Women as Cultural Emissaries

Consider Women as “Diplomat Brides”


The term “diplomat brides” came from the practice of sending Chinese princesses to cement alliances with various enemies which threatened China’s borders. Over the course of Tang dynasty, for example, over 20 known princesses were dispatched, ensuring that peace and hopefully trade would result from the union of the two enemy countries.

This practice was not exclusive to China. In most patriarchal cultures, women married out, leaving their natal homes and becoming part of new families and sometimes new cultures. High status brides, with hefty dowries, carried with them the additional potential of being used as tribute, or as tokens in peace negotiations. In Old English poetry such women sent out in marriages were referred to as “peace weavers.”

On achieving the status and power of wife of a high official, the “diplomat bride” was well placed to become the “eyes and ears” of her natal court. If allowed to establish her own quarter or administer her own lands, she might become the center of trade exchanges. She not only brought ideas and goods from her region of birth, but might localize her "native" culture through its books, textiles, foods, and religious beliefs.

Consider using the story of Wencheng
Around 700, the armies of one of Tibet’s most powerful rulers, Songtsen Gampo, reached the border of Tang Dynasty China. To deflect what would have been a resounding defeat, and in hopes of promoting harmonious relations, the Chinese emperor offered Wencheng, one of the lesser royal princesses, to King Gampo as a bride. A substantial dowry accompanied her, as did promises of trade agreements and safe passage on the major Tang dynasty route between the capital at Xian (called Chang’an) and Llasa.

Wencheng’s journey and subsequent influence on Tibetan culture have been the stuff of legends ever since. Reasons why include the fact that she:

  • Brought Tibet’s most sacred image of Sakyamuni (the Buddha) with her. Buddhism had been practiced in China since at least the first century AD. Today this image resides in the Jokka Khang Temple, which Wencheng had built, in Lhasa. The Jokka Khang is the spiritual center of Tibet and the holiest destination for all Tibetan Buddhist pilgrims.
  • Brought the art of silk making to Tibet.
  • Developed Tibetan alphabet and writing.
  • Introduced a number of technological advances, such bringing Han artisans to pass on their skills in metallurgy, farming, weaving, construction, and the manufacture of paper and ink.

Wen Cheng Sets Off For Tibet
(Source: Bai Yu, Ancient Tambo Road: Princess Wen Cheng's Route to Tibet)

Because of her promotion of Buddhism, Tibetans eventually deified Wencheng. Statues show her as the goddess of mercy, or as the venerated White Tara goddess. Scores of legends about her have worked their way into the culture. One concerns her influence as a goddess on a 15th century Buddhist reformer called Tasong-kha-pa.

Excerpt from Legend of Wen Cheng and Buddhist reformer called Tasong-kha-pa (1357 - 1419):
“On the fifteenth of the first month in 1409, Tasong-kha-pa held a ritual in front of Jokka Khang Temple in Lhasa to commemorate Sakyamuni. During the ritual, the Sakyamuni [Buddha] image brought by Princess Wencheng from Xian [then capital of China] when she came to Tibet was decorated with a golden canopy and a robe. In front of the statue were flowers made of butter. When the ritual was concluded, Tasong-kha-pa was so exhausted that he fell asleep as soon as he lay down.

In a dream, he went to a mountain covered with thick forests...While Tasong-kha-pa was gazing at this scene, Princess Wencheng flew gracefully down and stood before him. She was dressed in Tang dynasty clothing, and, though she was beautiful, her expression was sorrowful. Tasong-kha-pa said, "Your Highness came to Tibet at the emperor's command and married Songtsen Gampo, the Tibetan King, thus joining the Chinese empire and Tibet. You are highly respected by all the people. Today, I decorated the Buddha image with a gilded canopy, offered it butter flowers, and chanted scriptures in worship. So why are you so sad?" Princess Wencheng said...”When I saw the butter flowers, I was reminded of my life in Chang-an [Xian] and am tortured by past memories. I won't think of Chang-an if I can see such butter flowers every year." Tasong-kha-pa thought for a moment, then said, "Rest. I promise that we will hold a ritual every year in Jokka Khang Temple with many butter flowers."

‘That is very kind of you,’ said Princess Wencheng, and she left. Tasong-kha-pa then awakened from his dream. He summoned skilled craftsmen, divided them into two groups, and had them make butter flowers. The two groups competed with each other, and their butter flowers were very beautiful. On the same day the next year, Jokka Khang Temple again held a ritual and the two groups of butter flowers were exhibited. One group depicted Sakyamuni's life, while the other depicted Wencheng's journey to Tibet. Both butter-flower exhibits were splendid. They were shown exactly at the hour when Tasong-kha-pa had earlier dreamed of Princess Wencheng, and taken away the following morning. Afterwards, Jokka Khang Temple exhibited flowers every year.”

The Chinese have drawn upon Wencheng as one proof of their long association with Tibet, and claim that China brought civilization to the region. Two scholars recently recreated Wencheng’s route from China to Tibet, beautifully illustrated in their book, “The Ancient Tangbo Road, Princess Wen Cheng’s Route to Tibet.”

To link past to present use Joni Seager’s “The Penguin Atlas of Women in the World,” 2003 which estimates that 150,000 women are advertised each year through marriage bureaus and catalogs as being available for international marriage. There are 250 mail-order bride companies in the USA alone.


1)  Bai Yu, The Ancient Tangbo Road, Princess Wen Cheng’s Route to Tibet, Hong Kong China Tourism Press, 1994.
2)  Tale collected by Lide, Feng, & Kevin Stuart, Asian Folklore Studies, Vol.51 No.2 Oct 1992.


Lyn Reese is the author of all the information on this website
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