We use cookies to give you the best experience possible. By continuing we’ll assume you’re on board with our cookie policy

The Role of Courtesans in Northern Song China

The whole doc is available only for registered users

A limited time offer! Get a custom sample essay written according to your requirements urgent 3h delivery guaranteed

Order Now

When talking about Song history, most scholars were focusing on political, economic and cultural aspects that the role of courtesans in Song social life has seldom shed a light. This paper will first define the word of “courtesans” and its origin. Some case studies then will be cited to examine how the relationship between courtesans and literati is and to illustrate the role of courtesans in Song China. Finally, the significance of courtesans in Song history will be discussed.

To begin with, the meaning of courtesan will be introduced. Courtesan is commonly recognized as ji妓 in Chinese but it mainly refers to prostitute that is not accurate enough to the meaning of courtesan in this paper. In terms of “Beichang 埤蒼”of “Huayan Jing 華嚴經”: “ji is beautiful lady 妓,美女也.” And, from “Yin Yun”, it explained that “ji is female musician 妓, 女樂也.” The definition of courtesans in this paper is far more than ji. According to Edward Schafer, the term prostitute is “hardly adequate” to refer to the rigorously trained and highly cultivated women who entertained at elegant banquets in Tang and Song. Moreover, as Bossler suggested that courtesan in Song China meant a performing artist who might be a dancer, a singer, a musician, or a poet and might provide sexual service by approaching the banquet table and beginning to sing without invitation. Here, I will employ Bossler’s idea of courtesans. Actually, courtesans were divided into two types, which were government courtesans (guan ji or ying ji官妓,營妓) and household courtesans (jia ji家妓). As space limited, I will focus on government courtesans in this paper.

Next, the origin of courtesans will be traced back to Northern Song. In accordance with Deng Zhicheng 鄧之誠, Gu dong suo ji骨董瑣記, “ When Taizong extinguished the Northern Han, he stole their women and brought them back to the barracks. This was the beginning of ‘barracks courtesans’(ying ji營妓). Later he also established government courtesans (guan ji) to supply and serve the prefectural official and officers who had not brought their families. Government courtesans had a body price of 5,000; in five years their term was up and they returned to their original positions. Those officials who took courtesans with them paid an additional 2,000, and such women could also be gotten from the theater district. ‘Barrack courtesans’ were selected from among the theater entertainers (guo lan ji 勾欄妓) and served in rotation for terms of one month. They were permitted to pay a fee in lieu of service. There were also the children of criminals and the children of good commoner families who were in prison awaiting judgment; in extreme cases [ children of good family] were kidnapped and falsely called criminals in order to trick them─this was the height of evil government. After the Southern Song was established, the system began to be changed.”

As mentioned above, it can be shown that government courtesans were stemmed from Song Taizong who created the courtesan system. Which the official organization to manage courtesans, was jiao fang教坊 where provided training like playing musical instruments, dancing and writing poems etc. to courtesans. The management of Jiao fang was very rigorous. It can be seen by “Song shi‧lezhi” which pointed out that Jiao fang was directed to Xuanhui Yuan宣徽院 and nearly all officials were responsible to Jian fang for teaching courtesans. Besides, according to Mengliang lu 夢粱錄, there was a record indicating that different skills in arts were assigned to officials in accordance with their professional specialty to train courtesans. There even were children courtesans groups to be trained. Government courtesans thus were highly literate and skilled in other arts by receiving such professional training in Northern Song. Furthermore, government courtesans were bound to service in the prefecture: they had to perform when summoned by the prefecture, although they may have free to accept private engagements as well. More specifically, they could not leave government service─ “be dropped from the registers” (luo ji 落籍) without the express permission of the presiding prefectural official as all courtesans were degraded (jian 賤) status, and thus were subject to certain legal restrictions.

By strict training, courtesans were outstanding in different arts in Northern Song. Once there were celebration of emperor birthday, court gathering and government event, the courtesans would be invited to make performances as an entertainment. In addition, some local governments would request courtesans to present to “urge the winecup” (you zun侑樽, you shang侑觴) by providing musical entertainment and clever banter. Some sense of this constant presence is captured in Za zuan xu 雜X 續 (Collected aphorisms, continued), a text of humorous dicta composed in the mid-eleventh century. However, officials were not permitted to have relationship with courtesans privately and they would be punished if they were discovered that without permission. Here, two case studies will be cited.

In 1182, Zhu Xi朱熹, as an official went on an inspection tour to Taizhou台州 and realized that Zhizhou知州 Tang Zhongyou 唐仲友 was problematic that Zhu Xi wrote a letter to the throne for complaining Tang Zhonyou and his son were involved with government courtesans in that prefecture. In this case, Tang Zhonyou was reproached for falsely claimed that the Taizhou courtesan Yan Rui嚴蘂 was getting old, and then dropped her from the registers so that he could take her into his own household. As a result, according to “Yi Jian Zhi 夷堅志”, Yan Rui was under arrest by Chu Xi, who sentenced five hundred hit on her back and took into custody. A businessman, Mr. Yue pleaded for Yan Rui who was released finally. Although Yan Rui was free from jail finally, this case reflected that in Northern Song, ‘accommodating courtesans’ (Su chang,宿娼) was forbidden.

This case was not a single case that there were cases about officials who had a relationship with government courtesans, getting trouble, even lost his prefecture. According to Xu zi zhi tong Chang Bian 續資治通長編, for examples, in 1034, the official Liu Huan wrote a letter to a government courtesan but the letter fell into wrong hand so that Liu lost his post as a result. In 1044, a courtesan banquet thrown by Su Shunqin 蘇舜欽 became the scandal of the capital, and led to demotions for all involved. Su was sentenced to be a commoner though his crime was not involvement with courtesans, but he had paid for the service of courtesans by selling off old paper money drawn from the official coffers. Nevertheless, the prefect Jiang Tang 蔣堂 lost his position in part for “repeatedly privatizing government courtesans” (反私官妓). As the cases have been cited, it can be clearly to see that there was prohibition to the official having a relationship with government courtesans in Northern Song.

Why Song Government not permit the officials having a relationship with courtesans? There are three main reasons. First, having relationship with government courtesans lower the concentration of officials on the government matters that reduced the efficiency of the administration in the whole Government structure as the prevalence of having involvement with courtesans was worth to be aware in Northern Song. According to Zhuoxian Tigang州縣提網, “As people are limited in physical energy, addicting with wine and women must weaken one’s physical strength and mental quality. Although an official desires to have a good job, he just cannot have such strength to achieve the goal. As a result, the government work will be failed to do so or leave aside.” Hence, to maintain the efficiency of government operation, the inhibition of having relationship with courtesans was implemented.

Additionally, it was immoral to an official who employ the hard-won possessions of the people to keep in touch with courtesans. Also, it damaged the reputation of the officials as well. In accordance with “Zhoulian Xulun” 晝帘緒論, “Being a local prefect, gathering with colleagues and having courtesans to be there for entertainment, was a customary practice, which spent at least 20-30 min緡. These public treasuries were all come from people. Officials used them by informal ways for entertainment. Don’t they feel ashamed?” Therefore, Song government desired to control the relationships between officials and courtesans.

Furthermore, officials were addicted in having relationship with courtesans that disadvantaged the local administration. As remarked above, having relationship with courtesans was lower officials’ strength to do their work well and immoral to use public funds for having courtesans to amuse themselves. Apart from moral aspect, what a practical drawback of involving into courtesans to the officials were, even though the Government had planned a series of fantastic policy, the local government was not able to carry out the effects of the policy since the officials were wallowing in sensual pleasures and they were reluctant to assign resources on promoting policy. As a result, people were suffering from the ineffectiveness of local government and damaging the social stability. Taking a glimpse of “zhi zhi men liu職制門六”, “As a state prefecture, once a banquet related to courtesans by officials’ arrangement, the prefecture would be punished by law that was 80 hits and no discretion.” It can be seen that seriousness of official whoring in Northern Song and central government dealt with this matter with conscientious attitude as it ruining the operation of the government.

How is the role of courtesans in social life in Northern Song? Indeed, government courtesans were mainly as an entertainer, as they were presenting at virtually any social gathering, from quiet drinks among friends to huge state banquets at the imperial court, to “urge the winecup” (you zun侑樽, you shang侑觴) by providing musical entertainment and clever banter. Besides, in Song times, government courtesans in the prefectures were not registered as bondservants, but rather as entertainers or musicians (yue樂) on the model of entertainers in the capital. However, all courtesans were degraded (jian 賤) status, and thus were subject to certain legal restrictions. As Bossler pointed out that under the law, a person of Jian status did not have the same rights as an ordinary commoner: any crime he or she committed was punished more severely, and any crime against her punished more lightly, than if she had been a commoner, it was obvious to observe that courtesans, even government courtesans, who were highly cultivated, was inferior in the social hierarchy.

Despite of the social status of government courtesans, they were significant in Northern Song history. Government courtesans encouraged the cultural development as known as Song ci. The main contribution of government courtesans in Song can be categorized into three aspects, which were promoting the melody of Song ci innovation, inspiring the creation of literati and helping construct the style of Song ci. For these advantages rendered by government courtesans, it could be demonstrated in Liuyong 柳永 yushan zhen 玉山枕: “Several paragraphs of pure song shown new melody of my work and inspire me to recreate ci. 幾闋清歌,盡新聲,好尊前重理。” Here, Liu indicated that most literati recreated their work in accordance with “the new melody”, which was sung by courtesans. Literati thus had created many fresh and new ci that the literature of Song was advanced greatly and the style of Song ci was formed in particular ways.

Additionally, government courtesans encouraged the commercial activities and also increased the government revenue as well. As government courtesans were always involved into quiet drinks among friends and huge state banquets, there was a proper chance for selling alcohol, which was the popular drink in social and imperial gathering. Commercial activities thus became much more prosperous. More specifically, Wang anshi 王安石insisted that courtesans were encouraged “zuo shi mai jiu坐肆賣酒”. The courtesans here, of course was including government courtesans. Wang’s propose of this policy was, by the use of courtesans, increasing the revenue to the government as the tax of alcohol was profitable. According to “doucheng jisheng 都城紀勝”, “Guanku was eastern wine library, southern wine library and northern wine library and so on. There were wine houses in each library. If officials wanted to have courtesans with them who had to know the name of courtesans.官庫則東酒庫、南酒庫、北酒庫、上酒庫、西子庫、外庫、東外庫,每庫皆有酒樓。若欲美妓往官庫中點花牌,須認識其妓,及以利委之可也。” In terms of this, it was shown that the relation between the official wine business and the courtesans industry was inseparable. By doing this, the tax revenue base was enlarged by courtesans selling wine.

To conclude, government courtesans as an entertainer were highly cultivated in Northern Song and they played a significant role in Song history. Although they were considered as jian賤 in social status, they had contributed to the nation in cultural field and economic dimension. Because of them, literature was developed to be advanced and the economic difficulty of government was aided in Northern Song. Their significances were worth to be highlighted in history.


[ 1 ]. 王書奴, 中國娼妓史, 上海: 三聯書局, 1988, p. 1-2 [ 2 ]. Edward Schafer, “Notes on T’ang Geisha,” Schafer Sinological Papers (1984), nos. 2,4,6, and 7 (Library of University of California, Berkeley), no. 2, p.4 [ 3 ]. Beverly Bossler, “Shifting Identities: Courtesans and Literati in Song China”, USA: Haevard- Yenching Institute, Jun, 2002, p. 7 [ 4 ]. Xiao Guoliang, Zhongguo chang ji shi 中國娼妓史, (Taibei: Wenjin chubanshe, 1996) p.71 [ 5 ]. Xiao Guoliang, Zhongguo chang ji shi 中國娼妓史, (Taibei: Wenjin chubanshe, 1996) p.72 [ 6 ]. 王書奴, 中國娼妓史, 上海: 三聯書局, 1988, p.109. [ 7 ]. Wang Junyu, Za zuan xu, in Qu Yanbin, ed., Za zuan qi zhong 雜X七種 (Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 1988), p.53, 64-65,67. [ 8 ]. Zhu Xi朱熹, Zhu Xi ji朱熹集, ed., Guo Zhai 郭齊 and
Yin Bo X波 (Chengdu: Sichuan jiaoyu chubanshe, 1996), 18.728-41, 19.746-47 [ 9 ]. Zhu Xi. Zhu Xi ji, 18.730

[ 10 ]. Hung Mai 洪邁, 《 X堅志》支志庾卷一零《吳淑姬、嚴蘂》, 中華書局,1981, p. 1216-1217 [ 11 ]. Beverly Bossler, “Shifting Identities: Courtesans and Literati in Song China”, USA: Haevard- Yenching Institute, Jun, 2002, p.17 [ 12 ]. Zhuoxian Tigang州縣提網, Volume 1 卷一, Yanhui Yijian.燕會宜簡, p.625. [ 13 ]. “Zhoulian Xulun” 晝帘緒論, Jin Yi Pian 盡已篇, Volume 1 第一篇 p.707. [ 14 ]. zhi zhi men liu職制門六, qingyuan tiao fa shilei 慶元條法事類, p.161 [ 15 ]. Beverly Bossler, “Shifting Identities: Courtesans and Literati in Song China”, USA: Haevard- Yenching Institute, Jun, 2002, p.8 [ 16 ]. Zhu Gansheng, Nubi shi 奴婢史, (Shanghai:Wenyi chubanshe, 1995), p.2 [ 17 ]. 李劍亮, 論歌妓在詞體形成中的作用[J].學術論壇,1995, p.2

Related Topics

We can write a custom essay

According to Your Specific Requirements

Order an essay
Materials Daily
100,000+ Subjects
2000+ Topics
Free Plagiarism
All Materials
are Cataloged Well

Sorry, but copying text is forbidden on this website. If you need this or any other sample, we can send it to you via email.

By clicking "SEND", you agree to our terms of service and privacy policy. We'll occasionally send you account related and promo emails.
Sorry, but only registered users have full access

How about getting this access

Your Answer Is Very Helpful For Us
Thank You A Lot!


Emma Taylor


Hi there!
Would you like to get such a paper?
How about getting a customized one?

Can't find What you were Looking for?

Get access to our huge, continuously updated knowledge base

The next update will be in:
14 : 59 : 59