Mo Mu: The Yellow Emperor’s Virtuous If Not Beautiful Concubine

In Chinese history, there are celebrated stories of the Four Great Beauties, but there are also stories of celebrated women who were considered unattractive—literally called the Four Great Ugly Women. The foremost among these four latter women is Lady Mo, the second concubine of the Yellow Emperor.

According to the Book of Han, the Yellow Emperor had four concubines, with Lady Mo being the fourth. The other two concubines were Lady Fanglei and Lady Tongyu. Regarding Lady Mo's appearance, the Carved Jade Collection dating to the Tang Dynasty describes her as having a prominent forehead, a wrinkled chin, a robust figure, and a dark complexion. She was considered extremely unattractive. Legend has it that the Yellow Emperor conferred upon Lady Mo the title of "Square-Faced Lady" and used her appearance to ward off evil spirits. In ancient times, there were masks used for exorcising evil spirits, and it is said that they were crafted to resemble Lady Mo's appearance.

It is said that the Yellow Emperor selected Lady Mo as his fourth concubine specifically to put an end to the practice of "marriage kidnapping"—in which a beautiful woman was abducted for marriage. He wanted someone gentle and virtuous yet physically unattractive. The character 好 (hǎo), meaning "good" or "to like," is said to have been created by Cangjie, the legendary inventor of Chinese characters, to commemorate the union of the Yellow Emperor and Lady Mo. The character’s two parts signify a woman and a child, possibly suggesting that women are most good because they produce children and not primarily because of their beauty. Similarly, the character 喜 (xǐ), meaning "happiness" or "to like," is said to have been created by Cangjie after observing the joyful expressions of the Yellow Emperor and Lady Mo during their wedding ceremony. While the origins of these two characters remain uncertain, Lady Mo's status in Chinese history and culture is evident.

The Tang Dynasty historical text Annals of the Yellow Emperor mentions that the Yellow Emperor entrusted Lady Mo with the responsibilities of managing the harem due to her virtuous character. According to Lüshi Chunqiu, Lady Mo shared a deep and affectionate bond with the Yellow Emperor. The Yellow Emperor once said, "Uphold your virtue without forgetting it, maintain your righteousness without waning, even if others dislike your appearance, it shall not diminish your admirable qualities, and my respect for you shall remain undiminished."

Lady Mo was not only a model of virtue within the harem but also possessed exceptional wisdom and talent. It is said that she invented the first mirror in Chinese history. There are legends that suggest Lady Mo shared a deep bond with the Yellow Emperor's primary consort, Leizu. In Chinese folklore, there is a custom of establishing an altar to the Gods of Agriculture wherein Leizu is venerated as the "First Silkworm Raiser" and Lady Mo as the "First Weaver." This indicates that, like Leizu, Lady Mo made significant contributions to the development of weaving technology in ancient times.

In Chinese history, the Four Great Beauties are Xi Shi, Wang Zhaojun, Diao Chan, and Yang Guifei, who are remembered both for their physical appearance and their talents and virtues. The Four Great Ugly Women, which include Lady Mo, are interesting because their extraordinary fame rests solely on their talents and virtues despite the infamy of their appearances. The other Ugly Women include Zhong Wuyan, the wife of King Xuan of Qi; Meng Guang, the wife of Liang Hong; and Xuruan Shi, the wife of the Three Kingdoms scholar Xu Yun. If you want to learn more about the stories of all of these amazing women in Chinese history, continue to follow the Shen Yun Collections blog.

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