The Four Great Beauties of Ancient China

The Four Great Beauties are four ancient Chinese women renowned for their beauty which they skillfully exercised to influence Chinese history. Although each of the Four Great Beauties frequently appear as the subjects or objects of arts, one seldom learns much of them beyond their names, descriptions of their looks and brief mentions of their skills. This is common in ancient Chinese works related to female performers, or courtesans. Their legends illustrate applications of the early Chinese education utilized and perfected by the ancient courtesans of China, which was then preserved by Confucius as part of his philosophy.

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Scholar Lin Yutang wrote: “One can never overstate the important roles Chinese prostitutes played in romantic relationships, literature, music, and politics.” The Complete Poetry of the Tang reveals the influence of “prostitutes” on the ancient Chinese culture. The contradiction between the modern and the ancient concepts of prostitution in part comes from the origin of the word itself. The Chinese character frequently translated as prostitute, 妓 (jì), implies “a female performer” or, women who offered the pleasure of their company through music, singing, dancing, and poetry. Although they were called “prostitutes”, they were closer in definition to “courtesans” in the west. However, even the term “courtesan” does not adequately describe the rigorously trained and highly cultivated women who entertained at elegant banquets. Indeed, the word would refer to the “upper and more genteel range” of female entertainers.

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There were two classes of courtesans who would be in especially frequent contact with emperors and courtiers. They were the government courtesans (guan ji) and household courtesans (jia ji). Household courtesans were often referred to as “concubine servant” (ji shi) or simply “serving maid” (shi’er) these terms hinted that the woman relationship with the master of the house was more personal than that of mere “entertainer”.

In ancient China, it was preferable for noble ladies to not be intelligent or talented to be respectable. A proverb first seen in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 CE) book The Elders Thus Say, is quoted describing the ideal woman: “A woman is virtuous as long as she is ignorant.” The ideal Chinese woman was obedient to her husband, dutiful to her children, mindful of her domestic affairs and ignorant on all other matters. The concern to maintain class distinction was also expressed in injunctions that genteel women would not be trained in the entertainment arts, especially in poetry and music.

Changzhou combs representing the Four Beauties of China

As wives and concubines were expected to abide by social codes, the men were in need of intellectual counterparts of the opposite sex. As marriages were matters of social hierarchy, endless scholars and aristocrats had marriages that lacked both the affection and communication that can be found on a deeper level.

Unlike the girls brought up in ordinary families who were deprived of education, courtesans were taught to become not merely entertaining performers, but the mental equals to aristocrats, scholars, government officials, and all manner of high society. The legends of the Four Great Beauties are rife with mentions of their intelligence and performance skills, indicating that they were not noble ladies, nor were they deprived of education in the arts.

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This painting depicts Xi Shi (西施). 

Xishi (Spring and Autumn Period, 770 – 476 BC) was the daughter of a tea trader from the Zhuji County in Zhejiang Province, which was a part of the ancient state of Yue. When the state of Yue was vanquished by the state of Wu, the emperor of Yue, Gou Jian, was captured and forced to serve in the stables of Yue. He was finally allowed to return home provided that he paid a large annual tribute of money to the king of Yue. A humiliated emperor Gou Jian commissioned men to search for a woman whom he could send as a concubine servant to emperor Fuchai of Wu. Her mission was to seduce the emperor of Wu so that his subjects would grow restless and his friends would desert him—as a man who became too deeply involved with a courtesan risked losing credibility. Xishi, found when she was washing gauzes and clothes by the river, was selected for this task and sent to Gou Jian.

Gou Jian approved of the choice. He had Xishi dressed in fine robes and 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 in love with the wise minister and Fan Li also grew to admire this courageous lady who was willing to give her life for her country. However, they decided to put their love aside and dedicate themselves to their county. Consequently, before they parted, they made a secret pledge of love.

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Xishi in a Chinese opera

At any social gathering, from quiet drinks among friends to huge state banquets at the imperial court, courtesans were present to “urge the winecup” by providing musical entertainment and clever banter. Although being beautiful would benefit the lady, a courtesan would not rely on looks alone. She would seduce with her learned skills and accomplishments. Some sense of this is captured in Collected Aphorisms, a text from the mid-11th century CE.  A similar collection of aphorisms by Su Shi catalogued things that evoke tenderness in people: excellent calligraphy and painting, sons who can read, and young courtesans talented at dancing and singing.

Su Shi was proven correct as the emperor Fuchai was intrigued by Xishi. When invited to perform, she not only sang and danced well at his banquet, she was also witty and knowledgeable. This showed her as a courtesan worthy of the name as not only was she talented, her performance was sought after.  A definition of a “low-class” ancient courtesan was an entertainer who approached the banquet table and began to sing without having been invited.

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A scene from the opera The Eternal Beauty Sai Sze, performed by the Kok Sin Sing Opera Troupe at the Astor Theatre, 1939.

Emperor Fuchai was enchanted by her and gradually began to neglect his political duties, preferring to idle away his time with Xishi. Xishi never lost sight of her mission. The political chaos that ensued due to the emperor’s neglect of his duty enabled the emperor of Yue to invade the state of Wu. Seeing that all was lost, Fuchai committed suicide. Following the death of Fuchai of Wu, Xishi disappeared from public life. She lived in relative obscurity with Fan Li, who became a trader.

In the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE), the Chinese renowned poet Su Dongpo wrote a poem to praise the West Lake and compared it to Xishi. Since then, the West Lake at Huangzhou province has another elegant name of Xishi (or, Xizi) Lake.

Wang Zhaojun Marrying a Tribal Ruler, by Chen Wei Yan (died 1926), China, Shiwan ware - Hong Kong Museum of Art - DSC00724.JPG
Wang Zhaojun Marrying a Tribal Ruler, by Chen Wei Yan (died 1926), China, Shiwan ware – Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong

Wang Zhaojun (Western Han Dynasty, 206 BC – 24 CE) was a native of Zigui, in Western Hubei Province. Said to be beautiful and well-read, Wang Zhaojun entered the imperial harem as a concubine servant willingly to save her father, a scholar-official, from persecution during the reign of emperor Yuan (48 – 33 BC).

In the year of 33 CE, a Hun chieftain of Xiong-Nu, Khukhenye, asked to marry one of Emperor Yuan’s daughters to cement the relations of Han and his state. The emperor decided that instead of his daughter, the bride would be one of his concubines. Wang Zhaojun who, despite her beauty being overlooked by the emperor, volunteered for the task.

Escorted by officials sent by the emperor, armed with her thick red robe and her Pipa (stringed musical instrument), Wang Zhaojun embarked on a long journey to the north on horseback. When she reached Xiong-Nu, as an official wife of a chieftain, she persuaded Khukhenye to abandon violence. As a result, peace reigned on the border with her mother country for over half a century.

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Wang Zhaojun by Hishida Shunsō (1874-1911)

After Khukhenye’s death, Zhaojun married Khukhenye’s eldest son and became his concubine in accordance with the custom of Xiong-Nu. It was a custom abhorred by the Chinese moral norms in which she was brought up. Therefore, it would 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 peace between Xiong Nu and her mother country.

Wang Zhaojun lived in Hun for the rest of her life. Her children continued her work of forging an amicable relationship between the Han and the Hun. The story of Zhaojun’s settlement in Xiong-Nu has become a household tale in the history of the friendship and unity among Chinese nationalities as well as a popular subject in Chinese poetry, drama and novels. Today, her tomb at Hohhot in Inner Mongolia was one of the eight special scenery spots in present Inner Mongolia, which was built by the Huns of olden times in memory of this goodwill envoy from the Han.

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Wang Yun invites Lü Bu to a banquet. Lü Bu finds himself unable to stop looking at Wang Yun’s maid, Diaochan.

Diaochan (Three Kingdoms Period, 220 – 280 CE) is the only Great Beauty without any historical records. She was immortalized as a heroine in a Chinese literary classic Romance of Three Kingdoms. Diaochan was born in the Mu’er Village of Bingzhou county of today’s Shanxi province. At fifteen, she was selected as a serving maid in the Han Court, where she was charged with the duty of taking care of court officials’ hat decorations, known as Diaochan at the time. Hence she came to be known as such.

With the death of Han emperor Ling in 189 CE, the Han Dynasty fell apart. Three warlords emerged to become equally strong and began the period of stalemate known in history as the Three Kingdoms. One of the warlords, Dong Zhuo, with the help of his adopted son Lü Bu, a powerful young warrior, eventually got the upper hand by murdering the child emperor and installed one of his liking, with Dong Zhuo himself as the prime minister. Though a prime minister on paper, Dong was in fact a brutal sovereign.

When the Han Dynasty fell apart, Diaochan was adopted by a courtier named Wang Yun and served in his household for him as a concubine servant. Wang Yun would very much have liked Dong Zhuo to be destroyed. However, with Lü Bu as Dong’s bodyguard, he was unbeatable. Wang Yun began to lose sleep thinking of this conundrum and his health declined. One night, Diaohan came out to the garden and prayed to the goddess of the moon, expressing her willingness to do whatever she could to help her master. Her prayer was overheard by Wang Yun, who then decided to have Diaochan pit Dong Zhuo and Lü Bu against each other so that they would become vulnerable. 

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Lu Bu and Diaochan

Wang Yun then betrothed Diaochan to Lü Bu; at the same time presenting her to Dong Zhuo as a concubine. Both Dong Zhuo and Lu Bu became fond of her and could not decide how to settle the matter. As the hostilities grew, Diaochan took every opportunity to add fuel to the fire, and the two men became fiercely jealous of each other. Eventually, Lü Bu’s assassinated Dong Zhuo.

Lü Bu secured Diaochan, who had become fond of him, and embarked on the life of a fugitive as a wanted murderer. Diaochan accompanied him through many battles until Lü Bu was finally captured and killed. Romance of Three Kingdoms does not tell its readers what happened to Diaochan after that.

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Yang Guifei, by Uemura Shoen, Shohaku Art Museum, Nara, Nara, Japan

Yang Yuhuan (Tang Dynasty, 618 – 907 CE) was the daughter of a census official in Sichuan. The emperor Xuanzong fell in love with her when she served as a concubine servant in his son’s household, and took her as his concubine. In 745 CE, he conferred the title of Guifei (First Lady) to Yuhuan, making her his favorite woman in his court to the dismay of hundreds of his other concubines. Yang Yuhuan would then be known as Yang Guifei.

Emperor Xuanzong and Yang Guifei became inseparable. As Yang Guifei had served as a concubine servant before she became the first lady, she was highly trained in the arts of singing and dancing, as well as reading and conversations, which endeared her even more to the emperor. Yang Guifei also utilized her influence with the emperor to gain good positions in the government for members of her family.

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However, in 755 CE, a rebellion started under the banner of ending the corrupt government of Prime Minister Yang Guozhong, a cousin of Yang Guifei. When the rebel army marched towards the capital, the emperor had to flee with his courtiers, escorted by an army. When they reached a village called the Mawei Slope, the soldiers and their officers refused to move on. They demanded that the Prime Minister Yang Guozhong and his cousin Yang Guifei be executed, blaming them for the problems that had beset the dynasty. The emperor had no choice but to give in to their demand even though he loved Yang Guifei and knew that she was made the scapegoat for the Prime Minister’s misdeeds. The heartbroken Yang Guifei hung herself with a white scarf.

In 806, Bai Juyi, one of the most famous poets of the Tang Dynasty, wrote “Song of Everlasting Sorrow,” a long poem, which depicted emperor Xuanzong’s love for Yang Guifei, and his perpetual grief over her death. The poem became one of the most widely read Chinese love poems for thousands of years.

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Yang Gui fei;hanging scroll,color on silk

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