The Tale of Meng Guang—One of the Four Ugly-but-Virtuous Ladies in Chinese History

Evan Mantyk, Contributing Editor

The Chinese language is full of fascinating idioms with a rich history. One such idiom is “lifting a tray to the eyebrows” (jǔànqíméi,  舉案齊眉), which means respectfulness between husband and wife. For many Chinese, it conjures up the image of a gentle and beautiful wife, respectfully holding a tray of full of food, inviting her weary husband to dine. However, did you know that “lifting a tray to the eyebrows” originates from a real historical story, and the wife in the story was not a delicate beauty but one of the Four Ugly Women in Chinese history? Despite her lack of physical beauty, Meng Guang was celebrated in history for her virtue, respect, and disinterest in fame and wealth, setting an example for married women.

According to historical records, Meng Guang was the daughter of the Meng family from Fufeng during the Eastern Han Dynasty. While she may not have possessed traditional beauty, being described as dark and fat with tremendous strength, her moral character was highly regarded by her community. In a society that valued virtue over appearance, many sought her hand in marriage, only to be rejected.

Meng Guang remained unmarried and waited until she was thirty years old. Her concerned parents inquired why she refused to accept any marriage proposals. Her response was surprising: "I desire someone as virtuous as Liang Boluan." Who was this ideal partner she had in mind?

Liang Hong, also known as Liang Boluan, hailed from the same region as Meng Guang in Fufeng. Despite his family's poverty and his father's position as a low-ranking city gate officer, Liang Hong was known for his unwavering integrity, vast knowledge, and wisdom.

Because of his exceptional character, several wealthy families in the area were eager to have him as their son-in-law. However, Liang Hong declined all offers until he heard of Meng Guang's admiration for his virtuous qualities. He presented a marriage proposal to Meng Guang, and they were to be wed.

On the eve of their wedding, while other brides would be busy preparing luxurious clothing and jewelry, Meng Guang was seen gathering plain clothes, hemp shoes, baskets, and linen. This unusual behavior puzzled many. It was only on the day of her wedding that she adorned herself in splendid bridal attire.

Upon their marriage, Liang Hong, to the surprise of many, completely ignored his bride for seven days, refusing to utter a word to her. Meng Guang, kneeling before him, finally inquired, "I heard that you have turned down numerous marriage proposals in the past due to your desire for a wife who wears plain clothes and can accompany you to live in seclusion. Isn’t this why you are upset with me? I've come to apologize."

Liang Hong replied, "The wife I wanted was one who would wear coarse brown garments and be able to accompany me in a life of seclusion in the mountains and forests. You, however, are dressed in luxurious silks and adorned with makeup, which is not the wife I envisioned."

Meng Guang smiled and said, "My attire is actually a test of your aspirations, dear husband. How could I not have clothing for a life in seclusion?" She promptly changed into plain clothing, tied her hair into a simple bun, and began taking care of household chores. Liang Hong was overjoyed, declaring, "Now you truly are my wife!" He then bestowed the name Meng Guang upon her.

Not long after their marriage, Meng Guang asked Liang Hong, "I've heard you often talk about your desire for seclusion. Why haven't you put your plans into action? Are you planning to compromise your ideals and enter the government?"

Liang Hong responded, "You've reminded me of what I should be doing." Together, they decided to retreat to the secluded mountains, leaving behind their previous lives. They embraced a life of farming and weaving, dedicating themselves to scholarly pursuits and enjoying the serene surroundings.

Later, Liang Hong, while traveling through the capital, was dismayed by the extravagance of the imperial court and the hardships faced by the common people. He expressed his feelings through song, which led to a conflict with the Emperor and necessitated a change of name and identity. He and Meng Guang relocated to various places, eventually settling into a job on the lands of Gao Botong, a wealthy landowner in Wu State.

In this new environment, Liang Hong worked as a laborer, grinding rice for a living. Each day, Meng Guang diligently prepared meals for him, humbly lifting up to her eyebrows a tray full of food and bowing respectfully as she presented it to her husband, never daring to meet his gaze.

This display caught the attention of Gao Botong, who was greatly impressed. He believed that a laborer who could elicit such respect from his wife must be no ordinary man. As a result, Gao Botong treated Liang Hong with great kindness, providing him with accommodations in the main house.

During this period, Liang Hong authored more than ten writings, many of which have become enduring classics. Despite their humble beginnings, the couple shared a deep aspiration for a life of seclusion and were united by their commitment to virtue and morality.

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