Měi (美), the character for “beauty” or “beautiful,” consists of two other characters: the upper part is 羊 (yáng, ram/sheep), and the lower part is 大 (dà, big), which looks a lot like the character 人 (rén) for person.
Like many other Chinese characters, the character 美 is actually a hieroglyph. The shape of the character is a person wearing a headpiece, which is in the shape of a ram or sheep. Such a headdress was once considered beautiful.
The origin of the character can be traced back to the era when Chinese characters were first being formed. The original meaning of 美 was “peaceful and auspicious,” since rams were often used in sacrifices. These were considered 祥(xiáng), or auspicious, occasions.
Additionally, in ancient times, peaceful people were considered the most beautiful.
Through thousands of years of evolution, the character 美 was stabilized in its current shape.
In modern Chinese language, the character is used as a verb, an adjective, and a noun.
The character 美is used in many familiar combinations.The United States, in Chinese, is called “Měiguó,” (美國) beautiful country; the Americas are called “Měizhōu,” (美洲) beautiful continents.
Many proverbs and idioms contain this character, such as美不勝收 (měi bù shèng shōu), too much beauty to absorb or take-in, and 沉魚落雁之美 (chén yú luò yànzhī měi), meaning “beauty that can sink fish and fell wild geese.”
The phrase 沉魚落雁之美 refers to two of the four most famous, beautiful women in Chinese history, Xishi (West lady) and Wang Zhaojun. Legend has it that when the fish in the West Lake saw Xishi’s beauty, they forgot to swim and sank down to the bottom of the lake.
Likewise, when wild geese, flying by, heard and saw the beautiful Wang Zhaojun, they forgot to flap their wings and fell earthward.
A more detailed version of the story suggests that when Zhaojun left China to marry the king of the Xiongnu to foster peace between the two countries, at the border she played a beautiful, sad song. The song expressed her feelings about leaving her home forever and about fearing an unknown future.
The geese were not only moved by her beauty, but also by her beautiful music, talent, and the sacrifice she was making for her country. Because of this, they forgot to fly and fell from the sky.
This story has added another layer of meaning to the definition of the character 美, beyond referring to good looks or to a pleasing physical appearance.