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 c844–c871),[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 then 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.[5] 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.[6]

English translations[edit]

Published in 1998, her work was translated by the team of David Young and Jiann I. Lin.[7] 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 Tangchao haofang nü (A Wild Woman of the Tang Dynasty).[4]


  1. ^ a b c d e Young & Lin 1998, p. ix.
  2. ^ 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.
  3. ^ Young & Lin 1998, p. ix, citing the Guoyu Cidian..
  4. ^ a b c d e Kohn & Roth 2002, p. 102.
  5. ^ Olivia Bullock (艾文婷) (21 October 2014). "Badass Ladies of Chinese History : Yu Xuanji". The World of Chinese. Retrieved 20 December 2018..
  6. ^ Young & Lin 1998, p. x.
  7. ^ Young & Lin 1998, p. iii.


External links[edit]