Su Xiaoxiao (蘇小小, died c. 501), also known as Su Xiaojun and sometimes by the appellation “Little Su”, was a famous Chinese courtesan and poet from Qiantang City (now Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province) in the Southern Qi Dynasty (479–502). She had a sister named Su Pannu.

Well known for her intellectual talent and great beauty, Su Xiaoxiao pursued the values of love, beauty and humanity, as reflected in her writing and in popular stories. There are many stories attached to the life of Su Xiaoxiao, with no way of knowing the historical accuracy of any single story. One such story has her meeting a young scholar travelling in a state of dire poverty, hoping to reach the capital to sit the official examinations. She gave the scholar several nuggets of silver from her purse, but sadly he never returned to her after completing the examinations. In any event, it seems that she did not wish to be a man’s wife or mistress, preferring to share her beauty with the common people while showing a certain contempt for the wealthy.

In her late teens, Su Xiaoxiao developed a terminal illness, during which she took the view that heaven was giving her the special opportunity to leave a legacy of beauty in her memory through her death at a young age. She died at a mere 19 years of age. For more than a thousand years, her tomb was situated at the Xilin Bridge beside her beloved West Lake.

Su Xiaoxiao’s life and poetry provided much inspiration for later Chinese writers and artists. She was the romantic heroine of Tang dynasty poets Bai Juyi, Li He, Wen Tingyun, and Ming dynasty writer Zhang Dai, also the heroine of the story “Romantic Trails of Xilin” in Fine Stories of the West Lake. A woodcut of unknown provenance was used to illustrate porcelain objects during the Ming dynasty and early Qing dynasty. The woodcut was based on the short story “Dreaming of Qiantang”, which told of the scholar Sima Yu, who, while visiting Hangzhou, wrote a poem about a dream he had in which Su Xiaoxiao was brought by three gusts of wind to come and sing at his window. Su was also a frequent figure for portrayal in Chinese theater.

Su Xiaoxiao’s tomb was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, but it was rebuilt in 2004, complete with a brand new pavilion decorated with twelve poetry posts handwritten by famous calligraphers. Su Xiaoxiao’s tomb is now again a major tourist site in Hangzhou. Su Xiaoxiao is also the heroine of TV series Loving Courtesan Su Xiaoxiao.

Poem by Su Xiaoxiao

This poem is variously known as “Song of the West Tomb”, “Song of Xiling Lake”, “Song of Su Xiaoxiao” (in a collection of Music Bureau poems) and “Song of the Same Heartbeat”. It became very well known and inspired many future poets including those named above. In the original text, the poem is a quatrain composed of four lines of five words each.

妾乘油壁车, 郎跨青骢马, 何处结同心, 西陵松柏下。

I ride in a decorated carriage,
My darling rides a blue-white horse.
Where should we tie the knot for our heart?
Under the Xiling pine and cypress.

The Honest Courtesan: Frank commentary from an unretired call girl

I ride in a decorated carriage,
My darling rides a blue-white horse.
Where should we tie the knot for our heart?
Under the Xiling pine and cypress.
  –  Su Xiaoxiao, “Song of Xiling Lake”

Su Xiaoxiao was a Chinese courtesan who lived in Qiantang City (modern Hangzhou) during the Southern Qi Dynasty (479–502); short as that reign was her life was shorter still, as she was born about 482 and died only 19 years later, about 501.  She was highly regarded both as a poetess and as a courtesan; the poem which forms the epigram (in Chinese each line is exactly five characters) is one of hers.  But like the five women whose stories I told in my column of one year ago today, it is very likely that her name would have been forgotten had she not met an untimely death (though in Su Xiaxiao’s case it was due to a terminal disease rather than murder).

Very little is actually known about her, including her real name; “Su” was her family name (she is said to have had a sister named Su Pannu) and “Xiaoxiao” is actually the character for “small” written twice, thus forming an affectionate diminutive when used as a nickname.  Her stage name in English would thus be most closely rendered as “Teeny-weeny Su”.  She is said to have come from a family of the artisan class and to have attracted sufficient attention for her beauty and skill at verse to have become well-known throughout the region by her mid-teens.  It was not uncommon for a popular courtesan in any country to be taken “off the market” by some nobleman recruiting her as his mistress (as we have seen in a number of the biographies I’ve published), but Su Xiaoxiao had not yet found a satisfactory arrangement when she was taken ill.  This has no doubt helped to give rise to the popular romantic legend that she did not wish to settle down with a man unless she truly loved him.  Given her poetry and the young age at which she died this may indeed have been true, but in any case many stories have grown from the fact.

One of these stories claims that she fell in love with a client who had professed his love for her and tried to get his family’s consent to honorably marry her, but they would not agree and he did not return to tell her.  Another says that she fell in love with a poor scholar, to whom she lent money so he could travel to the capital for the Imperial Examinations (an anachronism since they were not established until a century later); when he did not return as promised, she pined away for love of him and neglected her health, thus developing the illness which killed her.  Some versions of this tale say that his delay was caused by further testing through which he had won a very high position in the imperial service, but by the time he returned for her it was too late.  Though the idea of a much-sought-after courtesan dying for love of a poor man is certainly very romantic, this seems unlikely given that she is known to have accepted her death philosophically and wrote that heaven had blessed her by calling attention to her work through her untimely death.

Su Xiaoxiao was a favorite subject of Tang dynasty poetry and Ming dynasty stories and art (some Ming vases are illustrated with a traditional depiction of a legend in which her ghost serves as a muse to a poet); she also appeared frequently in plays and is the heroine of a Chinese television show called Loving Courtesan Su Xiaoxiao.  She was laid to rest in a tomb beside the Xiling Bridge at West Lake, and the site was visited by poets and artists for almost 1500 years until it was destroyed by the Red Guards during the violent anarchy of the Cultural Revolution.  But once China began to embrace Western tourism the local government recognized that the tomb might prove a popular destination, so it was rebuilt in 2004 and enshrined in a  pavilion with six posts on which poems were handwritten by famous calligraphers.  The tomb itself was even the subject of a poem by the Tang dynasty poet Li He (790-816), who himself died young:

“The Tomb of Su Xiaoxiao” by Li He (translated by Tommy W. K. Tao)

dewdrops on the orchids
in the shadow
like weeping eyes

finding naught to which 
to betroth your heart
a haze of wild flowers 
unworthy of picking

the grass like a carpet
the pines like a canopy
the wind be your garment
the water be your jade

in a varnished carriage
waiting all night

cold emerald light of the candles
flickering in vain

under the trees of Xiling
the wind blows the falling rain

by Maggie McNeill


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