Why (Tang) Courtesans Need to be Featured in More C-dramas

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.
近代古装剧层出不穷,但题材不外乎是宫斗、宅斗、仙侠等,拍的也是王公贵族的故事。而占据中国古代社会大多数的普通人,往往不过是横店路上的一抹风景。


However, one cohort that rarely gets center stage is the courtesans. Yes, you heard me right, courtesans.
而古代艺妓,更是几乎不曾成为主角。虽然她们身怀绝技,甚至名载史册,但仍改变不了后人对她们的偏见。


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.
这也难怪。一说起中国古代青楼文化,人们脑海中浮现的,往往都和情色沾边,她们也自然很难成为老少咸宜的题材。然而,我们可能对她们有一定的误解。她们在中国文化及艺术音乐史上扮演着举足轻重的角色,唐代歌舞的兴盛、宋词的发展,都离不开她们的贡献。这篇文章,将为她们正名。


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.
这期的主题画灵感源自于Hanfugirl Collective的线上舞剧《燕子楼》,说的是唐代名妓关盼盼及她手下诸妓的故事。因此,此文也将于唐妓为着重点。


Why Courtesans make good tv show characters

为什么艺妓应该成为古装剧大女主

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.
现代的大女主剧似乎都有一个共同点:女主角不仅琴棋书画舞乐诗词样样精通,还口齿伶俐,能言善辩,顺带迷倒全剧优秀男性角色。这种人设似乎有些牵强,但对唐妓们来说,这些不过是她们工作上所需具备的素质。


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.
《北里志》记载了一众知名艺妓,她们各有所长,有者虽然相貌略逊,但因依然受到追捧。可见艺妓们的才艺可弥补她们颜值上的不足。


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”.
有才艺精湛者,甚至还名留诗册。白居易《琵琶行》中琵琶女十三岁就成了国家队首席琵琶演奏家;杜甫笔下的公孙大娘舞艺高超,一舞惊天下,还促进了草书的发展;又比如唐玄宗的御前歌女永新,歌声嘹亮,响遍长安。


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.
一般艺妓们才艺上也丝毫不输。全唐诗里有148篇为艺妓所作,其中有88篇是名妓薛涛一人的著作。当然,艺妓们实际上所创作的诗词比这还要多,但多已失传,留下的也不过是诗集名称而已。


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. 
俗话说,行行出状元,艺妓当中自然有知名者,但作为一个整体,唐妓们为中国诗词发展作出不小的贡献。所谓,“诗以言志”,唐代诗歌是一个颇为正式的媒体,既是诗人述说心思的媒介,又是官场交流的工具。相对之下,词并没有承载如此深重的功用,所以诗人们写词时,更能自由地抒发个人的情感。而且,词的格式不如诗严谨,更适合用于唱诵。因此,文人们喜欢作词,再交予歌妓们传唱;歌妓们也拥有一定的鉴赏能力,她们不是随便什么词都愿意唱的。歌妓德言就曾因为一首词写得过于浮夸,而拒绝唱诵。


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.
在没有Spotify的时代,文人们所写的词,靠的就是歌妓们争相传唱,才得以广泛流传,为众人所知。这种关系,就好像周杰伦把方文山唱红一般。有些艺妓还重视诗词多于金钱,允许文人们以诗代酬劳;《北里志》里的令宾就是一个例子。


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.
古装剧总喜欢给女主角设定一个极为悲惨离奇的童年—家道没落,父母双亡,女主靠着自身的毅力和智慧,一层一层地攀上巅峰。
而古代娼妓属于贱籍,属于社会的最底层。她们其中一部分是家里男人犯了事而受牵连,被贬入奴籍,难以翻身。这种大反差,最为编剧所喜爱。


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. 
而有些艺妓出身贫寒。她们需经历最严苛的训练,才能成为行业里的佼佼者。最顶峰的艺妓,享受的荣华富贵,是同为奴籍们的婢女难为触及的。


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.
尽管如此,她们在法律中仍然属于贱籍,像个人财产一样,可以送人买卖,没有人身自由。哪怕是琵琶女这样的顶尖艺人也没有所谓的退休金,只能“老大嫁作商人妇”。琵琶女的结局还算幸运;《北里志》里的楚儿虽然属于行业里的佼佼者,但她最后只能嫁作姬妾,还要被丈夫暴力对待。尽管如此,不是每一位艺妓都后世凄凉;极少数成功实现阶级跨越,成为正室甚至是宫中妃嫔。


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.
然而,虽然她们地位相对低下,艺妓们也享受更大的自由。她们不被礼教束缚,不必操持家事,生儿育女,因此也有更多时间去提升才艺。 最顶端的艺妓们甚至可以选择自己的客户,也不必对客户一贯低声下气,该怼就怼。《北里志》里就记录着艺妓讽刺、嘲笑言行过于轻狂的客户。


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.
顶级艺妓们服务的对象多社会顶层,其中不乏历史名人。


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.
艺妓们因为一身技艺而深受文人官员们推崇。唐代大小宴席上缺不了她们的身影,比如为进士专设的“曲江宴”。艺妓们不仅能以歌舞招待宾客,还善于言谈,并能行酒令,适当把控宴席气氛,巧妙化解尴尬,让场面保持欢愉。因此,根据《北里志》里记载的诸妓长处,其中不乏口齿伶俐,善于谈笑者。她们的口才是她们的加分项,让她们成为宴席上不可或缺的份子。


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).
虽然艺妓和客户的关系建立在利益上,但其中不乏人性的成分。有些艺妓和客户们产生出深厚的感情。这感情并不止停留在男女情爱上。唐诗中多有《赠妓》、《忆妓》为题的作品,不难看出文人和艺妓超出利益的交情。有一则故事,更能凸显出这一点— 当热爱诗句的令宾去世时,她生前的客户们纷纷以诗词哀悼。
琵琶女、公孙大娘为例的艺妓们虽然与服务对象的身份悬殊,但她们凭借自己的才能,和文人们进行精神交流,博得文人发自内心的尊重。


Conclusion

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? 
若古装剧能从艺妓生活的角度出发,再往外延伸至贞观之治、安史之乱等历史事故,岂不是一个全新的叙事角度呢?

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/


Reference: 尚宝珠《唐代诸妓研究》

Anecdotes mostly from “Records of the Northern District” 《北里志》

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