Yu Xuanji

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Yu Xuanji
Yu Xuanji
Yu Xuanji
Diedc868 (aged 28)
Cause of deathExecution
Other namesYouwei
OccupationPoet, courtesan
Spouse(s)Li Yi

Yu Xuanji (simplified Chinese: 鱼玄机; traditional Chinese: 魚玄機; pinyin: Yú Xuánjī; Wade–Giles: Yü Hsüan-chi, c840–c868),[1] 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.[2]


Little trustworthy information is known about the relatively short life of Yu Xuanji.[1] 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, separating three years later because of Li's primary wife's dislike of Yu.[4]

She became a courtesan and had a "painted boat" on the Wei River.[5] Yu later took her vows and became a Daoist nun at the Xian Yi Temple.[1] Daoist nuns were at the time known for their sexual freedom[6] and, as was common at the time, Yu continued as a courtesan.[7] During her time as a nun she travelled frequently and her travels influenced her writing.[6] Yu had a reputation for being sexually adventurous and is recognised by some as China's first openly bisexual female.[6]

She was a fellow of Wen Tingyun, to whom she addressed a number of poems. 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. These are however salacious in detail : it reports she had an affair with Wen Tingyun, lived a scandalously promiscuous life, and was executed by decapitation[4] at the age of 28[1] for allegedly strangling her maid, Luqiao, to death.[4] This account is considered semi-legendary, and may be a reflection of the traditional distrust of women who were strong-willed and sexually independent.[2]


Yu Xuanji 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. 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 Quan Tangshi,[4] mainly for their freak value in an anthology that also included poems from ghosts and foreigners.[8]

English translations[edit]

Published in 1998, her work was translated by the team of David Young and Jiann I. Lin.[9] In the 2000s, her work was translated by Stephen Owen and Justin Hill.


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.[1]


In 1984 the Shaw Brothers Studio in Hong Kong made a film about her life entitled 唐朝豪放女 (An Anmorous Woman of Tang Dynasty), starred Pat Ha and Alex Man.[4]

In 1988, the Asia Television Limited in Hong Kong filmed an anthology drama series about her life, titled 歷代奇女子 (Those Famous Women in Chinese History), starred Bonnie Ngai, Pat Poon and Kingdom Yuen

Yu Xuanji is the subject of the 1915 short story Gyogenki by Japanese author Mori Ōgai.[10] She was the nun in Robert van Gulik's 1968 "Judge Dee" novel Poets and Murder.[11]

Justin Hill's Somerset Maugham Award award winning novel Passing Under Heaven reimagines Yu Xuanji's life.[12]


  1. ^ a b c d e Young & Lin 1998, p. ix.
  2. ^ a b Chang, Saussy & Kwong 1999, p. 66.
  3. ^ Young & Lin 1998, p. ix, citing the Guoyu Cidian..
  4. ^ a b c d e Kohn & Roth 2002, p. 102.
  5. ^ Kohn & Roth 2002, p. 114.
  6. ^ a b c Olivia Bullock (艾文婷) (21 October 2014). "Badass Ladies of Chinese History : Yu Xuanji". The World of Chinese. Retrieved 20 December 2018.
  7. ^ Chang, Saussy & Kwong 1999, p. 67.
  8. ^ Young & Lin 1998, p. x.
  9. ^ Young & Lin 1998, p. iii.
  10. ^ Mori 1991, p. 185.
  11. ^ Lee & Wiles 2014, p. 571.
  12. ^ "Passing Under Heaven". Justin Hill. 18 December 2014. Retrieved 17 January 2019.