Susu Does the Dozens
Happy Monday; have some Bakhtinian carnival
The Tang dynasty made poetry a white-collar job requirement and now it’s remembered as a golden age; I’m just saying.
Not that it was just a job requirement, of course: Poetry was a mode of social interaction, and a medium of exchange, and a sign of having the right kind of accent and education, and all sorts of other things besides, including occasionally a form of expression. None of that was new; what was new was the sheer volume of poetry that emitted from the five thousand or so young men who flooded into the northeast corner of late-Tang Chang’an every year, hopped up on hormones and literature and ambition, getting ready to take the civil service exams and make a dent in the world.
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Every year, somewhere between 20 and 30 exam candidates would attain the coveted title of jinshi 進士, “Presented Scholar,” indisputable proof of their talents and also a prerequisite for higher office. Most of them never made it anywhere close. For the disappointed majority, poetry offered the perfect medium for expressions of indignation and self-pity, along with centuries of examples to emulate. The poem below, which has the name Hanshan 寒山 attached to it, is one of my favorites:
In vain I read the Histories;
My efforts with the Classics all were wasted.
I'll be on tax rolls til I'm old,
and marked down always as a nobody.
Cast my fortune — all I get is "Don't."
A whole life governed by ill-omened stars.
I should have been a tree beside a river.
At least I'd get to flourish once a year.
“Hanshan” 129 tells a bitterly funny version of the same story:
He’s going places, that young lad:
So deeply versed! So widely read!
We all address him as “Master” now,
and he’s sure to make Academician —
But he hasn’t been able to find a position,
and he’s useless when it’s time to plow.
Shivering in his rags all winter long,
He wonders if his books have led him wrong.
But “Hanshan” contained multitudes and self-pity gets old fast. Dig the counterpoint in HS 99:
Broke scholars who can't catch a break,
Hungry and cold as hungry and cold can be,
Versifying in your abundant leisure,1
Sweating and straining for effortless poetry —
Low as you are, who'd listen to your words?
I'm telling you: Quit moaning and groaning.
Write your verses on a bun
And the starvingest street dog would leave it alone.
Of course, most people never even got the chance to be disappointed, a fact seldom represented in the literary record outside of exceptional cases like the Daoist nun, entertainer, and murderess (alleged!) Yu Xuanji 魚玄機:
Visiting the South Tower at Chongzhen Temple,
Where the Successful Examination Candidates’ Names Are Posted
Cloud-capped peaks fill the eye, shining with spring sun.
Every brush-stroke distinct in that elegant, forceful hand.
Hating how silk skirts cover poetry,
I look up, uselessly envying the names.
The civil service examination’s emphasis on poetry was not, surprisingly, the main reason we now refer to this period as the “late Tang” rather than the “mid-Tang” or the “early Tang” — but it did ensure that the walled Chongren Ward, just southeast of the Imperial city, would reliably be stocked with unworldly young men who were at any given moment just bursting to devise epigrams, drop allusions, and fix other people’s tonal scansion.
What did they do besides fail and write poetry? The mid- to late-Tang seems to have been an age for romance in fiction (e.g. Yuan Zhen’s 元稹 The Tale of Yingying 鶯鶯傳, the basis for the later Romance of the Western Chamber 西廂記, which we’ve touched on before) — but “romance” was only one aspect of fengliu 風流, a word that tests my disbelief in untranslatability. For our jumped-up young late-Tang men, at least, fengliu meant a sort of romantic sophistication, a real-world milieu within which people’s interactions were stylized — and evaluated by others — along literary lines. (“Panache?”) Style was mandatory; wit was prized; good lines would be scrutinized and commented upon before entering local circulation， possibly with improvements. (“Savoir-dire?”) I can only imagine how exhausting it must have been, having to be on all the time for an audience of your peers.
Anyway, just south of the Chongren Ward was the Pingkang Ward, home to the “Three Lanes” 三曲 of Chang’an’s pleasure quarter. You see where this is going.
The word 妓 jì (Middle Chinese gjeX) usually gets translated as “courtesan” — a fine translation, and probably the way to go for anything in the early modern period where I spend most of my time. For the Tang I tend to prefer the blander “entertainer,” partly because of the word’s relation to a homophonous word meaning “performer; talent,” partly because an early 11th c. rime-book glosses it as “female musician,” and mostly because “courtesan” hits my early 21st c. ears as a euphemism for “full-service sex worker,” which would be misleading. Robert van Gulik, who based the Judge Dee mystery Poets and Murder on the case of Yu Xuanji (and who knew a thing or two about sex workers), almost certainly overstated the case when he wrote that young exam candidates associated with entertainers as “an escape from carnal love” — but they did advertise themselves on the strength of their skill at song, dance, poetry, and banter, and contemporary accounts by male nerds suggest, at least to me, that “a girl who appreciates your sophistication and can respond in kind” was a major selling point, even if it wasn’t the only one.2
It’s a pretty safe bet that every one of the men staying in the Chongren Ward had read The Tale of Li Wa 李娃傳 or one of the other great romances of the day, epitomes of the fengliu ethos of romantic sophistication, where scholar-entertainer pairings were practically a formal requirement. It probably shouldn’t be surprising that the women of the Pingkang Ward were also familiar with the expectations of the genre. Our sources are subject to the usual elite-male-nerd limitations, but going by those sources — particularly The Northern Quarter, which I’ll get to in a minute — it sounds as if many of the entertainers had at least some form of literacy,3 and interacted with the exam candidates according to the norms of fengliu, which elevated life to literature and love to poetry, and — crucially — suspended social distinctions, made talent matter, and gave entertainers the option of saying no.
Let’s not romanticize any of this: These women were sold as children and raised specifically to appeal to the men whose writings are the closest thing they will ever have to headstones. They didn’t learn music and dance for their own enjoyment, and to whatever extent they were taught to read and write, it was not for their edification. There’s no reason to assume that they had happy lives, and ample evidence that they did not.
Sun Qi’s 孫啟 The Northern Quarter 北里志 (preface dated 884) is a collection of anecdotes from the author’s time as a young exam candidate knocking about the Pingkang Ward. It does a pretty remarkable job of recording both the inside view of the literary fantasy — the erudite banter, the duels of wit, the romance — and the outside view, as in Sun’s unconvincing-even-to-himself attempts to put a romantic gloss on the story of how he rejected (in poetry, of course) an entertainer who asked him to buy her out as a wife.
The highlight of the book for me, in fact one of my favorite things I’ve read from the Tang dynasty, is a story where the fantasy comes true: the rules of Poetry World obtain in the real world; talent matters; the dunk tweet actually makes the other guy log off. It filed itself in my head under the title “Susu Does the Dozens” when I read it years ago.
Wang Susu lived in a spacious, well-appointed house in the southern lane, and was well organized in managing banquets; the "girl-brothers" of her house were rather skilled at banter. There was a Presented Scholar, one Li Biao, who claimed to be a descendant of the general Li Ji and had for some time served as secretary to the Grand Remonstrator Wang Zhijun. He came in the company of Wang Zhijun’s nephew and younger brother, and as they drank, he inscribed a poem on the window frame:
Around her door as spring grows late
the flowering trees blow to and fro.
In search of finer sights, the prince
shakes off his dusty robe —
But the immortal of this grotto,
being overly amorous,
Holds young Liu back4 —
She just can't let him go.
Susu was unhappy enough about the inscription even before she’d read it. "Nobody's keeping you here!” she said. “Quit shooting your mouth off!"
Then she picked up the brush and matched his rhymes:
No wonder all the dogs are barking,
the chickens fluttering to and fro:
A scrawny boy, a skinny nag,
a worn-out, tattered hempen robe.
Who brought this good-for-nothing
in the first place anyway?
The cash can stay —
The customer can go.
Li Biao, never the sort to take things in stride, blushed a deep red and called for his driver to take him home early. After that, whenever Susu saw someone from Wang Zhijun's household, she would ask “Is that young man I kicked out still around?”
If history remembers Li Biao for anything else, I haven’t been able to find it.
There are no monuments to Wang Susu either, but she deployed the rules of sophisticated literary interaction even more effectively (and ethered Li Biao even more thoroughly) than The Northern Quarter could know: “that young man I kicked out” (熱趕郎) left an impact crater on the literary lexicon. Seven centuries later, six hundred miles southeast, you’ll find Tang Xianzu 湯顯祖 using it as a synonym for “whoremonger” in The Peony Pavilion 牡丹亭, the greatest of the Kunqu operas.5 I think it’s pretty clear who won.
Poetry and talent might not change the way the world works, as Yu Xuanji knew all too well — but in the right place, at the right time, under the right conditions, they can help you get some extremely satisfying shots in. Just ask Wang Susu.
In a segue so smooth I can only point it out myself, I’m delighted to announce that I’m teaching a new course for Outlier Linguistics, “Introduction to Premodern Chinese Literature.” (There’s a short video teaser of me talking awkwardly about the class on that page, and a much longer livestream with me talking awkwardly with John Renfroe on Outlier's YouTube channel.)
We’ll be covering about 3,000 years of literature in 10 weeks with a brisk (and hopefully enjoyable!) introduction to many of the major works, from the Book of Odes 詩經 to The Story of the Stone 石頭記 (or The Dream of the Red Chamber 紅樓夢, as less fussy people call it). This is a tweaked version of an introductory college course that I loved teaching, and I’m really, really happy to be teaching it again.
If you think you might be interested, I’d love to see you there. The class starts tomorrow — September 12 — but you can sign up any time and work through recordings of the livestreamed lectures at your own pace.
But! There’s a $100 discount if you sign up before the class starts!
I recommend you take advantage of it: Chinese literature, while awesome, is not necessarily a profitable pursuit, as so many major figures of the Chinese literary tradition discovered, so it doesn’t hurt to economize where you can. And I get paid the same either way.
Thanks to Kate Lingley and Chris Elford for a very helpful discussion of this line, and particularly for the observation that 閑居 “abiding in leisure” here is mocking: these piddling poetasters are pretending to do the poetical thing of effortlessly tossing off observations on nature, human and regular, without sullying themselves with temporal considerations. The next line (札札用心力, “on every strip of paper they expend mental effort”) punctures the image: they’re working so hard at it.
This is a tangent, but I love it too much to cut it: In 815, the poet-official Bai Juyi 白居易 wrote a letter to his friend Yuan Zhen in 815 noting — perhaps with a little satisfaction — what a knowledge of popular poetry could mean for an entertainer:
及再來⾧安, 又聞有軍使⾼霞寓, 欲聘倡妓, 妓⼤誇曰: “我誦得⽩學士『長恨歌』, 豈同他妓哉?” 由是增賈。
When I came back to Chang’an, I also heard about a Military Commander, Gao Xiayu, who wanted to take an entertainer as his wife. “I can recite Bai Juyi’s ‘Song of Everlasting Sorrow,’” she boasted. “How could I be compared to any other entertainer?” On this basis she increased her price.
Man, I would love to know more about this — What was their curriculum? Who taught them? When did it start? The last time I looked was about 8 years ago when I wrote the seminar paper I’m scavenging here, but I didn’t find anything back then and I’d be grateful for any leads. (Presumably there was no shortage of down-on-their-luck exam candidates with debts to cover — the protagonist of The Tale of Li Wa works as a dirge singer on his way to rock-bottom — but that doesn’t answer the more interesting question of what and how the entertainers were taught. Sources like 教坊記 Jiaofang ji cover their music education, but I don’t know of anything at all for literacy.)
This line bears some explaining. Robert des Rotours understands “Liu” here as “likely a reference to Liu Ling...used by the author of the poem to show his esteem for his friends’ poetic talent” (Le nom de Lieou est très probablement employé ici pour désigner le poète Lieou Ling ...L’auteur de la poésie emploie ce nom pour montrer qu’il estime le talent poétique de ses amis); Paul Rouzer reads it as a reference to Han Wudi 漢武帝 and his “amorous adventures or his dabbling in Taoist arts.”
As some other versions of the text of The Northern Quarter have the surname Ruan 阮 here rather than Liu, I think it likelier (as perhaps did the editors of those collectanea) that this line alludes to the well-known tale recorded in the Youming lu 幽冥錄, attributed to Liu Yiqing 劉義慶 (403–444), in which two men, Liu Chen 劉晨 and Ruan Zhao 阮肇, unwittingly stumble into the domain of female immortals who ply them with food and drink and are reluctant to let them return to the mortal realm.
The iconoclastic philosopher Li Zhi 李贄, who died in 1602 after cutting his own throat to make a point, used it in the same sense around the same time, in a posthumously published book of essays whose title (續焚書) I can only translate as Burn This Book Too.