We recently heard that the husband of one of my mother’s sisters died a few years ago in the United States. (My mother’s family isn’t close.) He was almost 30 years older than my aunt. While it is not that unusual for the male partner to be considerably older, it is less common the other way around. One of the most touching love stories among Chinese royals was between Zhu Jianshen, the ninth emperor of the Ming dynasty, and Wan Zhen’er, his carer turned consort who was 17 years his senior. A daughter of a low-ranking county functionary, Wan was conscripted into the palace after her father was exiled for a misdemeanour. She worked in the household of Empress Sun as a palace maid and soon rose up the ranks to become Sun’s personal attendant. A constitutional crisis occurred in 1449 when Sun’s son, Emperor Zhengtong, was captured in battle by the Oirat Mongols. To prevent a power vacuum, Sun and senior government officials threw their support behind Zhengtong’s younger brother, who became Emperor Jingtai. Zhengtong’s two-year-old son Zhu Jianshen was made heir apparent. Aware that her grandson might be at risk, given his precarious position as the son of a former emperor and the designated successor of the current one, who had sons of his own, Sun appointed her trusted attendant Wan as Zhu’s nanny and protector. How one concubine used kindness to become a Chinese empress Sun’s misgivings were proved correct the following year, when Zhengtong was released and returned to China by his captors. Instead of yielding the throne to his older brother, Jingtai placed him under house arrest and, in 1452, named his own son as heir and banished his nephew. During this period of hardship and deprivation Zhu and Wan grew very close. Five years later, with Zhengtong reinstated as emperor and Zhu as the heir apparent, Wan remained in the latter’s household. In 1464, when the 17-year-old Zhu was finally enthroned as Emperor Chenghua, he made 34-year-old Wan his consort. She did not become his principal wife and empress, probably because of her lowly status, her family’s criminal past and, given the primary duty of an empress was to bear sons, her relatively advanced age. Regardless, she remained Chenghua’s favourite, even following him in his hunts and excursions beyond the palace walls, while he barely gave the time of day to his empress and other consorts. Wan gave birth to a son in 1466 and the couple was ecstatic. Chenghua promoted her to honoured consort and then imperial honoured consort, a rank surpassed only by the empress. However, their son died within a year and Wan did not have any more children. When Wan died in 1487, aged 58, the inconsolable Chenghua was recorded to have said: “With Consort Wan gone, I cannot go on for long.” He suspended his court for seven days in her honour and buried her according to the protocols reserved for an empress. Months later, Chenghua died of grief aged 41. History has not been kind to Wan, with writers depicting her as a conniving and vicious woman who killed and maimed Chenghua’s other consorts, caused those who were pregnant to miscarry, and contrived to murder Chenghua’s other sons. One, writing more than 160 years after her death, even described her as “masculine in appearance with a booming voice, like a man”. Most of these stories have since been disproved by historians. The more romantic among us may wish to remember Wan Zhen’er and Zhu Jianshen for offering irrefutable proof that wide disparities in age do not have to matter when two people are in love.