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Where king and concubine took their lives
By Yao Minji

In Chen Kaigei's award-winning film "Farewell My Concubine" (1993), the protagonist is so deeply immersed in his performance that he finds the boundary between stage and real life to be blurred.

His most famous role is in the famous Peking Opera "Farewell My Concubine," for which the acclaimed movie is named.

The title's literal translation is "The Hegemon King Says Good-bye to His Concubine" (Xiang Yu proclaimed himself "Hegemon King of Western Chu"). The tale is based on historical records from 202 BC when Consort Yu (Yu Miaoyi), the concubine of King Xiang Yu, committed suicide when the king's army was defeated and he fell into depression. "Your courage is all gone, how can I live on," she famously said before stabbing herself to death.

Pursued by enemy soldiers, the king and a few dozen soldiers carried her body and buried it along a road before he slit his throat with his own sword. Soldiers brawled over who would claim the bounty on his head.

It is not often that there are descriptions of women in ancient Chinese history, to say nothing of their words. But Yu was famous for accompanying the king on military campaigns and he was besotted with her. Their love story is famous.

For thousands of years, Chinese people sympathized with the king who was very close to becoming emperor - a rare case since he was a failure. And many legends about him have been passed down through the centuries. The tragic love story between king and concubine is one of the best known.

But not many Chinese have heard of the city of Suzhou in northern Anhui Province, where the war occurred, the king was defeated, the concubine killed herself and the king committed suicide. Suzhou is also where Yu is said to have been buried.

A memorial park celebrating Yu was built in 2011; it includes her tomb, exhibitions about her story and artworks of Yu the Beautiful (Yu mei ren), as she was known.

The city, mainly driven by agriculture, has just started its industrial development and as yet has done very little to promote tourism, though it has a rich history and culture from the Han Dynasty.

The history and culture of Suzhou are basically defined by the Han Dynasty when many wars and major events occurred in the region, and by the Tang (AD 618-907) and Song (960-1279) dynasties when the Grand Canal of China brought prosperity and the economy and culture flourished, says tour guide Wang.

"Culture and art from the Han Dynasty are very important for Chinese people, because it was the first long and stable period in which the country was unified and developed," Wang says.

Han people adopted the name from the dynasty, which was established by Emperor Gao (256 BC or 247 BC-195 BC), the first emperor to rise from a non-royal class. Before him, kings and emperors inherited their crowns.

Although it was the First Qin Emperor (259-210 BC) who unified China in 221 BC, the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) quickly ended after his death, while the succeeding Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) lasted more than 400 years, leaving magnificent artifacts and legends.

Emperor Gao (born Liu Bang) was the life-long rival of and man who defeated the tragic Hegemon King in one of the greatest wars in Chinese history. Before he rose to power, he suffered many defeats both at the hands of the king and Qin Dynasty officials. He was often forced to retreat.

One of his famous escapes occurred in Huang Cang Yu, literally meaning royal hidden hill, now a national park in Suzhou. According to legend he hid in a cave and prayed that Qin soldiers would not find him. He hoped the cave would be hidden better and then a great stone fell from the sky to cover the cave opening; he hoped a spider web would confuse his enemies and a magical spider arose and began to spin. It is a typical legend demonstrating how an emperor arose and was helped by supernatural power.

The 300-meter hill isn't very challenging to climb but it features beautiful scenery and many varieties of trees, some hundreds of years old. It also contains many caves of various sizes, including the one where the future emperor is said to have hidden, as well as springs and small streams that suddenly appear and disappear, constantly bringing pleasant surprises.

The city's museum contains a section on the Grand Canal of China containing mostly excavated porcelain and a section on the Han Dynasty containing stone sculptures unearthed from local tombs.

The long Warring States Period (476-221 BC) was a time of turbulence and the short Qin Dynasty was marked by heavy taxes and draft of workers to build the Great Wall and other projects. The country finally settled down in the Han Dynasty.

The country developed quickly, both economically and culturally, and people began to have the leisure and money to enjoy art and invest in their tombs. It was around that time that people began to regard the after-life as one of luxury and a better life than the earthly existence. Even ordinary families tried to invest in tombs.

Many tombs in the region have been discovered, some with grand stone gates and carved roofs and walls; carved scenes represented vivid stories. In some wall carvings, the lower half features scenes of mundane toil and field work, while the upper half features scenes of a heavenly after-life in which the departed listen to music and play with legendary creatures, such as the phoenix.

Stone sculptures from the Han Dynasty inherited the minimalist aesthetics of the Warring States Period and artists summarized them into a systematic style that defined the basic principles and characteristics of Chinese painting, the city museum's tour guide Wang says.

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