©2019 by Kaytlin Bailey and Justine McLellan. 

  • Justine McLellan

Yu Xuanji, the Poet

Updated: Feb 7, 2019



Yu Hsuan-chi was born in 844 in Tang Dynasy China. Her and her family lived in Chang’an, a vibrant city that was the eastern terminus of the silk road. At twelve or thirteen, the precocious Yu had dalliances with sons of civil-servant nobility, students who came to Chan’an to receive their education. Yu, whose father was a craftsman, was invested in her own upward mobility; she therefore actively pursued these boys. When she shared her poetry with the young men she had relations with, they quickly recognized her literary talents. She was showered with gifts by her lovers, in exchange of which she would have sex with them.



Yu Hsuan-chi’s poems are still read and analysed in the schools and universities of China. In her later teens, Yu dated a student from a wealthy family who convinced her to move to his province, despite his parents having arranged for him to marry a girl with good social standing. Yu therefore became a second wife. She was deeply dissatisfied with the restrictions of her position; she was prohibited from travelling, and socializing with people other than her husband and in-laws, whom she found stuffy and intellectually uninteresting, was forbidden. After a year and a half of isolation, she fled to a taoist convent populated by widows, former sex workers, and separated women.


The occupants of Taoist nunneries were known for their lavish consumption of wine. At the time, since alcohol was scare, the ability to drink large quantities of wine was a status symbol. Yu Hsuan-chi, who often won drinking competitions against men, developed the high-class reputation of knowing how to hold her liquor.


After two years,Yu left the nunnery to travel across the empire with her new lover, the renowned poet Wen T’ing-yun. She kept writing, and her new liberty led her to become a poet highly celebrated by the Chinese literary intellectual class.


At the time, Chinese wives from good families were expected to ignore the arts, to be discreet and humble, to stay at home at all time and to not be seen in public with their husbands. On the opposite side of the spectrum, the company of highly educated courtesans were seen as a status symbol, and powerful Chinese men competed to be seen in public with the most prestigious and eloquent sex workers. Thanks to her wit and literary genius, Yu became one of the most sought after courtesans of her day.


She was charming and brilliant, but she also enjoying pitting men against each other and publicly humiliating one by comparing his sexual prowess to other’s . At 27, she was accused, convicted, and sentenced to death for beating a servant girl to death. Some say that former clients, who had felt publicly humiliated by Yu’s sharp wit, had decided to take revenge on the courtesan by falsely accusing her of this crime.