Yu Xuanji (pinyin: Yú Xuánjī, approximate dates 844–868/869), courtesy names Youwei (pinyin: Yòuwēi) and Huilan (pinyin: Huìlán), was a Chinese poet and courtesan of the late Tang dynasty, from Chang’an. She was one of the most famous women poets of Tang, along with Xue Tao, her fellow courtesan.
Her family name, Yu, is relatively rare. Her given name, Xuanji, translates roughly to “profound theory” or “mysterious principle,” and is a technical term in Daoism and Buddhism. “Yòuwēi” translates roughly to “young and tiny” and, “Huìlán” refers to a species of fragrant orchid. She is distinctive for the quality of her poems, including many written in what seems to be a remarkably frank and direct autobiographical style, using her own voice rather than speaking through a character.
Little trustworthy information is known about the relatively short life of Yu Xuanji. She grew up in Tang capital Chang’an, which was the terminus of the Silk Road and one of the most sophisticated cities of its time. Yu was married as a concubine, or lesser wife, to an official named Li Yi (pinyin: Lǐ Yì) at 16. After separating three years later, she became a courtesan and a Daoist nun. She was a fellow of Wen Tingyun, to whom she addressed a number of poems. She died early, at the age of 26 to 28. Apart from names and dates in her poems, the Little Tablet from the Three Rivers gives the only purported facts about her life, although these are salacious in detail: that she had an affair with Wen Tingyun, lived a scandalously promiscuous life, and was executed for allegedly beating her maid to death. This account is considered semi-fictional, and may be a reflection of the traditional distrust of women who were strong-willed and sexually independent.
In her lifetime, Yu Xuanji’s poems were published as a collection called Fragments of a Northern Dreamland, which has been lost. Forty-nine surviving poems were collected in the Song Dynasty mainly for their sensationalist value in an anthology that also included poems from ghosts and foreigners.
Yu Xuanji. The Clouds Float North: The Complete Poems of Yu Xuanji. Translated by David Young and Jiann Wesleyan Press, 1998.