top of page

Li Shishi — A Famous Courtesan, Lover of the Emperor, and Witness to Tragic History

Li Shishi was the most famous, beautiful courtesan of the Song Dynasty (960 — 1279).


She had never been mentioned in any official historical documentation but was frequently praised in poems and novels of that era.


She was gorgeous and talented, had romantic relationships with the emperor, powerful officials, brilliant poets, and chivalrous swordsmen, and had seen the prosperity of the prosperous empire. 


Later, she also encountered the tragic Incident of Jingkang (1126 — 1127), when the nomadic Jurchen Jin captured Song's emperors and all royals, Song's capital city was destroyed, and half the territory of Song fell into chaotic wars. 


After witnessing the best and worst eras of this empire, Li Shishi met a mysterious end.

Li Shishi of the Song Dynasty

Beautiful and Talented Courtesan of the Song Dynasty

Born into a worker's family, Li Shishi was one of the most famous courtesans in the Song Dynasty.

When she was four years old, her father passed away, and she was sold to a bawdy house, where she learned lots of talent. 

Later, she blossomed into a stunningly beautiful woman, skilled in singing, dancing, and literature.

She became the most talented and famous courtesan in Song's capital city, which gave her the right to be very choosy; only people with splendid talent would have the chance to see her.

Many famous poets wrote beautiful poems for her to appreciate or sing, some of whom also had romantic stories with her. 

Part of the Painting (Qingming Shang He Tu) Along the River During the Qingming Festival of the Song Dynasty
Part of the Painting (Qingming Shang He Tu) Along the River During the Qingming Festival by Artist Zhang Zeduan of the Song Dynasty
Part of the Genre Painting of the Capital City (Bianjing or Kaifeng) of the Song Dynasty by Artist Zhang Zeduan

Part of the Painting (Qingming Shang He Tu) Along the River During the Qingming Festival
Genre Painting of the Capital City (Bianjing or Kaifeng) of the Song Dynasty, by Artist Zhang Zeduan (1085 — 1145) — The Palace Museum

Romantic Encounter with the Emperor

Then, Emperor Zhao Ji, who had hundreds of beautiful imperial concubines in his royal palace, heard about Li Shishi and wanted to see her.


With the help of his followers, he disguised himself and used a fake name to visit her.

Zhao Ji, the Emperor Huizong of Song, was a horrible monarch but an extremely talented artist and scholar. 

He won Li Shishi’s heart with his outstanding artistic works, while he was impressed by her beauty and talent and fell in love with her at first sight.

Afterward, he started to visit Shishi in the brothel house frequently. 

In some gossip, he invited her to the royal palace and made her an imperial concubine. 

Auspicious Crane (He Rui Tu), Painted By Emperor Huizong of Song

Auspicious Crane (He Rui Tu), by Zhao Ji the Emperor Huizong of Song — Liaoning Museum

Tragic Incident of Jingkang

A few years later, the nomadic Jurchen Jin invaded the Song Empire, and Zhao Ji immediately abdicated the throne to his son Zhao Huan

After a series of stupid decisions by these two emperors, Song failed, and all royals, countless officials, and skillful civilians were captured. 

In Song's capital city, countless treasures were destroyed, tens of thousands of people were slaughtered, and a large amount of money was robbed. 

During that catastrophe, everyone's fate changed cruelly, including Li Shishi.

There were several versions of her ending in different novels, poems, or gossip; all were reflections of people living in this violent tragedy. 

Portrait of Zhao Ji the Emperor Huizong of Song Dynasty

Portrait of Zhao Ji the Emperor Huizong of Song — Taipei Palace Museum

The Mysterious End of Li Shishi

The most famous saying was that she didn't escape successfully.


Her beauty and famous reputation spread to Jin, whose lord asked people to search for her as soon as they broke into the capital city.

Li Shishi was caught soon and forced to serve Jurchen Jin's lord, but she didn't want to. So she swallowed her golden jewelry and passed away.


She stuck to her rule that she would only be with people she appreciated and never went against her will.  

Many highly appraised her behavior for being loyal, staunch, and brave. Everyone knew she could make any of Jin's monarchs like her, but she chose dignity. 

Unearthed Glass Crossguard (Jian Ge) of the Song Dynasty

Glass Crossguard (Jian Ge) of the Song Dynasty — Nanjing Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Another version was that she got expelled from the royal palace after Emperor Zhao Ji abdicated.

When Jin's army invaded Song's capital for the first time, a great official Li Gang was in charge of Song's troops and tried their best to defend the city.

Li Shishi, an intelligent individual who had experienced much and was a friend to many wise ministers and celebrities, chose to donate all her money, retire to a temple, and live a very simple life thereafter.

Her insights allowed her to foresee the tragic end, so she made efforts to contribute as best she could before leaving behind all the chaos and conflicts.

In some other novels, she escaped from the capital successfully, under the protection of a brave swordsman with whom she had a relationship.

They suffered a lot until they arrived in the southern part of China and established a new life there.

Li Shishi buried her unusual past and lived as an ordinary worker. 

Either way, this beautiful and intelligent woman disappeared after the destructive tragedy. 

Like other civilians living in those invaded areas, she experienced and witnessed countless blood, desperation, and separation.

When the country was falling apart and faced such cruel enemies, everyone's life was to some extent destroyed.

Celadon Glaze Plate of the Song Dynasty

Celadon Glaze Plate of the Song Dynasty — Palace Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

bottom of page