PRINCE YIREN OF QIN had a horrible job. He was a hostage. He had been assigned to that role by his own parents.
That may sound strange, but that was often the case in China during the Warring States period, more than 2,200 years ago. The young man was a member of the royal family from the court of Qin. But he had to live full time as a hostage at the court of rival power Zhao (趙國). This guaranteed a no-warfare pact between the two kingdoms.
It may sound like a pretty miserable existence, but there was one thing that lifted the experience for him: a young woman. The Prince of Qin fell in love with a girl from Zhao.
What happened next? Well, there are different versions of his story, and it’s hard to know which ones contain the most truth. But here’s the information, and the reader can decide.
LOVE ON THE BATTLEFIELD
In one of them, the Prince’s love was Epang, a nurse working in the Zhao Palace. He was lonely and bullied, and she became his spiritual support. When Prince Yiren was allowed to return to the State of Qin, he wanted to marry her, but was not allowed to do so, because she was a lowly person from a rival kingdom.
Yet they did meet again later – on a battlefield, where she used their friendship to negotiate a peace deal. The battle was in a place called Yue, which is modern day Guangdong Province, and a region which included Hong Kong and Macau in those days.
After the peace deal, could Yiren and Epang be married? No. Fate intervened. In this version of the story, she died before they could be wed. He was broken-hearted, and asked the royal architects to build a palace to be called Epang, so she would be always remembered.
Other versions of the story, arguably more historically accurate, also report that Prince Yiren fell in love with a girl far from home, while being a hostage. But in those tales, she was a concubine belonging to a rich merchant called Lü Buwei. Lü encouraged the Prince to marry her, and the two of them had a child, Ying Zheng, who grew up to unite all the different kingdoms and become the first Emperor of China, known as Qin Shi Huangdi.
But the twist is that their child was not really their child, writes Sima Qian, author Records of the Grand Historian, the most famous history book in China. Merchant Lü Buwei had already made her pregnant before she allowed the Prince to take her, so the first Emperor of China was illegitimate.
Scholars have argued for years as to whether the Grand Historian was telling the truth about this. Some say that the historian tended to demonize people he disliked, so may have made up the story that the Emperor was illegitimate. But it is generally accepted that first Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi kept his distance from women, never taking an Empress, so he appeared to feel he had a reason to distrust women. Either way, the united empire remained very shaky, and the Qin Dynasty eventually collapsed.
In both versions of the story, a magnificent building called the Epang palace is constructed – but is burned to the ground by hostile military forces as the Qin Dynasty came to an end.
Centuries later, in the 800s, the great Tang Dynasty poet Du Mu wrote an essay called Epang Gong Fu, describing the wonderful palace and telling the story of the end of the Qin Dynasty. “Who destroyed the Qin Dynasty?” he asked in the work. “The Qin Dynasty destroyed the Qin Dynasty.”
His work was seen as a warning to the current rulers to avoid making the mistakes that the first emperors made, and to urge them to learn from history.
Although the historical details are hard to confirm, the story of the hostage prince and the Epang Palace has remained important in Chinese culture, and a replica showing what it probably would have looked like has now been built in the city of Xi’an.
Prince Yiren’s story shows that being the leader doesn’t necessarily mean that you are all-powerful. As has been said many times in different ways, if you are given great power, you are also expected to take great responsibility.
A version of the story was made into a 62-part television series called The Legend of Haolan (皓镧传) in 2019. Starring Wu Jinyan, Mao Zijun and Nie Yuan, it focused mainly on merchant Lu Buwei and his concubine, called Haolan in the story.
Image at the top comes from the TV show The Legend of Haolan, copyright Huanyu Film.