Amazing Kids! Magazine

The Painting That Changed History

By Audrey Chen, age 13, Hong Kong, China


I opened the book, and out slipped a photograph. It portrayed a tall, muscular man in loose clothing made of hemp. Next to him was a beautiful woman dressed in a plain hanfu with her hair styled high on her head. The man was standing off to the side while the woman, who looked enraged, was staring at a painting.

I clenched the photograph in my hands.

“General Wei Qing,” a deep voice boomed, jerking me from my trance. “Now that your soul has passed the preliminary hearing of the afterlife, you are to be rewarded. You have done great deeds in your life, you know.” I turned to see Ch’eng Huang, the City God. “I’ve been thinking. I can sense your excitement after seeing that photograph, and I think I have something to offer to you,” Ch’eng Huang stated, turning towards me, a big smile etched on his face. My breath quickened.

“Would you like to go back in time to when the event in the photo happened?”

My heart started to pound faster. I’d longed to relive that experience for such a long time, and now, that chance was right in front of me.

Suddenly, I found myself standing on a city wall, watching dust fly into the air, turning the landscape into a murky brown.

Slowly, a huge enemy army appeared on the horizon. Like a colony of ants, a mass of red and brown covered the landscape, advancing forward. Rays of sunlight pierced through the dirt-filled air glinting off polished helmets and weapons. Red banners and flags flapped in the wind as war cries resonated.

“The Xiongnu army is here! The Xiongnu army is here!” people shouted. I quickly descended from the wall and ran towards the magistrate’s palace, where my emperor was residing. Pushing and shoving people out of the way, I fought through the crowd.

I hurried into the magistrate’s meeting room to find the top military officials and advisors already there, waiting for me.

“Sorry I’m late,” I panted.

Emperor Han dismissed my apologies with a wave of his hand. Although he was still covered in rich gems, signs of fatigue and exhaustion were apparent on his face. He had bags under his bloodshot eyes that stood out from his pale skin. The emperor no longer had an aura of power and authority to him; rather, his stooping posture emitted a sense of surrender.

Knowing how little time we had to come up with a plan and execute it, we got right to work. Everything had to be considered to the smallest detail. Yet, each idea we came up with had some sort of flaw—the moon was too bright to have a night ambush, the Xiongnu camp was too heavily guarded…

After hours of strenuous strategizing, we were on the verge of giving up. Finally, Chen Ping, the emperor’s chief advisor, decided to focus on deception instead of attacking.

“What do you guys think about tricking the Xiongnu army?” he asked. “We are no match for them, and trickery is our last hope.”

“Perhaps we can have the emperor’s artist paint the most beautiful woman he can and attach a note at the bottom offering her to the Xiongnu commander to win his favor?” I suggested. “The commander’s wife should receive the letter, and hopefully, she’ll be so overcome with jealousy that she’ll force her husband to retreat.”

“Don’t forget to have the lady being painted wear jewelry made of expensive jade,” a general suggested. “We want her to look both beautiful and wealthy at the same time.”

Everyone nodded in agreement.

“I can dress up as a messenger and deliver the painting,” I suggested. “That way, not only will they receive the message, but I can also spy on them and note their weaknesses in case our plan doesn’t work.”

“Then what are we waiting for?” the emperor demanded. “Everyone, get to work! There’s no time to lose!”

By the next day, I was prepared to go. An artist had carefully painted a stunning lady with colored ink pigments. Rushed brush strokes were clearly visible throughout the portrait, but it still portrayed the beauty of the woman. The painting was rolled up and tied with a red silk ribbon. I carefully stuffed it into a woolen sack tied to my belt before mounting a shaggy bay and taking the reins.

As the mare galloped through the streets, people made way for us. The main gate of the city grew bigger and bigger, until the steel bars slowly swung open, clearing a path for the horse. As soon as I’d exited the city, five Xiongnu horsemen galloped towards me, swords drawn.

I pulled on the reins, slowing my bay to a stop.

“I’m here to deliver a message on behalf of the Han Emperor!” I shouted, my hands in the air. “It is directed to your commander!”

I slid off my saddle, landing on my feet, hands still raised.

The five horsemen surrounded me in a semicircle, sheathing their swords. Their captain rode towards me.

“A message, you say?” he said suspiciously. “What about?”

“How should I know?” I retorted, feigning ignorance. “I’m just a lowly messenger. Why don’t you ride into the city and ask the emperor yourself?”

The leader rolled his eyes.

“Get on your horse, and we’ll take you to the commander’s tent,” he snarled. “Right now, before I change my mind.”

I quickly scrambled onto my horse and galloped after the horsemen. Normally I wouldn’t be so worried about my own life, but knowing that the whole fate of the Han Dynasty depended on whether I would complete my mission or not made me feel sick.

I was led to a large, white tent surrounded by many smaller, camouflaged tents. I approached the heavily guarded entrance with the horsemen’s eyes boring into my back. After patting me down, I was escorted in by one of the guards.

Although crude and hurriedly set up, it was still very impressive. There was a birch table placed in the center, along with two small beds on the far right side of the tent. A beautiful woman was writing on a desk in the corner. She glanced up as soon as I entered, a questioning look on her face.

Furen,” I acknowledged as I bowed down, lying prostrate on the ground. “I am here to deliver a message and a gift from the Han Emperor himself. The Emperor wishes to surrender and give the Xiongnu commander a gift to win over his favor, so his life may be spared.”

The lady, who I assumed was the commander’s wife, set down her brush and rose gracefully. Her plain blue hanfu rustled as she walked towards me. Her hair was piled high on her head, with a zan holding it in place.

“Give the gift to me,” she said. “I will hand it over to my husband.”

I hurriedly untied the sack hanging from my belt and pulled out the portrait. Hands trembling, I presented the scroll to the commander’s wife.

Please, please let the plan work.

The commander’s wife gingerly took the painting and unrolled the scroll. Her eyes slowly scanned it, and I knew exactly what she was taking in—the painted lady’s sparkling black eyes contained a sense of grandeur and playfulness while her long, black hair flowed gracefully down her back, held together in a ponytail by pins and dazzling ornaments. Her hanfu was made with such skill and excellence that it was fit for the goddesses in the heavens above. Swirls of gold were stitched onto the yellow bodice while the skirt was made of pure white chiffon. The portrait made it seem as if she were the sun with clouds beneath her.

“Never have I worn such a dazzling hanfu, nor have I had so many sparkling jewels,” the commander’s wife whispered to herself, as if in a trance. Her expression said it all: She was jealous—jealous of the woman’s beauty and of her riches. Finally, her eyes traveled to the very bottom of the painting, where the note was attached. I braced myself for her wrath. After a couple of seconds, which to me felt like decades, the commander’s wife exploded with anger.

“What?” the commander’s wife exclaimed. “The emperor intends to surrender to my husband, and so, to win his favor, the emperor is sending him one of China’s famous beauties to be his concubine? This can’t be true! I can’t let her take my place!”

Enraged, the commander’s wife crumpled the painting and threw it onto the floor, stomping on it. She then turned to a waiting servant.

“You!” she shouted. “Get my husband!”

Footsteps sounded in the distance, getting louder and louder with each passing second. The Xiongnu commander burst into the tent, face flushed from running. He bent forwards with his hands on his knees, panting. The rest of the tent was silent, like the calm before the storm. Suddenly, the tent erupted with yelling.

“Who is this?” the commander’s wife screamed. She roughly kicked the crumpled piece of paper at her husband, who carefully picked it up and smoothed it. Judging by the sparkle in his eyes and the half smile on his face, it was clear that the Xiongnu commander took an interest in the lady in the painting.

“What is that foul expression I see on your face?” she barked. “If I’m right, you like her, and the only reason why you like her is because she’s beautiful!”

“It’s a good deal,” the commander mused. “She could be a concubine.”

“Oh, so you think I’ll just accept another woman into this family?” the commander’s wife snapped. “You are abendan! You’re no better than a peasant desperate for love.”

Eyes widening, the commander opened his mouth to defend himself, but his wife cut him off.

“This is nonsense!” she yelled. “Are you seriously thinking of accepting the Han Emperor’s offer? You are the commander of an entire army! You have the best clothing, the best horses, the best everything! Isn’t that enough already?”

“Yes! It…it is enough,” the commander stammered as he slowly started to back away towards the doorway. “I, uh, I need to go sort some things out now.”

“Oh, don’t you dare leave!” his wife snarled. “You are not welcoming another lady into this household! You are cancelling this invasion, and that is final!”

“Please, please, fall for the trick,” I implored silently.

The next day, I watched with the Han Emperor and Chen Ping as the Xiongnu army packed up all the tents and lined up in formation. Then, at the blast of the trumpets and a roll of the drums, the soldiers marched away towards the horizon. The Han Emperor and his subjects were safe.

The whole scene faded right before my eyes, and just as suddenly, I was back in the afterlife. Dazed, I looked down at the book I held in my hands. Four words written in elegant calligraphy magically appeared:

“避繁就简. Avoid complexity. Focus on simplicity.”

As a general, I have taken many lives, but sometimes, doing what you do best won’t help you face the most difficult of challenges.

Ch’eng Huang opened the door leading to the Wheel of Transmigration, and I stepped through.


Hanfu: dress worn during the Han Dynasty

Furen: respectful term for a married woman

Zan: Chinese ornamental hairpin

Bendan: an idiot

Wheel of Transmigration: the passageway to a person’s next incarnation

Note: In China, there is a tale of how the Han Emperor was trapped in a city, but thanks to the quick thinking of his generals and advisors, the Xiongnu army was tricked into retreating.