Digital Version Shop TWOC Events

Dangerous Beauty: The Women Who Destroyed Empires

Five femme fatales who history blamed for the downfall of kingdoms


Dangerous Beauty: The Women Who Destroyed Empires

Five femme fatales who history blamed for the downfall of kingdoms


China has its own versions of the femme fatale.

The idiom 红颜祸水 (hóngyán huòshuǐ) is used to describe them, literally meaning “dangerous beauties who will incur misfortunes”. In a male-dominated society like ancient China, women, for various reasons, were often the scapegoat for public criticism for an empire’s collapse.

It seemed that for those bigots or pedants, it was these lethally beautiful women, instead of those fatuous and incompetent rulers, that should be blamed. But that’s how history goes – so without further ado, here are some of the most famous ancient women whose names were engraved in the history and people’s minds for destroying empires with their beauty.

Moxi (妺喜)

No, it’s not pronounced like moxie, but she had that in spades. Moxi, the imperial concubine of King Jie of the Xia Dynasty, was the first woman in history who was accused of leading an empire to its doom. It is said that Moxi had some odd hobbies, almost certainly fabricated or exaggerated with the passage of time.
It was said she was fond of watching people drinking in a wine pool which should be large enough for boating. In order to please her, King Jie built an extremely huge pool full of wine and ordered 3,000 people to drink inside it. Unsurprisingly some of them got so hammered they drowned.  He even killed an official who tried to stop the ridiculous project.

Her second hobby was that she enjoyed hearing the sound of tearing apart silks. In that early time when silk textile production had just started out and silks were were very valuable, King Jie ordered people to move many bundles of silks and tore them apart in front of her, to make her smile. This insanely high amount of waste made King Jie the last ruler of the Xia Dynasty, which was then replaced by the Shang Dynasy.

Moxi was said to have died together with King Jie after the empire perished. Others say she colluded with the enemy and served as a spy to overthrow the Xia Dynasty.

Actually there were not many details in official history books about what Mo Xi did, but it couldn’t prevent people from blaming her for the collapse of the Xia Dynasty, based on little more than anecdotes or even imagination.


Image from TV Drama Creation of the Gods, via 52pk.com。

Image from the TV show Creation of the Gods, courtesy of 52pk.com

Daji (妲己)

Daji, from the Shang Dynasty, might be the most famous evil woman in China because of the classic book Creation of the Gods. In Chinese people’s minds, Daji was a temptress who seduced King Zhou and twisted him into a cruel and self-indulgent tyrant. It is said King Zhou built the Deer Gallery (鹿台) for Daji—a near 50-foot-tall pleasure tower adorned with marble, jade, and railings made of pearls and jewels.

Like Moxi she had a Wine Pool, but she upped the ante with a “meat forest” where cooked meat was hung on trees with many eunuchs and women frolicking for Daji and King Zhou’s entertainment. There were even more terrible stories,  such as a tale in which Daji liked watching The Bronze Toaster (炮烙)—a punishment Daji invented, whereby criminals were stripped and forced to run on a huge red hot pillar made of bronze under which burning charcoal was placed, until their “bones, flesh, and blood will turn into fetid smoke and disappear”. And when Bigan, an upright official, protested, King Zhou took out his heart from his breast because Daji said she wanted to see whether a saint really had seven pores in his heart as the myth said. Unsurprisingly, the Shang Dynasty ended with King Zhou’s reign overturned and Daji has been notorious since then.

But even though criticized for thousands of years,  few know that most details about Daji were from literature works, with official history only said she was beautiful and favored by King Zhou. Maybe it’s because that the myth about King Zhou and her was so influential that people regarded it as history. Some even suspected that Daji was just defamed by rulers of later dynasties for some political reasons.


Image from TV drama Kingdoms of East Zhou Dynasty, courtesy via Sina Blog user 安第斯山人。

Image from the TV show Kingdoms of East Zhou Dynasty, courtesy of Sina Blog user 安第斯山人

Baosi (褒姒)

Baosi, favorite concubine of King You of West Zhou Dynasty, always mentioned along with those two above. The most widely—known story about her is summarized into a five-word term 烽火戏诸侯 (fēnghuǒ xì zhūhóu), literally meaning making fool of princes with beacon tower. It is said Baosi had breath-taking beauty but seldom smiled. So King You promised lots of money for an idea that could make her laugh. Then an official proposed using the beacon towers. At that time, only when enemies came to strike, the defenders would light fires on the beacon towers one by one at the foot of Lishan Mountain to make a smoke. Then the neighboring princes of the vassal states would see and send their troops to help. King You agreed to do that. So he ordered to light  fire and sat on the top of Lishan Mountain, waiting for the troops. Quickly troops in every corner arrived, but only to be told that there were not enemies at all and the fire and smoke was just a joke. Baosi laughed after seeing all the troops come and return in such a hurry. King You was very glad and then did the same thing several times later. With more and more anger and resentment, the princes gradually refused to come. Finally, when enemies truly came, but the princes didn’t believe it. King You was killed and West Zhou Dynasty died out. As for Baosi, some said she was killed together with King You, while some said she was captured.


Image from TV drama Xishi, courtesy via tieba.baidu.com.

Image from the TV show Xishi, courtesy of tieba.baidu.com.

Xishi (西施)

Xishi, from the Yue Kingdom in the late Spring and Autumn Period, ranks first among the renowned Four Beauties of Ancient China. Her extreme beauty was talked about for thousands of years. It is said that even fish felt stunned and sank away from the surface of the water when seeing Xishi washing yarn at the side of the river. But in wartime, Xishi’s beauty was not only useful for dazing fish, but also an effective weapon to destroy enemies. At that time, the Yue Kingdom had become a tributary kingdom under the Wu Kingdom after a defeat in war. The king of the Yue Kingdom, Goujian, was planning to take revenge. Knowing that Fuchai, the king of the Wu Kingdom, was fond of beautiful women, Goujian ordered people to search for beautiful young women all around his kingdom. Then Fanli, a famous official in the Yue Kingdom, found Xishi, who at that time was just an ordinary girl who made a living selling yarns. He took her away from the village, trained her t0 sing, dance, and play all kinds of musical instruments and to learn the court etiquette, then sent her to Fuchai as a tribute. Unsurprisingly, Fuchai was totally fascinated by Xishi and gradually ignored state affairs. He spent days and nights having fun with Xishi, regardless of the exhortations from far-sighted officials like Wu Zixu, who pleaded with him to kill Goujian before the Yue Kingdom recovered and became strong again. In the end, the Yue Kingdom launched a strike and wiped out the army of the Wu Kingdom. Fuchai committed suicide.

Though Xishi’s beauty also contributed to the collapse of a kingdom, her reputation was completely different from the others outlined above. Perhaps because she was a citizen of another kingdom, she was seen as a patriot, and serving as a concubine was respected in this instance. In legends, people tended to glamorize Xishi and her story. It is said she actually fell in love with Fanli, the official who found her, but they decided to put their love aside and dedicate themselves to their county. And after they finally succeeded, Fanli resigned from his position and took Xishi to live a retired life, and no one saw them again. Other tragic versions said Xishi eventually fell in love with Fuchai and died together with him, or people killed her after she went back to the Yue Kingdom, lest her beauty destroy that kingdom too.


Image from TV drama Romance of the Mountains and Rivers(江山风雨情), via motie.com.

Image from the TV show Romance of the Mountains and Rivers (江山风雨情), courtesy of motie.com.

Chen Yuanyuan (陈圆圆)

Chen Yuanyuan, a famous prostitute born in the late Ming Dynasty, changed the fate of a dynasty in a different way. She was raised in Suzhou but brought involuntarily to the capital Beijing by an official surnamed Tian, who was a relative of the royal family. And then Tian sent Chen as a gift to Wu Sangui, who was a famous military official.

Chen lived with Wu until the peasant uprising army led by Li Zicheng conquered Beijing, when the Ming Dynasty ended. In the chaos, a subordinate of Li kidnapped Chen from Wu’s residence. But Wu, who was originally willing to cooperate with Li, was totally outraged. At that time Wu was the general of the defending troops against Manchu at Shanhaiguan, the most important pass in the great wall. Outraged with the goings on in the capital, he surrendered to the Manchu and aided the Manchu troops to enter the capital, which they promptly conquered. The Qing Dynasty was thus founded, and Li fled away and Wu found Chen amid the chaos of war.  Since Wu had even committed treason for Chen, what he did was written in a poem, as: 冲冠一怒为红颜 (chōng guān yí nù wèi hóngyán),meaning that a world-shaking outrage with hair standing on end is all for a beauty.


Master image depicts Diao Chan, another historical femme fatale, from the TV show  Three Kingdoms, courtesy of sina.com.