The Courtesan as Famous Scholar

The Case of Wang Wei (ca. 1598-ca. 1647)
Wednesday, 21 March 2018 - 3:30 pm
Room number: 
Contact information
Contact person: 
Sufeng Xu
Registration required: 
Cost to attend: 
Free of charge
Event language: 

A Lecture by Sufeng Xu, Department of Modern Languages and Literatures, University of Ottawa

This lecture examines the life and poetry of Wang Wei (style name “the Grass-cloth Daoist”), one of the most distinguished courtesan poets of the Ming dynasty. It seeks to illustrate what I believe is an important explanation for the flourishing of late Ming courtesan and literati culture. I argue that the rising prominence of learned and literary courtesans was strongly connected to a new social formation of nonconformist literati, the so-called men of the mountains (shanren). These non-official urban elites of the prosperous Jiangnan fashioned themselves as retired literati, devoting themselves to art, recreation, and self-invention, instead of government service. In constructing an “artistic and hedonistic counterculture,” they encouraged the involvement of both courtesans and literary women of the gentry class.

A core member of Wang Ruqian’s (1577-1655) Hangzhou literary societies in the 1620s, Wang Wei is representative of the courtesans who pursued an unconventional lifestyle typical of the shanren literati. Her unconventionality can be observed in the way she viewed her body and feminine charms in general; her religious and spiritual pursuits; her obsessions with “purity, books, and mountains and rivers;” as well as her intimate friendships with gentry wives. The deconstructing of established dichotomies such as public/private, inner/outer, orthodox/heterodox, virtuous/depraved, and even masculine/feminine, was a practice flaunted typically by nonconformist literati of the late Ming. The philosophy behind this growing non-conformism among literati in this period was the teaching of Chan (Zen), a teaching that relied on unconventional ways to interpret classical canons of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism. Wang Wei—neither quite feminine nor quite masculine, neither quite Daoist nor quite Buddhist, and neither quite courtesan nor quite gentry woman—presents a striking illustration of the many ways in which late Ming courtesans could fashion and redefine themselves. Male literary societies provided a place for the association of unconventional minds, including a nonconformist courtesan.