Liu Rushi: beautiful and talented

Liu Rushi, one of the "Eight Beauties of Qinhuai," was renowned in her time for her beauty and talents.

Liu Rushi, one of the “Eight Beauties of Qinhuai,” was renowned in her time for her beauty and talents. She is better appreciated and cherished by later generations for her integrity and patriotism.

Liu Rushi, one of the “Eight Beauties of Qinhuai,” was renowned in her time for her beauty and talents, but appreciated and cherished by later generations for her integrity and patriotism — surpassing most men.

There are a number of courtesans who left their trace on Chinese history, not only for their talents but also their contributions to history. The “Eight Beauties of Qinhuai” in the late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) are among the best known.

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

Liu Rushi was not her original name, but a name she gave herself from one of her favorite poems written by Xin Qiji of the Song Dynasty (960-1279).

Liu was born in a poor family in the late Ming Dynasty. She was first sold to a prostitute as a stepdaughter and then to a rich scholar family surnamed Zhou as maidservant. That’s where she learnt literature, poetry, music, calligraphy and painting. But Zhou died soon and his wife and concubines threw Liu out. She returned to the brothels.  

Beautiful, smart and talented, Liu quickly won fame in the business. Yet, she set high standards for the men approaching her. Living in Songjiang (now Shanghai), she was good friends with a number of scholars including those of the Donglin Party.

Liu often dressed as man, writing poems and discussing current affairs with the scholars. And she often expressed her eagerness to contribute to the country if she had been male. 

Liu was particularly close to scholars such as Li Daiwen, Zong Zhengyu and Chen Zilong. She even developed a romance with Chen Zilong out of mutual admiration and appreciation. Yet, learning that Chen could not marry her after all, Liu chose to leave with dignity. 

Frustrated in love, Liu’s poems in this period were mostly sad. Years later, Liu moved to Hangzhou and made a new start. Appreciating works by Qian Qianyi, a well-known scholar and retired official at the time, Liu visited him personally. She dressed as man, and called at Qian’s House in anonymity. After days of talking, the two fell in love. 

Three years later, disregarding social norms, Qian, in his late 50s, took Liu in her early 20s, to a tour at Huqiu (Tiger Till) in Suzhou publicly, and soon married her, as his wife rather than a concubine. They led a happy life together with a daughter until the rebels broke through into the capital Beijing and the Qing Dynasty troops took over.

Qian was served in court again for the Southern Ming Dynasty (1644-83) with Nanjing as the capital. But the Qing troops kept pushing south and was about to take over Nanjing as well.

Liu suggested suicide together with Qian for their motherland. Qian agreed but held back, saying “the water is too cold.” 

Disappointed at her husband, Liu jumped into the water immediately. But she was saved by Qian. Qian surrendered and agreed to serve in the court of the Qing Dynasty in Beijing.

Liu refused to go and stayed in Nanjing. Probably influenced by Liu, Qian resigned only six months later, saying he was ill.

Qian was later imprisoned for being involved in a plot against the Qing Dynasty. Liu used all her means to get him out of jail and encouraged him to contact those still fighting against the Qing.

She also kept giving generous financial support to the rebel armies, as her way to help her mother country.

Two months after Qian died at age 83, Liu hanged herself. Even with her heart and talent, there was still not much Liu could do as an underclass courtesan in a man-dominated world. 

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