The late Ming and Qing periods in imperial China saw the advent of literature gleaned from the brushstrokes of courtesans, women of occupations originally seen as men’s pleasure diversions rather than socially acceptable careers. However, this notion of courtesan culture was modified soon as these courtesans revealed a particular talent that went beyond the ability to pleasure and entertain: writing (Ropp, 1997).But the stigma that was—and still is—associated with the concept of selling sex and entertainment proved to be a hindrance in the cultural and social importance of these women’s literary work; much had to be addressed and refined, on top of the more debatable qualities of topic, censorship, and reputation. Thus the veritable solution appropriated by the collective group of literary courtesans was the assumption of personas or images, in order to define their own voices and identities. Such explorations took them to extreme avenues for self-expression, ranging from the basic effort of acquiring new names in terms of authorship, to the channeling of maleness in order to escape the confines of female passivity and gender restrictions.
Yet no matter what persona was chosen by the writer, three common themes were almost always seen in their work: love and talent; glamour and nostalgia; and sex, bondage, and shame (Ropp, 1997). These themes, intertwined in their occupation’s nature, spoke of the underpinnings that formed the business of courtesan work, on its surface ongoing transactions between rich and poor families; the poor sold their daughters off as courtesans, but were eventually trained in various arts that proved beneficial in their entrance into the homes of the rich as concubines and servants (Ropp, 1997). Courtesans acquired the desire to be free from imposed social constraints, in order to appreciate the kind of life that required the use of intellect, and not just the expected skills in providing pleasure. As illustrated by Liu Rushi in her poem “Following the Same Rhyme, a Respectful Harmonizing”, the line “I wish to follow Zhiyi and drift along the swift stream” (Wai-Yee, 1997) implied a need to rid herself of the shackles of social norm and the adjudged purposes of her being a courtesan and discover worlds not usually available to her.
This also connotes a yearning to be of a different person, as the reference to ‘Zhiyi’ may pertain to the writer’s wish to mirror the same qualities.II. The Art of Naming and the Formation of IdentityThe most basic act of changing oneself and appropriating a different persona is in the changing of names, for it functions to create a host of images and identities far removed from the actual person. The same Liu Rushi made use of several, two of which were ‘Yun’, referring to clouds, and ‘Yin’, which meant reclusion of being hidden.
Such names, popular among courtesans of the period, had general allusions to both desire and exclusivity (Wai-Yee, 1997)—assumed to be the positive versions of the qualities assigned to women of this persuasion.Another famous courtesan who had taken on a ‘style name’ was Wang Wei, who was known as Xiuwei, and even earlier as the Person of the Way of the Straw Cape—an implied admission of her chosen way of life. As Xiuwei, she wrote: “If one were not actually born a man, one cannot cleanse the world of evil..
.I noted my longing for streams and mountains” (Author, year, p. 369); this showed her consistent affinity for nature and the pureness of environment, which coincided with her chosen names.Wang Wei’s sworn sister Yang Wan, also a courtesan, also wrote via a different name—Wanshu—and was known to excel in poetry and the art of calligraphy. If Xiuwei promoted her love of the outdoors, Wanshu chose to dedicate herself to the fine lines of emotive poems through a sensitivity that matched her talent for executing careful brushstrokes.
Her poem “Autumn Feelings” bore the evidence of this accomplishment, as revealed by her lines: “Solitary, I rest my chin on my hand, overcome by sorrow,/I’d like to tell of my passion, but am then filled with shame./Since ancient times, life has been like this for the ‘poorly-fated,’/How dare I seek to be like mandarin ducks, growing old together?” (Wanshu, in Author, year, p. 373).
It is evident how Wanshu took her learning of her life as a courtesan to channel a persona different from her own; she talked of ‘passion’, in terms obviously alien to her known world of pleasure, and redefined it to approximate the aspirations she held in her heart—outwardly manifested in her demonstrated talent in calligraphy.Because of the universe these courtesans were relegated to, stereotyped and viewed with pity at best and disgust at worst, they found the opportunity for rebirth and renewal in the use of names. Through them, they were able to express thoughts and choices they were never allowed to make, since most courtesans were practically children when they were sold off to their establishments or to rich men.III. Drama and Creativity in Self-DefinitionAcquiring a new persona was also achieved by courtesans by self-dramatization, done via dramatic gestures or appropriating the language of the theater (Wai-Yee, 1997). Most courtesans were prone to dramatizing their emotions akin to performing, and this was soon revealed in yet another method they employed to convey different personas. However, as with the rest of women in imperial China, the efforts of courtesans to employ the creative literary arts of drama and fiction were seen of less importance (Author, year); ironically, this somehow matched their social status of being of a lower class than the average female member of society.
More than being known for her poetry, Lian Xiaoyou is acknowledged to be “one of the first female playwrights in Chinese literary history” (Author, year), and is credited with the play United Primes—a tale centering on Huang Chonggu, a woman who presented herself as a man to be freed from being sentenced to jail. Here Lian wrote some of Huang’s most compromising lines: “But if you, Governor, deign to accept me as your ‘bare-bellied guy,’/We’ll have to first beg Heaven to quickly turn me into a man!” (in Author, year, p. 363). The dramatic implications of this work illustrated the combination of a cunning mind and wit, which were both exhibited by the play’s main character and by the writer herself.Jiang Pianpian, a courtesan famous for her lyric poetry, was also well-versed in the talent of song and singing—thus explaining her choice of literature. An example of the drama she employed in her poetry was evident in her “Songs of Resentment”, wherein she wrote: “How can you say the road is long?/It is your mind that makes you stay./My heart is like a wagon wheel:/Each day it goes ten thousand miles!” (in Author, year, p.
365). Using this kind of language shows the flair for drama and emotion; the inclusion of metaphors, such as the ‘wagon wheel’ to refer to her heart, only brings it to a level only available to courtesans and their ability to delve into themes and thoughts that explicitly convey longing and want for a man. Another courtesan, Ma Xianglan, was also famous for her audacity to bring the drama into the actual expression of courtesan life. A poem she wrote on a parrot may have been indicative of her feelings for a lover: “My Snowdress, I love you if no one else does;/Always your partner in inner quarter feelings.” (Author, year, p. 367).Evidently, the courtesans’ choice of drama to convey an assortment of themes brings about their familiarity with emotional content, through a manner easily tied in with the art of performance.
Since the inherent purpose of a courtesan was to provide entertainment and pleasure without the restrictive ties of social rule, it may be safe to conclude that the use of drama and dramatization provided them with a means to create their sense of self; the avenue to express their deepest emotions would have had little or no importance within the parameters of courtesan work.IV. Metaphors of Maleness and AspirationThe reference to the courtesan-playwright Lian Xiaoyou and her play’s theme already shows the popular device of disguising females as males; the reason for this is quite easily determined, one that may be used to generalize the purposes of not just courtesan writers, but women writers of imperial China as a whole. Because of society and culture’s preference for the male gender, women had to find a way to draw themselves up to par—and one manner this was done was through appropriating masculine qualities, in this case within the grounds of literature.However, the objective of the writing was not simply to transform the female persona to male; much of its significance was in the merging of both masculine and feminine traits, clearly referencing the known characteristics of active and passive, aggression and submission, to create literature that embodied what could be the ideal.
Liu Rushi had been acknowledged for her use of the male and female perspective in her poem “Male Spirit of the River Lao”, in which the use of a woman’s interaction with a male spirit reveals the equality of their positions (Wai-Yee, 1997). In the case of Wan Fazhi, who was not a courtesan but exemplified the purposes of these women in referring to maleness as a trait, her acceptance as a writer was only made possible by her tale of a man’s spirit possessing her; thus the words she spoke were credited to the male spirit, and were treated with relevance (Author, year).Behind the use of male metaphors and the women writers’ clamor for the same importance accorded to their male counterparts, the courtesan had a more definite reason for doing so—because of their tendency and affinity for victimhood (Wai-Yee, 1997). This concept fused the usage of drama and questions of gender equality in writing, as the courtesan was primarily viewed more as a commodity rather than an individual, in the transaction of pleasure and sale. They capitalized on their ‘victim’ experience to create another persona, as seen in this poem by Chen Yuanyuan: “Then she was burdened by her fame./Noble and powerful houses vied with each other for her possession,/.
..But she was wrong to blame the ruthless wind for scattering the fallen blossoms,/For boundless spring has returned to heaven and earth.” (Chen, in Wai-Yee, 1997).V.
ConclusionCourtesans in imperial China—as well as their counterparts in modern time—were never seen beyond their professed ability to provide pleasure through sensuality. Therefore it is logical how these women, many of whom were gifted with enough talent to rival any male or female writer, would resort to creating personas for themselves. Perhaps it was not simply the shame of being classified under the kind of occupation they had, but the realization that freedom from constraint and exploring worlds outside the ones assigned to them would be met by assuming personas or images far from their known selves. By doing so, they not only provided material for extensive study in the field of imperial Chinese literature, but also an awakening of the sleeping promises inherent in their real personas.