The following is excerpted from an essay by Li Yü, the famous 17th century playwright and theater organizer, and one of the greatest Chinese aestheticians.1
“The ancients said ‘man can be enraptured only by perfection.’ What, then, is perfection in a woman? It is her charm.
To those who claim that beauty alone is perfection, able to enrapture man, I say: Why is it that the beauties on silk, the bewitching women in the modern paintings, whose beauty is ten times more perfect than that of living women, do not enrapture anyone and cause no one to fall ill with desire? You see, the charm is indispensable.
And then I remember that once during a spring-time journey I was caught by a rainstorm and found shelter in a pavilion which was sought out for shelter also by a number of girls, pretty ones, ugly ones, who arrived one after the other. Among them was a poor woman of about thirty years of age, in a simple dress of white silk. All the others hurried and pushed to get into the pavilion, while she alone walked about below the gutter, as there was not much room inside. The others all gathered up their dresses so they would not get wet, but she left her dress alone: under the gutter she was getting wet anyway and she would only have spoilt her posture. When the rain stopped, all the other girls left, but she lingered a while and left a bit later. After she had walked a few steps, it started raining again and she entered the pavilion. This time, she was the first one inside and she had the best spot thanks to her foresight. However, she was not a beautiful woman. This time the other women who returned to the pavilion later had to stand below the gutter and their dresses became much wetter than before. As the poor woman now smoothed her dress, she stood out a hundred times over the others because of her charm. It seemed as if Heaven had surrounded her with all the world’s ugliness in order to emphasize her beauty. Seen by the onlooker, she had shown restrained charm when she refrained from unbecoming movements in the first scene, and it was with free charm that she moved (her hands) in the second scene. When it had begun to rain the second time, did she have to deliberate in order to exhibit her charm? No, her restrained as well as her freely exhibited charm were both unconscious, not the result of reflection. Both sprang from her very nature. Before one could notice her restrained charm, while under the gutter, she emanated something like embarrassment and helplessness which inspired empathy and love in the onlooker. There was no need for her to show these (more clearly) for a spectator to know.”