Do we have a standard for beauty in the West?
In China there is a standard for beauty that has persisted over time. Li Bing, our first Chinese teacher in Nanjing, amazed us when she recited the criterion for us:
~Eyebrows like willow leaves
~Eyes like almonds
~Mouth like a cherry.
~Large and expressive eyes,
~Graceful fingers and arms
~A willowy figure
~Tiny feet and a light, elegant gait.
(That last one wipes most Westerners off the “beauty map”! Me for sure. My feet, at size 9 1/2 to 10, can only find shoes in the US. There are no shoes for me here in China.)
But there were also Four Famous Beautiful Women in Chinese history who were not only beautiful, but their lives had important ramifications for the nation, playing a key part in the outcomes of difficult national situations.
The earliest of the “Four Great Beauties” was Xi Shi, whose hometown is Zhuji, where the Wuxie Nature Preserve and Scenic Area is situated. Xi Shi lived during the seventh to sixth century BC, which was the Spring and Autumn period, long before China’s warring kingdoms were united by the Yellow Emperor. She was apparently incredibly beautiful, and they say that when she went to the river to wash her wool for weaving, the fish would swoon and faint to the bottom of the river at the very sight of her beauty.
The next one was Wang Zhaojun, who lived just before the Yellow Emperor united China, during the first century BC during the Western Han Dynasty. At that time the Huns “and other barbarian tribes” were making attacks on China. When the King of the Huns requested a bride from the Emperor as part of a peace agreement, none of the concubines was willing to leave their country except Wang Zhaojun, who volunteered to go. They say she cried as she left the country, and the geese in the sky were so taken with her beauty even in sadness that they “forgot to fly” and fell from the sky. Her sacrifice gave the nation 60 years of peace.
Her story is complicated – she had an affair with a famous warrior, and persuaded him to kill his godfather, who was threatening the Emperor. Later, when another warrior wanted her to seduce others, she refused, and chose death rather than be unfaithful to her loved one and the nation. She was thus not only extolled for her beauty, but also for her loyalty and righteousness.
Yang Guifei (719–56, Tang Dynasty), said to have a face that puts all flowers to shame. When the flowers saw her beauty, they would fold up in astonishment. Her story is too complicated to write here – it is there in all its glory on Wikipedia. Basically it is a tale of imperial besottedness with her beauty and cleverness. Position and beauty make a powerful story. The interesting attributes of Yang Guifei are that she had strong underarm odor, and spent a lot of time washing with perfumed soap and powders, and that she was “plump.”
If you ever get the chance to go to the Four Beauties of China Museum in Zhuji, Zhejiang Province, you should go. Not only these four beauties, but other women who hold a position in Chinese history are represented with art and other displays, leaving a very inspiring record of famous women in Chinese history. There are abundant English descriptions, and the architecture of the buildings is very well done.