Yu Xianji was a Chinese poet and courtesan of the late Tang dynasty, from Chang’an. She was one of the most famous women poets of Tang, along with Xue Tao, her fellow courtesan.
Her family name, Yu, is relatively rare. Her given name, Xuanji, means something like “Profound Theory” or “Mysterious Principle,” and is a technical term in Daoism and Buddhism.
Little trustworthy information is known about the relatively short life of Yu Xuanji. She was born or grew up in Tang capital Chang’an, which was the terminus of the Silk Road and one of the most sophisticated cities of its time. Yu was married as a concubine, or lesser wife, to an official named Li Yi (simplified Chinese: 李亿; traditional Chinese: 李億; pinyin: Lǐ Yì) at 16, and after separating three years later she became a courtesan and a Daoist nun. She was a fellow of Wen Tingyun, to whom she addressed a number of poems. She died early, at the age of 26 to 28. Apart from names and dates in her poems, the tabloid-style Little Tablet from the Three Rivers, (三水小牘), gives the only purported facts about her life, although these are salacious in detail: that she had an affair with Wen Tingyun, lived a scandalously promiscuous life, and was executed for allegedly beating her maid to death. This account is considered semi-legendary, and may be a reflection of the traditional distrust of women who were strong-willed and sexually independent.
Yu Xuanji was a late Tang dynasty poet. In her lifetime, her poems were published as a collection called Fragments of a Northern Dreamland, which has been lost. The forty-nine surviving poems were collected in the Song Dynasty mainly for their freak value in an anthology that also included poems from ghosts and foreigners.
To Guo Xiang
From dawn to dusk I’m drunk and singing,
lovesick with every new spring.
There’s a messenger with letters in the rain;
there’s a broken-hearted girl by the window.
Rolling up beaded blinds, I see mountains;
each sorrow’s renewed like the grass.
Since last we parted, at your feasts
how often has the rafter dust fallen?
On Master Ren’s founding of Blessings-Bestowed Temple
The recluse has established a marvellous place
for travellers to rest on their way;
the whitewashed walls are still uninscribed,
the lotus hall still lacks a name.
You dig a pond—a spring emerges;
you open a path—grass grows anew.
The Gold Wheel Pagoda, a hundred feet high,
facing the river, opens eyes to the light.
Visiting Master Zhao and not finding him
Where might you be, with your immortal companions?
Only your servant is home;
you’ve left herbs cooking on the warm brazier,
tea leaves brewing in the next courtyard.
The painted walls start to fade in the lamplight,
your flagstaff’s shadow begins to slant—
again and again I look around,
but beyond the wall, only flowers.
Sent to Zi’an while gazing unhappily into the distance at Jiangling
Maple leaves: a thousand—no, ten thousand—branches;
a bridge hides slow sails reflected in the dusk.
Longing for you, my heart is like this western river’s water,
flowing eastward day and night, without ever resting.
I spent those nights of comfort in the Qin Tower
without ever realising my lover had to go…
Waking now, I don’t ask where the clouds have gone;
round the lamp, now almost spent, a wild moth is circling.
To the Perfect Master
Rosy clouds cut into clothing,
fragrant incense from embroidered veils:
the flowers and leaves of the lotus are __,
the __ cloak of the landscape is thin.
Halt your steps—hear the orioles singing,
open the cage—let the crane fly free.
Sleep in spring in the high hall!
Wake to the heavy dusk rain.
Translated by Leonard Ng
Leonard Ng on Yu Xuanji
If not for cultural developments in the West in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the work of the Tang Dynasty poetess Yu Xuanji might have continued to languish in obscurity. With only a very few exceptions, the world of classical Chinese poetry–like traditional Chinese culture as a whole—has been an overwhelmingly male-dominated one, a world that takes for granted the idea that women are significantly inferior to men and thus less worthy of attention. Women throughout traditional Chinese culture have overwhelmingly been defined chiefly through their relationships with men, and models of feminine virtue and vice have sorted them accordingly. “Good” women played the roles of wives, daughters and mothers; “bad” women instead were courtesans, seductresses, tavern-keepers, and loose women of every stripe. This binary dynamic generally remained in place whatever the individual women were actually like. Wang Xifeng, in the Qing-dynasty novel Dream of the Red Chamber, might be a nasty piece of work, but few would consider her anything but a respectable woman; celebrated beauties like Xi Shi or Yang Guifei, on the other hand, were infamous for their power to charm kings and emperors to the loss of their realms. And even nuns—living as they did apart from a male order—could be suspect, as we shall see later on.
This severe inequality has thankfully been addressed in China in the twentieth century, first by the reformers and republicans, and later on by the Communists. But these developments come far too late to alter the fundamental thrust of the centuries-old classical Chinese poetic tradition. The names of the well-known classical Chinese women poets are so few that they can be counted on one’s fingers: Cai Yan. Xie Daoyun. Zhuo Wenjun. Li Qingzhao. Xue Tao. And to that number, as her work continues to garner interest, we can now add Yu Xuanji.
Over a millennium after her death, Yu Xuanji’s work is gaining increasing popularity in the West, with translations and adaptations of her work appearing one after another. The oldest I can find is Genevieve Wimsatt’s 1936 book Selling Wilted Peonies; the newest is (not counting my own work) probably Jean Elizabeth Ward’s The Beheaded Poetess. The English novelist Justin Hill has even based a recent novel–Passing Under Heaven—on her life. It is likely that Yu’s work is today far more appreciated in the West than it is in her own country, where for various reasons (political and otherwise) the moralistic Confucian ethos is once again resurgent. Her poems—vivid, intensely personal, and brimming with emotion—resonate deeply with the post-Romantic cult of personal expression dominant in the West today, and her circumstances as a woman struggling, lamenting, and eventually failing in a man’s world have also caught the attention of Western readers shaped by twentieth-century feminism. It is to these quirks of history and culture that we owe her surprising rise from obscurity to prominence over a thousand years after her death.
Perhaps this is, in a way, poetic justice. One volume of Yu’s poems is said to have been published in her lifetime; this has since been lost. The poems we do have with us today are taken from various Song Dynasty editions of her poems, which subsequently made their way into the massive 1703 anthology Complete Tang Poems. In their desire to collect every surviving poem from the Tang period (including poems purportedly written by foreigners and ghosts), the compilers of 1703 also chose to include poems by women. It is more than a little likely that Yu’s poems would have been left out in any anthology of lesser scope. It is perhaps fitting, then, that Yu Xuanji finds herself best appreciated among those foreigners who were once vilified by the Chinese as ghosts and barbarians, and in whose company her work ended up anthologized.
Despite all the contemporary interest in Yu Xuanji, however, we still know very little indeed about the facts of her life, and it is unlikely that we will ever know more about her than we do now. We know she lived roughly between the years 844 and 868 in the Tang Dynasty capital of Chang’an (present-day Xi’an), dying in her early to mid-twenties. She spent much of her short life as a courtesan in Chang’an’s pleasure district. It is this we have to thank for her poetry, since, ironically, “respectable” women had no need to be literate and were often deliberately kept uneducated. Courtesans, on the other hand, needed to keep their guests entertained with every tool at their disposal, and poetry was one out of many means to this end. Around the age of sixteen she became a concubine to Censor Li Yi; marriage was one of the few ways by which a woman of the pleasure district could leave it, and courtesans therefore often tried to attract men who would make honest women of them. Yu Xuanji seems to have genuinely loved and cared for Li Yi; unfortunately for her, concubinage was not the same thing as marriage, and Li Yi eventually abandoned her while travelling in the south of China (possibly due to jealousy on the part of his wife). Dejected and penniless, Yu lived alone in the mountains for a while before returning to Chang’an, and eventually entered a Daoist convent. She does seem to have embraced religious ideals for a while; Daoist temples, however, were widely seen as hotbeds of moral laxity, and Daoist clergy were not above using sex as a technique for physical cultivation and the pursuit of immortality. In her short life, then, Yu Xuanji managed to fill multiple roles outside of the traditional social order: first as courtesan, then as abandoned concubine, and finally as Daoist nun.
All three of these, of course, were suspect roles for a woman, and the earliest extant biography we have of Yu Xuanji—by her contemporary Huangfu Mei—goes all out to portray her as a specimen of wayward womanhood. Much of that biography is dedicated to a sensationalized tale of the circumstances leading to Yu’s execution for murder. This is how that tale runs: Yu Xuanji had left the convent for the day when a gentleman she had been on intimate terms with paid a call. Yu was informed of this upon her return by her maid, who added that he had not stayed but departed at once upon hearing that she was not in. Yu, however, suspected that the maid had had an amorous liason with the gentleman in her absence, and consequently beat the maid to death and buried her in the back garden. The maid’s absence was soon noticed; the local magistrate sent men to investigate after reports of a foul smell coming from her back garden, whereupon the maid’s body was discovered as fresh as it had been in life. Yu was then arrested and subsequently executed for murder. The biography seems to have aimed to shock and scandalize its audience, and we have no way of knowing whether the events it recounts are true; subsequent biographies tended to be based on Huangfu Mei’s. But we can say for sure that Yu Xuanji was a woman who did not fit in with the morals and standards of her time, a woman who sought to approach the life of the body, the spirit and the mind on her own terms. She paid the price for it, and left behind a small body of work which seems surprisingly vivid and sorrowful to us today. Although it is work which deserves to be read on its own merits, its author’s life and circumstances make it doubly fascinating.