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Badass Ladies of Chinese History: Yu Xuanji

Concubine, nun, and courtesan—this Tang Dynasty poet subverted gender roles in a huge way


Badass Ladies of Chinese History: Yu Xuanji

Concubine, nun, and courtesan—this Tang Dynasty poet subverted gender roles in a huge way


Badass Ladies of Chinese History is a weekly column, spotlighting the lives and achievements of diverse women in China. Warriors and doctors, scientists and writers, Chinese women have always played crucial roles throughout China’s thousand-year history, even if their contributions were obscured by the sexism of their eras. TWOC is telling their stories, one badass at a time.

Today’s badass lady lived a colorful life (生活很丰富多彩), full of sex and scandal. Despite this or because of it, she was a talented poet, and her works survived as beloved poems from the Tang Dynasty. She challenged gender roles in some of the only ways available to a Tang Dynasty woman, and she did so with style. Her name was Yu Xuanji (鱼玄机).

Yu Xuanji was born around 850 A.D.. The current dynasty, the Tang, was considered a high point for art and culture, and writing poetry was all the fashion. Yu wrote poems through her life, but her writing only gives us only a glimpse into her world, and little was written about her life.

The first historical mention of Yu was as a scholar’s concubine. The scholar’s first wife was very jealous, so Yu was sent away at a young age to a Daoist nunnery. While this might conjure images of chastity and submissiveness, in the Tang Dynasty, nunneries were very different places. Nuns were known to wear heavy makeup and entertain men – nunneries were such social hubs, that in writings from the time, “Daoist nun” sometimes was used as shorthand for “prostitute.” During her stint as a nun, Yu still traveled frequently (unusual for women at the time) and the sights and sounds of her travels inspired her writing.

Yu’s reputation at the time was for sexual adventurousness, and is occasionally credited as China’s first openly bisexual woman. Eventually, her poetry and her habits were too much for those in power to bear, and she was (almost certainly falsely) accused of strangling her maid. It was a crime easy to pin to her, and she was put to death in her mid-twenties.

Yu Xuanji’s poems only survived because of their inclusion for “shock value” in poetry anthologies. Her forty-nine surviving poems were collected during the Song Dynasty, alongside other “curiosities.” One book purportedly included poems by ghosts, priests, foreigners, and (gasp) women. Apparently ghost poets and female poets were equally unlikely, in the eyes of Song Dynasty scholars.


Yu Xuanji’s “赋得江边柳” or “Poem for the Willows by the River.” 









Jade’s colour joins the river’s barren banks;

smoky clouds dance themselves into distant mansions.

Reflections spread on the surface of the autumn river;

flowers fall on the heads of fishermen.

Old roots hide the haunts of fishes;

branches bend to moor visiting boats.

The night sighs and sighs with wind and rain,

and unsettling dreams return more sadness to me.


Translation by Leonard Ng.

For more on the life of this badass lady and ones like her, check out TWOC‘s feature on prostitutes and poets.

Image courtesy of Baidu Baike (X)