Today’s post is about a concubine turned courtesan turned nun, who was also a poet.
Yu Xuanji lived in Chang-an, a province of China, in the late Tang dynasty (9th Century western). At the age of 16, she became the concubine of an official named Li Yu. Li Yu’s primary wife couldn’t stand the younger woman, and Li You abandoned her. She returned to life as a courtesan before taking holy orders as a Daoist nun.
Ironically, respectable women had no need to be educated, but courtesans must keep their clients entertained, and we remember Yu Xuanji today for her poetry – around 50 of her poems survive today, a fraction of her probable output. She is also remembered for her death. She was accused of murdering her maid, jailed, tried, and executed.
Was she the ‘Wild woman’ of later literature? Or a woman who refused to be confined by the expectations of her society and paid the price for it?
From this distance, we can only judge her by her work. Here is one of her poems, believed to be about beautiful young women.
Selling the Last Peonies
Facing the wind makes us sigh
we know how many flowers fall
spring has come back again
and where have the fragrant longings gone?
who can afford these peonies?
their price is much too high
their arrogant aroma
even intimidates butterflies
flowers so deeply red
they must have been grown in a palace
leaves so darkly green
dust scarcely dares to settle there
if you wait till they’re transplanted
to the Imperial Gardens
then you, young lords, will find
you have no means to buy them.