东施效颦 (dong shi xiao pin) is based on a story of the ordinary woman ‘Dong shi’ and the Chinese beauty ‘Xi Shi’. Literally the idiom translates into “Dong shi copy frown”.
西施 Xi Shi is one of the Chinese beauties. Her beauty is such that it shines through even when she frowns from illness. 东施 Dong Shi is an ugly woman who desperately wants to become pretty. Dong Shi sees Xi Shi frowning and copies her frown, but unfortunately for Dong Shi, it only makes her uglier.
The idiom teaches us that copying someone in the wrong way only makes things worse. This does not prohibit copying people altogether (as we do tend to emulate the good actions of admirable people), but copying someone ‘in the wrong way’ tells us that we need to copy people in the correct manner and we can expect that we are not meant to copy things that are bad.
It is also interesting to note that the character颦 (pin) is usually only used in the idiom of 西施效颦 and is not incorporated into daily language usage. The character颦 is one that scares me upon first sight (quite fitting given that it means ‘frown’) because it is comprised of several detailed radicals/smaller characters that you would need to look at closely to dissect. It’s not that bad once you do look closely, but since it is not commonly used even my teacher had trouble recalling its composition.
I felt quite sorry for Dong Shi because it’s said quite bluntly that her efforts to become pretty made her uglier than she already was, especially since prettiness is quite subjective to judge. But I understand that for the sake of the story she must have transformed into something that was socially grotesque. I think that rather than focusing on Dong Shi’s pitiful outcome, it is better to take away the lesson that we should not envy other people for how they look, or generally for who they are. I also think the idiom tells us that we should not feel the need to copy other people.
There are a few things I could tell you now, but I would like to end by asking you not to pursue your ‘Xi Shi’ because it will inevitably make things worse.
If you begin to frown, good luck 世界。
从欣妍 – From Xinyan.