Dong Shi Xiao Pin 东施效颦

2014-12-22 02.03.18

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.

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4 thoughts on “Dong Shi Xiao Pin 东施效颦

  1. Since yesterday I tried to research a bit about the character, and 颦 does only mean to scowl or frown. But its nice to hear that you agree with my theory >.< .
    As for your question, I have a partial answer in one of my earlier posts https://goodlucksj.wordpress.com/2014/09/05/chinese-basics-kept-basic/ . In short, yes! A typical character is made up of two radicals and the radical on the right tends to provide the sound whilst the radical on the left conveys a meaning. Perhaps I should elaborate on this soon. Characters can be difficult to read but familiarising yourself with radicals does help.

    Hopefully you can continue to learn more about the Chinese language from my blog, I would love to help.
    欣妍

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  2. I love the character 颦 because of how complicated it looks, there is something beautiful in the detail of such a character. However, it is saddening that it only means “pin”, unless of course it means something more?

    Anyway, I was thinking for quite some time what the idiom meant to me, and I’ve come to the conclusion that to me it means that beauty simply cannot be copied. That there is no guarantee that copying someone else’s beauty will make you automatically beautiful. And I guess that translates into today’s society where beauty is often copied by pasting your face with make-up, wearing certain clothes or going through sometimes painful surgery. I’m not saying that doing all of this will make you ugly, of course. But there are times where trying to do these things won’t make you the ideal picture of beauty, instead they can make you frowned upon by the very society that pressured such tactics upon you.

    Hm… I may have swerved dangerously off topic but, I just wanted to say that these idioms are really cool because they can be used in today’s context. And at the end of the day what I learned from this idiom is that:

    Beauty is something that is primarily intrinsic. An attempt to copy such beauty will only lead to failure.

    Great post. 🙂

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    • First of all, welcome back and thank you for your insightful comment.

      Whilst I do find such characters intimidating when I first see them, I agree that the detailing is quite remarkable. I can see why you might be disappointed that such a detailed character ‘lacks character’ (pun intended haha) but allow me to offer you my perspective.

      I do not know if 颦means more then ‘frown’, but I can ask around and update the post with my findings :] It could be that the character had several meanings when it was invented, but has come to mean frown in its modern usage. It’s something that I do plan to write about, but in short I think that you should not be sad by the character’s lack of meaning because it encompasses the meaning of the radical components that it is comprised of (I did mention in the post that looking closer would help with recognising the character but I haven’t figured out how to enlarge font on here with the new updates 😅). This particular character is comprised of three radicals and I personally think that if we are dissatisfied with the resultant meaning, we can console ourselves with the fact that the character is part of a bigger picture. I know the way I’m addressing this might sound strange or personified, but I think that the beauty of complex characters lies within the cohesion of radicals.

      Leading on to your second point; it was quite interesting to engage with your ideas and I do welcome discussion (as mentioned at the end of one of my recent posts). The current trends in fashion and makeup is something I shall not talk about in depth because we would both be here for quite a while, but I agree with your interpretation of the idiom. One thing that it teaches us is that ‘beauty cannot be copied’ because ‘beauty is primarily intrinsic’, aka everyone is beautiful in their own ways (*cough* -same with Chinese characters might I add). I’m also glad that you see how the idioms can be applied to the modern day and that you have found personal use for them.

      I hope that I have addressed everything in a sufficient manner and I very much appreciate the engagement~ I sort of feel like I had swerved off topic myself, so please do let me know if you would like me to expand on my explanation. Thank you very much. 欣妍

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      • That’s really interesting. My mind never landed on the idea that because the character is comprised of so many different radicals, the history could be far deeper than initially believed. I particularly love the idea that a character as complicated as 颦 with so many different radicals is part of a larger picture.

        I’ll have a quick question though, are radicals used to identify how one should pronounce certain words? Silly question, but I’m not incredibly accustomed to the Chinese language.

        Oh, and you haven’t swerved off topic, no worries 🙂

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