Xi Shi

The Four Beauties or Four Great Beauties are four ancient Chinese women, renowned for their beauty. The scarcity of historical records concerning them meant that much of what is known of them today has been greatly embellished by legend. They gained their reputation from the influence they exercised over kings and emperors and consequently, the way their actions impacted Chinese history. Three of the Four Beauties brought kingdoms to their knees and their lives ended in tragedy. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The Four Great Beauties lived in four different dynasties, each hundreds of years apart. In chronological order, they are: 1) Xi Shi (7th to 6th century BC, Spring and Autumn Period), said to be so entrancingly beautiful that fish would forget how to swim and sink away from the surface when she walks by; 2) Wang Zhaojun (1st century BC, Western Han Dynasty), said to be so beautiful that her appearance would entice birds in flight to fall from the sky; 3) Diaochan (A.D. 3rd century, Late Eastern Han/Three Kingdoms period), said to be so luminously lovely that the moon itself would shy away in embarrassment when compared to her face; and 4) Yang Guifei (719–756, Tang Dynasty), said to have a face that puts all flowers to shame. +

Xi Shi (7th Century B.C.)

Xi Shi (506 B.C. – ?), originally named as Shi Yiguang, was born in Zhuluo Village, Zhuji City, Zhejiang Province during the late Spring-autumn and Warring States Period. Xi Shi was a patriotic, charming lady. In order to realize the national independence, Xi Shi was selected as a "gift" by Yue King who was the king of Yue State. She sacrificed her happiness and served Wu King who was the king of Wu State and strong opponent of Gou Jian. Wu King was so addicted to Xi Shi that he ignored all the national affairs. Day by day, Wu State gradually fell in decay. Yue King seizes the excellent chance and defeated Wu King, realizing the dream of national independence. [Source: CITES]

Li Bai of the Tang dynasty wrote a poem about Xi Shi. Imogen Heap released a song in 2012 titled “Xizi She Knows” after spending time in Hangzhou, China. The Shih Tzu dog is believed to be an attempt to make a dog as beautiful as Xi Shi. The West Lake in Hangzhou is said to be the incarnation of Xi Shi, hence it is also called Xizi Lake, Xizi being another name for Xi Shi, meaning Lady Xi. In his famous work of song poetry, Drinks at West Lake through Sunshine and Rain, renowned scholar Su Dongpo compared Xi Shi's beauty to the West Lake. The Xi Shi Temple, which lies at the foot of the Zhu Luo Hill in the southern part of Zhuji, on the banks of the Huansha River. [Source: Wikipedia +]

According to the Story of Xi Shi: King Goujian of Yue was once imprisoned by King Fuchai of Wu after a defeat in war, and Yue later became a tributary state to Wu. Secretly planning his revenge, Goujian's minister Wen Zhong suggested training beautiful women and offering them to Fuchai as a tribute (knowing Fuchai could not resist beautiful women). His other minister, Fan Li, found Xi Shi and Zheng Dan, and gifted them to Fuchai in 490 BC. Bewitched by the beauty and kindness of Xi Shi and Zheng Dan, Fuchai forgot all about his state affairs and at their instigation, killed his best advisor, the great general Wu Zixu. Fuchai even built Guanwa Palace (Palace of Beautiful Women) in an imperial park on the slope of Lingyan Hill, about 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) west of Suzhou. The strength of Wu dwindled, and in 473 B.C. Goujian launched his strike and put the Wu army to full rout. King Fuchai lamented that he should have listened to Wu Zixu, and then committed suicide. +

In the legend, after the fall of Wu, Fan Li retired from his ministerial post and lived with Xi Shi on a fishing boat, roaming like fairies in the misty wilderness of Taihu Lake, and no one saw them ever again. This is according to Yuan Kang's Yue Jueshu. Another version, according to Mozi, is that Xi Shi eventually died from drowning in the river. +

Wang Zhaojun (1st Century B.C.)

Wang Zhaojun, also known as Wang Qiang, was born in Baoping Village, Zigui County (in current Hubei Province) in 52 B.C. in the the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC–8 AD). She was a gorgeous lady and great at painting, Chinese calligraphy, playing chess and Zheng (a kind of musical instrument in ancient China). In 36 B.C., Wang Zhaojun was selected as royal maid to serve the royal members. At that time, the Han Empire was having conflicts with Xiongnu, a nomadic people from Central Asia based in present-day Mongolia. Before her life took a dramatic turn, she was a neglected palace lady-in-waiting, never visited by the emperor.

In 33 B.C., Hu Hanye, leader of the Xiongnu paid a respectful visit to the Han emperor, asking permission to marry a Han princess, as proof of the Xiongnu people's sincerity to live in peace with the Han people. Instead of giving him a princess, which was the custom, the emperor offered him five women from his harem, including Wang Zhaojun. No princess or maids wanted to marry a Xiongnu leader and live a distant place so Wang Zhaojun stood out when she agreed to go to Xiongnu.

The historical classic, "Hou Han Shu", reveals that Wang Zhaojun volunteered to marry Hu Hanye. When the Han emperor finally met her, he was astonished by her beauty, but it was too late for regrets. She married Hu Hangye and had children by him. Her life became the foundation and unfailing story of "Zhaojun Chu Sai", or "Zhaojun Departs for the Frontier". Peace ensued for over 60 years thanks to her marriage. [Source: Peng Ran,, July 17, 2007]

In the most prevalent version of the "Four Beauties" legend, it is said that Wang Zhaojun left her hometown on horseback on a bright autumn morning and began a journey northward. Along the way, the horse neighed, making Zhaojun extremely sad and unable to control her emotions. As she sat on the saddle, she began to play sorrowful melodies on a stringed instrument. A flock of geese flying southward heard the music, saw the beautiful young woman riding the horse, immediately forgot to flap their wings, and fell to the ground. From then on, Zhaojun acquired the nickname "fells geese" or "drops birds." [Source: Wikipedia +]

Statistics show that there are about 700 poems and songs and 40 kinds of stories and folktales about Wang Zhaojun from more than 500 famous writers, both ancient (Shi Chong, Li Bai, Du Fu, Bai Juyi, Li Shangyin, Zhang Zhongsu, Cai Yong, Wang Anshi, Yelü Chucai) and modern (Guo Moruo, Cao Yu, Tian Han, Jian Bozan, Fei Xiaotong, Lao She, Chen Zhisui). +

Literature about Wang Zhaojun: 1) Chapter novel: You Feng Qi Yuan; 2) Variety Plays (known as Zaju in China) in Yuan Dynasty: Han Gong Qiu; 3) Biography in Ming Dynasty: He Rong Ji; 4) Han Shu, Xiongnu Zhuan (first known account of Wang Zhaojun); 5) Qin Cao ("Principle of the Lute") by Cai Yong (c. 2nd century); 6) Xijin Zaji ("Sundry Accounts of the Western Capital") (c. 3rd century); 7) Han Gong Qiu ("The Autumn in the Palace of Han") by Ma Zhiyuan (c. 13th century); 8) Wang Zhaojun by Guo Moruo (1923); 9) Wang Zhaojun by Cao Yu (1978); 10) Chapter 3, "Naturalizing National Unity: Political Romance and the Chinese Nation," of The Mongols at China's Edge by Uradyn E. Bulag (2002) contains a detailed discussion of variants of the Wang Zhaojun legend. +

Film and television about Wang Zhaojun: 1) Chinese song Wang Zhaojun from Yang Yang; 2) Hong Kong Shaw Brothers, 1964, Beyond The Great Wall. Linda Lin Dai played Wang Zhaojun; 3) Hong Kong Asia Television Limited, TV series in 1984, Wang Zhaojun, supervised by Wang Ximei; 4) Hong Kong Asia Television Limited, TV series in 1985, Wang Zhaojun. Wei Qiuhua played Wang Zhaojun; 5) Taiwan CTV, TV series broadcast at 8 pm in 1988, Wang Zhaojun, directed by Zhou You. Song Gangling played Wang Zhaojun; 6) China Central Television (CCTV) and China Television Media, Ltd, TV series in 2005, Wang Zhaojun. Yang Mi played Wang Zhaojun; 7) China Central Television (CCTV), TV series in 2006, Zhaojun Chu Sai. Li Caihua played Wang Zhaojun. +

Wang Zhaojun Story

Wang Zhaojun was born to a prominent family of Baopin village, Zigui country (now Zhaojun village, Xingshan county, Hubei) in the south of the Western Han empire. As she was born when her father was very old, he regarded her as "a pearl in the palm". Wang Zhaojun was endowed with dazzling beauty with an extremely intelligent mind. She was also adept in pipa and master of all the Four Arts of the Chinese Scholar – Guqin, Weiqi, Calligraphy and Chinese painting. In 36 BC, Emperor Yuan chose his concubines from the whole state. Because of Wang’s fame in the county, she was his first choice for the concubine from Nan county. Emperor Yuan issued the edict that Wang should enter the harem soon. Wang's father said that his daughter was too young to enter the harem, but could not violate the decree. Wang left her hometown and entered the harem of Emperor Yuan in early summer. According to the custom in the palace, when choosing a new wife, the Emperor was first presented with portraits of all the possible women. It is said that because of Wang's confidence of beauty and temperament, she refused to bribe the artist Mao Yanshou as the other maids did. As a reprisal, Mao Yanshou painted a mole of widowed tears on Wang's portrait. As a result, during her time in the Lateral Courts, Wang Zhaojun was never visited by the emperor and remained as a palace lady-in-waiting. Wang Zhaojun's portrait was either never viewed by the Emperor, or was not in its true form, and therefore the Emperor overlooked her. [Source: Wikipedia +]

In 33 BC, Huhanye Chanyu visited Chang'an as part of the tributary system that existed between the Han and Xiongnu governments. He took the opportunity to request to become an imperial son-in-law, which is recorded by Lou Jingde under Emperor Gaozu of Han. As Queen Mother Lü had only one daughter she did not have the heart to send her too far away. Typically the daughter of a concubine would then be offered, but, unwilling to honour Huhanye with a real princess, Emperor Yuan ordered that the plainest girl in the harem be selected. He asked for volunteers and promised to present her as his own daughter. The idea of leaving their homeland and comfortable life at the court for the grasslands of the far and unknown north was abhorrent to most of the young women, but Wang Zhaojun accepted. When the matron of the harem sent the unflattering portrait of Wang Zhaojun to the emperor he merely glanced at it and nodded his approval. Only when summoned to court was Wang Zhaojun’s beauty revealed and the emperor considered retracting his decision to give her to the Xiongnu. However, it was too late by then and Emperor Gaozu regretfully presented Wang Zhaojun to Huhanye, who was delighted. Relations with the Xiongnu subsequently improved and the court artist, Mao Yanshou, was subsequently executed for deceiving the Emperor. +

Wang Zhaojun got well with Xiongnu people and made great contribution to maintain the peace and friendship between Han Dynasty and Xiongnu State. Wang Zhaojun became a favourite of the Huhanye chanyu, giving birth to two sons. Only one of them seems to have survived, Yituzhiyashi. They also had at least one daughter, Yun, who was created Princess Yimuo and who would later become a powerful figure in Xiongnu politics.

Sadder Side of the Wang Zhaojun's Story

Yang Guifei

When Huhanye died in 31 B.C., Wang Zhaojun requested to return to China. Emperor Cheng, however, ordered that she follow Xiongnu levirate custom and become the wife of the next shanyu, the oldest brother (or her stepson, born by her husband's first wife) of her husband. In her new marriage, she had two daughters. Wang was honoured as Ninghu Yanzhi ("Hu-Pacifying Chief-Consort"). Wang Zhaojun's mausoleum is located on the outskirts of Hohhot, capital city of Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. Her tomb is a part of Zhaojun Museum.

Peng Ran wrote in, “Wang Zhaojun's story does not end with a "happily ever after". Hu Hanye was almost twice as old as she was and already married. It's said that he died just three years after their wedding. According to Xiongnu tradition, Wang Zhaojun had to marry the new leader, the eldest son of Hu Hanye, her step-son. She tried to return to the Han Empire but her request was turned down by the emperor. Finally she had to capitulate and marry the new leader and spend the rest of her life in service against her will. [Source: Peng Ran,, July 17, 2007]

The mausoleum of Wang Zhaojun is called Qing Zhong, or the Green Tomb. It resembles the natural green slope of a hill. She is still commemorated by Inner Mongolia people as a peace envoy, who contributed greatly to the friendship between the Han and Mongolian ethnic groups. A Zhaojun Museum has been set up near her tomb, in which her beautiful likeness is displayed in a white-marble sculpture and her wedding scene has become a bronze statue. In these artistic representations Wang Zhaojun always looks happy and resolved, in accordance with the widely accepted image of her as a brave woman who sacrificed for her country. Her sorrows as a tragic heroine deprived of true love may be buried along with her deep in the green tomb.

Diaochan (A.D. 3rd Century)

Unlike the other three Great Beauties of China, there is no known evidence that suggests Diaochan’s existence; therefore she is regarded as a fictional character. Diaochan appears in Luo Guanzhong's historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms in a plot involving the warrior Lü Bu and the warlord Dong Zhuo. According to historical records, Lü Bu did have relations with one of Dong Zhuo's servant maids. However, there is no evidence that the maid's name was "Diaochan". In fact, it is extremely unlikely that it was Diaochan, because "Diao" is hardly used as a Chinese family name. "Diaochan" likely referred to the sable (diao) tails and jade decorations in the shape of cicadas (chan), which at the time adorned the hats of high-level officials.

Diaochan (Diao Chan or Tiao-chan) is said to have been born in 161 or 169 or 176, depending on the source. According to the Romance of the Three Kingdoms Diaochan is a singing girl in the late Eastern Han Dynasty. In order to alienate Dong Zhuo (a tyrannical warlord) from Lu Bu (Dong Zhuo’s adopted son), Diaochan took upon herself to implement interlinked badger games, regardless of her own happiness. Under her effort, Dong Zhuo was killed by Lu Bu, thus contributing to the emerging of the outstanding heroes: Cao Cao, Liu Bei and Sun Quan, etc. The story of Diaochan’s circumventing Dong Zhuo and Lu Bu is narrated in Phoenix Pavilion, a play of Peking Opera.

Diaochan appears a playable character in Koei's Dynasty Warriors and Warriors Orochi video game series, in which her name is spelled "Diaochan". She also appears in the manga series Souten Kouro. In the Magic the Gathering card game, she appears as the Legendary Creature card Diaochan, Artful Beauty. Notable actresses who have portrayed Diaochan in films and television series include: Linda Lin Dai (Diao Charn), Violet Koo (Diaochan), Irene Chiu Yu-Ting (Sanguo Yingxiong Zhuan Zhi Guan Gong), Chen Hong (Romance of the Three Kingdoms) and Chen Hao (Three Kingdoms).

Diaochan Folktales and in Romance of the Three Kingdoms

In Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Diaochan assisted the official Wang Yun in a plot to persuade Lü Bu to kill his foster father, the tyrannical warlord Dong Zhuo. Wang Yun presented her to Dong Zhuo as a concubine but at the same time, Wang also betrothed her to Lü Bu. Diaochan used her beauty to turn Dong Zhuo and Lü Bu against each other by inciting jealousy between them. [Source: Wikipedia +]

While Dong Zhuo is out one day, Lü Bu sneaks into his bedroom in hope of seeing Diaochan. Diaochan pretends to be very upset and attempts suicide by throwing herself into the pond, saying that she is ashamed to see Lü Bu as she had been violated by Dong Zhuo. Lü Bu is heartbroken and promises that he will not let her suffer further at the hands of Dong Zhuo. Just then, Dong Zhuo returns and sees them embracing each other. Lü Bu flees while Dong Zhuo chases him with a spear, hurling the weapon at him but misses. On the way, Dong Zhuo meets his advisor, Li Ru, who suggests to him to give up Diaochan and let Lü Bu have her instead, so as to win Lü's trust. Dong Zhuo goes back to Diaochan later and accuses her of betraying his love, saying that he intends to present her to Lü Bu. Diaochan replies indignantly that Lü Bu embraced her against her will, even attempting suicide to "prove her love" for Dong Zhuo. Dong Zhuo is moved and dismisses the idea of relinquishing her. +

Lü Bu is outraged and goes to Wang Yun's to vent his frustration. Wang then seizes the opportunity to instigate Lü Bu into joining the plot to kill Dong Zhuo, to which Lü agreed. Lü Bu kills Dong Zhuo while the latter is on his way to a "coronation ceremony;" actually a trap set by Wang Yun and Lü. Dong Zhuo's followers led by Li Jue and Guo Si overrun the capital city Chang'an later to avenge their lord and Lü Bu is defeated in battle and forced to flee. Diaochan's eventual fate differs in various accounts. Some said that she was killed by Dong Zhuo's followers along with Wang Yun after Lü Bu escaped while others claimed that she followed Lü Bu while he roamed the land with his army until he seized Puyang from Cao Cao. In some adaptations of the novel, Diaochan was killed along with Lü Bu after the latter was defeated by Cao Cao and Liu Bei's forces at the Battle of Xiapi. +

In one folk tale, Diaochan was captured by Cao Cao after the Battle of Xiapi and he presented her to Guan Yu, hoping to win Guan's loyalty towards him. Guan Yu suspected that he was being tricked when he recalled how Diaochan had betrayed Lü Bu and Dong Zhuo earlier. Guan Yu killed her to prevent her from doing further harm.[citation needed] In another tale, Liu Bei, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei all wanted to marry Diaochan and they argued bitterly over the issue. Guan Yu killed her to end the dispute. +

In the Yuan Dynasty play Lianhuan Ji , Diaochan is said to be the daughter of Ren Ang, and her real name is Ren Hongchang . She is in charge of taking care of the Sable Cicada Hat , and is hence known as "Diaochan" ("Diaochan" translates to "Sable Cicada"). She is introduced to Guan Yu by Zhang Fei after Lü Bu's death. Instead of accepting her as the spoils of war, Guan Yu decapitates her with his sword. This event is not mentioned in historical records or Romance of the Three Kingdoms, but is propagated through mass media such as operas and storytelling. In another tale, Guan Yu did meet Diaochan but he let her become a nun instead. When Cao Cao heard that, he wanted to take Diaochan for himself and Diaochan committed suicide when she heard that. +

Yang Guifei

Yang Guifei (719–756)

Yang Yuhuan (A.D. 719-756), an imperial concubine of Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang Dynasty, is commonly called “Imperial Concubine Yang” (Yang Guifei), with “Guifei” being the highest rank for imperial consorts during her time. She was born in an old, well-known official family. She was naturally beautiful with a docile character. She was gifted in music, singing, dancing and playing lute. These talents, together with her education, made her stand out among the imperial concubines and win the emperor‘s favor. Jade ("yu") was considered so precious that it was often used in women's names. Yang Yuhuan means "jade ring."

Yang Guifei was the beloved consort of Emperor Xuanzong of Tang during his later years. Pink jade is associated with beauty, and it is said that Emperor Xuanzong would only allow Yang Guifei to wear it. There are many operas and shows based on their tragic love story. In A.D. 755, during the An Lushan Rebellion, as Emperor Xuanzong and his cortege were fleeing from the capital Chang'an to Chengdu, the emperor's guards demanded that he put Yang to death because they blamed the rebellion on her cousin Yang Guozhong and the rest of her family. The emperor capitulated and reluctantly ordered his attendant Gao Lishi to strangle Yang to death.

According to one version of the story when Emperor Xuanzong and Yang arrived at the Mawei Slope, the army refused to march, for the army thought that the reason of this rebellion by An Lushan was that Imperial Concubine Yang’s behavior of attracting emperor ruined the state and that her cousin Yang Guozong colluded with the enemy. To appease the army, Emperor Tang Xuanzong had no choice but to order Yang to commit suicide at the Mawei Slope.

Yang was known for having a full and fleshy figure, which was a much sought-after quality at the time. She was often compared and contrasted with Empress Zhao Feiyan, the wife of Emperor Cheng of Han, because Yang was known for her full build while Empress Zhao was slender. This led to the Four-character idiom “yanshou huanfei,” describing the range of the types of beauties.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Wikipedia, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated December 2013

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