu, who rescues her immediately upon capturing Meiwu. This last scene from the comic seems to imply a romantic happy end for the couple, with military victory, reunion and treasure coming to them at once. And the despot Dong Zhuo is dead. Are readers left to imagine that they will live "happily ever after”?

Three Kingdoms, Gao Xixi dir., episode 19, 12:08

In the Chinese TV series Three Kingdoms (2010), the Diaochan subplot is spun across multiple episodes, beginning with the heroine genuinely falling in love with Lv Bu after he saves her life. Following on Lv Bu’s execution at the hands of Cao Cao, Diaochan reappears in a dramatic standoff with the villain. Diaochan agrees to sing and dance for Cao Cao, but having enraptured him she turns on him and suddenly draws a dagger – the "seven star jeweled dagger” with which Cao Cao had once attempted to assassinate Dong Zhou. Not only does Diaochan berate Cao Cao as an inferior man to Lv Bu, but she also shames him for having failed his assassination mission. Cao Cao asks if she is really planning to kill him, and Diaochan then suddenly slits her own throat, dying by suicide. It’s a tragic, but defiant end.

The lesson: there are several lessons to be learned from Diaochan’s story. First, that women are a danger. This is a lesson we see repeated throughout the narrative, and throughout Chinese history. Second, that the soft can overcome the hard (a Taoist notion). As expressed through a poem in the novel:

Wang Yun staked the empire's fate/on a gentle maiden’s charm.

Spear and shield were set aside,/no soldier came to harm.

In the fray at Tiger Pass/three heroes fought in vain.

Instead the victory song was sung/at Phoenix Pavilion. (vol. 1, 70)

The 2010 TV series seems to contain another lesson: that one can be loyal to the nation, and loyal to one's husband, even if doing both entails double sacrifice. This resolves a tension in the original novel, where loyalty to the nation is placed above conjugal fidelity, and Diaochan chooses the former (motivated also by filial piety). In the 2010 TV series, Diaochan’s final sacrifice for Lv Bu after his death enables her to redeem herself as a faithful wife. Does this help to contain the danger of women like Diaochan?

Side note: In this Sichuan opera retelling of “The Phoenix Pavilion,” Diaochan expresses her heroic thoughts and vows to fulfill her father’s plan by killing both Dong Zhuo and Lv Bu, demonstrating that a young woman can “alter the course of heaven and earth.”

Sichuanese opera "The Phoenix Pavilion" ("Feng Yi Ting") - 川剧"凤仪亭"

Which version of Diaochan’s story do you like best?

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