Wang Wei tuts at the Kardashians of the ancient world
Or Meghan Markle, or Pamela Anderson, or...
The Song of Xi Shi Wang Wei In a world obsessed with beauty, She wouldn’t remain undiscovered. A girl by a stream in the morning, That night, Mata Hari in Wu. In poverty, she hadn’t seemed special, As a palace girl, suddenly golden. She had people for perfume and makeup, And maids helped her into her gowns. Adored by a king, she was a diva, Morality didn’t apply. Her friends by that stream with their laundry Weren’t allowed on her carriage that night. That neighbour who mimicked the Xi Shi moue? Just tell her to stop it. It’s hopeless for you. 王维 西施咏 艳色天下重，西施宁久微。 朝仍越溪女，暮作吴宫妃。 贱日岂殊众，贵来方悟稀。 邀人傅香粉，不自著罗衣。 君宠益娇态，君怜无是非。 当时浣纱伴，莫得同车归。 持谢邻家子，效颦安可希。
Xi Shi was a celebrated beauty. Born into a farming family in Yue, she was picked up by the king’s talent scouts and taken to be a palace concubine. But the king had a great rivalry with the neighbouring kingdom of Wu, so he hatched a plot to weaken his enemies. He would send the beautiful Xi Shi as a gift to the king of Wu, and she would infatuate him so much that he would neglect to run his country properly. Given time, Wu would weaken, and Yue could overrun it. Everything went according to plan, and after a few years, Yue won its victory. The fate of Xi Shi is unknown…
Wang Wei had a problem with flashy, successful women. In this poem he takes Xi Shi to task for an arrogance that wasn’t really her fault. Some have suggested that he is not really writing about women here: there is a tradition in Tang poetry of using women as a stand-in for subjects of the emperor. So it’s possible that when he disapprovingly describes the trappings of Xi Shi’s overnight success, he is really thinking of men who have been suddenly elevated by the emperor, and lost touch with their old friends. But there’s nothing in the poem to confirm that reading, so I see Wang as talking generally about the falseness of sudden elevation, and the shallowness of a world that loves beauty.
The final detail comes from a story by Zhuangzi, who was an extremely unreliable historian. An ugly neighbour saw how lovely Xi Shi looked when she pouted and knit her brows. The ugly neighbour copied the expression, but the result only made people run from her in horror.
Ultimately, I find this poem unsatisfactory, because Wang doesn’t seem to have made up his mind about whether he thinks Xi Shi really had something that others don’t. First he suggests she’s so beautiful that it was inevitable this shallow world would worship her; then he says she was nothing special; then at the end, he says that if anyone else tries her expressions they’ll get nowhere, which again suggests that Xi Shi was special. Without resolving this problem, his complaints about her morality seem unfocused.