20 September 2020

The four classical Chinese beauties

From left to right: Xi Shi, Yang Guifei, Wang Zhaojun, Diaochan

I did not note this until recently, but on this blog, it seems I have given each of the historical four great Chinese beauties of antiquity (Si Da Meinü 四大美女) her own blog post here. I feel I should not leave this happy incidence unremarked, particularly given my recent treatment of how a certain unnamed Wei beauty commemorated in the Odes seems to have touched off an entire prophetic-reformist tradition in Chinese philosophy on account of her influence over the imagination of the young Bu Zixia 卜子夏. If I were feeling a trifle frivolous, and sought to indulge for a moment my apparently incorrigible desire to draw comparative links between Chinese and classical Western philosophies, I could point out that each of the four beauties in Chinese literature appears to correspond to a Platonic-Aristotelian ‘cardinal virtue’. And since I just made for myself such a pseudo-exculpation, I’m gonna go ahead and do just that:
  1. Shi Yiguang 施夷光 (also Xi Shi 西施) points to the virtue of moderation, or temperance. She exhibits a stern self-control, and also a fierce devotion to the Yue merchant fisherman Fan Li when she is given to Fuchai of Wu. She does not allow herself to be swayed by Fuchai’s affections, but delivers him over to Yue, even though it almost certainly means her death.
  2. Wang Zhaojun 王昭君 points to the virtue of audacity, or fortitude. Though most of the women in Han Yuandi’s harem were appalled and frightened by the idea of being sent into Xiongnu territory to wed a khaghan of that people, Wang Zhaojun understood the benefits of peace, and although it saddened her deeply to leave China and the idea of entering the Xiongnu frightened her, she agreed to leave and be married to a foreigner she had never met.
  3. Ren Hongchang 任红昌 (also Diaochan 貂蝉) points to the virtue of justice. She allowed herself to be used as a honeypot, seducing both Dong Zhuo and Lü Bu and urging the latter to kill the former, to save the Han Dynasty and to put an end to a bloody, murderous tyrant. In the popular telling of her story, she is motivated primarily by patriotism and by filial piety.
  4. Yang Yuhuan 杨玉环 (also guifei 贵妃) points, albeit in an ironic way, to the virtue of sense or prudence. She did not exert any particular sound sense herself (except possibly when she showed appreciation for Minghuang’s gifts to her), but her tragic fate shows the way in which Minghuang ought to have done: he should have paid closer attention to state affairs, and not allowed Yang’s family to accede to high office.
This may be something of an exercise of philosophical whimsy on my part. However, it’s worth mentioning that each of these women was highly celebrated in traditional poetry (such as, to give one example, Bai Juyi’s ‘Song of Everlasting Regret’) and the popular operatic tradition, not so much for their abstract virtues as for their skill. Even the traditional Ru, despite their reservations about the female powers of suasion, had no objection to women being cultured, as evidenced by Ban Zhao’s literary output. And each of the four beauties did demonstrate a particular literary or artistic skill, being similar in these cases to Greek courtesans. Xi Shi, for example, was brought up ‘ignorant’, but she proved to be a skilled singer and dancer. Wang Zhaojun was a skilled pipa player, and is always depicted together with her instrument. Diaochan was deft at embroidery and was placed in charge of arranging the ornaments of high officials (which is how she earned her nickname, which means ‘Sable Cicada’). And Yang Guifei was not only a singer and dancer but was also apparently well-read and a witty conversationalist.

The other dimension of the poetic and operatic admiration for these women was the tragic bent of each of their lives. Despite their beauty being so intense that, in the realm of idiom, Xi Shi’s looks could cause fish to sink (西施沉鱼), Wang Zhaojun’s could cause geese to fall out of the sky (昭君落雁), Diaochan’s could shame the moon (貂蝉闭月) and Yang Guifei’s could cause flowers to hide themselves in embarrassment (贵妃羞花) – each of them seems to have gotten a tragic ending, at least in some versions of each woman’s tale. Yang Guifei was scapegoated for a political crime that was none of her own doing. Diaochan was, at least according to some versions of the story, killed by Guan Yu because her beauty was deemed too dangerous to him and his sworn brothers. Wang Zhaojun lived a long life with two husbands who dearly loved her, but still spent her life in exile from China. And Xi Shi – depending on which source you cite – was either killed after Yue’s invasion of Wu, or else ran off with Fan Li and spent the rest of her life quietly on a fishing boat on Lake Tai.

Despite being immortalised in song and poem and opera, in truth the main lesson, possibly a trifle Machiavellian, to be drawn from the beauties of Chinese history is that it could be highly dangerous for a woman – even a woman possessed of charm and physical pulchritude – to draw too close to men with high political power… unless she could be assured of wielding that power herself, like the Empress Wu Zetian 武则天. The classical Ru tradition would likely take strong exception to my philosophically-syncretistic attempt above to associate each Chinese beauty with a relevant Western virtue, as the followers of Confucius – particularly after the Tang Dynasty – have tended to frown upon such powers in women. This is analogous to Plato’s well-founded distrust of the ‘knack’ of Greek hetairai for telling men what they want to hear, as a potential danger to men’s self-control and thus to good order in the state. But Confucius himself seems to hint that it is not men’s desire for beauty that is itself evil, but the incorrect ordering of it: if it causes him to abandon the rites, justice and benevolence then such a desire becomes evil. But if, on the other hand, he is able to sublimate it the way Bu Zixia did… then such desire can deepen and quicken the pursuit of correct things – goodness for its own sake, and truth.

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