Influential Silk Road Women


Wencheng Legends
Identifying Multiple Perspectives

Background: Scores of legends about Wencheng have worked their way into the culture of Tibet. Through time, each story has evolved into several versions, with increasing numbers of episodes added each time. While it is difficult to separate fiction from historical reality, reading legends can tell us about what people thought, and might still think, about Wencheng and her influence on Tibetan culture.

Assign one or all of the following legends about events in the life of Wencheng to different groups or to individual students. In each legend, students are to identify ideas or actions that supports the view that:

• Tibet was the primary instigator of change resulting from Wencheng’s marriage.

• China was the primary instigator of change resulting from Wencheng’s marriage.

• Wencheng was an intelligent advocate of change in her own right.

• This was an event that might really have happened.

Use this evidence to discuss ways in which legends, or stories, might be used as sources to uncover diverse perspectives of past events.

Legend #1: Wencheng and the Butter Flowers

“On the fifteenth of the first month in 1409, Tasong-kha-pa, a 15th century Buddhist reformer, held a ritual in front of the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa to commemorate Sakyamuni [Buddha]. During the ritual, the Sakyamuni image brought by Princess Wencheng from Chang’an [then the 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 Songtsan 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 Jokhang 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, the Jokhang 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, the Jokhang Temple exhibited flowers every year.”

Legend #2: Pabangka Castle Standing on a Turtle-Shaped Rock

“Legend has it that when Tang Dynasty Princess Wencheng first came to Lhasa, she calculated that Lhasa had superior geographical conditions, with a white dragon in the east, a green tiger in the south, a rose finch in the west, and a holy turtle in the north. After hearing her calculations, the Tubo King Songtsan Gambo conducted a survey of the northern suburbs of Lhasa himself, and actually found a giant rock resembling a reclining turtle in the Nyangri Gully. As a result, a castle five-stories high was erected on the giant rock and named Giant Rock Castle, or Pabangka in Tibetan. Legend has it that the castle rose nine stories high, had stone walls cemented together with smelted iron, and was bound tightly to the rock with iron chains.”

Legend #3: Building the Jokhang Temple

“Near the Potala Palace is a place which used to be marshlands. Employing her knowledge of yin and ynag and the five elements, Princess Wencheng decided that a pool in the marshland was the heart of an evil woman and that a temple must be built there to keep her in place. Unlike the fortress-like Potala, the temple was built on level ground, more like the ancient temple structure from inland China. It rather strangely has 108 sphinx statues, all craved ut of wood. Perhaps the idea of these sphinx statues came from Ancient Egypt, since during the Tang dynasties there was contact with Persia through the Silk Road. The temple also houses a gilded statue of Sakyamuni, brought by Princess Wencheng. This statue first originated in India and was a gift to the Tang emperor. The pool still exists under the temple.”

Jokhang Temple

Legend #4: Wencheng and the Sun and Moon Mirror (Riyue)

“Legend has it that the Tang Dynasty Emperor Taizong gave Princess Wencheng a precious mirror named the Sun and the Moon before she set off on her journey from China to marry King Songtsan Gampo of Tibet. The mirror was said to let her see Chang'an, then the capital, and her relatives from wherever she was. When the princess reached part of the Quilian Mountain Range, an important thoroughfare to western China and a crucial link between Han and Tibetan people, she got out of her carriage and looked around. It was cold and barren. She could only see snow capped mountains. Wencheng then felt a surge of homesickness. She recalled the words of the emperor when he gave her the mirror, ‘Whenever you miss your home, you only need to look in this mirror to see us.’ She took out the mirror to see her hometown, but saw only her own tearful face. So she threw the mirror down onto the mountain. She knew she had a duty to the two nations, and, resolving not to miss her country any more, she continued her journey to the west.

The mirror was broken in two pieces shaped like the moon and sun. From then on, the mountain got its name, Riyue Mountain. To commemorate Princess Wencheng, the local people built two pavilions here named the Sun and the Moon respectively. Colorful modern murals in them depict Princess Wencheng's journey through China to Tibet, and credit the princess with introducing farming, technology, medicine, and Buddhism to Tibet.”

The Sun and Moon pavilions built by later generations in commemoration of Wencheng.

Influential Women Women and Silk Production Exploring Primary Sources
  Tang dynasty’s Wu Zetian   Making Silk   Primary Source Lessons
  Princess Wencheng   Wearing Silk  
  Sorghaghtani Beki   Reviving Silk Traditions  
  Empress Irene    

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