Dong Xiaowan's talented legacy

"The Eight Beauties of Qinhuai" in late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) are among the most well-known courtesans who left their traces on Chinese history.

There are quite a number of courtesans who left their traces on Chinese history, not only for their talents but also participation in the historical process. “The Eight Beauties of Qinhuai” in late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) are among the most well-known. 

Most of the Eight Beauties witnessed the regime change from Ming to Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and romance with famous scholars or officials, which drew them into a political storm. 

Dong Xiaowan, one of the “Eight Beauties of Qinhuai,” was a renowned courtesan, poet, writer, painter and calligrapher in the late Ming Dynasty. Despite being the most famous courtesan of her time, Dong was also a dutiful daughter, loyal wife and a devoted daughter-in-law.

Born into a wealthy family running an embroidery business in Suzhou, Dong was the apple of her parents’ eyes and learnt needlework, painting, writing and calligraphy. 

When she was only 13, her father died, which was a huge blow to the family. Dong’s mother delegated the management of the embroidery shop to a salesman and lived in seclusion with her daughter. However, social unrest and the salesman’s poor business brain threw the family into debt. 

In order to pay off the debt, Dong became a performer on a gaily-painted pleasure-boat in Nanjing. Later, she returned to Suzhou and became a courtesan at a brothel, while she strictly adhered to her principle to never sell her body. 

Countless men were captivated by Dong’s beauty, as well as her talent, and Mao Bijiang (冒辟疆), a scholar, was one of them. After several attempts, Mao finally met Dong and he was deeply impressed, even though they talked for only half an hour. 

Later, Mao came to take care of sick Dong, who was greatly hit by her mother’s death. The two agreed to wait for Mao to pass the provincial examination and then live together. With the help of Qian Qianyi 
(钱谦益), who married another famous courtesan Liu Rushi 
(柳如是), Dong successfully redeemed herself and got married with Mao as a concubine.

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A portrait painting of Dong Xiaowan at Shuihui Garden in Rugao City, southern China’s Jiangsu Province.

The first year of her marriage was the happiest of her whole life. Painting, writing, singing, tea-tasting and gardening were part of her daily routine. She transformed trivial life into a romantic and fulfilling time. 

Mao was a lucky man as Dong, a virtuous wife, did domestic work very well, preparing sweet and cured food and a variety of tasty delicacies every day, although she preferred to eat light food. It is said that both zouyou rou 
(走油肉), namely, fried boiled pork and Qinhuai Dong sweets (秦淮董糖), a popular candy in Rugao City, were Dong’s inventions. A biography of Dong written by Mao recorded Dong’s process of making peach paste, melon paste and fermented bean curd in detail. 

In 1644, Dong along with other family members were forced to flee their home because her husband, a loyalist of the Ming Dynasty, was hunted down by the Qing army. They lived in Huzhou, Zhejiang Province thanks to Dong’s frugal budget. 

Mao fell ill three times at that time and Dong looked after him with great care. She held him tightly when he had a fever, extracted Chinese medicine under a scorching sun for 60 days when he had a stomachache and allowed the ulcer-suffering man lean on her, while she slept sitting up for 100 days. In the 8th year of Emperor Shunzhi’s reign, and after 9 years of marriage, Dong passed away due to overwork. 

She left many legacies to descendants, including the a landscape painting featuring Gushan Mountain in Hangzhou, expressing her sense of desolation, as well as the a poetry casually composed by a green window, demonstrating her melancholy.


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