Diaochan was one of the Four Beauties of ancient China. Unlike the other three beauties, however, there is no known evidence suggesting her existence; she is most likely a fictional character. Diaochan is best known for her role in Luo Guanzhong's historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which romanticises the events in the late Eastern Han dynasty and the Three Kingdoms period. In the novel, she had a romance with the warrior Lü Bu and caused Lü to betray and kill his foster father, the tyrannical warlord Dong Zhuo. It was mentioned in Chinese historical records that Lü Bu had a secret affair with one of Dong Zhuo's maids and was constantly afraid of being discovered, and this was one of the reasons why Lü killed Dong in 192. The maid's name was not recorded in history. The name "Diaochan", which literally means "sable cicada", is believed to have been derived from the sable tails and jade decorations in the shape of cicadas which adorned the hats of high-ranking officials in the Eastern Han dynasty.
In Romance of the Three Kingdoms
In the historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Diaochan assisted the official Wang Yun in a plot to persuade Lü Bu to kill his foster father, the tyrannical warlord Dong Zhuo. Wang Yun presented her to Dong Zhuo as a concubine but also betrothed her to Lü Bu at the same time. Diaochan used her beauty to turn Dong Zhuo and Lü Bu against each other by inciting jealousy between them.
While Dong Zhuo is out one day, Lü Bu sneaks into his bedroom in the hope of seeing Diaochan. Diaochan pretends to be very upset and attempts suicide by throwing herself into the pond, saying that she is ashamed to see Lü Bu because she had been violated by Dong Zhuo. Lü Bu is heartbroken and promises that he will not let her suffer further at the hands of Dong Zhuo. Just then, Dong Zhuo returns and sees them embracing each other. Lü Bu flees while Dong Zhuo chases him with a spear, hurling the weapon at him but missing. On the way, Dong Zhuo meets his advisor, Li Ru, who suggests to him to give up Diaochan and let Lü Bu have her instead, so as to win Lü's trust. Dong Zhuo goes back to Diaochan later and accuses her of betraying his love, saying that he intends to present her to Lü Bu. Diaochan replies indignantly that Lü Bu embraced her against her will and attempts suicide to "prove her love" for Dong Zhuo. Dong Zhuo is moved and dismisses the idea of relinquishing her.
Lü Bu is outraged and goes to Wang Yun's house to vent his frustration. Wang then seizes the opportunity to instigate Lü Bu into joining the plot to kill Dong Zhuo. Lü Bu kills Dong Zhuo when the latter shows up at a ceremony for Emperor Xian to abdicate the throne to him; the ceremony is actually a trap set by Wang Yun and Lü Bu. After Dong Zhuo's death, Dong's former followers, led by Li Jue and Guo Si, attack Chang'an (the Han capital city) to avenge their lord. Lü Bu is defeated in battle and forced to flee. Diaochan's eventual fate differs in various accounts: some said that she was killed by Dong Zhuo's followers along with Wang Yun after Lü Bu escaped; others claimed that she followed Lü Bu while he roamed around with his forces as a wandering warlord. In some adaptations of the novel, Diaochan was executed along with Lü Bu after Lü's defeat at the Battle of Xiapi.
In folk tales
In one folk tale, Diaochan was captured by Cao Cao after the Battle of Xiapi. Cao Cao presented her to Guan Yu in the hope of winning Guan's loyalty towards him. Guan Yu suspected that he was being tricked when he recalled how Diaochan had betrayed Lü Bu and Dong Zhuo earlier. He killed her to prevent her from doing further harm. In another tale, Liu Bei, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei all wanted to marry Diaochan and they argued bitterly over the issue. Guan Yu killed her to end the dispute.
In the Yuan dynasty play Lianhuan Ji (連環計), Diaochan is said to be the daughter of Ren Ang (任昂), and her real name is Ren Hongchang (任紅昌). She is in charge of taking care of the Sable Cicada Hat (貂蟬冠) so she becomes known as "Diaochan" (lit. "sable cicada"). She is introduced to Guan Yu by Zhang Fei after Lü Bu's death. Instead of accepting her as the spoils of war, Guan Yu decapitates her with his sword. This event is not mentioned in historical records or Romance of the Three Kingdoms, but is propagated through mass media such as operas and storytelling.
Diaochan appears a playable character in Koei's Dynasty Warriors and Warriors Orochi video game series. She also appears in the manga series Souten Kouro. In the card game Magic: The Gathering, there is a Legendary Creature card called "Diaochan, Artful Beauty".
Notable actresses who have portrayed Diaochan in films and television series include: Violet Koo, in Diao Chan (1938); Lin Dai, in Diao Chan (1958); Chen Hong, in Romance of the Three Kingdoms (1994); Irene Chiu, in Sanguo Yingxiong Zhuan Zhi Guan Gong (1996); Chen Hao, in Three Kingdoms (2010).
- List of people of the Three Kingdoms
- List of fictional people of the Three Kingdoms
- List of Dynasty Warriors characters
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