Ancient Chinese Beauty -- Blessings and Curses
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 or singing skills, others for their virtuous nature, and still others for their involvement in political intrigue.
Beauty for the Good of the People
Four women, Xishi, Wang Zhaojun, Diaochan and Yang Yuhuan, stand out in the latter category. Besides their comliness, these women demonstrated unparallelled wit and heroism, and 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 beat a treacherous warlord at a badger game, ensuring the safety of her people. Wang Zhaojun volunteered to marry the Hun Khan for the sake of Han-nomad pacification, and Yang Yuhuan hanged herself to quash a mutiny.
No less beautiful are Daji and Baosi, but 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 defense 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 he was killed.
These two women were considered a scourge on their country and people. In Chinese conceptions, virtue outweighs appearance. The Book of Songs has a love poem that reads "water fowl are tweeting on the shoal; a fair and chaste lady is the ideal spouse of gentleman." This verse is almost 3000 years old and testifies to the importance Chinese people attach to moral character.
Some people still use the phrase "buxom Huan and slinky Yan." Huan refers to Yang Yuhuan (719 - 756 A.D.), a favored concubine of Tang emperor Xuanzong, and Yan to Zhao Feiyan (?-1 B.C.), wife of Han emperor Chengdi. Yan was so slim and lithe, it is said she could dance on the palm of a hand, and Huan was plump and fit, adept at the vigorous whirling dance of the nomads.
During the centuries in and before the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.- A.D.220), slenderness was considered ideal feminine beauty. Books of that period often described waists "as delicate as a sheaf of white silk." Chinese aesthetic conceptions changed drastically in the Tang Dynasty, when the country was powerful, and people were affluent. It was plump women with wide foreheads and round faces that were deemed most graceful.
It is difficult to ascertain exactly what these ancient beauties looked like. Literati of old times described them as having "eyebrows the shape of silkworms and eyes similar to those of a phoenix," but according to folk standards of feminine beauty eyebrows resembled willow leaves, eyes were almond-shaped and lips in the form of a cherry.
Han Dynasty lore contains an extraordinarily minute description of a woman who was selected as Han emperor Hengdi's concubine. It detailed her demeanor, voice, complexion, stature, hair and even genitalia. It listed exact measurements of her shoulder width, arms, legs, feet and hands from fingertip to palm, but gave no record of the size of her bust or buttocks, as they were considered unimportant. Chinese ancestors deemed sexiness as immoral, and had waged campaigns throughout history calling on women to bind their breasts.
Cattle-call Beauty Contests
Besides some notable exceptions, few women are remembered today in Chinese history. This can be explained by women's low social status and feudal ethics. In feudal times, women were confined to the home and denied social involvement. Beauty contests only took place among prostitutes and candidates for imperial concubines and maidens. Though accomplished in music, chess, calligraphy, painting, and poetry, all the winner could expect was the title of "flower queen" rather than respect and recognition.
In 1621, Ming emperor Xizong sent eunuchs across the country to handpick 5,000 young women aged 13 to 16, from whom he would select a wife. During the first round of the competition, the women stood in lines of 100 according to age. One thousand were eliminated for being too tall, short, fat or thin. On the second day, the eunuchs intensively examined the women's bodies, and had them speak to evaluate their voice and manner. This slimmed down the field by another 2,000. The third day was spent looking at feet and hands, and movement, eliminating another 1,000. The remaining thousand then underwent gynecological examinations, and another 700 were dismissed.
The remaining number went to the palace for a month-long test of intelligence, merit, temperament and moral character. The most outstanding 50 were imperial candidates subject to further examinations and interviews about math, literature and art. The best three received the highest ranking for imperial concubines. Out of those who had survived the rigorous process, only a few might win the emperor's favor. Most spent their lives in bitter loneliness. In this period of history, beauty was more a curse than a blessing.