The four legendary beauties of China

The stories of the four legendary beauties of China. Photo: Chinese Beauty

WASHINGTON, May 24, 2013 — The names of Sinking Fish, Falling Bird, Hidden Moon and Wilting Flower are collectively known as poetic nicknames of the four most famous beautiful women of Chinese history. 

They acquired their names through incidental encounters with nature.


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Xi Shi – At the appearance of Xi Shi, fishes would forget to swim and sink to the bottom of the river.

Wang Zhaojun – A sight of Wang Zhaojun would cause a bird to forget to flap its wings and fall to the ground.

Diao Chan – At the sight of her face, the Moon went and hid in shame behind the clouds.

Yang Guifei – At the sight of her beauty, the flower wilted in embarrassment.

So, ladies, if a Chinese tells you that you have the looks of a sinking fish or falling bird, don’t kick him in the shin. He’s just paying you a compliment.

Xi Shi

Xi Shi (circa 506 B.C.–????):  The first of the four beauties, lived during the Spring and Autumn Period (722 BC–481 BC). In 494 BC, King Fu Chai of the Wu state defeated King Go Jian of the Yueh nation. The vanquished ruler spent three years as a servant in the Wu Court, before his men successfully bribed the Wu Prime Minister and obtained Go Jian’s release.

Once back in his homeland, Go Jian set to work with zeal in preparation for revenge against the Wu kingdom. Apart from military measures, Go Jian found the most beautiful woman of his lands, Xi Shi; trained her in dancing, music and the ways of seduction then sent her as a gift to King Fu Chai.


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With her help, Go Jian got his revenge and brought King Fu Chai’s rule to an end.

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Wang Zhaojun (52 BC–????):  Zhaojun was a courtesan of the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220AD). 

Wang Zhaojun

She had entered the imperial palace at the age of 16 and arrogantly refused to pay the bribe to the Court Artist; as a result, her not so accurate portrait failed to attract the interest of the Emperor.

In 33 BC, a nomadic Xiong Nu chieftain requested for a Chinese princess to be his wife. Wang Zhaojun volunteered to be the bride of the nomad leader. The Emperor appointed her as a princess and summoned her for an audience.

Only then did he see the true loveliness of the comely maiden in the painting, but it was too late. The Emperor settled the score by lopping off the head of the Court Artist. Wang Zhaojun made a great impression with her husband and his people.

Chinese revered her for her beauty and for the ensuing sixty years of peace she brought between the two nations.

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Diao Chan (161 AD–????):  As related in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a despotic courtier named Dong Zhuo had murdered Diao Chan’s parents.

Diao Chan

She was adopted by a righteous official named Wang Yun.

They concocted a plan where Wang Yun promised to give her to Lu Bu as bride then delivered her as a concubine to Dong Zhuo; Lu Bu was a fierce warrior and the godson of Dong Zhuo.

The ensuing triangular affair fractured the relationship of the two men and weakened Dong Zhuo’s power.

Eventually, with Wang Yun’s planning, Lu Bu assassinated his godfather. Unfortunately, Wang Yun and Diao Chan died in the ensuing reprisal attacks from Dong Zhuo’s supporters. 

           *                                                    *                                                          *

Yang Guifei (719–756 AD). Her story transcended Chinese tradition and social taboos. She was born Yang Yuhuan, the name Guifei was a title bestowed by the Emperor. She had been the daughter-in-law of the Emperor Xuanzong.

Yang Guifei

He found her desirable and ordered his son be divorced then had her enter the Emperor’s service. Unfortunately, the imperial patronage of the new Guifei had negative side effects.

The Emperor neglected his duties and bestowed senior positions on his new love’s father, brother and cousin.

The latter, Yang Guozong was appointed as the Prime Minister. In 755 AD, the abusive use of power by the Yang family caused a rebellion. In the following year, the rebels sacked Chang-An, the Capital, and forced the Emperor to flee.

At Maweipo, a small town not far outside of Chang-An, the army refused to march further. They blamed the Prime Minister for the decline of the empire and the resultant rebellion. The mob of soldiers butchered the Prime Minister then demanded his cousin Yang Yuhuan die also.

Reluctantly, the Emperor had her strangled to death to appease the army.

Interestingly, it was rumored that a servant girl was murdered in place of Yang Yuhuan. Supposedly, she had been smuggled out and fled to Japan. Today, there is a statue and a tomb of Yang Guifei in Japan.

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Chinese believe in having things in balance. For all their exotic beauties, each of the four women had their shortfalls.

Xi Shi had big feet, but she liked to dance. So she had special platform shoes made for her so that when she danced, you only saw the bottom of her shoes and not her feet.

Wang Zhaojun had slender shoulders, which she always covered with padded clothing. All paintings of her showed her with heavy coats or capes.

Diao Chan had tiny earlobes, so she wore large gaudy earrings to distract people from looking at her shortcomings.

Yang Guifei had problems with her body odor, which explained her penchant for scented baths. She was the only famous Chinese woman in history to have nude paintings or statues done in her honor, and they always involved bathing scenes.


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Tang Long

William Tang is a research analyst. Born in Taiwan, he is fluent in three dialects of Chinese and Spanish, plus survival level German and Japanese. He is a graduate of the Officers Advance Course at the General Political Warfare College, Taipei, Taiwan.

He lectures on Chinese history and culture and has two books in publication: “Tales of the Dragon – The Book of Lore,” an anthology of Chinese legends, fables, and historical anecdotes; and “Pets Only,” which recounts a pets operated eating establishment in northern Virginia. He lives with Shadow (Lab), Taz (Boxer) and Foxy Lady (Japanese Shiba Inu) in Fredericksburg, VA. He writes under the penname of TANG Long.

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