LI Shishi, a courtesan in the Northern Song Dynasty (AD 960-1127), is a legend. She inspired a brilliant wit to write a masterpiece, thawed the soul of a resolute and upright hero, and even captured an emperor’s heart.

Li, with secrets and mysteries throughout her life, was a peerless courtesan in Kaifeng City, then Song capital, in central China’s Hebei Province.

Alledgedly born in 1090, Li was a daughter of Wang Yan, an artisan who made burial shrouds.

Her mother died shortly after childbirth and her father was executed by the government when she was only 4 due to a delay in supplying shrouds.

Madam Li, running a brothel, adopted her and Li was given her procuress’ surname.

Almost every man in Kaifeng knows about Li. Good at poetry, music, painting and calligraphy, Li was also good looking: every man’s fantasy.

But only prominent officials and eminent persons had the chance to enter her boudoir.

Zhou Bangyan, a noted poet, was her most intimate confidant and he drew inspiration from her.

In the poem “Yu Lan Er” (玉兰儿), he expressed his deep regret at not meeting her earlier.

Legend has it another of his famous poems, “Shao Nian You” (少年游), was actually composed when Zhou hid under Li’s bed. It is said that Zhao Ji (1082-1135), known as Emperor Huizong, unexpectedly dropped into Li’s room whilst Zhou was visiting her.

Zhou had no choice but to hide under the bed for the whole night, during which this crazy guy wrote a poem depicting the flirtation between the emperor and Li.

One day, Li accidentally sang the poem “Shao Nian You” to the emperor, and not surprisingly, he became mad and expelled Zhou from Kaifeng.

After Li’s pleading, Zhou was allowed to stay.

Her romance with the emperor is one of the most widely-spread stories of Li.

As well as a good ruler, the emperor was extremely talented in poetry, painting, calligraphy and music.

According to an unauthorized biography of Li, the emperor, disguised as a businessman, first met Li in 1109, and immediately was captivated by her beauty and talent.

Rumors suggested that the emperor even had a tunnel dug linking his palace to the brothel where Li lived.

The romance was also often used in Chinese literary classcis, such as “Water Margin.”

In the fiction, Li encountered Yan Qing, ranked 36th of 108 Liangshan heroes, and adored him as he was not only an accomplished martial artist but also a gifted musician.

But when Li became a liaison between the outlaws and Emperor Huizong, Yan broke off the relationship.

With the help of Li, the emperor granted the outlaws amnesty.

Despite the love of many men during her life, Li died miserable and lonely. There are three main versions of how she died.

One suggests that she donated all her property to support the Song army against the Jin army and then became a Taoist priest.

Another indicates that after being caught by the Jin army, she committed suicide by swallowing a golden hairpin.

The third version says Li became a businessman’s concubine and later drowned in the Qiantang River in Hangzhou.

As a courtesan, there are few records of Li’s life. And some scholars doubt her romance with the emperor.

Yet, her charms, beauty and talent seem undoubtable, documented in various poems, music and writings of the male scholars of her time.

The Emperor Digs Out a Tunnel for a Tryst with the Beautiful Li Shishi

Li Shishi was a famous prostitute in the Northern Song dynasty (960-1127). The Emperor Huizong (1082-1135) was a regular client of hers. Li was good at singing, dancing and poetry. Many writers, poets and people in high society were her clients. The Northern Song was destroyed by the Jin kingdom and Li Shishi’s whereabouts were  unknown. There were three versions of her whereabouts:

One: Li Shishi was  a Taoist nun. When Jin attacked Song, she donated all her property to help the Song army. After the Jingkang Affair (when Jin captured Bianjing, the capital of Song on November 1126, the Jin army went back with the capture of the Song emperor and his family members in 1127.) Li Shishi fled  the capital and became  a Taoist nun.

Two: Li Shishi died a heroic death. After the Jin army captured Bianjing, the king of Jin wanted to have Li Shishi. They finally found her but she was unwilling to be  with the  king. She stabbed her throat with a gold hairpin but she didn’t die. Then she swallowed the gold hairpin, committing suicide.

Three: Li Shishi died of poverty. When Li Shishi fled to the south, people thought she was a dangerous beauty and did not want anything to do with her. She became very poor and married a businessman. At last, she drowned in Qiantang River.

Unofficial History of Li Shishi’s life

Li Shishi was the daughter of the Wang family that engaged in dyeing. She didn’t cry after her birth till they sent her to the temple at the age of three. She suddenly burst into tears  when the monk blessed her. The monk said that she was a follower of Buddhism. She was named “Shishi” because people called followers of Buddhism “Shi” at that time.

At the age of four, her father went to jail and died. She was brought up by  neighbors and became a beautiful girl. Then a procuress whose surname was Li adopted her and changed her name to Li Shishi. She then became a very famous prostitute in the capital.

At that time, Emperor Huizong was bored of life in the palace and wanted to look for new women.

Procuress Li welcomed Emperor Huizong with fruits while Emperor Huizong’s  attention was focused on the coming famous prostitute – Li Shishi. Li Shishi didn’t show up for a long time, after  Emperor Huizong had eaten a lot of food and taken a bath. As an emperor, Huizong had never had to wait for a woman for such a long time which made him more eager for Li Shishi’s appearance.

Finally, Li Shishi came. She was so beautiful and irresistible that Huizong was astonished and entranced. Li Shishi didn’t know she faced the emperor at the time. She was very proud; she didn’t smile, didn’t even salute. Then, Li Shishi played the zither for  the emperor. Emperor Huizong was very satisfied just looking at her  beauty and listening to the music.

After returning to the palace, Emperor Huizong missed Li Shishi very much and  sent her gifts. The message that  the emperor was fond of a prostitute became widespread. The empress asked the emperor not  to go to see Li Shishie again because it was very dangerous for the emperor to go out of the palace alone, and a prostitute was  third-rate. So the emperor didn’t visit Li Shishi for many years.

Ten years later, Emperor Huizong went  to see Li Shishi again and found her still very charming. A eunuch suggested digging  a tunnel from the palace to the whorehouse so that the emperor could meet Li Shishi whenever he wanted. Emperor Huizong agreed and  dug  a tunnel  to visit Li Shishi for trysts.

(Source: / Translated by


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