I ride in a decorated carriage,
My darling rides a blue-white horse.
Where should we tie the knot for our heart?
Under the Xiling pine and cypress. - Su Xiaoxiao, “Song of Xiling Lake”
Su Xiaoxiao was a Chinese courtesan who lived in Qiantang City (modern Hangzhou) during the Southern Qi Dynasty (479–502); short as that reign was her life was shorter still, as she was born about 482 and died only 19 years later, about 501. She was highly regarded both as a poetess and as a courtesan; the poem which forms the epigram (in Chinese each line is exactly five characters) is one of hers. But like the five women whose stories I told in my column of one year ago today, it is very likely that her name would have been forgotten had she not met an untimely death (though in Su Xiaxiao’s case it was due to a terminal disease rather than murder).
Very little is actually known about her, including her real name; “Su” was her family name (she is said to have had a sister named Su Pannu) and “Xiaoxiao” is actually the character for “small” written twice, thus forming an affectionate diminutive when used as a nickname. Her stage name in English would thus be most closely rendered as “Teeny-weeny Su”. She is said to have come from a family of the artisan class and to have attracted sufficient attention for her beauty and skill at verse to have become well-known throughout the region by her mid-teens. It was not uncommon for a popular courtesan in any country to be taken “off the market” by some nobleman recruiting her as his mistress (as we have seen in a number of the biographies I’ve published), but Su Xiaoxiao had not yet found a satisfactory arrangement when she was taken ill. This has no doubt helped to give rise to the popular romantic legend that she did not wish to settle down with a man unless she truly loved him. Given her poetry and the young age at which she died this may indeed have been true, but in any case many stories have grown from the fact.
One of these stories claims that she fell in love with a client who had professed his love for her and tried to get his family’s consent to honorably marry her, but they would not agree and he did not return to tell her. Another says that she fell in love with a poor scholar, to whom she lent money so he could travel to the capital for the Imperial Examinations (an anachronism since they were not established until a century later); when he did not return as promised, she pined away for love of him and neglected her health, thus developing the illness which killed her. Some versions of this tale say that his delay was caused by further testing through which he had won a very high position in the imperial service, but by the time he returned for her it was too late. Though the idea of a much-sought-after courtesan dying for love of a poor man is certainly very romantic, this seems unlikely given that she is known to have accepted her death philosophically and wrote that heaven had blessed her by calling attention to her work through her untimely death.
Su Xiaoxiao was a favorite subject of Tang dynasty poetry and Ming dynasty stories and art (some Ming vases are illustrated with a traditional depiction of a legend in which her ghost serves as a muse to a poet); she also appeared frequently in plays and is the heroine of a Chinese television show called Loving Courtesan Su Xiaoxiao. She was laid to rest in a tomb beside the Xiling Bridge at West Lake, and the site was visited by poets and artists for almost 1500 years until it was destroyed by the Red Guards during the violent anarchy of the Cultural Revolution. But once China began to embrace Western tourism the local government recognized that the tomb might prove a popular destination, so it was rebuilt in 2004 and enshrined in a pavilion with six posts on which poems were handwritten by famous calligraphers. The tomb itself was even the subject of a poem by the Tang dynasty poet Li He (790-816), who himself died young:
“The Tomb of Su Xiaoxiao” by Li He (translated by Tommy W. K. Tao)
finding naught to which
to betroth your heart
a haze of wild flowers
unworthy of picking
the grass like a carpet
the pines like a canopy
the wind be your garment
the water be your jade
in a varnished carriage
waiting all night
cold emerald light of the candles
flickering in vain
under the trees of Xiling
the wind blows the falling rain