Now that we’re counting down to the final two, and also arguably the hardest to distinguish. Before I got started on this series, I really couldn’t tell the two apart!
My sister, the avid reader, was the one who told me Xishi has big feet! A fun fact that was to become a central idea in the development of Xishi’s character. I was tempted to call her Xi-nderella, but was told that I’d be judged for being corny. Ah well.
There’s a short English animation on youtube that does a good job at telling the story–you can watch it HERE. But of course nothing beats seeing a real person in storytelling, so here we go~!
Beauty from an underprivileged background
Not all princesses were born with a silver spoon. But unlike Cinderella who was relegated to doing chores by her evil stepfamily, Xishi was born into a peasant working class family with her dad as a firewood peddler and her mom as a weaver. She would often go to the river to wash the silk yarns to help with the family income and chores.
It’s been said that the ultimate test of one’s beauty is how one looks when you shave off your hair. Similar things could be said about women from an underprivileged background with limited resources to doll themselves up–they often have beauty so remarkable that they don’t need any other accessories or make-up to shine.
Xishi’s beauty was described to be so impossibly perfect according to some Chinese literature that if you add one centimetre to her height she would’ve been too tall and removing one centimetre she would’ve been too short. If you add one ounce to her weight she would have looked overweight, and remove one ounce she would’ve been too frail and skinny! Pretty sure this was written to exclude everyone from passing off as Xishi, and thus she would become this unattainable icon for beauty.
No official ranking was done amongst the 4 beauties, but supposedly it was between her and Diaochan (the last beauty whom I will cover in a week or two’s time) as to who would be the most gorgeous looking.
And of course, their beauty is so universal that even fishes sank to the bottom of the river in shame when they saw her washing her
dirty laundry silk yarns by the river. I would too if I were the fishes, with the level of pollution these days.
Alright, alright. The most anticipated moment in all fairytales–the damsel-in-distress moment. So Xishi apparently had some health/heart issues, and she would often clutch her chest and frown in pain. Now that I mention it, I realise that none of the princesses in Disney has any health issue–they’re often healthy, cheery, outgoing, and full of positivity.
Naturally, such a health feature exists for a reason–to further illustrate how beautiful Xishi is, in sickness or health. Or in the case of Cinderella, her extreme helplessness is to accentuate the spectacularity of her wonderful transformation later on.
Trust the Chinese to have some
humour moral story injected into this as well, as told by Zhuangzi (an influential Chinese philosopher who lived some 1,000 years after Xishi’s time). He created a woman by the name of Dong Shi (Ms Shi in the East), who is an antithesis of Xi Shi (literally translating to Ms Shi in the West).
So Dong Shi was supposedly really vulgar and uncouth, but deep down she really wanted validation for her looks. One day, she saw Xi Shi walking by the village. Xi Shi’s heart problem relapsed and she clutched her chest with a slight frown. Dong Shi noticed that all the villagers were mesmerised by Xi Shi’s tiny upturned brow, and decided that it’s going to be THE killer look which Dong Shi would sport henceforth to look beautiful.
So inspired by Xi Shi, Dong Shi started frowning in agony everywhere she went. But instead of being mesmerised by her, the villagers were freaked out. They thought she had gone mad (quite understandably) and rushed to take cover from her, locking their doors and windows. It’s a look that would put Ben Stiller’s Blue Steel to shame.
So the Moral of the story was to not follow fashion trends blindly.
The special-size dancing shoes
Wooden clogs were popular footwear more than 2500 years ago in China. It became even more popular later on as people even wore it for formal occasions as an act of rebellion against the repressive society that codified and dictated what one should wear and not.
It’s funny to note that the ancient Chinese weren’t the only one obsessed about small feet as in the case of Cinderella’s original story where her small feet was her express ticket to being a royal bride! However, in the case of Xi Shi, her feet was said to be large, because of her background growing up as a labourer and small feet would render her inmobile to carry out those chores.
As such, instead of wearing the dainty embroidered shoes, Xi Shi was said to be wearing wooden clogs everywhere she went and she even choreographed an iconic Wooden Clog dance. But of course, this is a completely made up story by people from Song dynasty because there was no such thing as bound feet back in the Spring and Autumn period which was about 1,500 years before the custom of foot binding started!
Transforming weakness to strength
Ancient stories often take on different trajectories and spin-offs based on the prevalent beliefs of the time. For Xi Shi, she turned her supposed flaw of big feet into her strength with her dance talent. She nailed that dance like how Cinderella did! Nevermind the shoes!
Xi Shi basically choreographed a special clog dance which the King of Wu loved so much that he especially built a long hallway that had hollow ground laid over with wooden planks so that when she performed her wooden clog dance, the sound of the clogs could be heard loud and clear.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the original tap dance… (umm…)
With some enhancements…
Growing up, I’ve always found the jingling bell sound to be mesmerising, and it might’ve been a universal charm since Xi Shi and the King of Wu who lived 2,500 years ago believed so too. Xi Shi was said to add bells to her waist when she danced, so there is an additional jingle sound from the bells when she does her clog dance. She was basically a human tambourine! Unfortunately, she wouldn’t have claims to be the inventor of it since she would have to fight with the Greeks for that claim!
While all the Disney princesses were generally straightforward figures, Xi Shi was, in fact, a Helen of Troy disguised as Cinderella. Yes, two western myths for the price of one in China!
She was actually a spy, talent-spotted by the ruler of an enemy kingdom to seduce the King of Wu. The king of the enemy kingdom was held hostage and made a horseman in the Kingdom of Wu for many years before being released to return to his own Kingdom, the Kingdom of Yue. Determined to take revenge, Gou Jian the Yue King (whose sword is so perfectly preserved with no hint of rust despite its long existence of 2,500 years!) sent men to find a beautiful woman to be presented as a distraction for the King of Wu.
After getting talent-spotted, Xi Shi was sent to learn dancing and posture for 3 years before she was presented to the King of Wu. You see, women of the past needed to be well-versed in the arts in order to be considered holistically beautiful and desirable. Just a pretty face is not going to cut it, especially since the king had no lack of pretty women.
Needless to say, her mission was accomplished and the King of Yue defeated the King of Wu eventually as the Wu King got distracted by Xi Shi and neglected his rule and country.
Association with Dream of the Red Chamber’s No. 1 beauty–Lin Daiyu
Remember Daiyu? I deliberately chose the same model for Xi Shi because Daiyu was closely associated with her. In the novel Dream of the Red Chamber, when the male protagonist Baoyu first saw Daiyu, he gave her the nickname Pin pin (颦颦) because she was constantly frowning and she frowned so beautifully, just like in the legend of Xi Shi. The author also wrote that Daiyu was sicky and fragile like Xi Shi, perhaps even more so than Xi Shi (病如西子胜三分).
On insecurities and Beauty
An interesting coincidence between the model herself and Xi Shi was the model’s frustration with the size of her eyes. She wanted a bigger and rounder eyes and contemplated going through procedures to make her eyes bigger, and turns out Xi Shi was also unhappy with her own small eyes!
Xi Shi was said to want bigger eyes, and had low self-esteem because of her big feet. It was only after her BFF Zheng Dan (another gorgeous beauty overlooked by history) made really long skirts for her to cover her legs while dancing, and brought her to see her own reflections and using fishes to illustrate how fishes of different sizes are still beautiful just like different shapes and sizes of eyes can be beautiful too, that Xi Shi finally had more confidence in herself!
Oh yea, did I mention the best part of the story–While Wang Zhao Jun and Yang Gui Fei are both real, Xi Shi might not be. =] Still a better love story than Twilight.