Chinese historical dramas are famous for their depictions of scheming palace concubines, bickering family members, and deities doing whatever deities do. Emperors, empresses, concubines, and even the more common (though often wealthy) folk – these people, the top 0.01% of ancient Chinese society, make up the bulk of Chinese historical dramas.
However, one cohort that rarely gets center stage is the courtesans. Yes, you heard me right, courtesans.
We all know why courtesans don’t get their fair share of showtime even though, as I will argue, they are interesting characters worthy of the spotlight. The very word has PG-18 connotations. Understandably, tv producers may not see them as something for your 8 pm family tv slot. However, as I will continue to demonstrate, we may have misunderstood them all along.
I will focus on Tang courtesans in this article since this is inspired by Hanfugirls Collective’s interactive dance drama showcase — Yanzilou: Forgotten Tales. However, the arguments would likely apply to all courtesans across the dynasties of imperial China from the Tang Dynasty onwards; although there were cultural shifts on the scope of the courtesans’ work and the arts they had to master.
Why Courtesans make good tv show characters
They were insanely talented
It is a truth universally acknowledged that every Chinese historical drama has a Mary Sue. You know, that main female character who seems to know everything—she dances, sings, plays at least one instrument, and always has the upper hand in verbal feuds. Not to mention that all the guys in the show seem to be obsessed with her.
This may sound like a tall order, but these are merely part of a courtesans’ job description. Tang Dynasty courtesans were not simply valued for their looks, but for the wide repertoire of skills she brought to the table. The Tang Dynasty book, “Records of the Northern District”, lists a number of courtesans by name and by expertise. A number were noted as being not especially pretty but were highly skilled in one form of the arts or another.
Some courtesans were so talented that they left their mark in history and literature. Think Bai Juyi and his “Ode to a Pipa Player”— where he describes the amazing Pipa-playing skills of a retired courtesan he met on a boat. Or Lady Gongsun, with her sword dance performance that “moved heaven and earth” (It’s also said to have inspired a new style of calligraphy). Or Yongxin, a singer in Emperor Xuanzong’s court whose voice was said to “reverberate across the nine streets of Chang’an”.
Even the less privileged courtesans, who served the masses, were no less talented. 148 poems in the Tang records of poetry were written by courtesans. The famous Xue Tao, who showcased her early talent for poetry when she was eight, authored 88 poems in total. Of course, the number of poems written by the Tang courtesans was way more than that, but most of the works have been lost in time. For some, only the titles of their poetry collection remain.
They contributed to culture and literature
Every industry has its superstars. Some courtesans may have been particularly outstanding; the ones who were forgotten were no less worthy of mention. As a whole, they left a legacy on Chinese music and literature. Tang poetry, with its structured meter, cannot be put to music easily. From there, sprang a new form of verse (ci). While poetry was considered serious business, the ‘ci’ was originally regarded as informal and personal – better suited for parties and gatherings. As such, the poets felt more at ease speaking their minds in verse. These verses were then given to courtesans to sing. Courtesans were even known to be picky about the verses they sang – one refused to sing a verse written to the tune “Willow Branch” because she felt it was written in an overly frivolous manner.
In a pre-Spotify age, courtesans helped to popularise the works of otherwise obscure poets to the knowledge of the masses. This is very much in the style of singers making the works of songwriters famous. Some courtesans were even known to value poetry over money — one particular courtesan, Ling Bing, often requested her clients to write her poems in lieu of payment.
They had interesting backstories
We all love those rags-to-riches stories of self-made millionaires, or of people who worked tirelessly to become the top in their field. Although the career of a courtesan could be inherited from mother to daughter, many courtesans were not born into that life. Some were born into noble families and were forced into their occupation as a punishment for some crime their fathers or husbands committed. (Totally unfair I know, but that was how things were). That huge contrast between their privileged upbringing and their eventual lives in the lowest rung of society makes for a very interesting plot.
Others may have come from backgrounds of extreme poverty. They had a hard life at first — their proprietors were known to set them to work learning music and dance, and beat them if they slacked off. However, those who made it to the top could enjoy a life of privilege unknown to the members of their caste.
Despite their talent and connections, courtesans were considered the slave caste and were treated by the law as such. Personal courtesans (owned by families rather than the state) could be bought and sold like cattle. Even the top performers were not guaranteed a pension and comfortable retirement. The pipa player of Bai Juyi’s poem ended up in an unhappy marriage as a last resort. She was one of the more fortunate ones; a courtesan, known by the name of Chu Er, ended up with an abusive husband. Her fame as one of the best courtesans did not save her from her fate. Some lucky ones did manage to end up as wives and even as imperial concubines, effectively moving up the social ladder.
However, despite their low social status, courtesans enjoyed more freedom in certain aspects than wives of noble families. They were not obliged to obey the Confucian principles which proscribed a code of conduct for women. They were not expected to bear male heirs, or to manage and run a household, which left them time to hone their craft. The very top courtesans were even free to choose their clients, and could even tease or snub men they didn’t like.
They knew who’s who in town
It goes without saying that the top courtesans rubbed shoulders with the rich and mighty. They may not have single-handedly changed the course of Chinese history, but they were well acquainted with those who did.
The courtesans were highly sought after for their literary and musical talent as well as for the fun parties they hosted. Courtesans were often invited to prestigious parties such as “The Feast of Qu Jiang”, hosted especially to celebrate those who had aced the final level of imperial exams. The courtesans’ ability to hold intelligent conversations and to host drinking games made them a welcome addition to any feast, official or private. Existing records speak of individual courtesans and their diverse strengths. Some were known for being especially witty and for being quick with comebacks. Their presence heightened the atmosphere and diffused any tension that might turn the party sour.
Even though the nature of the courtesans’ relationship with their clients was founded on a monetary basis, some courtesans developed strong relationships with their clients. And by relationship, I don’t mean romantic ones only — though romance and breakups certainly weren’t unheard of. A number of Tang poems bear the title, “To X courtesan”, “Parting with Y courtesan”, “Remembering Z courtesan”, suggesting feelings stirred by actual regard for a fellow human being. Another story might as well illustrate this point — when the poet-courtesan Ling Bing died, her clients sent their regards in the form of poems lamenting her passing. (which were angrily discarded by her mamasan, but that is another story altogether).
Imagine telling the story of the Anlushan rebellion and the decline of Tang Dynasty from the perspective of the courtesans, as the Hanfugirl Collective did. Or imagine a series on Emperor Xuanzong’s reign from the eyes of the palace courtesans and court musicians in his service. Wouldn’t it provide a refreshing perspective, quite different from the overused tropes of harem shows?
Further reading: https://hanfugirl.blog/2021/11/24/tang-courtesans%e5%94%90%e5%a6%93-trendsetters-influencers-celebrities-nah-theyre-just-women-of-taste/
Anecdotes mostly from “Records of the Northern District” 《北里志》