Yu Xuanji

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Yu Xuanji

Yu Xuanji (simplified Chinese: 鱼玄机; traditional Chinese: 魚玄機; pinyin: Yú Xuánjī; Wade–Giles: Yü Hsüan-chi, approximate dates 844–868/869), courtesy names Youwei (Chinese: 幼微; pinyin: Yòuwēi) and Huilan (simplified Chinese: 蕙兰; traditional Chinese: 蕙蘭; pinyin: Huìlán), was a Chinese poet and courtesan of the late Tang dynasty, from Chang'an. She was one of the most famous women poets of Tang, along with Xue Tao, her fellow courtesan.[1]

Her family name, Yu, is relatively rare. Her given name, Xuanji, means something like "Profound Theory" or "Mysterious Principle," and is a technical term in Daoism and Buddhism. "Yòuwēi" means something like "Young and Tiny;" and, Huìlán refers to a species of fragrant orchid. She is distinctive for the quality of her poems, including many written in what seems to be a remarkably frank and direct autobiographical style; that is, using her own voice rather than speaking through a persona.


Little trustworthy information is known about the relatively short life of Yu Xuanji.[2] She was born or grew up in Tang capital Chang'an,[3] which was the terminus of the Silk Road and one of the most sophisticated cities of its time. Yu was married as a concubine, or lesser wife, to an official named Li Yi (simplified Chinese: 李亿; traditional Chinese: 李億; pinyin: Lǐ Yì) at 16, and after separating three years later she became a courtesan and a Daoist nun. She was a fellow of Wen Tingyun, to whom she addressed a number of poems. She died early, at the age of 26 to 28. Apart from names and dates in her poems, the tabloid-style Little Tablet from the Three Rivers, (三水小牘), gives the only purported facts about her life, although these are salacious in detail: that she had an affair with Wen Tingyun, lived a scandalously promiscuous life, and was executed for allegedly beating her maid to death. This account is considered semi-legendary, and may be a reflection of the traditional distrust of women who were strong-willed and sexually independent.[1]


Yu Xuanji was a late Tang dynasty poet. In her lifetime, her poems were published as a collection called Fragments of a Northern Dreamland, which has been lost. The forty-nine surviving poems were collected in the Song Dynasty mainly for their freak value in an anthology that also included poems from ghosts and foreigners.

English translations[edit]

Published in 1998, her work was translated by the team of David Young and Jiann I. Lin.[4] In the 2000s, her work was translated by Stephen Owen and Justin Hill.


  1. ^ a b Chang, Kang-i Sun; Saussy, Haun; Kwong, Charles Yim-tze (1999). Women Writers of Traditional China: An Anthology of Poetry and Criticism. Stanford University Press. pp. 66–67. ISBN 978-0-8047-3231-4. 
  2. ^ Young and Lin, ix.
  3. ^ Young and Lin, ix, citing the Guoyu Cidian.
  4. ^ Young and Lin, publication information from title page and copyright notice


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