Stories Behind Chinese Idioms: ‘Screened by the Peacock Screen’

Queen Dou, wife of the founding Emperor of the Tang Dynasty Li Yuan, was as renowned for her beauty as she was for her intellect and wisdom.

Her father was Dou Yi, and her mother was the princess of the Northern Zhou Dynasty (557–581, a short-lived dynasty before the Sui). When Queen Dou was just a little girl, she already demonstrated remarkable foresight and judgement on affairs of the state. Her uncle Yuwen Yong, Emperor Wu of Northern Zhou (543–578) married a girl from Tujue (a large nomadic tribe that dominated the northern steppes from the 6th to the 8th century).

Art work from Li Sixun, a famous painter during the Great Tang Dynasty. (Courtesy of

But he didn’t like her. Little Dou, who was only a child at the time, advised Emperor Wu in confidence, “There is no peace on the land right now, but Tujue is still very powerful; I hope uncle can put the interests of the populace ahead of personal feelings and dutifully care for the queen. With the Tujue on our side, the Chen State to the south and Qi State on the north will not present a problem.” Emperor Wu took her advice in earnest, and Northern Zhou’s strength was greatly bolstered.

With a daughter as exceptionally bright and beautiful as his, Dou Yi felt he should not casually marry her off. He decided to seek a matrimonial match for her from the public. Dou came up with an idea.

He painted two peacocks on a large screen, and announced that whoever hit the eyes of the peacocks with an arrow, he would let him take his daughter home as his bride. Many young men from families of nobility and influence fell over each other scrambling to try their luck.

However, the peacocks’ eyes appeared unobligingly small on the screen. All the young lords from the well-to-do families proved disappointing. They were eliminated from the contest one by one. Finally, a young fellow by the name of Li Yuan came forward. He held his nerves and hit the left eye of the peacock on the right with the first arrow, and then the right eye of the peacock on the left with another. The crowd erupted into thunderous applause.

Thus, Li Yuan became Dou’s matrimonial match, and later founded the Tang Dynasty. He spent most of his life on the battlefield. He is known as a great strategist, and ruled with wisdom.

Later on this classic story gave rise to the idiom que ping zhong xuan; “screened by the peacock screen” meaning “being screened and picked.”

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