Four Beauties of Ancient China: Xi Shi

Four Beauties of Ancient China: Xi Shi

Xishi is widely been considered the most beautiful of ancient China’s “Four Beauties.”  She is celebrated as a woman of extraordinary natural beauty with a universal appeal. Although many have praised Xishi’s looks, there is but little mention of her notable virtue – she had a great love for her country and her people.

Four Beauties of Ancient China: Xi Shi


Xishi was the daughter of a tea trader in Zhuji, the capital of the ancient State of Yue (current Zhejiang Province) around 500BC during the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476BC). At that time, China was divided into several kingdoms fighting for power.

When the State of Yue was vanquished by the State of Wu, the King of Yue, Gou Jian was forced to serve Prince Fuchai of Wu for 3 years. On his release, King Gou Jian slept on brushwood and drank gall before each meal to remind himself of the humiliation his country had suffered. He plotted the downfall of his conqueror as soon as he was released. Goujian’s minister Wen Zhong suggested training beautiful women and offering them to Fuchai as a tribute, knowing that Fuchai was a lustful man and could not resist beautiful women. He commissioned men to search far and wide for a woman. Xishi, whose beauty was much talked of even from early childhood, was selected for this task and sent to the capital.

King Gou Jian approved of the choice and had Xishi trained in royal court etiquette. Gou Jian ordered his minister Fan Li to take Xishi to the Prince of Wu as a tribute gift from Yue. During the journey, Xishi fell deeply in love with the wise minister. Fan Li also grew to admire this courageous lady who was willing to give her life for her country. Consequently, before they parted, they made a secret pledge of undying love.

They arrived at the capital of Wu and Prince Fuchai was enchanted by Xishi’s appearance and doted on her. Gradually he began to neglect his political duties, preferring to idle away his time with Xishi. He frequently took her out on carriage rides to the noisy and prosperous sections of the city. On these rides, he liked to boast to those around him that he had won the heart of the most beautiful woman in the world.

Xishi, however, never lost sight of her mission. Bewitched by the beauty of Xi Shi, Fuchai 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 BC 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.

In 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.

In legends, after the fall of Wu, Fan Li retired from his minister post and lived with Xi Shi on a fishing boat, roaming like fairies in the misty wilderness of Tai Ho Lake, and no one has seen them ever since.

She 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.

A memorial statue of Xishi at The Xi Shi Temple

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.


Art Works based on story of Xi Shi

浣纱庙 Silk-Washing Temple

吴越相谋计策多,As the states of Wu and Yue piled plot upon plot,

浣纱神女已相和。The silk-washing goddess offered ease;

一双笑靥才回面,a pair of laughing dimples turned the prince’s head,

十万精兵尽倒戈。And a hundred thousand soldiers let fall their shining spears.

范蠡功成身隐遁,Fan Li, having succeeded, went into retirement;

伍胥谏死国消磨。Wu Xu died for his advice, and his country was wiped out.

只今诸暨长江畔,And yet, today, by the long river at Zhuji,

空有青山号苎萝。There’s nothing but a green hill named Zhu Luo.

This poem is based on the story of Xishi. The temple is dedicated to Xi Shi, who originally laundered silk for a living in Zhuji.

xishi temple

Early built in Tang Dynasty, Xishi Temple, was rebuilt in 1989 and enlarged in 2001, whose area is over 20 thousand meters now, encompassing Xishi Temple, Ancient Yue’s Platform, Beauty Pond, Xishi Long Corridor, Yiguang Pavilion, Zhuluo Village, and Showroom of Xishi’s Historical Material, and attracting tourists of over 10 thousand person times yearly.

NCPA Original Opera: Xi Shi


It is the first original opera produced by National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA), which adopts Western opera to interpret the ancient legends about Xi Shi in a brand new way, recreating grand view of the war between the Kingdom of Wu and the Kingdom of Yue, as well as the legendary story of a beauty.

TV Drama

Xi Shi is a historic celebrity, through her story; there are numerous television programs and movies around this legend.

xish_dong zhizhi
Dong Zhizhi as Xi Shi in 1983
xishi_jiang qinqin
Jiang Qinqin as Xi Shi in 1995
Zhou Yang as Xi Shi in 2005

Idiom : Dong Shi imitates a frown

It is said that there lived an ugly woman named Dong Shi in the neighborhood. She was plain-looking and illiterate, but daydreamed to become a beauty someday. The “Dong” in her name means “east” contrasting to Xi Shi’s “Xi”, which means “west”.


Xi Shi, being a sickly girl, often had chest pains. It was said that her beauty was most attractive whenever she had her hand on her chest, wincing from the pain. As Dong Shi saw Xi Shi win the admiration of others while she was walking with her hand on the chest and brows furrowed, she imitated Xi Shi. But this only increased her ugliness. This in turn has created the saying “Dong Shi imitates a frown” meaning to attempt imitating another only to emphasize one’s own weaknesses.


被迷住  bèi mí zhù   Bewitched

减小  jiǎn xiǎo   Dwindled

西施殿 xī shī diàn  Xi Shi Temple

东施效颦  dōng shī xiào pín   Dong Shi imitates a frown

春秋时代  Chūn qiū shí dài   Spring & Autumn period (the warring states period)

馆娃宫  guǎn wá gōng   Guanwa Palace

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