Consort Xi Shi – The Spy Whose Beauty Brought Down A Kingdom




Xi Shi
Xi Shi as depicted in the album Gathering Gems of Beauty (public domain)

Consort Xi Shi was one of the four most beautiful women in ancient China.[1] She was sent to seduce her kingdom’s enemy, King Fuchai of Wu. She succeeded in her mission, and her legendary beauty brought down a short-lived kingdom. While she was known to be a femme fatale, some historians view her in a more sympathetic light.[2] Xi Shi has become an unsung patriotic heroine who sacrificed her own happiness for the kingdom’s interests.[3]

Xi Shi was born around 500 B.C. E.[4] She was born in Zhejiang in Zhuji county.[5] The inhabitants of Zhuji county shared the surname Shi. Since her village was on the western slope of a mountain, her name was Xi (which means “western” [6]).[7] Her father was a woodcutter, and she made her living washing silk in a nearby stream.[8]

Xi Shi lived during the late Spring and Autumn period, an era which lasted from 771 to 446 B.C.E.[9] During this period, the states of Jin, Qin, Qi, and Chu were breaking away from the ruling Zhou dynasty to form their own dynasties.[10] In the later part of the Spring and Autumn period, two states, Yue and Wu, declared their independence from Chu with the help of Jin and formed their own dynasties. These two kingdoms were next to each other and often in conflict.[11] This conflict set up the stage for Consort Xi Shi’s story because she lived in Yue, and her mission was to bring down Wu.[12]

In 494 B.C.E., King Fuchai of Wu defeated Yue and made it into a tributary state.[13] He made Gou Jian, the King of Yue, and his wife work as slaves for three years in Wu until he released them and let them reign as client monarchs in his realm.[14] King Gou Jian never forgot his humiliation and vowed revenge against King Fuchai.[15] He asked his trusted minister, Fan Li, for an effective revenge plan.[16] Fan Li learned of the King of Wu’s weakness for beautiful women and suggested for the king to send a beautiful woman to seduce King Fuchai.[17] King Gou Jian liked the idea and agreed with it. He made Fan Li disguise himself as a merchant and search for the most beautiful woman in the kingdom.[18] The woman Fan Li found to be the most beautiful in Yue was Xi Shi.[19]

When Fan Li discovered her, she was brought to King Gou Jian’s court. For three years, she received extensive training by Fan Li in court etiquette and seduction.[20] During her training, Xi Shi and Fan Li had fallen in love, but they had to cast their romance aside for the better interests of the kingdom.[21] When she was deemed ready, King Gou Jian sent her as a tributary gift to King Fuchai and waited for his destruction.[22]

The moment Xi Shi entered the King of Wu’s harem, King Fuchai fell in love with her.[23] He spent all his time with her, which caused him to neglect his official duties.[24] He did everything to please her. Under her guidance, he dismissed and ordered the suicide of his capable minister, Wu Zixu.[25] He replaced him with an ineffective minister. King Fuchai even built the Guanwa Palace for her. It was said to be so lavish that pearl strands hung to shade the windows.[26] King Fuchai also built the “Promenade of Musical Shoes” [27] next to Guanwa Palace. It had marble floors, and underneath the floors, there were thousands of earthenware jars that sounded like chimes every time she walked or danced on it.[28] King Fuchai even had a special river made for her and erected pavilions along its banks for dancers and musicians to perform.[29]

Xi Shi stayed in the palace for nine years as his concubine. During those nine years, he was so negligent of his duties that the strong kingdom of Wu had weakened. In 482 B.C.E.,  King Fuchai travelled to northern Yangzhi for a conference meeting. The conference was made up of rulers from the states of Chu, Jin, Qi, Qin and Wu. These rulers would discuss how to gain control over central China where the crippling Zhou dynasty still reigned.[30] It was during this conference that King Gou Jian decided to act upon his revenge. He launched a surprise attack against Wu, which left many casualties on the Wu side.[31] Since the kingdom of Wu was already weakened by King Fuchai’s negligence, King Gou Jian had no difficulties attacking Wu again and won.[32] This time, Wu was now part of Yue territory, where it remained until 150 B.C.E.. King Gou Jian exiled King Fuchai to a tiny island off of China’s coast.[33] In humiliation, King Fuchai committed suicide.[34] This ended Wu as an independent state.

There are two conflicting historical accounts that tell what happened to Consort Xi Shi after Wu’s defeat.[35] One account claims that Xi Shi gradually grew to love King Fuchai and that when he died, she threw herself into a river and drowned.[36] Another account gives Xi Shi a more happy ending. In this account, Xi Shi and Fan Li reunited as lovers after she accomplished her mission.[37] They lived near Lake Tai where Fan Li became a merchant.[38] In China, there are two caves in Yixing (a city in Jiangsu province) named for Xi Shi and Fan Li.[39] Local legends have it that they spent the rest of their lives in these caves.[40] Throughout the millennia, Xi Shi has been portrayed in Chinese literature and drama. One of these is The Girl Who Washes Silk, a popular play by Liang Chenyu.[41] This play focuses on Xi Shi and Fan Li’s romance portraying them as tragic lovers who have to sacrifice their happiness for the good of the kingdom.[42]

References:

Eno, R. (2010).  1.7. Spring and Autumn China (771-453). Indiana University, PDF.

Milburn, O. (2013). The silent beauty: Changing portrayals of Xi Shi, from “Zhiguai” and poetry to Ming fiction and drama. Asia Major, 26(1), third series, 23-53.

Kaichang, X. (2015). Notable women of China: Shang Dynasty to the early twentieth century (B. B. Peterson, Ed.). London: Routledge.


[1] Milburn, p. 23; Kaichang, p. 25

[2] Milburn, p. 24

[3] Milburn, p. 24

[4] Kaichang, p. 25

[5] Kaichang, p. 25

[6] Kaichang, p. 25

[7] Kaichang, p. 25

[8] Kaichang, p. 25

[9] Eno, p. 2

[10]Eno, p. 3

[11] Milburn, p. 23

[12] Milburn, p. 23

[13] Kaichang, p. 25

[14] Kaichang, p. 25

[15] Kaichang, p. 26

[16] Kaichang, p. 26

[17] Kaichang, p. 26

[18] Kaichang, p. 26

[19] Kaichang, p. 26

[20] Kaichang, p. 26

[21] Kaichang, p. 26

[22] Kaichang, p. 26

[23] Kaichang, p. 26

[24] Kaichang, p. 26

[25] Kaichang, p. 26

[26] Kaichang, p. 26

[27] Kaichang, p. 26

[28] Kaichang, p. 26

[29] Kaichang, p. 26

[30] Kaichang, p. 26

[31] Kaichang, p. 26

[32] Kaichang, p. 26

[33] Kaichang, p. 26

[34] Kaichang, p. 26

[35] Kaichang, p. 26

[36] Kaichang, p. 26

[37] Kaichang, pp. 26-27

[38] Kaichang, pp. 26-27

[39] Kaichang, p. 27

[40] Kaichang, p. 27

[41] Milburn, pp. 23-24; Kaichang, p. 27

[42] Milburn, pp. 23-24; Kaichang, p. 27






About Lauralee Jacks 175 Articles
I am a former elementary teacher in Tennessee. I have a bachelor’s degree in Liberal and Civic Studies from St. Mary’s College of California, a master’s in Elementary Education from the University of Phoenix, and a doctorate in Educational Leadership from the College of Saint Mary. Because my family are from East Asia, I have a passion for historical Chinese and Korean television shows. I always wanted to separate fact from fiction in dramas. Writing articles from History of Royal Women gives me a chance to dig deeper and explore these royal women as they might have been in real life. Also, it gives me a chance to look at the history and culture of where my family originated. I love researching East Asian royalty because they rarely get enough attention in the West often being overshadowed by European royalty. I find these royal women to be just as fascinating and their stories deserve to be told. Thus, I am excited to write for History of Royal Women!

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