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The Four Great Beauties: A Glimpse Into Chinese Culture

The Four Great Beauties are renowned women in Chinese culture, known for their grace, beauty, and tragic endings.

Xi Shi lived during the Zhuji period, around 500 BC.

She was presented to King Goujian of Yue, in accordance with the King’s plan of offering a beautiful woman to King Fuchai as a tribute in order to restore his kingdom’s power. He, enamored by her beauty, seemed to forget his plan and instead slaughtered his closest advisors and built a palace devoted to beautiful women (Guanwa Palace).

Xi Shi was known for being so beautiful that her presence caused the drowning of fish. Ironically, she is rumored to have drowned to death.

Wang Qiang—or better known as Wang Zhaojun, since Wang Qiang is a well-known serial killer— lived during in the Western Han dynasty. She lived as a concubine under Emperor Yuan, who was asked to become imperial father-in-law to Chanyu Huhanye in order to establish friendly relations throughout the dynasty. His wife, having only one daughter, couldn’t bear to part with her, and instead sent Wang Zhaojun. Wang Zhaojun’s portrait was unflattering, which was why she was chosen.

When the Emperor saw her in person, he was regretful of his decision to send her, but it was too late.

She lived to have two marriages and two sons and was known for causing birds to fall out of the sky.

Diaochan is the only one of the four who hasn’t been proven to actually exist, but her story is no less prominent in Chinese culture. She is known best through the novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong, in which she romances the famous warrior Lu Bu around the time of 200 AD.

Diaochan was known for eclipsing the moon.

Yang Guifei, who lived in the 700s, was a favorite consort of Emperor Xuanzong of Tang. She was so beautiful that the Emperor was accused of slacking on his duties. He was ordered to strangle her because of the fact.

She was so beautiful that she shamed flowers and so beautiful that her death was all the more tragic.

These four women, though not commonly known in Western culture, are the influence for beauty standards and hundreds upon hundreds of creative works in China. Examining the drawings and interpretations of them, it is clear what has historically been considered beautiful in China—predominantly, fair skin. This, perceived as an indication of social and financial status, has caused the issue of colorist ideals. Instead of adapting to the notion that beauty comes in all forms, this beauty standard has consisted and caused many people, even now, to seek fairer skin, whether this is through makeup or skin bleaching (which has been shown to be harmful). These ideals are toxic to young people, as many will grow up believing they are not worthy or beautiful unless they have certain characteristics or belong in certain categories.

We can learn from the four great beauties and their tragic tales. 


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Anchita is a freshman at Boston University, studying business with a concentration in entrepreneurship. Her hobbies include reading and writing.
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