Yu Xuanji - Late Tang Dynasty Chinese Female Poet
The cultural life of Tang Dynasty China was a time of feverish creative energy and diversity. Tang Dynasty poets were the pop stars of the age, and of the female poets of that time, Yu Xuanji is considered to be the most interesting and unconventional voice, even though, outside of her poems, almost nothing is known about her life.
Yu Xuanji (鱼玄机; approximate dates 844–869, or possibly to 871) was born in Tang China's capital city, Xian (Chang'an). We know nothing of her family. We do know that a volume of her poetry was published during her lifetime, but it is not extant.
The earliest extant account of Yu Xuanji's life was written c.910, in a work that David Young calls "the contemporary equivalent of a tabloid". It gave this story: she was the secondary wife of a provincial government official, who later abandoned her in the south (perhaps at the insistence of a jealous wife). Yu Xuanji made her way back to the capital, where she lived for a while as a courtesan, and then became a Daoist priestess. She was executed in her mid-twenties for having beaten a maid to death.
The forty-nine poems we have now are undoubtedly a fraction of what she would have produced in her lifetime; many of which are ‘occasional’ poems: written to mark an event or moment with friends. They were collected during the Song Dynasty (when foot-binding was becoming widespread) mainly for their ‘freak’ value, in an anthology which also listed poems by ghosts, monks, priests, foreigners and women, ‘and others whose efforts might provide amusement.’
The Tang Dynasty was a time where women enjoyed a great level of personal freedom, and Yu Xuanji is unique in that in her short life she experimented with three of the roles in which women could blur the gender distinctions: concubine, Daoist ‘nun’ and courtesan.
Whatever the factual basis of the traditional story of her life, Yu Xuanji's poetry tells us that she was indeed a follower of Daoism, probably retiring to a community, but traveling and receiving visitors. She maintained literary contacts with other writers: she was believed to be the mentor --- perhaps the mistress --- of the poet Wen Tingyun (812-c.870), who, like her, wrote ci (poems set to existing music).
Her poetry continued to be popular with all classes of Chinese readers, in part because she used little of the historical allusion prevalent in most poetry of the period. All we have left now are 49 poems and 5 fragments to tell Yu Xuanji's story. The story that they tell is one of a poet who will not cheerfully accept her fate.