The Four Beauties or Four Great Beauties (四大美女 sì dà měinǚ) are four ancient Chinese women, renowned for their beauty. According to legend, they are the most beautiful women of ancient China. Using their beauty they exercised influence over kings and warriors. Three of the four beauties even brought kingdoms to their knees.
The four beauties lived in four different dynasties. The four beauties were:
Xi Shi 西施 was said to have lived during the end of the Spring and Autumn period in Zhuji, the capital of the ancient State of Yue. Her beauty was said to be so extreme 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 gradually sunk away from the surface.
Xi Shi's Story
King Goujian of Yue, king of Yue, was once imprisoned after a defeat in a war by King Fuchai of Wu, king of the State of Wu. King Fuchai was a sexaddict and could not resist beautiful women, so Goujian's minister, Wen Zhong, suggested training beautiful women and offering them to Fuchai as a tribute. Goujian's other minister, Fan Li, found Xi Shi and Zheng Dan and gifted them to Fuchai in 490 B.C.
Fuchai was bewitched by the beauty of Xi Shi and Zheng Dan. Because of it, he forgot all about his state affairs and on their instigation, killed his best advisor, the great general Wu Zixu. Fuchai even built Guanwa Palace (Palace of Beautiful Women) in an imperial park on the slope of Lingyan Hill, about 15 kilometers west of Suzhou. The strength of Wu dwindled, and in 473 B.C. Goujian launched his strike and put the Wu army to full rout. King Fuchai lamented that he should have listened to Wu Zixu, and then committed suicide.
Each of the Four Beauties died under tragic or mysterious circumstances. The latter would apply to Xi Shi, however there is one disputed account of her fate, it was written that Goujian ordered Xi Shi to be drowned by being thrown into a lake, to avoid being tempted by her as Fuchai was.
Xi Shi is remembered by the Xi Shi Temple, which lies at the foot of the Zhu Lou Hill in the southern part of the city, on the banks of the Huansha River.
The West Lake in Hangzhou is said to be the incarnation of Xi Shi, hence it is also called Xizi Lake, Xizi being another name for Xi Shi, meaning Lady Xi.
Wang Zhaojun 王昭君 was born to a prominent family of Zigui, Nan county (now Xingshan county, Hubei) in the south of the Western Han empire. In a legend, Wang Zhaojun left her hometown on horseback and began a journey northward. Along the way, her horse neighed, making Zhaojun extremely sad and unable to control her emotions. As she sat on the saddle, she began to play sorrowful melodies on a stringed instrument. A flock of geese flying southward heard the music, saw the beautiful young woman riding the horse, immediately forgot to flap their wings, and fell to the ground. From then on, Zhaojun acquired the nickname "fells geese" or "drops birds."
Wang Zhaojun's Story
She entered the harem of Emperor Yuan probably after 40 BC. During her time in the Lateral Courts, Wang Qiang was never visited by the emperor and remained as a palace lady-in-waiting. When choosing a new wife, the Emperor was first presented with portraits of all the possible women. Wang Zhaojun’s portrait was either never viewed by the Emperor, or was not in its true form, and therefore the Emperor overlooked her.In 33 BC, Huhanye visited Chang’an on a homage trip, as part of the tributary system between the Han and Xiongnu. He took the opportunity to ask to be allowed to become an imperial son-in-law. Instead of honouring the chanyu with a princess, Huhanye was presented with five women from the imperial harem, one of them who was Wang Zhaojun.
A story from the History of the Later Han relates that Wang Zhaojun volunteered to join the Shanyu. When summoned to court, her beauty astonished the emperor’s courtiers and made the emperor reconsider his decision to send her to the Xiongnu.
Wang Zhaojun became a favourite of the Huhanye shanyu, giving birth to two sons. Only one of them seems to have survived, Yituzhiyashi. They also had at least one daughter, Yun, who was created Princess Yimuo and who would later become a powerful figure in Xiongnu politics. When Huhanye died in 31 BC, Wang Zhaojun requested to return to China. Emperor Cheng, however, ordered that she follow Xiongnu levirate custom and become the wife of the next shanyu, the oldest brother(or her stepson, born by her husband’s first wife) of her husband. In her new marriage she had two daughters.
Wang was honoured as Ninghu Yanzhi (寧胡閼氏 "Chief-Consort Pacifying Hu").
In legend, she commits suicide after her husband dies, seeing it as her only resort in order to avoid marrying his son. Historically, it is not known how or when she died.
Wang Zhaojun was a symbol of the cohesion for the Chinese nation. Her deeds are respected by the later people. Her tomb is repeatedly renovated by the later generation in memory of her. And the story of Zhaojun going out of the frontier strongly attracted numerous artists of every dynasty, who created thousands of works based on her story in a variety of artistic forms, such as music, painting, poetry, drama and novels.
Diaochan 貂蟬 was said to have been born in 161 or 169 AD, depending on the source. However, unlike the other three beauties, Diaochan, as we know her from Romance of the Three Kingdoms, does not appear in any known historical writings, and is mostly a fictional character.
Legend has it that when Diaochan paid offerings to the moon at midnight, Chang'e (the Chinese Moon Goddess) hurried to hide in clouds, for this beautiful lady made her feel inferior. The phrase “outshines the moon“ in the beauty-describing idiom “Beauty which outshines the moon and shames the flowers“ has Diaochan as the very subject. This legend embodies in an exaggerated way Diaochan’s beautiful appearance in the eyes of the Chinese people.
Diaochan appears in the classic novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms in a plot involving the warrior Lü Bu 呂布 and the warlord Dong Zhuo 董卓. Wang Yun 王允 married Diaochan to Lü Bu and later Dong Zhuo. This created jealousy between the two who were father and son since Lü Bu had entered Dong Zhuo's service and eventually Lü Bu killed his adoptive father. According to historical records, Lü Bu did have relations with a maid of Dong Zhuo’s. However, there is no evidence that this person’s name was Diaochan. In fact, it is extremely unlikely that it was Diaochan, because “diāo” was not, and is not, commonly used as a Chinese family name. “Diāochán” likely referred to the sable (diào) tails and jade decorations in the shape of cicadas (chán), which at the time adorned the hats of high-level officials.
Some people are of opinion that Diaochan, because of it's meaning, would not have been an uncommon name for a palace-born girl.
There are different stories concerning Diaochan's death. There is a folktale that Diaochan was captured by Cao Cao 曹操 after Xiapi. When Cao Cao was trying to keep Guan Yu 關羽 in his service, he sent Diaochan to seduce Guan Yu. Guan Yu suspected that he was being tricked as he knew how she had betrayed Lü Bu and Dong Zhuo so he killed her to prevent her from hurting anyone else. A second version of this story is that years after Xiapi, Liu Bei 劉備, Zhang Fei 張飛 and Guan Yu all wanted to marry Diaochan and the three argued bitterly over her. To end the strife between them Guan Yu cut her in half.
In one Yuan Dynasty play, Diaochan is introduced to Guan Yu by his sworn brother Zhang Fei after the death of Lü Bu, but instead of accepting her as the spoils of war, Guan Yu decapitates her with his sword. This event does not appear either on the history records or the novel itself, but is propagated through mass media such as operas and storytelling. There is also another idea of what happened to Diaochan; a source that says she did meet Guan Yu, but he let her become a nun. After hearing this, Cao Cao wanted to take her as his own. When the news reached Diaochan, however, she committed suicide.
In Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Records of the Three Kingdoms, Diaochan is not mentioned after Lü Bu kills Dong Zhuo.
According to scholar Meng Fanren's textual research, Diaochan is a real person in history. She was living in Muzhi village, 3km south of Xinzhou city in Shanxi Province and her real name was Ren Hongchang 任红昌. In the village still stands a stele written with “Diaochan’s Hometown” as well as her tomb and temple. They were built for commemoration of this respectable woman who sacrificed herself for the country.
Yang Yuhuan 楊玉環 often referred to as Yang Guifei 楊貴妃 was said to have lived during the Tang Dynasty. She was an imperial concubine of Emperor Xuanzong and commonly called Imperial Concubine Yang. She was also known briefly under her Daoïst nun name Taizhen 太真.
Yang Guifei's Story
Yang Yuhuan was born in an old, well-known official family. She was naturally beautiful with a docile character. She was gifted in music, singing, dancing and playing lute. These talents, together with her education, made her stand out among the imperial concubines and win the emperor‘s favor. Yang Yuhuan was also known for being slightly overweight, which was a much sought-after quality at the time. Misinterpretation of quotes describing this in the West has often led to her being described as “obese”. The term “obese”, when used to describe Yang Yuhuan, must not be viewed in its modern context of someone who is extremely overweight. She was often compared and contrasted with Empress Zhao Feiyan, the beautiful wife of Emperor Cheng of Han, because Consort Yang was known for her full build while Empress Zhao was known for her slender build. This led to the Four-character idiom yanshou huanfei, describing the range of the types of beauties. Emperor Xuanzong, a fan of music, ordered his musicians to play the music Song of Rainbow Skirt & Feathered Dress composed by him to express his cheerful feeling of seeing Imperial Concubine Yang. Latterly, Imperial Concubine Yang was banished twice from the palace, for her envy peeved Emperor Xuanzong. However, Xuanzong, who was so hard to forget her, called her back every time at the end.
In 755 A.D. when the military insurgence “Anshi Insurgence (Anshizhiluan)” was launched by the local forces of the Tang Dynasty, Emperor Tang Xuanzong, together with Imperial Concubine Yang, fled from Chang’an. When they arrived at the Mawei Slope, the army refused to march, for the army thought that the reason of this rebellion by An Lushan was that Imperial Concubine Yang’s behavior of attracting emperor ruined the state and that her cousin Yang Guozong colluded with the enemy. To appease the army, Emperor Tang Xuanzong had no choice but to order Yang to commit suicide at the Mawei Slope.
In the following generation, a long poem, “Song of the Everlasting Sorrow”, was written by the poet Bai Juyi describing the Emperor’s love for her and perpetual grief at her loss. It became an instant classic, known to and memorized by Chinese schoolchildren far into posterity. The story of Yang Yuhuan and the poem also became highly popular in Japan and served as sources of inspiration for the classical novel “The Tale of Genji” which begins with the doomed love between an emperor and a consort, Kiritsubo, who is likened to Consort Yang.
Today, there is a tomb of Yang Yuhuan in Xingping of Shaanxi, in front of which stands her white marble statue.
The Fifth Beauty
Yu Miaoyi 虞妙弋, also known as Consort Yu (Yú Jī 虞姬), and since the Qing Dynasty as "Yu the Beautiful Lady" (Yú Měirén 虞美人) lived during the Qin Dynasty. She was the treasured lover of Xiang Yu 項羽, a prominent military leader and political figure during the final years of the Qin Dynasty. When Yu Miaoyi met Xiang Yu she fell in love with him, became his concubine, and followed him on his campaigns and refused to be left behind.
In 202 BC Xiang Yu was at Gaixia by Han forces. To prevent Xiang Yu from being distracted by his love for her, Yu Miaoyi committed suicide with Xiang Yu's sword.
Tales of Yu Miaoyi's beauty began during the Qing Dynasty (1644 to 1912). The story goes that her looks could cut through the chaos surrounding her lover. Because of her tragic love story and her mention in historical sources many people in China argue she should replace Diaochan's spot in the Four Beauties.