How Lady Xi Shi Saved the Kingdom

Art by Xiang Weiren (项维仁, 1947-). Brush watercolor on silk.

A battle rages, clashes echo in the palace. Ministers shout and scuttle, weeping louder than the wounded. Reports of losses fill the king’s ear.

Where, he asks himself, did it all go wrong? Where was the fruit of decades of empire building? And the enemy? A mere vassal state that had been ground to its knees long ago. Was this the end?

This is the story of a special lady, crowned one of the Four Great Beauties of Chinese history, whose looks, talents, and sacrifice won her a seat in China’s heroic hall of fame. But, to tell the tale of this timeless beauty, we must begin with an ugly feud.

Battle of the Sons

Near the start of the Warring States period, in the early 5th century, the state of Wu rose to the military forefront. In its thirst for power, the Wu army turned on its neighbor, the state of Yue.

The king of Yue had recently died, leaving his young son, Goujian on the throne. While the entire state of Yue was in mourning, the Wu king launched a surprise attack. Goujian, inexperienced and hopelessly outmatched, engaged nonetheless. Miraculously, he was able to execute a maneuver that left the Wu king exposed. As the king died of his wounds, the Wu army retreated.

The son of the fallen king was called Fu Chai, and his father’s death sat heavily on his heart. As he built up his nation’s army, he had his generals and ministers remind him daily that Goujian’s troops had killed his father. Bitter and vengeful, Fu Chai attacked Yue two years later and backed Goujian into a corner. Goujian chose surrender over annihilation, and harsh terms were agreed upon. Yue became a vassal state of Wu. 

The once-esteemed king Goujian was now a slave, along with his queen as well as his top minister, Fan Li. The trio toiled in the stables, laboring in full view of the commoners.

Goujian and the Gallbladder

Despite all, Goujian never complained. Neither he, his wife, nor his minister ever breathed a word of protest. The three stayed quiet and acted subservient, and after long years of suffering, slowly earned the trust of King Fu Chai. The King was absolutely convinced that Goujian and the whole state of Yue were under his thumb.

But Goujian was no pushover, he simply played the long game and eventually earned enough trust that Fu Chai gave him back his freedom. In his heart, though, he was only biding his time for payback.

To keep the memory of his humiliation fresh, Goujian rose each morning to lick a bitter gallbladder that he hung above his bed. Goujian kept up the obedient facade, trading with the Wu and sending over resources and beautiful women.

Meanwhile he had his Yue people covertly prepare for war.

Illustration by Pan, Feiying, published 1960-1970, Hong Kong

The Secret Weapon

Outside the capital of Yue lived a young lady, later to be known as Xi Shi. Though a simple village girl, she possessed charm to rival a noble and the looks to outshine them all.

It took Fan Li, Goujian’s trusted minister, three years to train Xi Shi into a perfect palace lady. She became a skilled musician, entrancing dancer, and a tough opponent in chess. Her knowledge was vast and she was a good hand at both painting and calligraphy. Her village etiquette became palace manners and her looks became dazzling grace. Her training was complete. 

Goujian sent Xi Shi over to Fu Chai, the king of Wu, to serve as a concubine. Our heroine had only to show her face and the king was enraptured. To please her, Fu Chai spent his country’s fortune on the construction of palaces, gardens, and an artificial lake. He forgot about matters of the state and spent his days by her side. Xi Shi did her best to distract him from matters of import and kept her cover well.

Illustration by Pan, Feiying, published 1960-1970, Hong Kong

But she wasn’t the only one. Remember, the Yue state had sent out beautiful ladies to other officials, and they all followed their king’s lead. The whole lot of Wu statesmen were busy in the company of these ladies and paid little heed to state affairs. They spent vast sums on entertainment and slowly weakened the state. After several years, Wu was but a shadow of its former might.

Xi Shi did more than just occupy the king’s time. She also sent intelligence back home, supplying information crucial to the eventual strike.

The day had finally come. Wu was weak and poor, and, seizing an opening, Goujian ordered an attack. The mighty kingdom of Wu fell with little resistance.

Happily Ever After?

As for what happened to Xi Shi after the fall of Wu, history is rather reticent on that point.

Illustration by Pan, Feiying, published 1960-1970, Hong Kong

We do know that Fu Chai killed himself in humiliation. Some say that Xi Shi’s love for Fu Chai was real and that, her mission complete, she decided to take her own life as well. Others speculate that she fled Yue with her real lover, Goujian’s minister, Fan Li. We would like to think that the two of them lived a happy and peaceful life together, evidence suggesting that Fan Li used his smarts to become a wealthy merchant and raise a lovely family. 

But whatever her end, we admire her no less, for her beauty, for her brains, and for her contributions to China’s colorful history.

Her story is brought to life on stage in Shen Yun 2024’s The Story of Lady Xi Shi.


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