to legend, the Four Great Beauties are the most beautiful women of ancient
China. They gained their reputation for their influence on ancient Chinese
history. According to their living time in Chinese history they are as
follows in sequence:
Xishi (7th Century BC-6th Century BC) was so entrancingly
beautiful that fish would forget to swim and sink down when she walks
Wang Zhaojun (1st Century BC) was so
beautiful that her appearance would attract the flying wild goose to fall
from the sky.
Diaochan (3rd Century AD) was so pretty that the moon
itself would shy away in embarrassment when compared to her face.
Concubine Yang Yuhuan (719-756AD) could make blooming
flowers feel shamed.
Ancient Beauties silk wall Hanging and tapestry
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have interest in this silk wall hanging.
If you have interest in the Chinese paintings of the four Chinese beauties, please contact me.
Xishi (497 BC) was a legendary beauty of ancient China. She has been described
as "equally charming in both heavy
and light makeup", "as appealing when she frowns as when she
smiles". Of her figure it has been said that "were she plump,
you would admire her plumpness, were she thin you would admire her for
being slender". She is celebrated as a woman of extraordinary natural
beauty with a universal appeal. Although many have praised Xishi's looks,
there is but little mention of her notable virtue - she had a great love
for her country and her people.
Xishi was the daughter of a tea trader from Ningluo Mountain village in
the Zhuji County in Zhejiang Province. This comprised a part of the ancient
state of Yue.
When the state of Yue was vanquished by the state of Wu, the King of Yue,
Gou Jian was forced to serve the Prince of Wu for three years. After his
release, King Gou Jian slept on brushwood and drank gall before each meal
to remind himself of the humiliation his country had suffered. He commissioned
men to search far and wide for a woman whom he could send as a tribute
to Prince Fuchai of Wu. Xishi, whose beauty was much talked of even from
early childhood, was selected for this task and sent to the capital.
King Gou Jian approved of the choice and had Xishi dressed in fine robes.
He had her trained in royal court etiquette. Gou Jian ordered his minister
Fan Li to take Xishi to the Prince of Wu as a tribute gift from Yue. During
the journey, Xishi fell deeply in love with the wise minister. Fan Li
also grew to admire this courageous lady who was willing to give her life
for her country. Consequently, before they parted, they made a secret
pledge of undying love.
They arrived at the capital of Wu and the prince welcomed Xishi with open
arms. He was enchanted by her appearance and doted on her. Gradually he
began to neglect his political duties, preferring to idle away his time
with Xishi. He frequently took her out on carriage rides to the noisy
and prosperous sections of the city. On these rides, he liked to boast
to those around him that he had won the heart of the most beautiful woman
in the world. He would add: "If you want to look at her, you'll have
to present me with some gold coins!" In this way, he also managed
to enrich his coffers.
Xishi, however, never lost sight of her mission. Her aim was to bewitch
the Prince of Wu so that his subjects would grow restless and his friends
would desert him. The political chaos that ensued would enable the King
of Yue to invade the state of Wu, recompensing him for his former humiliation.
Heaven grants the wishes of men. The King of Yue finally annexed the state
of Wu. Following the death of Prince Fuchai of Wu, Xishi disappeared from
public life. She lived in relative obscurity with Fan Li who became a
This story is unique in the history of feudal China as no one has ever
found fault with Xishi, even though she had caused the downfall of the
state of Wu.
Wang Zhaojun was one of the four China¡¯s ancient beauties. Like her peers,
her fame was also tied to the political development of her time. Today,
the name of Zhaojun not only symbolizes physical beauty, but also a spirit
of goodwill to bridge different cultures, even at the expense of one¡¯s
own interests. Her name was Qiang, her style Zhaojun but during the Jin Dynasty, she
was referred to as Mingfei as the name Zhao could not be used by ordinary
folks since the King Sima Zhao had the same surname. Later generations,
however, addressed her as Mingfei.
A native of Zigui (in Western Hubei Province), she entered the imperial
court during the reign of Emperor Yuan of Western Han (48-33 BC).During
the reign of the Han emperor Xuan (91-49BC), the Huns, or Xiong-Nu, Han¡¯s
troublesome northern neighbor, split into five kingdoms, each led by a
chieftain known as Chan-Yu. Wars started among the five Chan-Yus in a
bid for control. Chan-Yu Khukhenye, who was defeated by his brother Chan-Yu
Zhizhi-Guduhu, decided to befriend the former foe in the south, Emperor
Xuan, by suggesting that he pay the emperor a personal visit.
Khukhenye was the first Chan-Yu that ever came to pay tribute to a Han
emperor. Rejoiced and feeling a bit flattered, Emperor Xuan went out of
his way to meet Khukhenye at the suburb of Capital Chang¡¯an and held
a grand banquet in his honor. After a month¡¯s stay in Chang¡¯an, Khukhenye
thought of going back home and asked Emperor Xuan for help. The emperor
sent an army of ten thousand strong to escort him back and gave him a
hundred thousand bushels of food to bring back to his starved people.
The thankful Khukhenye was determined to maintain the friendly relationship
with the Han Dynasty.
After Emperor Xuan¡¯s death, his son succeeded the throne and became Emperor
Yuan. Meanwhile, Chan-Yu Zhizhi-Guduhu had been running over the states
to the west of Han and went so far as to slay the envoy of the Han emperor.
This act of brutality incurred the emperor¡¯s retaliations and cost his
own life. With the death of Chan-Yu Zhizhi-Guduhu, Khukhenye¡¯s position
was further strengthened. In the year of 33AD, he paid a second visit
to the Han¡¯s capital, where he asked to marry one of Emperor Yuan¡¯s
daughters to cement the relations of Han and his Xiong-Nu state. The emperor
granted his request, but instead of his daughter, the bride would be a
maid of honor. Getting married would be a god-sent opportunity for a maid
of honor to be freed from their perpetual solitude in the backyard of
the palace. However, all but one volunteered to venture in to a matrimony
that would destine their life in a foreign land. That was Wang Qiang,
better known in history as Wang Zhaojun. She was extremely beautiful and
intelligent. At the wedding in Chang¡¯an, the emperor was awed by Zhaojun¡¯s
Back to his chamber, Emperor Yuan was very regretful that he allowed Wang
Zhaojun to be married to the Xiong-Nu chieftain. He would have had her
as his concubine if he had known she was so glamorous. He wondered why
he had not seen her portrait and sent for it for a review. Incidentally,
emperors chose their concubines by looking at portraits instead of the
girls themselves. When he found that the portrait did not match Wang Zhaojun,
he launched an investigation. It turned out that the artist Mao Yanshou
would paint a prettier portrait for those who bribed him or vice versa.
As Wang Zhaojun refused to do so, he did injustice to her beauty so that
the emperor would never know her existence in the palace. In rage, Emperor
Yuan had Mao Yanshou executed.
Regretful as he was, Emperor Yuan blessed the inter-racial marriage. He
admired Zhaojun¡¯s courage and was thankful for her willingness to serve
the interests of Han in spite of her own.
Escorted by officials sent by the emperor, Wang Zhaojun embarked on a
long journey to the north on horseback. They braved bitter cold and heavy
snow storms and finally reached Xiong-Nu. There Khukhenye conferred the
title of Peaceful Hu-E-Shi, in the hope that she would bring them security
and peach. That she did by persuading Khukhenye to abandon violence. As
a result, peace reigned on the border with her mother country for over
half a century. After Khukhenye¡¯s death, Zhaojun married the eldest son
of his and his concubine in accordance with the custom of the Xiong-Nu
nationality ¨C a custom abhorred by the Chinese moral norms in which she
was brought up. Therefore, it must have taken a lot of courage and political
insight for her to do so. It has been popularly believed that she did
so for the sake of Xiong-Nu¡¯s stability, and thereby peace between Xiong
Nu and her mother country. For her self-sacrifice a second time, she earned
the respect of her compatriots not only in her generation, but generations
Diao Chan is allegedly one of the four ancient Chinese beauties. Despite
her absence in historical records, she was
immortalized as a heroine by the well-known Chinese literary classics
Romance of Three Kingdoms.
Some scholars claim that Diao Chan was born in the family of Ren in the
Mu'er Village of Bingzhou county of today's Shanxi province. At fifteen,
she was selected as a maid of honor in the Han Court, where she was charged
with the duty of taking care of court officials¡¯ hat decorations known
as Diao Chan at the time. Hence she came to be known as such.
With the death of the Han emperor Ling in 189 A.D., the Han Dynasty fell
apart so that warlords ran rampant. The situation would not be stabilized
until three of the warlords emerged to become equally strong and began
the period of stalemate known in history as the Three Kingdoms. However,
before this could happen, chaos reigned. Each warlord had tried to beat
the others. In doing so, they needed to rally support with imperial mandate.
The court now rendered powerless, thus fell victim to their bloody conflicts
trying to get hold of it.
One of the warlords, Dong Zhuo, with the help of his god-son L¨¹ Bu, an
invincible young warrior, eventually got the upper hand by slaying the
child emperor and installed one of his likings. Though a prime minister
in ink, he was in fact a sovereign, and an extremely brutal one! He would
kill any of his subjects who dared to voice the slightest dissent. He
had a palace built miles outside the capital for himself. In order to
get eight hundred maids of honor and concubines, he had all the men related
to the women slaughtered. Even the puppet emperor hated Dong and secretly
pleaded help of his closest courtiers.
Wang Yun, one of the courtiers that the young emperor had consulted, would
very much like Dong Zhuo to be destroyed himself. However, with L¨¹ Bu
as Dong's body guard in all weather, who could beat this formidable foe
and save the dynasty from his deadly grip? He began to lose sleep and
appetite, trying to find an answer. His decline in health worried a girl
very much. This is Diao Chan. When the Han Dynasty fell apart, she lost
her job and was adopted by Wang Yun and worked for him as an alme - a
singing and dancing girl. Wang Yun treated her as his own daughter, for
which she was very grateful. One night, Diao Chan came out to the garden
in Wang's mansion and prayed to the goddess of moon, to whom she expressed
her willingness to do whatever she could to help her fatherly master.
Her pray was overheard by Wang Yun who happened to come to the garden
for a walk. A plan dawned upon him: using Diao Chan to antagonize Dong
Zhuo and L¨¹ Bu so that they would become vulnerable. Diao Chan agreed.
The next day, Wang Yun entertained L¨¹ Bu in his mansion, where he introduced
him to Diao Chan. L¨¹ Bu was immediately captivated by her beauty and
was only too happy when Wang Yun offered to marry them in a few days.
A day later, Wang Yun played the same trick on Dong Zhuo. Lascivious as
he was, Dong could not wait and took Diao Chan with him as he left Wang
Yun's mansion. Whenever there was a chance, Diao Chan would complain of
L¨¹'s harassment before Dong, and her resentment of Dong for nabbing their
love before L¨¹. In so doing, Diao Chan successfully drove a wedge between
the father and the son, whose jealousy eventually grew into hatred. One
day Dong Zhuo caught L¨¹ Bu courting Diao Chan in his own backyard and
became so enraged that he ran after L¨¹ with an attempt to kill him. In
turn, L¨¹ Bu would have ended Dong's life but for the qualm of the sin
of patricide. He finally made up his mind after Wang Yun reminded him
that since he and Dong had different family names, they were not legally
bounded. Then, they staged a coup d'etat and killed Dong Zhuo, to the
happy release of the dynasty.
Some legends told more stories about Diao Chan's heroism. After L¨¹ Bu's
death, Cao Cao, another warlord who later established Wei, one of the
Three Kingdoms, gave Diao Chan to Guan Yu, one of the two sworn brotherly
generals of Cao Cao's rival Liu Bei. Unwilling to sabotage the cause of
Liu Bei for whom she had great respect, Diao Chan threatened with suicide.
With her consent, Guan Yu escorted her to a temple, where she became a
nun. Hearing this, Cao Cao was very angry and ordered that she be captured.
His men traced Diao Chan to the temple. Refusing to be brought back to
Cao Cao, Diao Chan threw herself to the sword in the hand of one of the
men and killed herself.
Another legend tells that the three brother warriors of Liu Bei, Guan
Yu and Zhang Fei kept Diao Chan as their sister and sent her back to her
hometown after they succeeded in establishing Shu, one of the Three Kingdoms.
Diao Chan died a natural death where she was born.
Yang Yuhuan (713 ¡ª 756AD) is known as one of the four ancient Chinese
beauties. Like the other three, Yuhuan was a historical as well as a legendary
Historically, Yang Yuhuan was the wife of Prince Shou, the son of Xuanzong
Emperor of the Tang dynasty. Coveting her beauty, Xuanzong Emperor wanted
to have her as his concubine. As he could not openly marry his daughter-in-law,
he did it in a devious way. He first made Yang Yuhuan a Taoist nun. Then
he gave her the title of Yang the Supreme Truth, which entitled her to
become a member of his court. Soon, in 745AD, Xuanzong Emperor conferred
the title of Guifei (First Lady) to Yuhuan, making her his most favorite
woman in the court to the dismay of hundreds of his other concubines.
Normally, an emperor would not care about a serious love affair for a
concubine. Emperor Xuanzong's affection for Concubine Yang, however, was
exceptional. Guifei Yang , too, was very much in love with Emperor Xuangzong,
and the two became inseparable. Their romance earned admiration from generations
to come, but at the time incurred strong disapproval from the emperor's
subordinates. Consequently, as the pair fled from a rebel army, Concubine
Yang was forced to hang herself. The love affair, culminated with its
tragic end, has since become a legend. Among many of the legends, the
poem ¡°Lament of Endless Grief¡± written by Bai Juyi, one of the greatest
Tang poets, was the most popular.
The poem began with the lascivious Xuanzong Emperor searching for a beautiful
woman to add to the cohort of his concubines. Finally Yang Yuhuan caught
his attention. The poet thus described what happened next:
The emperor¡¯s favors also extended to her relatives: her cousin Yang
Guozhong, in particular, was appointed prime minister. A wicked person,
he made many an enemy in and outside the court.
Xuanzong Emperor and Concubine Yang were both artistically minded, the
former well versed in musical instruments; the latter, in singing and
dancing. Together they often performed the then famous Rainbow Feather
Garment Dance. However, good times did not last. Xuanzong Emperor was
indulging himself in the infatuation with Concubine Yang when civil war
broke out on the frontiers.
In the first decade of the sixth century, the Tang government established
many fortresses, known as fan towns, in the northern frontiers to enforce
their defense and conferred the title of jiedushi (military governor)
to their top leaders, who were thus entitled to tremendous military, civil
and financial powers.
In 755AD, a military officer named An Lushan became so powerful that he
began to challenge the sovereignty of Xuanzong Emperor. He led a rebellion
under the banner of ending the corrupt government of Prime Minister Yang
Guozhong, Guifei Yang¡¯s cousin. When the rebel army marched towards Chang'an,
the capital, Xuanzong Emperor had to flee with his courtiers, escorted
by an army. When they reached a village called Mawei Slope, a little more
than a hundred li from the capital, the soldiers and their officers refused
to move on. They demanded that the Prime Minister Yang Guozhong and his
cousin Yang Concubine be eliminated, blaming them for the problems that
had beset the dynasty.
The Emperor Xuanzong had but to give in to their demand, even though he
loved Guifei Yang dearly and knew that she was made the scapegoat for
the Prime Minister's misdeeds. After all, his life and, by its extension,
the fate of the dynasty was more important than that of a woman. Concubine
Yang was also aware of what had happened. Grief and sorrow almost overtook
her. She did not grudge her life as much as amorous relations she had
with her regal lover. With much reluctance, she hanged herself with a
white scarf. Almighty and affectionate as he was, the emperor could not
prevent the tragedy. Covering his face with his hands, he allowed his
tears to run unchecked.
The rebellion was finally crushed and Xuanzong Emperor returned to his
palace. Now that Concubine Yang had gone forever, he had nothing on his
mind but her memory. Everything he saw and touched would remind him of
their moments together. The lotus roots of the lake resembled her fair
skin and the willow branches her eyebrows.
The emperor became listless and sleepless. Even though he was able to
fall asleep, the absence of his beloved concubine in his dream gave him
more misery than insomnia. Seeing that the emperor suffered so much from
the death of Concubine Yang, a Taoist priest offered to help; he claimed
that he could communicate with the deceased. He began to search for the
spirit of Concubine Yang in heaven and the underworld. Eventually, they
traced her to a divine island, upon which there stood pavilions after
pavilions populated with nymphs and fairies. Concubine Yang was the most
beautiful of them all. At the arrival of her royal lover¡¯s envoy, she
hastened out of her chamber without much hairdo. Still she was as beautiful
as when she had done the Rainbow and Feather Garment Dance. With tears,
she expressed her thanks to the envoy for bringing her the love from the
emperor. ¡°Please tell his majesty. Though life is short in the mortal
world, it is timeless on this divine island. Give this half of my hairpin
to my beloved and let him know of my love for him: it is as firm as the
gold of which it is made.¡±
On each seventh day of the seventh month, Xuanzong Emperor would visit
the Longevity Temple, where he could communicate quietly with his First
Lady. He would pray, ¡°May we be twin birds flying side by side in heaven
and twin trees intertwined on the earth.¡±
Alas, "heaven and earth may not last for ever, but this sorrow is
eternal," lamented Bai Juyi at the end of his poem.
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