Exotic beauty Li Shishi

Zhang Qian
Zhang Qian
Li Shishi, a courtesan in the Northern Song Dynasty (AD 960-1127), is a legend.
Zhang Qian
Zhang Qian

Li Shishi, a courtesan in the Northern Song Dynasty (AD 960-1127), is a legend. She inspired a brilliant wit to write a masterpiece, thawed the soul of a resolute and upright hero, and even captured an emperor’s heart. 

Li, with secrets and mysteries throughout her life, was a peerless courtesan in Kaifeng City, then Song capital, in central China’s Hebei Province.

Alledgedly born in 1090, Li was a daughter of Wang Yan, an artisan who made burial shrouds.

Her mother died shortly after childbirth and her father was executed by the government when she was only 4 due to a delay in supplying shrouds.

Madam Li, running a brothel, adopted her and Li was given her procuress’ surname.

Almost every man in Kaifeng knows about Li. Good at poetry, music, painting and calligraphy, Li was also good looking: every man’s fantasy.

But only prominent officials and eminent persons had the chance to enter her boudoir. 

Exotic beauty Li Shishi
Ti Gong

Zhou Bangyan, a noted poet, was her most intimate confidant and he drew inspiration from her.

In the poem “Yu Lan Er” (玉兰儿), he expressed his deep regret at not meeting her earlier.

Legend has it another of his famous poems, “Shao Nian You” (少年游), was actually composed when Zhou hid under Li’s bed. It is said that Zhao Ji (1082-1135), known as Emperor Huizong, unexpectedly dropped into Li’s room whilst Zhou was visiting her.

Zhou had no choice but to hide under the bed for the whole night, during which this crazy guy wrote a poem depicting the flirtation between the emperor and Li.

One day, Li accidentally sang the poem “Shao Nian You” to the emperor, and not surprisingly, he became mad and expelled Zhou from Kaifeng.

After Li’s pleading, Zhou was allowed to stay.

Her romance with the emperor is one of the most widely-spread stories of Li.

As well as a good ruler, the emperor was extremely talented in poetry, painting, calligraphy and music.

According to an unauthorized biography of Li, the emperor, disguised as a businessman, first met Li in 1109, and immediately was captivated by her beauty and talent.

Rumors suggested that the emperor even had a tunnel dug linking his palace to the brothel where Li lived. 

The romance was also often used in Chinese literary classcis, such as “Water Margin.”

In the fiction, Li encountered Yan Qing, ranked 36th of 108 Liangshan heroes, and adored him as he was not only an accomplished martial artist but also a gifted musician.

But when Li became a liaison between the outlaws and Emperor Huizong, Yan broke off the relationship.

With the help of Li, the emperor granted the outlaws amnesty. 

Despite the love of many men during her life, Li died miserable and lonely. There are three main versions of how she died.

One suggests that she donated all her property to support the Song army against the Jin army and then became a Taoist priest.

Another indicates that after being caught by the Jin army, she committed suicide by swallowing a golden hairpin.

The third version says Li became a businessman’s concubine and later drowned in the Qiantang River in Hangzhou.

As a courtesan, there are few records of Li’s life. And some scholars doubt her romance with the emperor.

Yet, her charms, beauty and talent seem undoubtable, documented in various poems, music and writings of the male scholars of her time.

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