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The Four Legendary Beauties of China (Part 1)

By Edited Dec 20, 2013 7 10

While we hear often about western legendary beauties such as Cleopatra and Helen of Troy, little is known about oriental legendary damsels.  A large part of the reason is that their stories have yet to be brought before the worldwide audience on the mass media.  Below is a brief introduction on China's four legendary beauties whose fates are intertwined with the fates of their land.  It should be noted that through China's history, different personalities had been suggested for the list of the "four legendary beauties".  However, the popular consensus today is that the four classical femme fatales typically refer to Xi Shi (西施), Diao Chan (貂蟬), Wang Zhaojun (王昭君) and Yang Guifei (杨贵妃).

China's Four Legendary Beauties(74942)

Xi Shi (西施)

Xi Shi was born in the late Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 B.C.) in the Yue Kingdom (present day Zhejiang Province).  A famous Chinese fable describes her as so beautiful that even the fishes in the stream where she washed her silk were so ashamed to come face to face with her that they would hide on the river bed.

Xi Shi(74946)
Credit: http://grass.chinaiiss.com/html/201111/14/wa5fe2.html

During Xi Shi's time, the Yue Kingdom had been defeated by the Wu Kingdom and was forced to declare itself a vassal state to Wu.  The King of Yue patiently bade his time to exact revenge and regain power.  As part of his revenge strategies, he commissioned men to search for a woman whom he could offer as a tribute to the King of Wu.  With her famed beauty, Xi Shi was thus selected and brought into the capital.    

Legend has it that much time and efforts were invested into King of Yue's ploy - Xi Shi received training in royal court etiquette and the arts for three years to prepare for her mission.  In the Wu Kingdom, Xi Shi very quickly succeeded in becoming the Wu King's favourite concubine.  The latter was so mesmorised by Xi Shi that he was distracted from state affairs and idled away his time with the latter.  Soon, political chaos ensued in the Wu Kingdom as the mandarins began deserting the besotted King, thus enabling the King of Yue to invade the Wu Kingdom and vanquish his foe. 

Xi Shi(74947)
Credit: http://history.cultural-china.com/en/48History144.html

There are at least three different versions of what happened to Xi Shi after she accomplished her mission.  One suggested that Xi Shi, being blamed by the Wu people for their kingdom's downfall, was put to death by drowning.  In the second version, the Yue King's Queen Consort, feeling threatened by Xi Shi's beauty after meeting her, had schemed to murder her by drowning.  The third version, a more romantic one, said that Xi Shi and Fan Li, the Yue official who was tasked to escort her to the Wu Kingdom, had fallen in love with each other during the journey.  They re-united after the Wu Kingdom fell and lived together in obscurity thereafter.

 Much as she was lauded for her beauty, Xi Shi was upheld for her patriotic and sacrificial spirit.  There remains today in Zhejiang Province a number of historical relics that were named after her, in memory of her patriotic deed and parting youth.


Diao Chan (貂蝉) 

Unlike the other beauties, Diao Chan was never mentioned in any official historical records; only inklings of her existence were found in a smattering of fictional books and plays.  It was thus suggested that she could be just a fictional character.  That said, the most detailed manifest of her story appeared in the famous historical novel "Romance of the Three Kingdoms" by Ming dynasty writer Luo Guanzhong (c. 1330 – 1400 A.D.).  According to folklore, Diao Chan was so beautiful that even the moon fairy Chang'Er would shy away in her presence. 

It should be noted that Diao is actually not a common Chinese family name, hence there are even more grounds to question the real identity of the personality Diao Chan.  As Diao means sable (an animal native to Russia, northern Mongolia and parts of China, prized for its fur) and Chan refers to cicada, historians surmised that the name Diao Chan could have been a title or sobriquet conferred onto a court maiden who had been entrusted with the care of the court officials' hats adorned with the sable tail or the figurines of the cicada.

Diao Chan
Credit: http://history.cultural-china.com/en/48History509.html

Now, among the folklores, there are varying accounts of Diao Chan's background but the common thread is that she lived in the late Eastern Han Dynasty period (25 – 220 A.D.).  She was a songstress under the patronage of a court official named Wang Yun.  In Luo Guanzhong's novel, she was further depicted as Wang Yun's goddaughter. 

The events of Diao Chan's story took place at a time when the Eastern Han emperor was incompetent and the court powers were monopolised by a despotic and ambitious official named Dong Zhuo who was planning to usurp the throne.  Wang Yun was gravely disturbed by the situation.  Sensing his troubles, Diao Chan, who felt indebted to Wang Yun for cultivating her, asked how she could help relieve him of his worries.  And thus began a series of ploys devised by Wang Yun to drive a wedge between Dong Zhuo and Lü Bu, Dong Zhuo's foster son.  Wang Yun first found the earliest opportunity to betroth Diao Chan to Lü Bu; at the same time, he offered Diao Chan to Dong Zhuo as a concubine.  The seeds of discord were thus sowed.  Both men, infatuated with Diao Chan, could not reconcile the conflict.  Using her wit and charm, Diao Chan seized every opportunity to add fuel to the fire and fanned the hostilities between them.  Eventually, Wang Yun capitalised on the discord and incited Lü Bu to assassinate Dong Zhuo.

Again, there are different versions of the story's ending.  In the novel, Diao Chan married Lü Bu.  In a subsequent tussle for power, the latter was killed by Cao Cao, the penultimate chancellor of the Eastern Han Dynasty, and Diao Chan was never heard of again.  Some unofficial accounts suggested that Diao Chan eventually became the concubine of Guan Yu, a general who was serving another warlord.  Yet another version said that both Wang Yun and Diao Chan were put to death by surviving members of Dong Zhuo's clique. 

Regardless of her eventual fate, Diao Chan's character stood out in ancient folklore not only because of her beauty but also because she was exalted as one of few female characters to have played such a vital role in securing stability for her nation and thus influencing the course of subsequent events.  As mentioned earlier, Diao Chan's story was depicted in several books and plays.  Among these was a famous Yuan Dynasty folk ballad based on the ploys which Wang Yun had designed to entrap Dong Zhuo and Lü Bu, entitled "An Interlocking Set of Strategem (连环计)".  This popular ballad is still being performed to this day.





Dec 26, 2011 3:52pm
OK, now I'm jealous. This is rare for me to say, but I sincerely wish I had written this. It's right in my milieu and I SHOULD'VE written it.

This is an EXCELLENT choice of subject, just the kind of thing I try to bring to the table myself when I can. It disabuses many of the ethnocentricity from which we all seem to suffer, and reminds us that EVERY culture on this planet has someone or something like these womeen in its history worth taking a second look at. I've touched on osme -- you got to these before I found them. Good for you. A HUGE thumbs up, and I'm off to reasd part 2.
Jan 4, 2012 12:12am
I told you this was a great piece -- congrats on the "feature".
Jan 4, 2012 1:00am
Appreciate your advice and suggestions too.
Jan 4, 2012 1:24am
Dio Chan is a legend.! nice article.
Jan 4, 2012 2:38am
Great article. My son and I am both HUGE fans of the Three Kingdoms. My son (age 7) actually cries for the people of the Dynasties because he is sadden they are no longer living.
Jan 4, 2012 2:51am
Fascinating. I love watching Chinese epic movies. This feature fascinates me more.
Jan 4, 2012 10:32am
Nice article I like reading about legends and what and how they accomplished their goals. I like that you wrote a feature on female legends.
Jan 9, 2012 12:37am
Great article! Living in China, I often hear of these people but my students can never tell me much with their poor English skills. Now I know more and can help them get the right words when they are telling me about these beauties.
Jan 10, 2012 8:05am
As a former history major, I really enjoyed this article. Having studied more of the history and culture of the US and Europe, than of China and Asia, I found your article to be very enlightening. I'm looking forward to reading more. I Google + and posted to Facebook and Twitter.
Sep 24, 2012 6:22am
very informative!
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