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Four Beauties of China Museum, Zhuji, Zhejiang

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.

Diaochan (c. third century, Three Kingdoms period), was said to be so luminously lovely that the moon itself would shy away in embarrassment behind a cloud upon seeing her face.

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.

Wuxie poem

In Ancient China poets often sat around drinking tea or wine together, composing poems and sharing their inspiration. So after our trek up the waterfalls, when Xiao Xu invited us to drink some local Green Sword Tea at one of the tea stands by the side of the trail, we were inspired to take the time to write a poem. In the shade of a red maple, with our glasses of green tea providing the fuel in the ancient way, a poem appeared. Part of our inspiration was the view of the path from our shady spot under the red maple, and part was the view we had of the stream slipping past us on the other side.

The path was at the edge of the stream, and all along the way we could watch the action in the water, where children used their nets and hands to see what they could find, like little Sherlock Holmes and Watsons. Sometimes the parents jumped in too, laughing and toting children too small to go alone.

Sheer delight.

In honor of the day, here is the poem:

Next to the Waterfall Stream,
Wuxie Nature Preserve, Zhuji Town
Thinking green leaves and water we escaped
To Zhuji beyond Hangzhou, where we,
Joining the flowing crowd of May through lake and mountain path,
Returned ourselves to the source.

Along Five Waterfall stream we swirled,
A parallel current to fish, salamanders, and minnows
To slip and dodge the big and tiny both,
Where snails, never fast enough, appeared in tiny fingers.

The immortal spring plunged through our midst
Some fell in, some drank the source,
To fill the green space in our hearts,
Old friends discussed which was spinning faster,

The children, falling bamboo leaves, or time?
And whether, if we returned another day
To this source of life, inspired, could we
climb its highest peak, and outwalk the farthest waterfall.

May Day, 2008

The Sea of Humanity meets the Waterfall

Wuxie Scenic Area, Zhuji, Zhejiang Province – Home of the Five Waterfalls
Actually, this is not the sea of humanity pouring out of a waterfall- it is simply a joyful crowd of merrymakers, mostly visitors from Shanghai, like us, having a fun time in the Wuxie Scenic Area about 25 km away from the little town of Zhuji in Zhejiang Province.

In Shanghai we lack green and sun, in spite of the great effort made by the city at adding landscaped boulevards and green parks throughout the city. The company driver had heard me mumble “I need green” the day before the May Day holidays, and was kind enough to offer to take us out for a day. Wuxie satisfied the criteria for “green” and “water” and “fun” as well as being “not too far,” only three to four hours, depending on traffic. We had left home at 6 am, and by the time we got to the parking lot, it was full. The cars lined the road for miles by the end of the day. We were lucky we arrived early. On other weekends it is quiet and peaceful – so don’t be deterred if you are worried about people. Our trip was a very high holiday experience, and not indicative of what it is usually like.
It was like a reverse waterfall. A peoplefall. Surging from the side roads and broad parking lot and then packing into the the shaded lane by the side of the brook, cascading our way to the ticket booth. Water rushing out. People rushing in. If you are claustrophobic in crowds, it would be wise to avoid Wuxie during the May 1 holidays. I have to admit that I was reminded of a State Fair – and I find real pleasure in happy, warm-weather crowds that only have a good time in mind. If you just relax and join in, there are so many happy moments to be had.

Wuxie is written 五泄 and it means “Five Waterfalls”, which is the goal of your trek into the mountains. However, on the way, there are constant diversions. Sometimes people complain about touristic attractions, but I admit I found them cheery. On May 1, when all of China is in the mood for a trip somewhere, people are the point! Joy is infectious. On May 1, I would expect impossible lines, a bit like going to a State Fair in the US on the Fourth of July, but I was amazed at how quickly we got through the long line waiting for the boats. Each boat brought a surge of merrymakers to the trail at the far end of the lake, and we diverted easily off to the side of the flow to try various skills and activities on the way in.


Yes, that is me practicing shooting a tank with Xiao Xu, our driver and friend. Large plastic ping pong balls would puff out with no energy the first time, and then shoot out with real vigor the next time. I am not sure what I was trying to vanquish. There were some targets – but there was a lesson in it too. Although the guy in charge of the tank showed you the site on tip of the canon to aim at the target, the ball went out at varying speeds and pressures, so there was no chance to ever hit anything. Would US crowds at a fair enjoy these amusements?? Impossible to win and no prize?? For most of the visitors here, hitting the target wasn’t the point. It was enjoying the process and having a good laugh with your friends at how badly you did. We all shot at our own ghosts.
And yes, that is Peter, the Master Archer having a go at local archery. See? He was our champion.
There were no prizes for any of the booth activities. If you are used to having competition and prizes for these games, it is a bit deflating not having a prize. I ended up liking it better after a minute of contemplation- how nice to just enjoy the experience with no pressure to win. There were still fun “prizes” to buy – red plastic fishing nets on bamboo poles and small transparent plastic cage-containers with a handle to put your watery surprises from the brook – snails, insects, and minnows. The brook was not very full, so everyone piled in with great glee, falling in, laughing, and in the deep pool at the bottom of the waterfall, swimming around, delighting in the cool water. There were many prizes to be had.
You could even buy a turtle if you wanted to – all sizes.
The path continued on to an electric car station where everyone piled into the carts to go further in to the site. It was very telling about the groups visiting Wuxie that day – when the cart was almost full, the attendants would call out “Anyone here with two in a group? Three in a group?” to fill the last few seats. No one came forward. Most had come in larger groups – Parents, grandparents, children, and friends, all wanting to stay in the same cart. The cart drops you off right near the Zen Temple which is at the foot of the mountain area. The temple was full of activity, and the young monks looked like they didn’t mind the intrusion of the May Day crowd.
Like many religious institutions in China, this temple had been newly reconstructed on an old site. Its many buildings and statues were clean and tidy. Most statues in temples in China have dust on them. In the Zen tradition, dust is a symbol for what covers and hides our true nature/the divine presence. So it is always interesting to me to see whether the statues in the temple are clean or not (sometimes a challenge because in many places there is a lot of dust). Not that it means anything really, but I was happily surprised to discover that the statues in this temple were completely dust free. I wondered if it was because they were all so new, having been installed in the temple in the last few years.
In the back was a temple dedicated to Guan Yin, the goddess of mercy and compassion. She is the Mary of China. In the only old building of the temple complex, the air was different from so many years of history. In this space two older monks in their 80s, known for their compassionate practice, sat on the side and talked to visitors who came with their life issues. The building was old, but the statue of Guan Yin had no dust either.
Even older than the monks, from the earliest era of the temple, was a ginko tree which they called the “Millenium Tree”. Was it 1000 years old? I think not. But it was an old one.
The mountains also had lively stands of bamboo – living green, sturdy and graceful stalk-trunks, shooting up to the sun. Spending the afternoon in a grove of bamboo made me feel stronger and more flexible – like the bamboo. I wonder what it would be like to live in a bamboo forest for an extended period of time.
Going up the steep stairs by the side of the waterfall meant holding on to whatever was available, so I didn’t get many photos – you can see the line of people going up in the first photo, and the second was taken above the first waterfall. Since there were so many people we didn’t go any further, but there are actually five sets of falls. I look forward to going back on a normal weekend day to get to the top when there are not so many people.

After their exhausting climb some of the hikers hung around at the foot of the waterfalls in a forest of hammocks, looking like great spider webs to the side of the trail. Smaller children hung napping, suspended in silky nylon webs while their parents caught their breath at the foot of the hammock. I thought of small flies bound fast in a spider web. Surely their parents were glad to have a rest after chasing after their little ones up the steep mountain path.
Peter, Xiao Xu and I retired to a tea shop instead, to try some of the area’s famous Green Sword tea. I regret that I didn’t get a photo of the tea in the glass, because it hung vertically like little people standing in a line – or swords – at the top of the cup. This is one of those trials – how to get to the tea without a mouthful of leaves. It can be done – sucked in through your teeth if the tea isn’t too hot. I got quite a few leaves in spite of my efforts, and resorted to using my fingers (very impolite here) to take them out of my mouth and put them in the ashtray. I hid behind my hand to do it. If no one sees it, then it isn’t as impolite!
I hope you feel a little greener after reading all this – and if you want to visit Wuxie, you will love it on an ordinary weekend when there are not so many visitors. And if you get to Zhuji, the nearby town, please make sure you stop in and see the incredible “Four Beauties of China” Museum. It sounds a little silly, but it is actually very inspiring, and exceptionally well done, documenting the lives of women who have made a difference in the nation’s history.
That’s all for now!