Today, we want to share the story behind the popular idiom “东施效颦" (dōng shī xiào pín) with you.
It is roughly translated as “putting up a front” in English. We have included both the Chinese and the English versions of the story below.
Now, let's find out what it really means…
Xi Shi was one of the Four Beauties of Ancient China. She was gorgeous!
As she walked the streets, men and women of all ages always stopped in their tracks and admired her beauty. As she washed her clothes in the river, even the fish were struck by her beauty and lost their way. Whatever Xi Shi wore, whatever Xi Shi did, people always thought it was beautiful and graceful.
One time, Xi Shi fell ill. She was clutching her chest and frowning in pain. Even though she looked uncomfortable, people still praised her, saying: ‘Xi Shi looks cuter than ever!’
In the village, there was another young lady called Dong Shi. She wasn’t that pretty; in fact, she was a little ugly. But she really admired Xi Shi’s beauty, so she often wore similar outfits and imitated how she walked. But not one person said she was beautiful!
Dong Shi suddenly had an idea. Everyone said that Xi Shi was beautiful when she was ill, so she too clutched her chest, frowned in pain, acted as if she was sick, and began to walk around the village.
Well, those who saw Dong Shi instantly hid in fear. Some even rushed home and locked the doors behind them!
This idiom tells us that we can’t blindly copy others. We have to build from our own unique characteristics, foster our strengths and work on our weaknesses. We should aim to reach goals that suit us.
东施 dōng shī (name of a character)
效 xiào (to imitate, to copy)
颦 pín 颦眉 pín méi（to furrow your eyebrows）
At first glance, this idiom means Dong Shi is imitating (Xi Shi’s) frowned eyebrows. But it is a metaphor for those who don’t consider their own situation and blindly copy others. The result will be the opposite of what they hoped.
Sometimes this idiom is used to express modesty, like a self-effacing phrase. It expresses that you are aware that you don’t have the necessary skills and that copying others will not better yourself.
Tā bù huì dǎbàn, zài zěnme xué nǎge míngxīng, yě zhǐ bùguò shì dōngshīxiàopín bàle.
She doesn’t know how to dress up. No matter how much she tries to learn from celebrities, she’s still putting up a front.
Rúguǒ wǒmen zhàobān xīfāng de sīxiǎng wénhuà, bù jiā fēnxī, nà wú yì yú dōngshīxiàopín.
If we keep replicating Western ideologies and culture without properly considering it, it’s no different from when Dong Shi imitated frowning.
Jiàoshòu shuō wǒ zhè běn shū de fēnggé yǒudiǎn er xiàng mǒu yī běn nuò bèi'ěr wénxué jiǎng de zuòpǐn, qíshí wǒ bùguò shì dōngshīxiàopín bàle. （Zì qiān）
My professor said that the style of my book is quite like a Nobel-winning piece of literature, but I think it’s more a blind imitation. (Modesty)
We have more Chinese Idioms in store for you!
About the Author
Tianjin Normal University; Chinese language textbook editor and a doting mother.