Tragic life of a Chinese beauty

Zhu Ying
Li Xiangjun, ranked the first of the "Eight Beauties of Qinhuai," is recognized for her fidelity and patriotism. 
Zhu Ying

In China, there is a widely known idiom “hong yan bo ming” — the beauties often have tragic lives. Li Xiangjun, one of the “Eight Beauties of Qinhuai,” is one.

Though Li might not be the prettiest or the most talented one among the eight beauties, it is acknowledged that she 

Born in a wealthy family in Suzhou in 1624, Li, originally surnamed Wu, was the daughter of a military officer, a member of the Donglin Faction, which advocated reform and fought corruption. Punished by Wei Zhongxian, court eunuch in the late Ming dynasty (1368-1644), Li’s family hit hard times when she was eight.

Adopted by the famous courtesan Li Zhenli, Li lived in a brothel called Meixiang Lou near Nanjing Confucian Temple. The brothel was favored by the literati and officials.

By 13, Li had already achieved fame in singing, playing the pipa (a four-stringed instrument), dancing and poetry. Unlike a courtesan in the conventional sense, Li was an elegant and spiritual woman adored by many men. She was called Xiang Shanzhui, or fragrant fan pendant.

Tragic life of a Chinese beauty

A portrait of Li Xiangjun, who is renowned for her fidelity and patriotism.

In 1639, Li met Hou Fangyu who was on the way to the imperial examinations. They fell in love at first sight. But Hou couldn’t afford Shulong, a ceremony indicating that the courtesan could only serve one host. With the help of Yang Longyou, Hou was engaged to Li and sent her an exquisite fan as a love token. The sponsor, in fact, was not Yang but Ruan Dacheng, a playwright with a bad reputation in the late Ming dynasty, roping Hou in to assist the royal court. 

The indignant Li sold all her jewelry and borrowed money from others in order to repay Ruan. Bearing a grudge against Li, Ruan egged Tian Yang on to take her as concubine, which Li fought. She hit her head on a pillar and the blood splashed onto the fan given by Hou, who turned the bloodstain into a peach blossom.

Ruan didn’t give up. He suggested Emperor Hongguang, first ruler of the Southern Ming Dynasty (1644-83), order Li to be the singing girl of the play written by Ruan. Living in the palace, Li lost contact with the outside world and her beloved Hou Fangyu, who was framed by Ruan and forced to find shelter with Shi Kefa.

In 1644, the political situation spiralled out of control. Defeating the forces led by Emperor Hongguang, the Qing army conquered Nanjing, the first capital of the Southern Ming Dynasty. The war offered Li a chance to escape the palace. And Hou, missing Li terribly, fled from Yangzhou to Nanjing.

Li happened to become a nun with her old friend Bian Yujing at Qixia Mountain where Hou found her. Hiding her identity, Li married Hou as his concubine and lived in harmony with Hou’s family from 1645 to 1652. 

But Hou’s father learned she had been a courtesan. Kicked out of Hou’s house, Li was discriminated against by the public. It is said that shortly after giving birth to a boy, she died of tuberculosis. Another version is that she returned to the nunnery.

The love story between Li and Hou was later adapted into a musical play “The Peach Blossom Fan,” by Kong Shangren.

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