In ancient China, there lived four beautiful women ( 四大美女 sì dà měi nǚ) from different dynasties. They were well known for their impeccable beauty and their contributions to the Chinese monarchy. Three out of the Four Beauties of Ancient China were even responsible for bringing down entire empires.
Here are the Four Beauties of Ancient China:
西施 Xi Shi
Xi Shi is known to be the most beautiful out of the Four Beauties of Ancient China. It is believed her beauty makes the fishes forget how to swim, and they sink to the bottom of the lake with a single glance of her reflection. She grew up in the Yue Kingdom. During her time, the kingdom’s King Goujian was imprisoned by Wu Kingdom’s King Fuchai after the former lost the war.
King Goujian knew that King Fuchai’s weakness was beautiful women. Despite knowing that Xi Shi was in a relationship with Fan Li, Goujian sent Xi Shi to Fuchai as a gift. Fuchai fell in love with her at first sight. Because he couldn’t resist Xi Shi, he started to disregard his state of affairs and killed his advisor, Wu Zixu, who was opposed to Fuchai from accepting Goujian’s gift. Because of this, the Wu Kingdom’s strength declined and Goujian was able to defeat Fuchai.
After that, there are two versions of what happened to Xi Shi next. The first one was that Goujian drowned Xi Shi because he was afraid that he would be mesmerized by her the same way Fuchai was. The second one was that she eventually reunited with Fan Li and they lived happily ever after.
It is believed that whenever Diaochan paid offerings to the moon at midnight, Chang’e (the Chinese Moon Goddess) would hide behind the clouds because Diaochan made her feel inferior. Unlike the other three beauties, Diaochan does not appear in historical writings, and is only known as a fictional character in the classic novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
The story goes that Wang Yun (王允) married Diaochan to warrior Lü Bu (呂布) and later to warlord Dong Zhuo (董卓). This led to a feud between the father and son and eventually, Lü Bu killed his adoptive father. According to historical writings, Lü Bu had a relationship with Dong Zhuo’s maid, but it isn’t known if that maid’s name was Diaochan.
People believe that it was extremely unlikely that it was Diaochan because “Diāo” is not a common Chinese surname. The word “Diāochán” is believed to mean the black fur (diào) tails and jade decorations in the shape of cicadas (chán), which adorn the hats of high-level officials.
王昭君 Wang Zhaojun
Wang Zhaojun was said to be so beautiful that birds would forget to flap their wings and fall out of the sky. She became a concubine to Emperor Yun at a very young age. During this time, the emperor was choosing concubines through their portraits. Most of the concubines would bribe the artist to make them appear more beautiful in the portrait. Wang Zhaojun refused to bribe the artist so, the artist made her seem ugly in the painting, which resulted in the emperor never visiting Wang Zhaojun.
After a few years, Emperor Yun asked for a Han beauty for a wife for Hu Hanye. He was presented with Wang Zhaojun and Emperor Yun was shocked at how she different she looked from the portrait. Furious, Emperor Yun ordered the artist who painted her portrait to be executed. After Wang Zhaojun married Hu Hanye, she was blessed with two children, Yituzhiyashia and Yun (Princess Yimuo, a powerful figure in Xiongnu politics).
When Hu Hanye died, Wang Zhaojun requested to return to China. But Emperor Cheng refused as she had to follow the Xiongnu custom and become the wife of the next shanyu (her stepson that is born from Hu Hanye’s first wife). She was given the title, Ninghu Yanzhi (宁胡阏氏 “Chief-Consort Pacifying Hu”). Legend has it that she committed suicide after her husband died as this was the only way she could avoid marrying his son. However, it’s not stated in historical records how or when she died.
杨贵妃 Yang Guifei
They say that Yang Guifei’s beauty made all the flowers hide away in embarrassment when she walked by. She lived during the Tang dynasty with a well-known family. She also had two other names: Yang Yuhuan (杨玉环) and Taizhen (太真). She was the concubine of Emperor Xuanzong and commonly called, Imperial Concubine Yang. She was believed to be demure and talented in singing, dancing, and playing the lute. These skills made her stand out among the other concubines which made her the Emperor’s favorite.
Back in the day, she was often compared to Empress Zhao Feiyan which led to Yang Guifei being banished twice by the Empress. However, the Emperor was extremely fond of her and brought her back every time she was banished. Yang Guifei died when Emperor Xuanzong’s army refused to march and accused her of seducing the emperor to ruin the state and conniving with her cousin Yang Guozong and their enemies. For the sake of the state, Emperor Xuanzong ordered Yang Guifei to commit suicide at the Mawei Slope.
As much as they were beautiful and powerful, the Chinese believe in the phrase, 红颜薄命 (hóng yán bó mìng), which means “Beautiful women will live difficult lives,” which was the case for the Four Beauties as each of them died under tragic or mysterious circumstances.