The legends behind four ancient beauties of China

How beautiful can a woman be that her name and beauty inspires idioms and legends?

While no one in the current generation can claim to be that beautiful, these four ancient beauties of China definitely know how that feels.

The beauties of Xi Shi, Wang Zhaojun, Diaochan and Yang Guifei are reportedly so out of this world that kings were swayed by them and even Mother Nature couldn’t compete.

There might be some exaggeration going on here but here are some of the legends behind the four ancient beauties of China:

Gathering Gems of Beauty 吳西施 2
Xi Shi as depicted in the album Gathering Gems of Beauty created during Qing Dynasty. Credit: Public Domain.

1.Xi Shi

The first of the four ancient beauties of China is Xi Shi who lived during 7th to 6th century BC.

She was said to be so beautiful that while leaning over a balcony to look at the fish in the pond, the fish would be so dazzled that they forgot to swim and sank below the surface.

The fish were literally killed by Xi Shi’s beauty.

Due to her beauty, she became a political tool between the Wu and Yue Kingdoms of ancient China.

King Goujian of Yue and his military advisor Fan Li were both hostages of King Fuchai from Wu Kingdom, turning Yue into a tributary state to Wu.

In order to strike back against Wu, Goujian decided to send trained beautiful women to Fuchai. One of the women was Yi Shi.

Despite being in love with Fan Li, Yi Shi went to Wu as a tribute.

The move was definitely a smart one because Fuchai had a weakness for beautiful women.

He was so bewitched by Yi Shi that he forgot all about his state affairs and killed his best advisor along the way.

As the strength of Wu dwindled, Goujian attacked his enemy and completely overpowered Wu’s army.

After the fall of his kingdom, Fuchai committed suicide.

There are different legends of what happened to Xi Shi after the fall of Wu.

One version is that Goujian killed her by drowning because he was afraid that he would be mesmerised by her beauty the way Fuchai was. (Oh yes, blame it on the women for your own weakness.)

Another version of the legend thankfully has a happy ending. Xi Shi reunites with Fan Li and they live together on a fishing boat, roaming like fairies in the misty wilderness of Taihu Lake.

2.Wang Zhaojun

Periodo edo kosumi morihage wang zhaojun XVII sec. 02

Just like Yi Shi, Wang Zhaojun was sent by Emperor Yuan to marry Chanyu Huhanye of the Xiongnu Empire to establish friendly relations with the Han Dynasty through marriage.

She first entered the harem of Emperor Yuan of Han in 36 BC.

According to the custom in the palace, the Emperor was first presented with portraits of all the candidates in the harem to choose as his wife.

Most women resorted to ancient way of catfishing; they bribed the artist Mao Yanshou to paint them to be more beautiful than they really were.

Since Wang Zhaojun refused to bribe him, Mao Yanshou painted an ugly portrait of her.

As a result, Emperor Yuan never visited her and she remained as a palace lady-in-waiting.

Then in 33BC, Huhanye of the Xiongnu Empire visited Han kingdom. He took the opportunity to request to become a son-in-law of Emperor Yuan.

Normally, the emperor would honour the request by offering the daughter of one of his concubines.

However, Yuan refused to give Huhanye a real princess for marriage so he ordered the plainest girl in the harem to be selected.

The matron of the harem gave the emperor the ugly portrait of Wang Zhaojun and he immediately agreed.

Only when she was presented to Huhanye did Emperor Yuan find out the beauty of Wang Zhaojun.

It was too late for Emperor Yuan to retract his decision and Huhanye was beyond happy to receive Wang Zhaojun as his bride.

The good news was that relations between two empires improved after the marriage. Unfortunately for the artist Mao Yanshou, he was executed for deceiving the Emperor.

The beauty of Wang Zhaojun

So how beautiful was Wang Zhaojun according to ancient texts? Legend has it that Wang Zhaojun left her hometown on horseback to join Emperor Yuan’s harem.

She was sad leaving her hometown that Wang Zhaojun began to play sorrowful melodies on a pipa.

A flock of geese flying over saw the beautiful Wang Zhaojun and immediately forgot to flap their wings and fell to the ground.


Diaochan Qing Dynasty Illustration
Qing dynasty Romance of the Three Kingdoms illustration of Diaochan. Credit: Public Domain.

This ancient beauty of China is mostly a fictional character, famous for her role in the 14th century historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

In the story, warrior Lu Bu fell in love with Diaochan up to the point that he betrayed and kill his own foster father.

It is not that sad and tragic story because the foster father is a tyrannical warlord named Dong Zhuo.

Diaochan was Dong Zhuo’s concubine. In order to kill the warlord, she made full use of her beauty to turn Lu Bu against Dong Zhuo. The plan seemed to be straight forward and simple; seduce both father and son while encouraging the son to kill the father.

Diaochan was highly praised in writings because thanks to her beauty, Dong Zhuo’s evil regime was put to an end.

She was said to be so beautiful with a face so luminous that the moon itself would shy away in embarrassment when compared to her face.

There are various accounts telling the fate of Diaochan. One account stated that Dong Zhuo’s followers killed her out of revenge, other said she ended up with Lu Bu and eventually was executed along with him when he lost in a battle.

4.Yang Guifei

Hosoda Eishi Yang Gui Fei
Painting of Hosoda Eishi titled “The Chinese beauty Yang Guifei”. Edo period, about AD 1800-20. Credit: Public Domain.

While Diaochan’s beauty made the moon shy away, Yang Guifei (whose real name was Yang Yuhuan) was so beautiful that the flowers were put to shame.

In 733, 14-year-old Yang Guifei married Li Mao, the Prince of Shou and the son of Emperor Xuanzong and Consort Wu.

Here comes the icky part; after Consort Wu died, Emperor Xuanzong became attracted to his daughter-in-law Yang Guifei.

Since it is scandalous to take your own daughter-in-law as your concubine even during ancient China, Emperor Xuanzhong sent Yang Guifei to be a Taoist nun.

Yang Guifei stayed as a nun for a brief moment before the emperor took her in again and made her an imperial consort.

In the meantime, Xuanzong bestowed a new wife on his son Li Mao.

Yang Guifei soon became Xuanzong’s favourite concubine. He loved her so much that the emperor had Yang Guifei’s favourite fruit lychee to be delivered to the capital for her.

The Grab riders of Ancient China would take night and day shifts from southern China, where the fruit grew, to the palace.

During the An Lushan Rebellion, the imperial court blamed Yang and the rest of her family for the rebellion.

This was because the conflict between Yang Guozhang (Yang Guifei’s second cousin) and An Lushan, a favourite official of Emperor Xuanzhong that drove An into rebellion.

In order to put an end to the rebellion, Emperor Xuanzhong reluctantly ordered his man to strangle Yang Guifei to death.

Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight.

She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science.

She is currently obsessed with silent vlogs during this Covid-19 pandemic.

Due to her obsession, she started her Youtube channel of slient vlogs.

Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at or Twitter at @patriciahului.

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