Xi Shi, the Fairest Beauty of Ancient China
THERE were four legendary beauties in ancient China— Xi Shi, Wang Zhaojun, Diao Chan and Yang Yuhuan. Among them, Xi Shi has been deemed by many as the fairest the country has ever brought forth.
Chinese writers and scholars have racked their brains to create words and expressions to describe the four ladies’ stunning beauty, and the most popular saying of them all is chenyu luoyan, biyue xiuhua.
This phrase means:
“Seeing the beauty of the four women, moon and flowers feel embarrassed, and fish and geese are so stunned that they forget why they are doing, so the fish sink in the water and the geese fall from the sky.”
In other words, their beauty even outshines nature.
And the first two characters in the phrase, chenyu or sinking fish, is often used to denote the striking beauty of Xi Shi because she was often seen washing yarn at a stream near her home when she was young.
Xi Shi was born in the State of Yue in a mountain village in what is known today as eastern China’s Zhejiang Province. Her father was a firewood peddler and her mother a weaver. Xi Shi was always known for her beauty ever since she was a little girl.
According to descriptions in Chinese literature, Xi Shi’s beauty was not only natural, but also perfect. It is said that adding one centimeter to her height, she would have been too tall, and removing one centimeter, she would have been too short. Putting on one more ounce, she could look a bit overweight, and taking off one ounce, she could seem a bit skinny.
It is also said that Xi Shi always looked beautiful and elegant, with or without wearing any makeup or fine dresses.
This was probably why, centuries later, Su Shi (AD 1037-1101), a great Chinese poet once cited Xi Shi as an example to depict the charm of the West Lake in Hangzhou, now the scenic city and capital of Zhejiang Province, saying the lake’s appeal never fails, be it rain or shine, just like Xi Shi, who always looked beautiful whether in plain clothes or gorgeously decked out.
But just as an old Chinese saying goes, hongyan boming or beauties are often ill-fated, the perfect natural beauty didn’t bring Xi Shi a happy, peaceful life.
The State of Yue, where Xi Shi and her family lived, was defeated in a war with its neighbor State of Wu and Gou Jian (520-465 BC), the king of the Yue was captured.
While captive, the king swallowed his humiliation and worked very hard as a horseman for the king of Wu. As a result, three years later, he was set free.
After returning home, the king refused to live in his former palace. Instead, he slept on a pile of firewood and hung a pig gallbladder in his hut. Every night the king would taste the bitter gall to remind himself of the humiliation he and his country had suffered.
The king purposely designed this austere life to prevent himself from giving up his determination for revenge.
In the meantime, Gou Jian was taking steps to rebuild his country and army. He also recruited a team of top advisers to help him map out a plan for bringing down the Wu.
One advisor suggested the king to send an extremely beautiful woman to the Wu king as a tribute to allure him away from his state affairs. Hence, Xi Shi was brought to the Yue ruler.
First, Xi Shi was persuaded to agree to help her home state to revenge for its humiliation and then, it took nearly three years of training and grooming to turn Xi Shi, a village girl, into a fair lady who was steeped in learning and exceptional good at painting, calligraphy and chess.
When she was ready, Xi Shi was escorted to the State of Wu by Fan Li, a senior advisor of the Yue king.
As soon as the king of Wu set eyes on Xi Shi, he was immediately captivated by the ethereal beauty and elegance of the Yue woman.
Gradually, the Wu king began to neglect his duties and spent most of his time with Xi Shi, dining and wining, and often taking Xi Shi out for carriage rides.
Xi Shi tried her best to keep the Wu king away from his court duties and frequently sent intelligence to her home state.
A few years later, an opportunity came and the Yue army launched an all-out and merciless offensive against the State of Wu.
The once powerful Wu collapsed and its king killed himself.
There are different accounts in legends and folk stories about what happened to Xi Shi after she accomplished her mission in helping her home state bring down the State of Wu.
In one disputed account, Xi Shi was secretly thrown into a river one night by soldiers following the order of the Yue king and drowned. It was said that the purpose was to prevent Xi Shi from bewitching other men in the world, including the Yue king himself.
In another more popular account, Xi Shi fell in love with Fan Li, the Yue adviser who escorted her to the State of Wu and stayed there as a hostage for the last few years of the state.
After the fall of Wu, Fan retired from his political career and lived with Xi Shi in seclusion on Lake Taihu, a large freshwater lake in the neighboring Jiangsu Province.
Fan changed his identity and name, but thanks to his wisdom, he created several successful business ventures and became extremely wealthy.
Fan and Xi Shi lived happily for the rest of their lives.
In China, Xi Shi still remains today the fairest beauty in people’s mind thanks to numerous books, poems, plays, operas, TV series and movies telling and retelling those legends about the greatest beauty.