If you have watched ‘The Legend of Miyue’ (aired in 2015), you may have an impression of a group dance scene with peacock feathers and whatnot.
If you haven’t, please read on — the rest of this article has little to do with Miyue or her biopic.
Now, dance sequences are an overused plot device in Chinese dramas. It is a convenient scheme for the female protagonist to showcase her talents while the male protagonist(s) looks on and her (female) rivals seethe with jealousy…
But what’s really interesting about this scene is the lyrics to the dance track. It is actually the words of a very ancient poem, titled “Lesser Master of Fate (少司命).” It comes from the collection “Nine Songs” (九歌）, a series of poems dedicated to deities worshipped by the Chu people.
The poems are traditionally believed to have been written by Qu Yuan, though this attribution is contested by modern scholars. What we can say is this: these poems are likely to have originated from plays put on during shamanic rituals to evoke the deities. They were then set into a more refined language by the poets of the Chu royal court.
For the people of Chu, these deities were not to be worshipped from afar — many of the hymns are written as love sonnets. In an actual ritual, the shaman may have played the part of a lovestruck mortal who longs for the presence of the deity. The “Lesser Master of Fate” is written in this structure.
The first lines set the scene. Autumn orchids and deer-parsley grow in a thick carpet below the worship hall. Their fragrance waft into the hall, filling the air.
The ‘deer-parsley’ is presumably Ligusticum striatum. The ancient Chinese used this herb to boost fertility. This, as well as the mention of children in the poem, is a hint that she is a fertility goddess.
The hall is packed with worshippers. We can imagine them looking refined, wrapped in fine robes of lovely Chu silk. The people of Chu were known to have a good sense of fashion. Excavated garments from Chu tombs reveal an assortment of robes in brightly coloured silks and intricate motifs.
The Chu people were also noted for their love of spices and herbs. Perhaps there would have been braziers filled with fragrant herbs, soaking the space with the heady scent of a hundred spices. Perhaps the air was thick in anticipation, as they await the arrival of the goddess.
And here she comes. Her shirt is decorated with lotus petals; a string of melilotus hangs from her waist. She casts a gaze at her devotees with a look of concern.
The Shaman steps forward; their eyes meet.
“Why worry, my lady? Our people are all blessed with fine progeny.”
The goddess remains silent; she turns to leave. A gust of wind assists her ascent; wisps of clouds trail behind her like flags.
Her devotees watch with her departure with philosophical resignation. Meetings and partings, happiness and sadness are all part of the cycle of life. Our loved ones will leave us eventually, but we will constantly meet and welcome new people into our lives.
In the meantime, the goddess has returned to her heavenly abode at the edge of the High God’s precincts. She pauses at the edge of a cloud and peers into the distance — who is she waiting for?
And in the mortal world, the Shaman still stands, waiting. She does not come. He raises his face to the wind and puts his longing into a song.
I wish to join you at the Pool of Heaven where you wash your long locks;
To the edge of the sun where you dry your hair
He wills the wind to carry his words to where she is. And perhaps she hears him. She appears again, this time in a state of majesty under a canopy of peacock and kingfisher feathers. She raises a sword in one arm; her other reaches out in a protective gesture over the children of the Chu people.
For who, but you, can decide our fate?
Disclaimer: I have made some changes to the sequence of the poem and filled in some details with my own imagination. However, I have attempted to stay true to the overall mood and theme. I have also imagined the deity as a goddess even though the poem does not indicate the deity’s gender explicitly.
Imagine this: You are an aspiring mural artist in 10th-century China, specialising in the making of religious art. Circumstances land you in Dunhuang, a little oasis town in northwestern China on the edge of the Gobi desert.
Your mission? To add your artwork to the walls of the Mogao caves
You are certainly not the first artist to do so. These man-made caves have been around since the fourth century AD. They served multiple functions — as places of worship, meditation huts, living quarters and burial sites for the monks, as well as storage units for scriptures and documents.
You wander from cave to cave, admiring the artwork your predecessors created, wondering how you can contribute to this growing treasury of human creativity. At the same time, your funds are running low and you need employment. So where do you start?
Who’s the Boss?
First, let’s find out who’s in charge.
At the point of your existence, Dunhuang was part of the Guiyi circuit which was controlled by the Cao family. They maintained cordial relations with central China. Central China had just experienced the fall of the Tang Dynasty, and was trying to sort itself out of the chaos. This period would go down in history as the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms.
In the meantime, Dunhuang enjoyed relative peace. The Cao family were devout Buddhists and were passionate about constructing new caves.
According to popular belief, the construction of Buddhist sites promised great merit; the Caos were more than eager to secure merit in this life and the next. To ensure that their caves were decorated by professionals of the greatest artistic capabilities, the Caos even had their very own institution of painters and sculptors. The best course of action is to seek employment under them.
You make your way to the Cao family’s art institution and are soon put to work. Your colleagues come from varied backgrounds. Some are skilled craftsmen with the title of ‘Boshi’ and are assigned the most challenging and intricate work; the others are ordinary artisans and interns learning the trade. There are also a number of freelancers who are farmers by profession, looking to supplement their meagre incomes with some craftwork.
Your hopes of dazzling your colleagues with your creativity are soon dashed. Art has become largely formularised during this period; it is a decline from the beauty and grace of high Tang art.
You are put to work drawing the likeness of your patrons and their wives. You spend your days painting them in various postures of devotion — eyes half-closed, palms clasped, bearing offerings for the Buddha, clad in their jewels and fine dresses — it feels like a far cry from the austerities demanded by the founder of their religion. But you, a mere wage worker, are not in the position to question the artistic and religious sensibilities of your client.
At night, you set your tools aside and munch on your plain ration of bread. You listen to your colleagues talking about the hardships of their lives — one particular artisan could not even afford to feed his only son. You close your eyes and imagine a better time and place, a life beyond your reach……
Buddha: A Graphic Guide
You find yourself standing before a large mural.
It is a scene of perfect bliss. A number of intricate pavilions are connected by a zig-zagging maze of corridors and stairwells. Steps lead down into lotus ponds. Infants emerge, fully-formed, from the midst of the lotus flowers.
And in the very centre, at the focal point of the picture, a large Buddha sits on a lotus-shaped dias. He is surrounded by a host of heavenly beings. They cluster around his seat, heads inclined, as if eagerly soaking in every word of his sermon.
It is the image of perfect bliss. A Buddhist vision of paradise, if it may be called so. The Tang dynasty Buddhists were gripped by the teachings of the Pure Land sect. The Pure Land, it was believed, could be reached at the end of one’s life by the devoted chanting of Amitabha Buddha’s name. And so, artists laid their imaginings down in paint and ink, depicting a perfect world where order and harmony reigned supreme. It was a picture that even the staunchest Confucianists, as opposed to Buddhism as they were, would not object to.
The paintings were intended as meditation devices. Meditators, seated in the seclusion of these caves, fixed their eyes and minds upon these paintings and achieved transcendental states. At the same time, these paintings were also used as visual aids to educate illiterate masses about Buddhism. Some paintings were based on popular sutras; others (popular during the Wei-Jin era) depicted the life of the Buddha. It was the ancient Chinese’s version of “Buddha: A Graphic Guide”.
When Apollo Met the Buddha
As your gaze lingers over the murals, you begin to notice other details. Here, Buddhist imagery basks in the spotlight, but other deities share the stage. Chinese deities such as NuWa and Fuxi hover above the Buddha in one grotto; the Queen Mother of the West rides in a carriage drawn by three phoenixes. Even Apollo, sun god of the Greeks, and Mithra of Persian Zoroastrianism are to be found among the heavenly hosts. It speaks of diversity and pluralism; a signifier of Dunhuang’s former status as an international hub on the Silk Road where the East and the West met.
It is a celebration of all things divine; a world far removed from the joys and sorrows of human existence. You wonder if these heavenly beings, happy as they were in their immortal existence, could ever relate to the pain of ordinary artisans like yourself.
A Celebration of the Ordinary
And then you see them — ordinary people, just like you, carving out a living in the mortal world. Farmers sow their seeds and reap their harvest; fishermen haul in their catch and hunters chase after prey. A couple celebrate their nuptials with a feast, song and dance; their marital bliss preserved for eternity.
Mundane activities they may be; a cause for celebration nonetheless.
You are drawn by these images. Art and religion are but two branches of the same tree. They are a means to transcend, to reach for something higher than oneself.
It is a lot to take in. No wonder, for the centuries-old murals have survived so much. Dunhuang was so out of the way that it survived many calamities that befell other temples such as wars, religious persecution, and natural disasters.
You are drawn out of your reverie by the shuffling of boots and the stamping out of your campfire. It is time to call it a day. A new day will begin tomorrow, and you will write the name of your patrons to their portraits. Their names, not yours, will be set in stone, to be preserved for posterity.
But it is your work that future generations will admire, and future artists will copy. It is your work that will put Dunhuang on the map. Kingdoms rise and fall; ideologies gain and lose appeal. Social and religious contexts has made your art possible; yet, your art will transcend these temporal bounds. Someday, it will be rediscovered and admired for its own worth.
The digital age has turned anyone with a stable internet connection into content creators. Although digital inclusion still has a long way to go, marginalised groups have found a space to make themselves heard.
This is hardly a novel phenomenon. A similar cultural shift was present in late 16th-century Jiangnan in Ming dynasty China where women writers emerged in droves.
Of course, women have always written.The three thousand years of Chinese history remembers a few illustrious women writers like Ban Zhao and Li Qingzhao.
However, Ming dynasty women writers had an advantage their predecessors did not. Unprecedented economic growth and urbanisation in the Jiangnan region had made printing and paper affordable. It became easier than ever in Chinese history to get their works out to a wider audience.
Women published poetry collections and wrote commentaries of their favourite dramas. They formed collaborations over time and space, such as the three (successive) wives of Wu Ren, who co-authored a commentary on ‘The Peony Pavilion’ — despite never meeting each other in real life. (The first two died young and the last picked up where they left off)
1. They wrote binge-worthy novels
Ming & Qing women writers were fond of writing ‘tanci’ novels, which were basically novels written in lyrical form that could be set to music with simple instrumentation.
These tanci novels were written chapter-by-chapter and were circulated among friends for their reading pleasure.
Stories often featured strong female protagonists who outshone men in exams and on the battlefield. Some were essentially fan fiction spun off popular tales such as the ballad of Mulan. Others featured original characters, but still favoured the cross-dressing theme popularised by Mulan. (Disney’s remake of Mulan isn’t something entirely new after all.)
Women writers were acutely aware of their literary talents and intellect. They also bemoaned their lack of agency in a male-dominated world — they were barred from enrolling in the imperial examinations and holding official positions.
So, they poured their dreams into fantastical stories of women breaking gender boundaries. One such story, “Zai Sheng Yuan” (Continuing Past Affinities) featured protagonist Meng Lijun who cross-dressed as a man in order to escape a forced marriage. Meng topped the imperial examinations, became a government official, but was pressed to marry the emperor after her identity was revealed.
The novel ends on this cliffhanger—but later writers have attempted to fill the gap by giving Meng Lijun the happy ending she deserves.
This story proved so popular that it became adapted into operas, songs, and even into a 2002 TVB series.
This is similar to modern webnovels in a way. Authors post their works online by chapters while fans eagerly wait for the next instalment. Famous novels are even adapted into tv series — though it is unlikely that the ancient Chinese writers were ever compensated for operatic adaptations of their works!
2. They struggled to get exposure
Every writer knows how hard it is to get exposure for their early works.
One particular tanci author, who lived in the Qing dynasty, prefaced her chapters by noting her ‘view count’—or lack thereof.
Chapter Two, “I sigh for the lack of friends…my crude stories are my solace”
Chapter Three, “Who can I share my thoughts with? No one but myself.”
Perseverance pays off. By chapter ten, she gleefully notes, “I have found friends to send my stories to! Their appreciation makes me proud.”
Any struggling author can surely empathise with that.
A good strategy to get exposure is to get an established writer to give you a shoutout. Established poets, male and female, were invited to write prefaces for poetry collections.
Others leveraged their connections to form poetry collectives and compile works for publication. Ming dynasty poet Shen Yixiu undertook such an endeavour; she published a poetry collection of 241 poems by 46 female poets. In a letter to her husband, she expressed her wish to help other women writers preserve their works for posterity.
Women supporting women — that’s the way to go.
3. Some successfully monetised their content
Every author dreams of making a living off their art. Some succeed spectacularly; others barely earned a penny.
A number of Ming and Qing writers did become professional writers and poets and supported their families with their works.
One such example is Huang Yuanjie. She lived in the late Ming dynasty and kept her family alive by selling her artworks and poems. Her fame grew and controversy followed suit.
Her contemporaries hardly knew what to think of her. Here was a woman of good birth, who travelled about (presumably on her own), sold her works for profit, and mingled with courtesans.
“Her works smack of the wind and dust [of the pleasure quarters]” one critic sniffed.
“She probably plagiarised her poems” another contended.
It was an era where women writers were still controversial, despite, or perhaps because of their increasing visibility. Some thought it better for women to commit their poems to the flames instead of publishing them. As to selling them for profit — totally unthinkable.
But Huang Yuanjie was too busy to care. The bills have to be paid, the children have to be fed. And people actually enjoyed her poems. If you have traffic, why not monetise your content?
4. They had to fight for the resources to write
At a literacy rate of ten percent among the general population, women writers were the exceptions to the rule. Many came from the literati class and had the wealth and connections to write and publish.
They were a privileged lot, but privilege is relative. Writing is not a prerequisite of a good Confucian wife and daughter. Household duties were still a priority. Even if a woman was fortunate enough to receive a good education in girlhood, she may find any literary ambitions dashed by the demands of married life.
Consider this lament penned by a Qing dynasty writer Qiu Xinru, “I have been burdened by housework since my marriage. My mind occupied with worries, my hands busy at work. I tended to my wifely duties with anxiety. How do I find the leisure to dip my brush in ink? Alas, my poetic instincts are mired in sauces and seasonings.”
Despite her difficulties, she was inspired to pick up her brush by her sister. Nineteen years has lapsed since she last wrote; but words proved therapeutic. Her life did not get any easier from that point onwards; writing kept her spirits alive.
It is unclear exactly how women back then managed their time. We know they wrote late into the night — the only time of the day when they could proceed undisturbed. They were motivated to write for the other women they cared about — mothers, sisters, friends.
Today’s content creators know how it feels like to squeeze our work into every silver of spare time. During commute, over lunch, before the day begins. This was how this article and it’s accompanying artwork came into being — and that is why I find the stories of these women relevant, even if they belong to another time and place.
If there’s one thing we content creators can learn from them, it is this: Life gets in the way — but we will find the time to create, somehow.
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
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。
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？
Some two millennia and three centuries ago, on the grassy plains of the Kingdom of Chu, a field of orchids and melilotus blossomed in full glory.
A solitary figure approaches. His attire is rather peculiar, consisting of an upper garment woven from water chestnut and lotus leaves, and a lower garment was sewn from lotus petals.
He picks up a hoe and begins to till the land. Carefully, he places seedlings of sweet lichens and cart-halting flowers on the ridges, and fills the spaces with asarums and angelica.
He rubs the soil from his fingers and says, smiling, “When the time is right, I will return for a fine harvest!”
“But what if they languish in obscurity?”
He shrugs, “There’s nothing to be sorry for, even if that happens.”
His face darkens as a thought crosses his mind, “That said, I shall grieve should they be choked by weeds and wither away”
This scene is more literary than it is historical. It shouldn’t take much imagination to see Qu Yuan’s actual meaning. The plants he cultivates are not plants, really, but students.
It Is his greatest wish that this students may serve the king of Chu when they have completed their training.
And he’d rather see their talents waste away in obscurity, than to have them discard their conscience and join the ranks of the immoral.
2. A Flowery Imagery
No ideas are born in a vacuum.
Similarly, Qu Yuan’s allegorical use of plants is rooted in the climate and culture of the Chu nation.
Flowers and herbs were used extensively in the shamanistic rituals of Chu. The deities in Qu Yuan’s “The Nine Songs” were depicted with colourful personalities and wore beautiful flowers to match. They were greeted by Shamans purified by flower-water baths, and treated to orchid-infused offerings laid out on melilotus petals.
The “Songs of Chu” also reflects the Chu practice of self-adornment with flowers and fragrance sachets. Qu Yuan’s adds to this realism an allegorical touch, in which this practice is a manifestation of his ideals and personal qualities.
Prehistoric tribes associated flowers and plants with love and fertility. Qu Yuan’s poems attributes the plants with new associations.
In his telling, the pepper (prickly ash) is a slanderous and prideful creature; while the fraudulent dogwood finds its way into a sachet and passes itself off as a herb. The plants were more than mere metaphorical devices; personified such, they were able to participate in, and even drive the narrative.
At the same time, Qu Yuan used romantic love as an allegory to describe the complex relationship between himself, his king as a peer. Here, flowers are exchanged as gifts between lovers, re-evoking the prehistoric association of plants with romantic love.
3. An Everlasting Fragrance
This is but a brief look into the complex imagery of plants in Qu Yuan’s writings. It was but the beginning of a long tradition in Chinese poetry. 
From then on, poets and writers no longer saw plants as merely plants. They were personified, attributed with human qualities, and were used directly as symbols to express certain ideals.
For example, the Song dynasty thinker Zhou Dunyu’s famous piece “On the Love of the Lotus” praises the lotus for being unsullied by the mud it rises from. His gushing praise of the lotus, and his apathy for the peony, is simply an expression of his lofty ideals and his unwillingness to go with the flow.
Similar themes are common in Chinese literature. By understanding Qu Yuan, we gain a new insight into the works of later poets. We can better understand the message they were trying to put across by writing about wilted flowers and lonely women.
Qu Yuan’s flowers may have wilted. However, his “Li Sao”, as well as his personal qualities, have influenced later writers greatly and is an unsurmountable achievement in the course of Chinese literature.
Modern society encourages us to speak our thoughts directly. We no longer use flowers as a metaphor for ideas too personal, or too subversive to express in words.
Until Valentine’s Day comes around, and lovers exchange roses as declarations of love. Only then we realise—that perhaps nothing much has changed, in the gulf of time that separates Qu Yuan and ourselves.
: In the original poem, Qu Yuan’s cultivation of orchids and melilotus comes before his wearing of lotus and water chestnut leaves. Strictly speaking, these events should belong to different time frames, but I have chosen to merge them in this artwork.
The names of these flowers are taken from David Hawke’s “The Songs of the South, An Ancient Chinese Anthology of Poems By Qu Yuan And Other Poets”. However, it is worthwhile to note that the name ‘orchid’ may not be a good translation of ‘lan’, which may refer to either Eupatorium fortunei, Lycopus asper or any other herb common to the Chu region in Qu Yuan’s time. Similarly, it is unclear what plant the ‘cart-halting flower’ is in modern terms.
: Of course, as a literary work, this can be interpreted differently. In an article about the role of time in “Li Sao”, Chen ShiXiang interprets these lines as a cultivation of personal morality. At this point, Qu Yuan is still subject to the laws of time, and can only ‘wait’ for its harvest. However, the view that these lines refer to the cultivation of young talents appear to be more widespread.
: The metaphorical use of plants in poetry is not Qu Yuan’s invention. The “Classic of Poetry”, which predates the “Songs of Chu”, employs this literary technique. However, there are subtle differences between the metaphorical techniques in the “Classic of Poetry” and “Songs of Chu”. Details can be found in ‘references’ (text in Chinese)
Thank you for tuning in to our program “Ancient Chinese Pastimes”.
You may have heard of the ‘tulipmania’ in 16th-century Netherlands, when tulips became an expensive and highly-sought after luxury item. It is said that the price of a single bulb could cost as much as the yearly income of a skilled artisan.
But, did you know that a similar craze for peonies happened in the Tang dynasty?
Today, we have invited three distinguished speakers to our panel. They will reveal just how willingly the Tang dynasty folks splurged on a premium sprig of peonies.
First, let us invite our very first speaker, Lady Yang, de facto first lady of Tang Xuanzong’s regime. Let us give her a big round of applause!
Moderator: “I have heard so much about you, and it is such an honour to meet you in person.
My lady, in Li Bai’s poem “A Tune of Peaceful Joy: A Spring Morning in the Palace”, you engaged in a contest of “a hundred grasses” in exchange for a bet of costly jewels. Can you explain to us what “the contest of a hundred grasses” means?”
Lady Yang: “The “Contest of a Hundred Grasses” is a game popular among our people. Participants are required to gather as many plants as they can. The person who collects the largest variety is declared the winner. This game can be made even more challenging by requiring the participants to correctly name their collection.”
Moderator: “If that is the case, you have to be knowledgeable in natural history to win.”
Lady Yang, “Indeed. There is another variant of the game. Participants intertwine the stem of their plants, and try to pull them apart. The one whose stem doesn’t break is declared the winner. Naturally, the toughness of the stems is an important consideration while selecting your plants.”
Moderator, “What other leisure activities do you carry out with flowers other than these contests?”
Lady Yang, “We Tang dynasty folks love to admire flowers. Some take great pains to enhance the experience. For example, my cousin, Yang Guozhong, went to the extent of constructing a costly pavilion with agarwood for the sole purpose of admiring flowers. He even smeared the walls with frankincense and musk. You can imagine just how lovely it smelled with mingled with the fragrance of peonies in full bloom. Then, he would invite important guests to admire the peonies when they bloomed.”
Lady Yang, “Of course, there are less costly ways to go about it. For example, the ladies of Chang’an would organise excursions to the countryside. If they were to chance upon a beautiful flower, they’d host picnics on the spot, using their skirts as a screen. Another option is to admire flowers planted in official gardens or temples on days when they are open to the public.”
Moderator, “Thank you, Lady Yang, for your delightful snippets of information. Now, we must not forget the flower farmers who made this culture of flower admiration and contests possible. Let us welcome our next speaker, Mr. Guo. He is renowned in Chang’an for his ability to cultivate beautiful peonies. Let’s give him a big hand!”
“Mr. Guo, your peonies are prized by the citizens of Chang’an. Do you mind sharing the tricks you use to cultivate peonies successfully?”
Mr. Guo, “Peonies are delicate by nature and cannot be exposed to harsh weather. It is advisable to grow them in enclosures. During the early stages of cultivation, you have to be careful with them — as if you were raising little children. After that, you must let them be and allow them to grow as nature dictates. Do not try to hasten results. Some farmers intervene too much with their plants; they’d scrape and shake the stems just to ensure their plants are alive and have well-formed roots. How can you expect your plants to flourish if you disturb them in that manner? It’s just like raising children… (several passages omitted)
Moderator, “You tend to your flowers with such love and care. Are you able to get a good price for them?”
Mr. Guo, “Of course. Cultivating the plants is a challenge of its own; but you also have to ensure that the flowers are not damaged when transported from the farms to the flower markets of Chang’an. As before, you have to construct enclosures, water them constantly, and pack their roots with soil. Then the flowers can be sold for a good price.”
Moderator, “How much do you usually sell them for?”
Mr. Guo, “(Grins sheepishly) I prefer to not disclose. All I can say is, a good spray of flowers is worth as much as the yearly taxes of ten middle-income family.”
（主持人正欲接话，第三位嘉宾坐不住了） Before the moderator could speak, the third panelist could no longer contain himself.
Moderator, “Please remain seated, Mr. Sima. There’s opportunity for you to speak later.”
Sima Za, “(Ignores the moderator) You turn your backs on crop cultivation and convert farms into flower gardens. If you do not plant crops, what are the people supposed to eat? Peonies are no substitute for sorghum and wheat!”
Moderator, “Mr. Sima, you are known for your poem “The Flower Sellers”. In it, you criticise the flower farmers for planting flowers instead of crops for profit. Can you briefly describe just how obsessed your people were with peonies?”
Sima Za, “As mentioned, peonies were sold at inflated prices. Apart from that, the entire capital would be jam-packed with horses and carts during peony season. There’d be a huge crowd at monasteries with peonies — very much like how your influencers flock to instagrammable spots. And of course, there are those who’d build costly structures just for the sake of admiring peonies.” (Glances at Lady Yang)
Moderator, “Thank you for your time. Before we end our session, is there anything else you’d like to add?”
Sima Za, “Spend in moderation and do not follow trends blindly!”
Moderator, “That is all for today. A big thank you to all three panelists. Our “Ancient Chinese Pastimes” series has come to an end for now. Next, we will celebrate two traditional festivals. Our programme will be updated accordingly. Thank you for your support!”
Comments: Lady Yang and Sima Za were actual historical figures. However, I invented the character of Mr. Guo as a stand-in for the flower farmers of the Tang dynasty. His image is loosely based on an essay by Liu Zongyuan, “Guo Tuotuo the Farmer”. The essay mentions that Guo Tuotuo is an excellent farmer but does not mention peonies exclusively. The bits about “scraping and shaking the stems” are inspired by the essay.
The prices of the peonies are taken from BaiJuyi’s poem, “Buying Flowers”. In it, he also provides another reference for the prices of the peonies — 25 rolls of fabric. According to estimates, this is roughly equivalent to 50,000 RMB in today’s value.
Having sampled tea prepared meticulously by our Song Dynasty masters, now it’s time to go back further in time and attend a wine-drinking session with the nobility of the East Jin dynasty in the third century A.D.However, let’s not drink it all in one gulp. The East Jin nobles knew just how to create the right kind of atmosphere for their wine-drinking sessions.
And it has nothing to do with wine glasses or cheese platters. Today, we will attend an outdoor party that will go down in history as one of the most famous gatherings in Chinese history. That is all I will say — you will find out soon enough.
Now, let us key in the following details into the control panel of our time machine.
“The Third Day of the Third Month again?” You ask. “We had a picnic with some Tang Dynasty ladies on the Third Day of the Third Month too!”
Well, remember what I mentioned last time? This date marked a very important festival in Ancient China. A very long time ago, people would perform ceremonial baths, in hopes of warding off evil and bringing good fortune. (Any excuse just to get a breath of fresh air after holing up at home the entire winter — as anyone who is enduring a Covid lockdown would know)
By the time of the Eastern Jin Dynasty, communal bathing was no longer the norm. Instead, people kept this tradition going by organising excursions and picnics near water sources.
So here we are. Put on your head wrap and adjust your sleeves. Now let’s disembark!The weather is simply perfect. Tall mountains surround the area, and a warm breeze blows invitingly. Let us cross this bamboo thicket — do you see the stream ahead? The party has assembled. And look at just how they are fashionably dressed — in loose, flowing robes and tight hair wraps.
Let us exchange greetings our fellow guests — this is Xie An, this is Sun Zhuo, and this is Wang Xizhi…hold your horses. You will get a chance to admire his calligraphy later, I promise.
Now, take a seat and let me explain the rules of the party. You see, we won’t be served wine directly by the servants. See how they are placing cups of wine into the stream? The cups will float downstream. When a cup pauses before you, pick it up and compose a poem. Then drink it up.
But what if poetry isn’t my thing? You see, the Ancient Chinese elites had to know a thing or two about poetry in order to mingle in high society. However, since we are time-travellers with limited knowledge of Classical Chinese, they wouldn’t expect us to compose at their level —let’s just drink a bit more to make up for it.
Uhm, and even if we aren’t writing any poems, I don’t think it is a good idea to waste paper, an expensive commodity, by making paper boats…
Just then, Xie An turned to Wang Xizhi and said, “We have composed a good number of poems today. It’s only fitting that you should write a preface for the poems composed today.” Wang Xizhi picked up his brush, pondered for a moment, and began to write with deft strokes,
“In the ninth year of Yonghe, at the beginning of late Spring…”
“The weather is fine today, and the breezes are pleasant. I look up and admire the expanse of the universe, and cast my gaze downwards at the variety of things in the world…”
“Our gaze drifts and our minds wander. We take pleasure in the sights and sounds, it is a joy indeed!”
At this point, his thoughts wander off on a philosophical trajectory. Life is short and conditioned to suffering. We enjoy each others’ company — but who knows what the morrow will bring? The philosopher Zhuangzi claimed that death and life is but two aspects of the same phenomena. But how true were his claims?
Hey, I thought we were supposed to be merry. What’s with that sudden metaphysical bent?
Well, let’s just consider for a moment how chaotic Wang Xizhi’s time period was. The Western Jin dynasty collapsed as a result of internal and external threats. Warlords vied for power, while nomadic tribes gained enough traction to establish new political regimes.
These threats, internal and external, drove the Western Jin ruling class to escape southwards, establishing the Eastern Jin dynasty. The elites enjoyed momentary peace— yet, the awareness of their precarious situation loomed in the back of Wang Xizhi’s mind, even in a joyful setting as this one.
Verses from the Ming dynasty play, “The Peach Blossom Fan” aptly captures his frame of mind: “I saw him building a mansionI saw him feasting with guestsBut I saw too, how his mansion collapsed”
The uncertainty faced by Wang Xizhi and his contemporaries drove them to rekindle an interest in Daoist thought. Daoism was concerned with questions the ever pragmatic Confucianists were reluctant to consider. The questions raised by Wang Xizhi in his essay were topics hotly debated by his contemporaries.
Is life and death but two faces of the same coin?
If death is inevitable, and if happiness is fleeting, what attitude should we keep?
And how do we find our place in this vast universe, as one among the multitude of things?
You feel some sympathy for Wang Xizhi. Like him, these questions had troubled you before. However, you have chosen to leave them aside as more pressing matters compete for your attention. Or perhaps, you were trying to install a sense of control as you focus your energy on immediate concerns.
“Perhaps you, our descendants, will be moved by my words.”
The cafe, rather peculiarly, is filled with the aroma of tea leaves instead of freshly brewed coffee. But that’s not all – the barista – with his crossed-lapel shirt and headscarf, looks as though he hails from another time and place.
You approach the counter as two whispering women brush past you. They are dressed in loose jackets and long pleated skirts, while their updos were adorned with flowers and accessories.
“Are you time-travellers from the Song dynasty?” You ask, recognising the time period of their garments.
“Perhaps we are. Or perhaps, we are just historical re-enactors obsessed with Song dynasty culture.” The barista, or rather, tea master is deliberately vague. He whips a cup of tea with a deft hand. The foam settles; the likeness of a bird emerges.
“This is nothing. There was a certain Buddhist Master Fu Quan of the Five Dynasties who was able to shape tea foam into lines of poetry. People flocked to his temple just to see him. By the way, we have a new batch of tea from Jian-an, Fujian, picked during the ‘jingzhe’ season (March). Would you like to try it?”
你点点头。茶师拿出一个铜板大的小茶饼，用砧椎砸碎，再用茶碾迅速地研磨成粉。接着，他用筛子把茶叶细细筛过几遍，才将茶粉舀入用开水烫过的茶盏中。You nod. The tea master retrieves a block of tea no bigger than a Chinese copper coin, and crushes it with a rolling pin, before grinding it into fine powder. Then, he sieves the tea powder several times until the consistency is even. Only then does he scoops the tea powder into a warmed cup.
The preparation process is already time-consuming. Nevertheless, you enjoy the novelty of the whole thing, even if tea bags will always be your first choice for convenience.
You emerge from your thoughts to see the tea master mixing the power with a little water to achieve a paste-like consistency. Once again, he lifts the kettle and pours water bit by bit into the teacup while whisking it with a brush. A layer of white foam began to form above the green liquid.
“What is this?” you point at the ‘brush’.”That is a tea-whisk” The tea master explains. “This process of whisking and adding hot water has to be repeated seven times. The tea has to be whisked with varying force, depending on the situation. If the force isn’t right, the foam will thin out after a while.”
Putting aside his whisk, the tea master points at the teacup, “You see.” A fluffy and thick layer of foam sits on the surface of the tea. The foam parted at places to reveal the green liquid underneath. Together, they looked just like a landscape painting.
You marvel at the tea master’s handiwork. The Song dynasty tea masters were such a creative bunch!”Would you like some snacks to go with your tea?” The tea master asks. “We have steamed buns, glazed papaya, spiral-shaped pastries…”
“No thanks, I will just enjoy my cup of tea.” You pay the tea master and look for a nice sunny spot next to a window. You close your eyes slightly and take a sip. At once, the invigorating smell of tea lifts your spirits. You let your lids drop as you lounge on the couch, enjoying your moment of stillness.
“What festival is this?” You, a 21st century time traveller, asks. It is the third day of the third month (of the lunar calendar), and it was a big deal for the ancient Chinese. Centuries ago, it was customary to undergo a ritual cleansing bath , but our Tang dynasty ladies no longer practiced public swimming. Rather, they put on their finest, packed their picnic boxes, and sought out a nice riverbank to make the most of the festival.
However, even the open-minded Tang dynasty folks considered it unseemly for highborn young ladies to picnic in public. So the ladies, not wanting to miss out on the fun, draped their skirts on poles and branches, effectively forming a makeshift screen. Then they would feast in privacy, safe from prying eyes. (On a side note, there’s a Tang dynasty mural of a group of men feasting in public while people gathered to watch…I suppose our ladies wouldn’t have appreciated being stared at while digging into their packed lunches!)
We know of these activities thanks to a book “Tales from Kai-Yuan and Tian-Bao Regime”. (a.k.a a historical/novella/gossip column about the period spanning 713-756 A.D.) I have taken liberties with the colours of the skirts here, depicting them as blue-green instead of the red described in the book.
So what did our ladies pack? The book gives no clue (apart from the fact that feasting was involved), so I’ve drawn some easy-to-pack baked goods, using some ancient pastry samples excavated from the Astana tombs in Xinjiang.
Butter and refined sugar were expensive in the Tang dynasty. So the Tang dynasty folks had to improvise — and the result was an astonishing variety of roasted, steamed and deep-fried wheat-based pastry. (Now ‘pasty’ or ‘bing’, is a very generic term for anything made with wheat flour).
Some were stuffed with a variety of fillings, while others were topped with sesame seeds. And the Tang dynasty bakers took great care to make them aesthetically pleasing too. The excavated pastries from the Astana tombs come in various interesting forms, some twisted into pretzel-like shapes, and others pressed with decorative patterns.
Of course, there’s quite a distance between Xinjiang and Chang’an, so there may have been regional variations. And the Chang’an ladies did not necessary have pastries during their picnics. It is just imagination on my part.
The people of the Tang dynasty also loved fruits. They had a habit of dipping cherries into cane syrup and refined cream. As the poet Bai Juyi describes it, the end result is both sweet and sour. I’ve taken another artistic liberty here — cherries were only in season at the end of spring, and the ladies enjoying their early spring excursion would not have feasted on it. As a modern person who has no concept of seasonal fruits, (apart from the durian), I beg pardon for this mistake.
The Tang dynasty folks also enjoyed a range of desserts with poetical names. Let me attempt to translate a few – “Scarlet Consort”, “Crystal Dragon and Phoenix Cake”, “Jade Dew Ball”. Here I’ve included the “Consort Pastry” (the white things with red dots) as featured on the series “A Bite of China”. It is said to have originated from the Tang court cuisine, but truth to be told, we have no idea if the pastries actually looked like this, or if they tasted the same as their modern counterpart.
So I guess Tang dynasty food culture is enough to satisfy the modern foodie, despite the lack of chillies, potatoes, tomatoes and whatnot. Provided, of course, you are financially able to splurge on these delicacies! #古人真会玩#裙幄宴#唐代风俗#历史#插画#AncientPastimes#xlnyeong