The legend of Xi Shi


The Four Great Beauties

Caroline Young, artwork and text

QFWF, April 5th 2019 © Source: The art of Caroline R. Young (2002), Heritage Four Great Beauties
A Moon Rising

Madam Xi Shi is known today as one of the Four Great Beauties of Chinese history.

Apart from her exceptional looks, Xi Shi was also a patriotic, smart and sophisticated woman who lived around 400 BCE, in the kingdom of Yue, during the Warring States Period. During this period, China was divided into spheres of influence that were controlled by minor kings and warlords.

At the time of our story, the king of Wu had just annexed the kingdom of Yue, and the king of Yue was held hostage for three years.

When the king of Yue was finally ransomed and returned to his own kingdom, he vowed to bring about the demise of the king of Wu.

One day, Fan-li, the prime minister of Yue, was walking in the countryside and strolling along a river when he came across the bewitchingly beautiful Xi Shi, washing silk garments on its banks. Fan-li saw the most beautiful young maiden he had ever seen.


He immediately recruited her and lovingly taught her the art of poetry, song and dance. She was gradually transformed into one of the most beautiful and irresistible women who had ever lived.

During the three years of her education and training, the two fell madly in love with each other, but never dared to express their true feelings until their final journey to Wu together. By this time, Xi Shi and Fan-li knew it was probably too late and that their love would remain unrequited forever.

When Fan-li felt she was ready, he presented Xi Shi to the king of Wu as a peace offering.
Xi Shi readily offered to sacrifice her happiness and serve the king of Wu as though she was his devoted and loyal concubine. Such was her enduring love for Fan-li.
The mighty tyrant took one look at Xi Shi and promptly fell head over heels in love with her. Because he was so obsessed with her, he gradually revealed all the state secrets to Xi Shi, while ignoring important national affairs.

Xi Shi managed to relay her discoveries to Fan-li and day by day Wu State began to fall into decay. In the end, this enabled the king of Yue to finally destroy Wu, and realize his dream of national independence.

After the victory, Fan-li and Xi Shi quietly disappeared into the countryside, where they spent the rest of their lives together and lived happily ever after.

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As an adopted child of Chinese-American expatriates, I have always been intrigued by how the Chinese culture explained the mysteries of the universe.