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

Li Shishi was the most famous, beautiful courtesan of the Song Dynasty (960 — 1279). She had never been mentioned in any official historic documentations, but was frequently praised in poems and novels of that era. 

 

She was extremely beautiful and talented, and had romantic relationships with the emperor, powerful officials, talent poets, and chivalrous swordsman, and had seen the prosperity of the rich empire. 

 

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

 

After having witnessed the best and worst eras of this empire, Li Shishi ended mysteriously. 

The Most Beautiful and Talented Courtesan of Song Dynasty

Li Shishi, born into a worker’s family, 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 grew up into a stunningly beautiful woman who was great at singing, dancing, and literature.

She became the most talented and popular courtesan in the 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 had romantic stories with her as well. 

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 was 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 the first sight.

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

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

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

Catastrophic 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, all royals, a large number of officials, and skillful civilians were captured. 

In the 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 had changed cruelly, including Li Shishi.

There were several versions of her ending, in different novels, poems, or gossips, all of them were reflections of people living in this destructive tragedy. 

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

Mysterious Ending of Li Shishi After the Catastrophic War

The most popular 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 the 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 only to be with people that she appreciated, and never went against her will.  

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

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 the Song's capital for the first time, a great official Li Gang was in charge of Song’s troops and was trying their best to defend the city.

Li Shishi, as a smart person who had experienced a lot, and as friends of many intelligent ministers and celebrities, she donated all of her money, went to a temple, and lived a very simple life there afterward.

Her insights allowed her to outguess the tragic end, so she tried her best to be contributing, and then left all of the chaos and conflicting behind. 

In some other novels, Li Shishi escaped out of the capital successfully, under the protection of a brave swordsman 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 a normal worker since after. 

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 encountered such cruel enemies, everyone was somewhat destroyed.

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

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