ScribblingGeek earned a bachelor's degree in communication studies in 1999. His interests include history, traveling, and mythology.
Imperial Chinese history is full of incidences of entire dynasties overthrown, or descending into irreversible decline, because of a ruler’s infatuation with a beautiful consort.
While many such episodes are much intertwined with legend i.e. not entirely unverifiable, they are widely embraced by the Chinese as warnings against irresponsible rule. They also exemplify the Chinese metaphor hong yan huo shui (红颜祸水). The metaphor literally means “a beautiful feminine face is a cesspool of disasters.”
1. Mo Xi (末喜)
Jie, the final ruler of the Ancient Xia Dynasty i.e. the mythical first dynasty of China, was described as an exceptional cruel despot.
He was also reckless, wasteful, and lascivious. Among his many women, he was fondest of the legendary beauty Mo Xi. Equally as depraved, Mo Xi delighted her sovereign with her immorality and vileness. The royal couple’s most notorious “sin” was the construction of a huge lake of wine. When completed, thousands were forced to drink like animals from the lake. The sight of the intoxicated toppling into the lake then delighted Jie and Mo Xi endlessly.
Like the case of Da Ji (see below), though, it is unknown whether this cruel beauty truly existed. In fact, even the existence of the Ancient Xia Dynasty is still debated. Records about the Xia Dynasty did not exist till several centuries after the believed destruction of Xia.
The story of Jie and Mo Xi should thus be regarded as an allegory of sorts, one possibly written by subsequent dynasties to caution emperors against debauchery and sexual indulgence. As for what ultimately happened to the evil couple, they were supposedly exiled after Shang Tang (of the Ancient Shang Dynasty) staged a successful uprising. Presumably, the duo died in great shame and suffering.
2. Da Ji (妲己)
In Chinese culture, the name Da Ji immediately conjures images of a wicked, unscrupulous Chinese beauty. One who was the human form of a vixen spirit.
Thanks to the supernatural depictions in the 16th century Chinese literature classic, Investiture of the Gods, Da Ji is also widely reviled as the primary reason behind the downfall of the Ancient Shang Dynasty. In this saga, she was tasked by Goddess Nüwa with bewitching Di Xin, the final Shang Emperor; the foolish emperor had insulted the goddess. However, Da Ji soon got carried away with debauchery and all forms of evil-doing. Her deeds were eventually so atrocious, the entire nation rose in rebellion.
The real Da Ji, on the other hand, was largely unrecorded in Chinese history. Passages about her do appear in ancient compendiums such as Shi Ji. However, these were all written centuries after the end of the Shang Dynasty.
The crimes the legendary Chinese beauty was accused of in these compendiums also bother on the implausible. For example, Di Xin was said to have constructed a large “naked forest” on Da Ji’s request. After completion, hundreds of naked couples allegedly frolicked nightly in this sinful land.
Regardless of historical veracity, Da Ji will forever be regarded by the Chinese as a beautiful but horrifically immoral seductress. Her “story” will also forever be a Chinese allegory about debauchery. Or more specifically, a warning for rulers about the dangers of beautiful women.
3. Bao Si (褒姒)
Bao Si was a concubine of King You, the twelfth ruler of the Ancient Western Zhou Dynasty. Apart from being widely regarded as one of the most beautiful women of then, she was also the protagonist of an appalling story. One that ended with the Western Zhou Dynasty losing much territory.
So the story goes, King You was hopelessly infatuated with Bao Si, to the extent he even replaced his queen with her. Unfortunately, however, Bao Si was deeply melancholic by nature and never, ever smiled. This was despite the king’s tireless efforts to delight and humor her.
At the end of his wits, the king eventually pulled a foolish prank. He lit the warning beacons around his capital, something that should only be done when the capital is under threat of invasion.
Presented with the spectacle of nobles rushing to the capital with impressive armies, the moody beauty finally smiled. Delighted with his success, King You then repeated the prank several times. Without surprise, he soon lost the respect and trust of everyone.
King You ultimately suffered his due comeuppance when the capital was indeed invaded by barbarian tribes. No armies came to assist, no matter the number of beacons lit.
The invasion was also supported by the father of King You’s deposed queen, i.e. the foolish king’s ex father-in-law. In the aftermath, King You was killed. The Zhou Dynasty also permanently lost much territory and transited into the Eastern Zhou Era.
As for Bao Si, the legendary Chinese beauty either committed suicide, was killed, or was captured and sold into slavery. Of note, some modern scholars have highlighted that Bao Si, by most accounts, was hardly the same as wicked Mo Xi and Da Ji. She was but aloof, albeit to an incredibly irresponsible extent.
4. Li Ji (骊姬)
Li Ji was the concubine of Duke Xian of Jin, a powerful state during China’s tumultuous Spring and Autumn Period.
In 672 BC, the young Li was given to Duke Xian as a gift by the Northern Rong tribes. Because of her great beauty, Duke Xian quickly became besotted with her; he even replaced his main wife with her. Seven years later in 665 BC, Li also bore Duke Xian a son named Xiqi. The new prince would then be Li Ji’s primary motivation in all the disasters she masterminded. Disasters that centered on eradicating all other offspring of Duke Xian.
In short, the power-hungry and unscrupulous Li worked tirelessly to make her son the official heir. She convinced Duke Xian to dispatch his older sons to border regions. She also framed Duke Xian’s eldest son, Prince Shensheng, for patricide. The prince committed suicide because of this.
Other princes who supported their older brother were then forced to flee the State of Jin, following which the duke foolishly dispatched armies to attack them. In 651 BC, after the duke’s death, Li Ji installed her teenage son as the next duke. Unfortunately for her this round, she failed to properly secure power and her son was killed a month by a Jin general named Li Ke. She herself was also killed within the same year by the same general.
Of note, Li Ji’s machinations, vile as they were, did not doom Jin; the state survived for almost another three centuries. Modern depictions tend to ignore this detail, though. Some Chinese write-ups nowadays even group Li Ji with Mo Xi, Da Ji, and Bao Si, to form the new “Four Evil Legendary Beauties of Ancient China.”
5. Xi Shi (西施)
One of the legendary Four Great Beauties of China, Xi Shi lived during the Spring and Autumn Period, and was a citizen of the Ancient State of Yue.
After Yue was subjugated by the neighboring state of Wu, Xi Shi was recruited by Yue minister Fan Li as part of a sexpionage effort to bewitch Fuchai, the King of Wu. Together with another beauty named Zheng Dan, Xi Shi successfully befuddled Fuchai, to the extent the Wu ruler even executed his most capable general.
In 473 BC, the state of Yue seized the day and launched an uprising against a weakened Wu. Their subsequent victory was swift and complete. In great shame, Fuchai also committed suicide.
As for what happened to Xi Shi following the defeat of Wu, there are at least six different theories. The simplest version states that she was killed during the Yue offensive. Another version claims that she felt deeply remorseful for what she did to Fuchai, who treated her well, and committed suicide.
Yet another version states that the legendary Chinese beauty vanished with Fan Li, thereafter leading a reclusive and peaceful life. For Chinese Wuxia story lovers, Xi Shi famously appears in Louis Cha’s Sword of the Yue Maiden. In this pop fiction depiction, Xi Shi’s beauty was described as so breath-taking, she was capable of taking the heart of any man, or woman, who looks upon her.
6. Imperial Consort Yang (杨贵妃)
Like Xi Shi, Tang Dynasty Concubine Yang, maiden name Yang Yuhuan (杨玉环), was one of the four legendary Chinese beauties of Ancient China.
Born in AD 719, she married Prince Li Mao at the age of fourteen. Rather appallingly, Li Mao’s father i.e. Emperor Tang Xuanzong then took a liking to the young beauty following the death of his favorite consort.
To “transfer” Yang into his harem, the wily emperor first arranged for Yang to become a Taoist nun. After she returned to the palace in AD 745, she was bestowed the title of Imperial Consort, with many of her family members also conferred official posts. Such cronyism significantly hastened the decline of the Tang dynasty.
To give an example, Yang’s cousin, Yang Guozhong, was appointed chancellor. This was in spite of him being utterly dissolute.
Various Chinese folktales also claim that the ageing Xuanzong increasingly ignored his empire. So it’s said, or lamented, the emperor even abandoned morning meetings. He was too exhausted by nightly romantic romps with Yang to be able to wake up in time.
Matters eventually came to a head when the devastating An Lushan Rebellion broke out in AD 755. While Xuanzong survived the uprising, he was forced to execute Yang as part of an agreement to appeased disheartened troops. The heartbroken emperor ultimately died a depressed old man six years later. The Tang Dynasty also never fully recovered from the rebellion. A slow decline commenced, till complete fragmentation in AD 907.
Was One Legendary Beauty Really Responsible for It All?
Even the most unforgiving Chinese folktales and pop culture depictions tend to portray Consort Yang as naïve and simplistic. In other words, she herself was manipulated by greedy relatives.
Most accounts also claim she genuinely loved the emperor, despite him being much older. She was clueless about the ugly political machinations brewing around her as well.
Finally, it should be noted that prior to Yang Guozong’s appointment as chancellor, Xuanzong’s court had already suffered for years under Chancellor Li Linfu. Widely regarded as one of the most deceptive imperial Chinese courtiers ever, to the extent he even inspired a metaphor for treachery, Li Linfu flooded Xuanzong’s court with cronies. What Yang Guozong then did in office was but a continuation of the trend set by the previous chancellor.
7. Noble Consort Yi (懿贵妃)
Before she dominated all of pre-modern China, before she committed atrocities such as spending naval funds for private entertainment, Yehenara Xingzhen i.e. the notorious Empress Dowager Cixi was referred to as Imperial Concubine Yi.
Few if any would consider her a legendary Chinese beauty too; incidentally, she’s Manchurian by ethnicity. However, it is a historical fact that she was hand-picked by Qing Dynasty Emperor Xianfeng to be a “Noble Lady” consort in AD 1851. Five years later, she also rose to the rank of Noble Consort. This position placed her second only to the Empress.
In AD 1861, Yehenara Xingzhen bore Xianfeng a son. After the ascension of her son as Emperor Tongzhi following the sudden demise of Xianfeng, the unscrupulous consort controlled the entire imperial court with an iron hand as the newly elevated Empress Dowager Cixi. Her “reign” would then last for near half a century. Her final political decision also hammered in the final nail of the coffin of the Qing Dynasty. Right before passing, she installed the infant Puyi on the Dragon Throne.
Was Cixi, the “Dragon Lady” Truly Horrendous?
Popular depictions and folktales greatly condemn Cixi for her extravagance, her cronyism, and her brutal monopolizing of power. However, modern writers such as Jung Chang have argued that Cixi was a capable administrator overall, considering the condition of the Qing Dynasty during her reign. Historian Pamela Kyle Crossley has also suggested depictions of Cixi were much influenced by misogyny and Anti-Manchurian sentiments.
Whatever the truth, Cixi will still forever be associated by the Chinese with despotism, senseless feudalism, and decadence. In some pop culture depictions, she is even described as the scourge of the Manchurian Qing Dynasty, the woman who would “end it all.”
Her nonsensical, possibly spiteful placement of the infant Puyi on the Dragon Throne, when the dynasty was already in great crisis, certainly encourages such a view.
© 2020 Scribbling Geek
Scribbling Geek (author) from Singapore on June 29, 2020:
The three must-haves to attracting an attractive and evil legendary beauty:
- Authority over a whole empire in all matters
- The resources to dig and make a lake overnight
- Wine-production capabilities to fill your new lake with wine.
Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on June 28, 2020:
This is cool. A fun read well written. Glad my wife is basically normal and that I have no dynasty Yikes.