Four beauties of ancient China 四大美女

在天愿作比翼鸟,在地愿为连理枝 (from 长恨歌, Bai JuYi, 白居易)

"Like two birds we'll fly, wing to wing in sky,
like two trees on earth, branch to branch we'll twine"

Myth and history entwine in the legend of the “four beauties of the ancient China” (四大美女) still deeply rooted in popular culture, morals and feeling. The source of this summary was a present by a Ph.D. student of the HuaZhong University of Science and Technology, WuHan, China. The four beauties played the role of “femme fatale”, which lead them to the sacrifice of life.

The legend begins during the war between Wu and Yue kingdoms (V century BC) when XiShi accepted of infatuating and weakening the enemy king at the cost of life.

The second story tells of a heroine, Wang ZhaoJun, living during the Western Han dynasty (I century BC). She accepted to marry an enemy king for fostering peace between Chinese empire and the dreadful northern nomadic Huns.

The third beauty, DiaoChan, comes out of the classical novel “The romance of the three kingdoms”, written in the XIV century, the historical background being the last glimmers of the Eastern Han dynasty (II century).

The fourth one, Yang GuiFei, infatuated an elderly emperor of the Tang dynasty (VIII century), who ended up for being stunned by the uprising of a young general whom GuiFei had incautiously promoted. Yang Guifei is celebrated in the Beijing Opera masterpiece, “The drunken concubine”, by Mei LanFang (1894-1961).

The beautiful XiShi washes silk yarn 西施浣纱 
XiShi 西施 is known as the most beautiful of the four beauties of the ancient China. Her story unravels in the city of ZhuJi 诸暨, in the central north of the today ZheJiang 浙江 province (see the map), just south of the capital city HangZhou 杭州. ZhuJi was the capital city of the Yue kingdom 越国 during the historical period known as Spring and Autumn 春秋 . The legend, arisen as a folktale, passed on orally. The Book of MoZi 墨子(468-376 a.C.) and the Book of Mencius 孟子 (372-289 a.C.) gave first written accounts.
The historical background is the war between Wu 吴国 and Yue kingdoms 越国. The king of Yue, once defeated and subdued by the king of Wu, contrived of taking advantage of the hostile king’s lechery so as to weaken his kingdom. As a vassal tribute, he donated two of the most beautiful women of Yue, XiShi being the outstanding one. The king of Wu, bewitched, indulged himself in neglecting kingdom’s obligations up to executing one of his trusted counselors. As the upshot, he turned out to be defeated by the king of Yue. His suicide set an end to a lecherous life.
As an award, the beautiful XiShi was drowned in a lake on the orders of the king of Yue, in the fear that her fascination could crushed him, too (a mention is given in the Book of MoZi). Other tales narrate how the beautiful Xishi, embraced to her lover (the chancellor of Yue), vanished on a punt in the endless mist of the lake Tai (太湖, ‘the great lake’, see the picture).

The lake Tai opens in the Blue River delta (YangTze, 长江, ‘the long river’), on the border between actual Zhejiang (on the southern side) and JiangSu 江苏 province (on the northern side).
The beautiful Zhaojun crosses the frontier 昭君出    
Wang ZhaoJun 王昭君 is a heroine of the popular Chinese culture. She sacrificed her position and comfort of being an imperial concubine of YuanDi 元帝 (Eastern Han dinasty 东汉, 75 - 33 a.C., see the map), when she willingly accepted of being married to the Hun (Hun=XiongNu, 匈奴) leader HuYanYe 呼韩邪, for fostering peace with the empire of the nomadic Huns (see the map). 
The first Chinese emperor Shi HuangDi 始皇帝 (the king of Qin 秦 who unified China) ordered the construction of the Great Wall (长城) as a defense against the dreadful Huns' invasions.
As a further sacrifice, after HuHanYe’s death, she reluctantly accepted of marrying their own first son, a custom greatly abhorred by Chinese morals and ethics, therefrom ensuring a longer peaceful period at the northern borders of empire.
It is now widely accepted that the Huns, later known in Europe, were descendants of a branch of the XiongNu population.
The beautiful DiaoChan worships the Moon 貂婵拜月    
DiaoChan  貂婵is the heroine of the historical novel of the XIV century, “The romance of the three kingdoms” 三国演义, situated at the epoch of the Western Han dynasty  西汉 and of the “Three Kingdoms” 三国. Diaochan helps a young official to hatch a plot against the tyrannical warlord Dong Zhuo 董卓. To the purpose, the young official offers, at the same time, Diaochan as a concubine to Dong Zhuo and betroths her to his foster son, the warrior Lü Bu 吕布. The arts of the fascinating and cunning Diaochan succeed in stirring them one against the other, and in convincing Lü Bu to kill his father during an orchestrated ceremony.
After his death, Dong Zhuo’s followers move against the imperial capital Chang’an (长安, today Xi'an 西安) and defeat Lü Bu, forcing him to escape. The end fate of Diaochan is narrated by different traditions: she is killed by Dong Zhuo’s followers, she escapes with Lü Bu, she commits suicide not to fall in the hands of the Dong Zhuo’s soldiers.
The left drawing is from Qing dynasty.
Historically, Dong Zhuo (?-192) was an army general of the Western Han 东汉 dynasty and emperor’s counselor. His tyrannical conduct brought to an end the Western Han dynasty. After he seized the capital LuoYang 洛阳 under the pretext of the emperor’s death and of subsequent upheavals, he established his own dictatorship. A few years later, a coalition of officials and warlords forced him to repair in Chang’an, where he was killed by Lü Bu, one of his subordinates (see the map).
The drunken concubine 贵妃醉酒 
Yang GuiFei 杨贵妃 (born Yang YuHuan, 杨玉环 713-756) was the highest-rank concubine (=GuiFei) of Xuanzong 玄宗 (685-762), an emperor of the Tang dynasty 唐 (618-907). Infatuated by her beauty, the elderly XuanZong is narrated to have neglected his obligations up to weakening imperial authority and army. Daughter of a high-rank official, she was one of the few women of the Chinese tradition, who, though plump, was regarded as beautiful. The elderly emperor was so infatuated to appoint one of her cousins as the empire chancellor.  
She, too, ended up to be ensnared by a cunning, stout general of Turkish birth, An LuShan 安禄山 (703-757), whom she adopted as son and possibly as lover. Ambition, jealousy and court's infighting pushed the protected general to rebel against the emperor, who had to escape before the capital Chang’an (长安, today Xi’an 西安) had fallen in the An LuShan’s hands.
While fleeing toward south, officials of the imperial army, full of rage and revenge against Yang family, whose negligence they ascribed to army weakness and defeat, killed the chancellor (GuiFei’s cousin) and harshly demanded the emperor the death of GuiFei. A reluctant and desperate emperor could only consent: Yang GuiFei was strangled in the court of a small Buddhist temple and there buried.
The rebellion, though extinguished but after several years, marked the decline of the Tang dynasty, which nonetheless endured for more than a century. The long reign of XuanZong (43 years) was at the same time the culmination of the dynasty, seen as the apogee of the cosmopolite golden age of the millenary Chinese civilization, and the incipit of its decline marked by the An LuShan‘s uprising. 
In the following century, Chinese society and culture tended to close, regional military governors (JieDuShi, 节度使) progressively increased their power at the expense of the central authority until paysan rebellions brought the dynasty to collapsing in the early X century.