Li Yueyue (1125-1165): A Desperate Courtesan’s in a Desperate Time

wang_rutian_finalSong Dynasty was arguably the richest country in the world at that time. It was known for its prosperous market economy and also for its flourishing culture.[i] However, it was also known for its lack of strength in military. In 1115, the Jurchen king proclaimed himself the first emperor of the Jin dynasty. Jin power expanded rapidly ever since.[ii] Although in 1120, the Song court negotiated a treaty of alliance with the Jin against the Liao, Jin refused to honor fully the territorial division agreed in the treaty after conquering Liao. The emperor at that time, Huizong, abdicated in a vain attempt at appeasement.[iii] Li Lingyue was born under such a big social background. Li Lingyue was born in a town near the Northern Song’s capital, Kaifeng, in the year 1125. Li’s father was an official in local government, and her mother also came from a big family. Li’s family could be called well off. Her family owned a big house in the town and they had all together around fifty servants in the house. Lingyue herself had two personal maids since she was born. Li’s father had a study room, and he collected many precious old books in it, like the copy of Lunyu from Tang time. The family also owned a lot of chinaware, several of which were passed down even from late Tang Dynasty. Li’s mother’s dresses were mostly made of silk, and she even owned a gold chashu, a kind of accessory that was worn on the head.

However, everything changed when she was only 2 years old, at a time when she could hardly remember a thing. In 1127, because the Chinese grossly underestimated the power of the Jurchen armies, the Jurchen armies conquered all of north China. The Song government was forced to move south.[iv] Since the government moved south, the Li family was also forced to move south. They gave up their big house and moved to Yangzhou in the south and settled there.

Like the Li family, thousands of people fled from north to south, including twenty thousand high officials, tens of thousands of their office staff, and over four hundred thousand military and their families. During the first chaotic years of the Southern Song dynasty, the Jurchen troops continued to attack along the Huai River valley and south of the river. The government was hard-pressed to keep social order.[v] Emperor Gaozong was the only imperial prince not living in the city when the city of Kaifeng fell to the Jurchen conquerors, which made him the sole prince who could succeed to the throne.[vi] There was a very famous general at that time called Yue Fei. He led his army and tried to restore Song’s land that was lost to Jurchen armies. His army was popular with landowners and common people in the areas it occupied, an almost unprecedented situation that made it all the more dangerous to the authority of the court, which would find it hard to drive a wedge between such an army and the people of a region.[vii] Although Yue’s army was indeed strong, it still did not manage to get back the capital from Jurchen armies over the years.

Time was hard for the country, and so it was for the Li family. Even though life got really hard for the Lis after they moved to Yangzhou, they continued to provide Lingyue the best education they could afford. Women’s social status in Song was comparatively low. Foot binding became popular, and women were increasingly confined to the home and were not encouraged to study.[viii] However, that was not the case in the Li’s family. Both of her parents were educated, so as their only child, Li received good education since she was little. Her parents hired her tutors, and Li was educated to learn literature, music, chess, and painting. Li was a good girl, and she learned them all very hard. Among them all, especially, Li could compose really beautiful poems when she was only 10 years old. However, Lingyue’s tutoring was forced to stop when she was 11, because the family did not even have the money to buy foods at that time, and was no longer able to pay the high tutoring fees.

Although always threatened by the Jin in the north, the Southern Song enjoyed great economic prosperity, and many lords who lived in Yangzhou also lived the same life as they lived in the north.[ix] However, things only got worse for Li’s family, and there was no sign of it getting any better. They gave up most of their precious thing on their way here to Yangzhou and it already left them with little compared to the property they used to have. The family had too many possessions so they had to give up part of it on the way to south. After arriving here in Yangzhou, Li’s father was unable to get a job at local government because he did not want to please those officials in power on purpose, and the family lost a huge part of their income. Her father was an educated man, and was unable to do farm works in order to support the family. Li’s mother was therefore forced to do some handiworks in order for the family to survive; yet it was far from enough to make the ends meet for the family. Some of the servants they used to have left them when they moved south, and after they settled in the south, most of them left them, only two really loyal servants stayed together with the family. Many of the precious chinaware were not even brought to the south, and the ones that were brought here were sold in order to buy foods. Li’s mother sold all her silk dresses, and made cotton dresses for herself and the family. Her gold chashu, of course, was also sold in exchange for foods. In this way, they sold more and more things to the pawnshop until there was nothing worth selling left. Then they started to borrow money from others, which only left them in serious debt after years. They used to hold the idea that maybe one day, the Song army would defeat Jurchen army and they might be able to get back to north and live back their normal life. However, after many failures of the Song army, they finally gave up this idea of ever getting back to their hometown in the north.

With her growing older and older, Lingyue recognized this tough condition in her family. Lingyue loved her family deeply, and she was eager to do something to help her parents out. With the struggle of the years, in 1140, Lingyue finally decided to sell herself to a famous local flower house in order to help pay off the debts in her family. Her parents were harshly against this, but Lingyue was strongly determined, and would not listen to her parents. They locked her up in her own room, but Lingyue managed to get out and sneaked out to the flower house. She got the money from the madam in the brothel and had somebody send it home.

The madam in the brothel had Lingyue changed her name to Li Yueyue, because it was easier to remember. Beside that, according to the madam, because she looked really similar to a famous courtesan she knew whose name was Li Shishi. The madam used to be a personal maid of Li Shishi during the Northern Song. Yueyue served as a personal maid of a popular courtesan in the flower house when she first entered it. It was necessary to point out that flower house in Song were not exactly the same as brothels today. There were different kinds of prostitutes in the flower house. The low-ranking prostitutes could only trade their body, but the high-ranking courtesans did not trade their bodies. Courtesans were usually talented in literature, music, and many other things. Men came to them, in order to hear them playing an instrument, or to make poems together with them, or just to talk to them. Because of that, unlike those low ranking prostitutes, who rarely had any requirements, there were strict requirements for a courtesan. It was also very hard to become a popular courtesan, like the one Yueyue served in her first year here in the brothel.

During the Song, the business of educating examination candidates was a thriving one. More and more tutors were needed to prepare the candidates for the examinations. With the number of men studying for the exams growing dramatically, the culture of the Song also flourished greatly.[x] Another thing that prompted the culture to flourish in Song was the invention of movable type, which was invented by a bookmaker Bi Sheng shortly after 1040. This invention made large-scale printing projects possible, which allowed more books in the market and also the flourish of culture in Song.[xi] These two reasons, along with some others, together made literature something that was reckoned highly in Song. People in Song, especially educated men, had a high desire for spiritual companions, who could actually communicate with them about cultural things. However, as mentioned above, social status of women was rather low at that time, and most women did not receive a proper education. As a result, most wives could not really be the spiritual companion those educated men wanted. Those men who could not be satisfied in their home, then turn to flower houses to find courtesans who could actually talk to them. Hence, it was essential for courtesans to know something about literature, paintings or music, in order to attract customers. Yueyue received good education from her childhood and she was able to compose beautiful poems, her talents soon caught the madam’s attention, and the madam decided to cultivate her to become a courtesan. The madam hired tutors for Yueyue on literature, and Yueyue had her own personal maid. Yueyue’s talents soon helped her attract many customers, and gradually, around 1142, she became one of the most popular courtesans in Yangzhou. Those years were probably the best times of Yueyue’s life. Many men came to see her on hearing her name. She wore fancy clothes made of silk and beautiful accessories made of silver and sometimes even gold. Talented gentlemen came here to compose poems together with her. Sometimes she almost forgot that she was only a courtesan here in a flower house, she even felt happy for the first time after she entered the flower house.

Although many men claimed that they loved her deeply, she did not really buy it, and she never once fell in love with anyone. However, this changed on the day of the Lantern Festival in 1143. During Lantern Festival, it was Chinese tradition to hold big Lantern show, with riddles on lanterns. That was also a perfect day for young men and women to date, because that day is one of the few days that young women were allowed out of the house with few restrictions. Yueyue also went out on that day in the evening to see those beautiful lanterns. She stood in front a row of lanterns with riddles on them and was trying to figure out those riddles. Suddenly a gentleman came to her side and asked if he could join her. They talked happily and nearly forgot the time. Yueyue got to know through their conversation that this gentleman’s name was Zhou, and he was preparing for the civil examination. Zhou was really educated. Yueyue could feel it when he talked that he had read many books and he also knew a lot about music. Even from this first sight, Yueyue could feel raising heartbeats inside her. When they parted that night, Yueyue reluctantly told Zhou that she was actually a courtesan, but Zhou did not seem to care, and even asked her which flower house she was in, and promised to come and visit her in the future.

Zhou did come, and he did not come just once. Zhou visited Yueyue a couple of times every month. Yueyue fell in love with Zhou deeper every time he came and visit. However, she knew deeply in her heart that they two could never be together, but she was reluctant to admit it. This situation continued for nearly a year, and in 1144, once when Zhou came to visit her, he told Yueyue that he was going to marry. Yueyue was shocked, and tears streamed down her face at once, yet there was nothing she could do about it. Yueyue understood clearly that a gentleman like Zhou would never marry a courtesan like her. Beside their difference in social status, Zhou was so ambitious to pursue his success in the government that he decided to use his marriage as a support in his career. The woman Zhou married came from a renowned family. Her father served a very important position in the government and was certainly able to recommend Zhou into the government and introduce him even to the Emperor himself. In Song, although civil service examinations became the primary means of recruiting officials, only the wealthiest of families could afford the extensive preparation required by the examinations. As a result, those who passed the examinations were generally the sons of socially prominent families. The yin, or shadow, privilege was granted to the male kin of officeholders. To maximize the benefits from the shadow privilege, sons from those prominent families intermarried with other families in this group, who were then able to confer the shadow privilege on them.[xii] That is also why Zhou chose to marry a woman from prominent family, so that he could enjoy the privilege of yin.

Yueyue never saw Zhou again after their meeting that time. She guessed that he married happily and got the position he wanted after the marriage, and lived happily ever after. As for herself, she lived as usual in the flower house, dealing with different kinds of customers. However, as years went by, she became old. New girls came to the flower house, and gradually, Yueyue was not as popular as she was a few years before. In 1150, the madam finally helped her find a merchant who made trade in salt, and persuaded her to marry him as his concubine. Although in Song, market economy grew pretty fast, and Wang Anshi even established a new section of the bureaucracy, the Tea and Horse Agency, that went into business trading Chinese tea for Tibetan horses, and merchants were recruited directly into this agency, the social status of merchants was still rather low, and to marry a merchant as his concubine only made it worse.[xiii] However, at that time, Yueyue was already 25, which was no longer young for a woman in Song. Women in China at that time usually marry around 18, or even younger. Moreover, Yueyue herself was only a courtesan, and she did not have much choice now she was no longer a popular one. Considered her age and her social status, Yueyue finally agreed, since she could not find a better way out for herself.

Days after she married the merchant as his concubine were tough, but Yueyue could make it through. The merchant was always out for his business and was rarely at home. In 1151 and 1153, Yueyue gave birth to a son and a daughter. At home, her main job was just to take care of the children, obeying the merchant’s wife, and more importantly, trying to ingratiate herself with the merchant. Days went by quite peacefully like this for a couple of years. In 1164, Yueyue caught a quite serious tuberculosis, and in 1165 she died because of this.

Li Yueyue, or Li Lingyue, was born in such a despairing time when her country was defeated by Jurchen and was forced south. Her life was no more satisfying. She was forced to be a courtesan, since as a woman, there was no more she could do in order to rescue her family. She met her love of life, but she was not able to marry her because of her social status. At least, she finally married and found herself a way of living on after she was no longer popular as a courtesan. Her life could be described like the name of the book Gone With the Wind.


[i] Hansen, V. The Open Empire: A History of China to 1600. New York; W.W. Norton & Company Inc, 2000. Print. Page 237.
[ii] Wills, John E. Mountain of Fame: Portraits in Chinese History. Princeton; Princeton University Press, 1994. Print. Page 169.
[iii] Wills, 170
[iv] Hansen, 253
[v] Hansen, 257
[vi] Hansen, 256
[vii] Wills, 175
[viii] Hansen, 262
[ix] Hansen, 265
[x] Hansen, 271
[xi] Hansen, 251
[xii] Hansen, 243
[xiii] Hansen, 247

Thumbnail: Rutian Wang

RUTIAN WANG is a junior at University of Rochester. Rutian Wang is from Beijing, China. She is an English major and in her spare times enjoys watching movies and reading books. More by Rutian