History Lessons

Xi Shi

Using beauty to seduce the enemy

Xi Shi was a legendary beauty from the ancient state of Yue (today’s Zhejiang province) during China’s Spring and Autumn Period (770 to 476 BC).

According to folklore, such was Xi’s beauty that fish would forget to swim and birds would fall from the sky.

At that time, China was divided into several kingdoms. The cunning ruler of Yue, Gou Jian, commissioned a search for a woman whom he could send as a spy to his enemy, the Kingdom of Wu. Seeing Xi’s beauty, Gou Jian knew he had found the perfect weapon.

As Yue had predicted, King Fuchai of Wu was so bewitched by Xi he neglected his state affairs, preferring to spend his time with her. Wu Xizu, his leading general, suspected Xi’s motives and tried to persuade Fuchai to kill her. He refused to listen, killing the general instead.

The strength of Wu quickly deteriorated, and in 473 BC, Yue launched his strike and destroyed the Wu army. King Fuchai lamented that he hadn’t taken the general’s advice, and then committed suicide.

Xi’s example was that beauty might so distract an enemy that he is blinded by it. Ang Lee’s movie Lust Caution offered a more recent take on a similar theme, two and half millenia later.


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