A fair and chaste lady is the ideal spouse of gentleman
Water fowl are tweeting on the shoal;
a fair and chaste lady is the ideal spouse of gentleman.
This love poem is almost 3000 years old, it comes from The Book of Odes, one of the Four Books (and Fives Classics) edited (read: censored) by Confucius. Confucius is a man who devoted his life to telling the world to believe how importantly Chinese people attach to moral character. And in the end, we do.
China has been home to a myriad of beautiful women throughout the ages, and differing standards of beauty account for its wide aesthetic scope. Some women were lauded for their dancing and singing skills, others for their virtuous nature, and still others for their involvement in political intrigue.
Xishi 西施 , Wang Zhaojun 王昭君, Diaochan 貂蝉 and Yang Yuhuan 杨玉环 are the so-called Four Beauties, four ancient women who stand out being “Beauty for the Good of the People”.
These women are still remembered today for their significant roles in history. When her state of Yue faced aggression from the state of Wu, Xishi accepted an assignment to seduce the king of Wu and make him kill his marshal. Her patriotic efforts helped Yue win the war against Wu. Diaochan is a fictional character from Three Kingdoms. She beat a treacherous warlord at a badger game, ensuring the safety of her people. Wang Zhaojun volunteered to marry the barbarian Khan in the north for the sake of her country’s peace, and Yang Yuhuan hanged herself to quash a mutiny.
They are heroic women, but most of all, they are tragic women. Chinese literati cried for them and admired them because they were “good women”, and a good Chinese woman was characterised either by her heroism or her bitter loneliness.
In Chinese aesthetic conceptions even today, virtue seems to outweigh appearance.
No less beautiful are Daji 妲己and Baosi 褒姒. These two names invoke aversion rather than admiration. Daji, the concubine and accomplice of tyrannous King Zhou of Shang, was cruel to the people. The story of Baosi, concubine of King You of Zhou, is that she seldom smiled, and the king was eager to make her happy. One day he ordered a beacon fire to be lit at the defence posts, sending his dukes a false enemy invasion signal. The dukes and their forces rushed to the capital, only to find they had been fooled. Baosi was amused at the chaos she had caused, and grinned. Later the enemy state did launch an attack, but because the king had “cried wolf”, no duke sent troops at the sight of beacon fires, and the king was killed.
These two women were considered a scourge on their country and people. They were probably not “Beauty for the Good of the People”, but they at least had good fun.
From the etymological point of view, Chinese character for beauty is 美 – which is made up of two parts: 羊 + 大— meaning a “big sheep”. This character probably means “a delightful taste” in its original shape. Confucius didn’t bother to tell us.