Madam Jia was a concubine of Emperor Jing (r. 157-141 BCE). She was not particularly high up in the hierarchy of women in the life of the emperor, but she did give him two sons, Liu Pengzu and Liu Sheng, who both became well-behaved princes or kings over sections of the Han Dynasty’s empire. Although they were given royal titles, Madam Jia’s sons were not frontrunners in the race to be heirs to the empire, nor was their mother a top contender to become the leading lady of the emperor. Nevertheless, there was always a possibility of a change. Jing’s consort, Empress Wang, was a perfect example, as she had replaced an earlier empress, and her son had replaced a previous heir. Therefore, concubines such as Madam Jia could retain some hope of possibly climbing up the hierarchy. Inspired by this glimmering chance of reaching the top, Madam Jia made sure to remain close to the emperor any time the opportunity was handed to her. One day, this inclination led her to join Emperor Jing on a memorable trip into Shanglin Park. It was an awkward adventure, however, that she wound likely have wanted people to forget.
As the story goes, Emperor Jing traveled with his entourage that day away from the comforts of civilization and brought them into the wilderness of the imperial park. After a period of exploring the forested reserve, Madam Jia politely slipped away from the group to relieve herself. She reached her destination and began her intended business, but while she was in that vulnerable state of nature, her privacy was disrupted by an uninvited guest—a wild boar came careening in her direction and charged right past the startled concubine. Boars, the killers of many a nobleman, are no joke, and Madam Jia did not take the creature’s presence lightly. Frightened and surprised, the concubine screamed out to the emperor and his attendants, who were waiting nearby. Emperor Jing was said to have commanded his guards to go save Madam Jia, yet as they knew she was likely in a state of undress, they hesitated. At that moment, the exasperated emperor reportedly made ready to charge in himself to rescue his concubine, but his attendants protested. An official named Zhi Du, in particular, held the emperor back, claiming that the boar was too dangerous for him to fight. The official also said some words that, as told by the historian Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), Madam Jia would have found quite insulting. Zhi Du reportedly told the emperor, “If you lose one lady in waiting, we will bring you another! The empire is full of women like Madam Jia. But what about your majesty?” (Sima Qian, Shi Ji 122). Although Madam Jia would not have appreciated that statement, many in Emperor Jing’s entourage reportedly found it to be rather compelling.
Fortunately for Madam Jia, the wild boar seemed to be just passing through instead of actually attacking her. She reportedly survived the encounter unscathed. Therefore, after the boar had stampeded in a different direction, she was able to regain her composure and make herself presentable for returning to the emperor. Madam Jia awkwardly rejoined the main group, which had sent no one to aid her against the rampaging boar, and the drama of life in the imperial court continued.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Painted scene with Chinese women, from a dish dated to c. 1750 – c. 1799, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Rijksmuseum).
- The Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.