The Role of Courtesans in Northern Song China

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The role of courtesans in Northern Song China

When talking about Song history, most scholars were focusing on political, economic and cultural aspects that the role of courtesans in Song social life has seldom shed a light. This paper will first define the word of “courtesans” and its origin. Some case studies then will be cited to examine how the relationship between courtesans and literati is and to illustrate the role of courtesans in Song China. Finally, the significance of courtesans in Song history will be discussed.

To begin with, the meaning of courtesan will be introduced. Courtesan is commonly recognized as ji妓 in Chinese but it mainly refers to prostitute that is not accurate enough to the meaning of courtesan in this paper. In terms of “Beichang 埤蒼”of “Huayan Jing 華嚴經”: “ji is beautiful lady 妓,美女也.” And, from “Yin Yun”, it explained that “ji is female musician 妓, 女樂也.” The definition of courtesans in this paper is far more than ji. According to Edward Schafer, the term prostitute is “hardly adequate” to refer to the rigorously trained and highly cultivated women who entertained at elegant banquets in Tang and Song. Moreover, as Bossler suggested that courtesan in Song China meant a performing artist who might be a dancer, a singer, a musician, or a poet and might provide sexual service by approaching the banquet table and beginning to sing without invitation. Here, I will employ Bossler’s idea of courtesans. Actually, courtesans were divided into two types, which were government courtesans (guan ji or ying ji官妓,營妓) and household courtesans (jia ji家妓). As space limited, I will focus on government courtesans in this paper.

Next, the origin of courtesans will be traced back to Northern Song. In accordance with Deng Zhicheng 鄧之誠, Gu dong suo ji骨董瑣記, “ When Taizong extinguished the Northern Han, he stole their women and brought them back to the barracks. This was the beginning of ‘barracks courtesans’(ying ji營妓). Later he also established government courtesans (guan ji) to supply and serve the prefectural official and officers who had not brought their families. Government courtesans had a body price of 5,000; in five years their term was up and they returned to their original positions. Those officials who took courtesans with them paid an additional 2,000, and such women could also be gotten from the theater district. ‘Barrack courtesans’ were selected from among the theater entertainers (guo lan ji 勾欄妓) and served in rotation for terms of one month. They were permitted to pay a fee in lieu of service. There were also the children of criminals and the children of good commoner families who were in prison awaiting judgment; in extreme cases [ children of good family] were kidnapped and falsely called criminals in order to trick them─this was the height of evil government. After the Southern Song was established, the system began to be changed.”

As mentioned above, it can be shown that government courtesans were stemmed from Song Taizong who created the courtesan system. Which the official organization to manage courtesans, was jiao fang教坊 where provided training like playing musical instruments, dancing and writing poems etc. to courtesans. The management of Jiao fang was very rigorous. It can be seen by “Song shi‧lezhi” which pointed out that Jiao fang was directed to Xuanhui Yuan宣徽院 and nearly all officials were responsible to Jian fang for teaching courtesans. Besides, according to Mengliang lu 夢粱錄, there was a record indicating that different skills in arts were assigned to officials in accordance with their professional specialty to train courtesans. There even were children courtesans groups to be trained. Government courtesans thus were highly literate and skilled in other arts by receiving such professional training in Northern Song. Furthermore, government courtesans were bound to service in the prefecture: they had to perform when summoned by the prefecture, although they may have free to...
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