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Timeline: Fu Niang, (un)Lucky Damsel

This is a depiction of a Chinese man negoitating with a courtesan, much like Fu Niang.
U.S. Public Domain
This is a depiction of a Chinese man negoitating with a courtesan, much like Fu Niang.

There is so much power in language, names and the meanings of words. Take, for instance, the Chinese symbols used for the word courtesan or prostitute, chang and ji. These symbols are closely related to those for sing and talent. This is no coincidence. Chinese courtesans were known for their musical ability along with the carnal services they provided. In Lewis Holmes’ book The Mystery of Music we learn about one such courtesan in the city Chang’an during the Tang dynasty. Her name was Fu Niang; which is sadly ironic because though her name means “lucky damsel” Fu Niang’s life was anything but lucky.


Fu Niang came from a modest family; learning to sew, sing and recite poetry. When she was quite young she was betrothed to a passing stranger who took her to the big city and then, for reasons unknown, abandoned her at a bordello. She became a successful courtesan which means she was beautiful, a skillful musician on the pipa (the Chinese lute), and had a special talent for reciting and composing poetry. She became very popular with the patrons there. Two young government officers once paid 1,000 gold pieces for her company. Eventually, her brothers heard what had happened to their sister and they came to the city to rescue her. But, she told them it was too late, and besides, they didn’t have the money to buy her freedom.

We know about Fu Niang because of the writings of a civil-service candidate, Sun Qi. Sun’s Records of the Northern Quarter chronicles the relationship that he and Fu Niang once shared. Sun Qi visited Fu Niang often and found her beautiful and intelligent, but also downcast and melancholic. When he asked her why she felt that way, Fu Niang expressed her desire to escape in poetry.        

Though my unplanned existence grieves me daily, I am loathe to bare my heart to just anyone. I am not trying to return to you Like water spilled from a pitcher, But only wish to know your intentions.

She was asking him to marry her. Sun Qi refused. He hadn’t yet passed his examination.

Why plan ahead, young beauty? Don’t place your faith in me, For I can’t become your husband. Though the lotus in the mud is undefiled, I can’t transplant it in my garden.

This ended their relationship. Fu Niang would have been around 15 years old. Sometime later, Sun Qi was regretting his decision and returned to the city of Chang’an. Sun discovered that Fu Niang was now in the exclusive service of a wealthy patron. When Sun pressed to see her, Fu Niang wrote him this final poem.

I gave you my love endlessly, Entrusted myself completely to you, Time and again, Revealing my heart’s innermost secrets: The lotus in the mud has already been transplanted; Please don’t be embittered with me for leaving you.

This unlucky love story ended around 880 CE. The next year saw war, bloodshed and carnage as the rebel forces of Huang Chao marched into the city. The emperor was forced to flee and the rebel army brought about mass devastation. As one poet wrote…

Every home now runs with bubbling fountains of blood, Every place rings with victims’ shrieks - shrieks that cause the very earth to quake. Dancers and singing-girls must all undergo secret outrage; Infants and tender maidens are torn living from their parents’ arms.

It could be that our melancholy courtesan suffered the fate of these ‘singing girls’ making her story all the more tragic.

Learn more about Fu Niang in Lewis Holmes’ book The Mystery of Music.

Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music.

James Stewart is Vermont Public Classical's afternoon host. As a composer, he is interested in many different genres of music; writing for rock bands, symphony orchestras and everything in between.
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