Forgotten Heroes of Espionage (1)

Xi Shi (506 BCE – ?)

The woman who was possibly the first honey trap in history (unless we accept the story of Samson and Delilah as historically based), but she was also so much more. Xi Shi was a Chinese courtesan and one of the legendary “Four Beauties” who changed the course of ancient Chinese history. Her story is heavily shrouded in myth, but there appears to be a good historical basis for it. It dates from the period when the works of Sun Tzu were written (c.490 BCE) when the importance of espionage in warfare was already well appreciated. Her story is an excellent example of the power of women in the ancient world to destroy a military power from within.

King Gou Jian (496-465 BCE) ruled the kingdom of Yue in China. He wanted to take control of the neighbouring kingdom of Wu, but he knew that he was not strong enough to do this through military means. However, he had once been imprisoned at the royal court there and he knew a great deal about his rival, King Fu Chai (495-473 BCE). Above all, he knew that Fu Chai had a weakness for beautiful women.

Gou Jian asked his ministers to select the ten most beautiful young women in the kingdom. Although credit is often given to Xi Shi alone, the earliest sources record that in c.487 BCE, the king sent two of these women to Fu Chai as a tribute payment. Gou Jian and his ministers knew that the task was considerable and that it might take a long time and much planning. Two women would be support for one another and if one failed or died, the other might be able to carry on.

The two women were Zheng Dan and Xi Shi. Not much is known about Zheng, but Xi was a tea merchant’s daughter who was first spotted washing silk in a stream. It is said that she was so beautiful that the fish gathered to look up at her, forgot to swim and then sank down to the depths of the pool as if hypnotised. Both women had been trained for three years both in courtly etiquette and also in espionage. Their mission was two-fold: 1) to encourage King Fu Chai to waste his military power in wars with other states; 2) to drive a wedge between King Fu Chai and his very able Prime Minister, Wu Zixu.

According to the story, Prime Minister Wu Zixu spotted what was going on and repeatedly tried to warn his king, but Fu was besotted with the women and eventually ordered Wu to commit suicide. Without the leadership of the Prime Minster and with King Fu Chai distracted by his dalliances with the women, the kingdom of Wu soon collapsed into famine. Thanks to the efforts of the women, and just as King Gou Jian had planned, Wu’s army was soon tied up in a long war with the state of Qi. Gou Jian chose this moment to attack on a second front and, after a nine year war, crushed the kingdom of Wu. Sometime towards the end, Fu Chai realised what had happened. He managed to capture and kill Zheng, but Xi escaped. King Fu Chai then committed suicide.

The date of Xi’s death is not recorded, but one story says that she returned to the kingdom of Yue, married the spymaster who had trained her and lived happily ever after. It would be nice to believe that she did.

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