Xiao Fengxian: a history maker

Xiao Fengxian may have been a famous prostitute, during the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), but in Cai E's view, she was also a revolutionary and a heroic and beautiful woman.
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In Cai E’s view, Xiao Fengxian was a revolutionary and a heroic and beautiful woman.

Xiao Fengxian may have been a famous prostitute, during the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), but in Cai E’s view, she was also a revolutionary, a military governor in Yunnan Province, and a heroic and beautiful woman.

Xiao Fengxian’s original name was Zhu Xiaofeng, which was changed into Zhang Fengyun and then Zhang Xifei before finally settling on Xiao Fengxian. The multiple changes in her name implies Xiao Fengxian had a tragic life.

She was born in Hangzhou in 1900. Her father, surnamed Zhu, was a Manchu military officer but died early in life. Thereafter, bullied by his legal wife, Xiao Fengxian and her mother, a concubine, were forced to live independently. 

Unfortunately, her mother passed away soon after and she became an orphan. She was then adopted by a wet nurse surnamed Zhang. And in 1911, they fled from Hangzhou to Shanghai due to the Wuchang Uprising. 

Suffering from hunger, Zhang later handed over Xiao Fengxian to an artist surnamed Hu, who gave the young girl the stage name “Xiao Fengxian.” 

She moved from Shanghai to Nanjing, and then to Beijing, where she became a prostitute in a brothel named Yunji Ban on the Shaanxi Alley, one of Bada Hutong, literally meaning the eight great hutong. 

In the Qing Dynasty, Bada Hutong was notorious as the biggest red light district in Beijing.

Good at playing the pipa and the erhu, singing Peking opera and writing lyrics, Xiao Fengxian soon became a sensation. 

Cai met Xiao Fengxian when he was held under house arrest by Yuan Shih-kai in Beijing after he proclaimed himself the emperor of a new dynasty in 1915. Regardless of the family chaos, Cai paid a visit to Xiao Fengxian every day. Cai allegedly bought a house for Xiao Fengxian and spent a lot of money on renovating it, which greatly provoked Cai’s wife and mother.

It initially appeared that Cai had no ambition for an official career as he indulged in dissipation. The rumor was heard by Yuan who let down his guard against Cai. With the help of Xiao Fengxian, Cai fled from Beijing to Yunnan.

Cai never gave up his determination to resist Yuan and defend the Republic, and the rumor was finally proved to be a deliberate ploy because the revolutionaries, led by Cai, pushed Yuan to abandon the empire after 83 days. 

Cai died in Japan in 1916 and Xiao Fengxian, wearing black, attended his state funeral in China. The death of Cai was a heavy blow to Xiao Fengxian, who stayed out of the public eye after his death.

Xiao Fengxian got married twice in her life. The first husband was a brigade commander, surnamed Liang, from the Northeast army. 

In 1949, Xiao Fengxian remarried to a stoker, Li Zhenhai, who had a 14-year-old daughter from a previous relationship. After Li’s death, Xiao Fengxian lived with her stepdaughter. 

In early 1951, Mei Lanfang, one of the most famous Peking opera artists, met Xiao Fengxian in Shenyang and helped her to find a job in a public kindergarten. Suffering from dementia, Xiao Fengxian died in 1954. 

Without the assistance of Xiao Fengxian, it would have been impossible for Cai to escape from Beijing, nor fight against Yuan.

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