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Map of China



Suzhou is a city of beauties as all would agree and the Chinese pride themselves having the four great in Suzhou - beauties, gardens, bridges and pagodas. Hence, in summer of 1995, we went in search of the Suzhou "meiren" (beauties).

As history has it, one of the four ancient beauties of China is: Xishi (497 BC). She was a legendary beauty of ancient China and has been described as "equally charming in both heavy and light makeup", "as appealing when she frowns as when she smiles". Of her figure it has been said that "were she plump, you would admire her plumpness, were she thin you would admire her for being slender". She is celebrated as a woman of extraordinary natural beauty with a universal appeal. Although many have praised Xishi's looks, there is but little mention of her notable virtue - she had a great love for her country and her people.

Xishi was the daughter of a tea trader from Ningluo Mountain village in the Zhuji county in Zhejiang Province. This comprised a part of the ancient state of Yue.

When the state of Yue was vanquished by the state of Wu, the King of Yue, Gou Jian was forced to serve the Prince of Wu for three years. On his release, King Gou Jian slept on brushwood and drank gall before each meal to remind himself of the humiliation his country had suffered. He commissioned men to search far and wide for a woman whom he could send as a tribute to Prince Fuchai of Wu. Xishi, whose beauty was much talked of even from early childhood, was selected for this task and sent to the capital.

King Gou Jian approved of the choice and had Xishi dressed in fine robes. He had her trained in royal court etiquette. Gou Jian ordered his minister Fan Li to take Xishi to the Prince of Wu as a tribute gift from Yue. During the journey, Xishi fell deeply in love with the wise minister. Fan Li also grew to admire this courageous lady who was willing to give her life for her country. Consequently, before they parted, they made a secret pledge of undying love.

They arrived at the capital of Wu and the prince welcomed Xishi with open arms. He was enchanted by her appearance and doted on her. Gradually he began to neglect his political duties, preferring to idle away his time with Xishi. He frequently took her out on carriage rides to the noisy and prosperous sections of the city. On these rides, he liked to boast to those around him that he had won the heart of the most beautiful woman in the world. He would add: "If you want to look at her, you'll have to present me with some gold coins!" In this way, he also managed to enrich his coffers.

Xishi, however, never lost sight of her mission. Her aim was to bewitch the Prince of Wu so that his subjects would grow restless and his friends would desert him. The political chaos that ensued would enable the King of Yue to invade the state of Wu, recompensing him for his former humiliation.

Heaven grants the wishes of men. The King of Yue finally annexed the state of Wu. Following the death of Prince Fuchai of Wu, Xishi disappeared from public life. She lived in relative obscurity with Fan Li who became a successful trader. This story is unique in the history of feudal China as no one has ever found fault with Xishi, even though she had caused the downfall of the state of Wu.

Perhaps the real charm lies in the search of the legendary saying that I have often dreamt of - Suzhou "meiren". However. the only "mei" that I had experience in Suzhou was the welcoming trip back to Shanghai that I know there will be a comfortable bed (in Shanghai standard) and a cool bath in the heat of summer of 95. The rest of the journey was the grueling heat, hassling of the natives getting a piece of the tourist money. Much to my disappointment, I did not witness any fair skin, maple-shaped eyed beauties, nor any reasonably fair lady any time of the day during our visit. I began to crack jokes that real beauties only make their appearances when the sun retires in order to maintain their fair complexion.

Our journey back to Shanghai was a good hour half in the semi-hard seats of the creaky train ride.