During the reign of the Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty (156 BC–87 BC), China experienced its greatest expansion. The Empire's borders spanned from modern Kyrgyzstan in the west all the way to the north of Korea in the northeast and to northern Vietnam in the south. Emperor Wu successfully repelled the nomadic Xiongnu who had been systematically raiding northern China. Emperor Wu made alliances with small countries along the western borders to fight against the Xiongnu. The Wusun, a relatively powerful western country, became his major ally. Emperor Wu tried to build good relations with the Wusun through marriages.
In 105 BC, Emperor Wu gave Princess Xijun from an imperial line to the King of the Wusun (Issyk Kol basin) in marriage. The King of the Wusun was pleased and named her Madame Right. The Xiongnu also sent a princess to Wusun, who became Madame Left. Princess Xijun was not accustomed to life in the western regions,and would play her lute and sing songs all day to express her unhappiness.
Two years later, the King of the Wusun died, and his grandson Qinqu succeeded the throne. According to the Wusun tradition, being a successor, Qinqu would also inherit his grandfather's wives and concubines. Such behavior would be considered extremely immoral to the Han and Princess Xijun found it hard to accept. She wrote to Emperor Wu for support, but her request to refuse the marriage was denied. The Han Dynasty was trying to fight against the Xiongnu at the time, so the Empire would not risk upsetting the Wusun for her sake. Princess Xijun had no choice but to obey. She only survived three years afterwards and gave birth to a girl. In spite of her sadness, Princess Xinjun created a strong and stable alliance between the Han and the Wusun nonetheless.
After Princess Xijun died, Qinqu, King of the Wusun, asked the Han Dynasty for another royal princess for marriage. Emperor Wu sent Princess Jieyou to the Western Regions. Princess Jieyou was a strong, healthy and pretty girl, a different type from Princess Xijun; she also had an interest in politics and chose to serve her country. She went to the Wusun as if she were there to fight on a different front.
After several years, the princess from the Xiongnu gave birth to a boy. Soon after, Qinqu, the King of the Wusun, died suddenly. The boy from the Xiongnu princess was too young to rule the kingdom, so Qinqu's brother claimed the throne. He was a large man, and was called “King Fatty.”
King Fatty accepted Princess Jieyou and the princess from the Xiongnu as his wives. Princess Jieyou and King Fatty were very close, she gave birth to three princes afterwards. King Fatty listened to her and followed her suggestions. Thus, the relationship between the Han and the Wusun improved greatly.
Feng Liao was a maid of Princess Jieyou. Feng herself later married an influential Wusun general, whose good standing with a Xiongnu Prince of the kingdom later proved beneficial to the Han dynasty. Princess Jieyou and Feng Liao greatly influenced and stabilized the relations between the Han and the Wusun.
In 71 BC, the Xiongnu started a war against the Wusun, demanding the King of the Wusun deliver Princess Jieyou to them and cut off all relations with the Han. King Fatty was outraged at such demands and asked the Han to help in his war against the Xiongnu. Emperor Xuan of the Han commissioned five generals and coordinated a plan with the Wusun to attack the Xiongnu. The Xiongnu put up the strongest defenses against the Han generals. Later, Wusun forces won a major victory over the Xiongnu, severely crippling Xingu's western region. For years to come, the Xiongnu was unable to harass Han borders and peace was regained.
After the war, the relations between the Han and the Wusun improved. Princess Jieyou improved her status, Her maid Feng Liao became China's first official female diplomat, who represented the Han dynasty to the western regions.
A few years later, King Fatty died of an illness, and a son of the the Xiongnu Princess became king. The favorable relations between Han and Wusun, as well as the well-being of Princess Jieyou, were gone. Princess Jieyou had no choice but to marry the new king and gave birth to a son.
When the political status of the Wusun became unstable, the Han sent armed forces to intervene. Feng Liao, with her knowledge of the Wusun customs, became a prime candidate to persuade the the Xiongnu prince to ally his kingdom with the Han. He agreed to divide his country into two small kingdoms. The eldest son of King Fatty and Princess Jieyou ruled one of the small kingdoms, while the the Xiongnu Prince ruled the other one.
After several years, Princess Jieyou's eldest son and youngest son both died of illnesses. The Wusun kingdom was under the reign of the the Xiongnu Princess and the Han were not as powerful as it was before. Princess Jieyou had lived for more than 50 years in the western regions. She asked Emperor Xuan to send her back home.
Fifty years after her first departure from the Han, Princess Jieyou went back to Chang'an with her two grandsons. Emperor Xuan gave her land and servants, and treated her as a real princess of the Han in praise to her devotion to the country.