An introduction to the high class sex workers of Tang Dynasty China’s capital city.
In common with every other society in the world, China during the Tang Dynasty distinguished between people based on their gender and customarily placed men and their work above women and their work. To survive, therefore, in a world in which sexual liaisons were permitted for men outside marriage, large numbers of women joined the sex worker industry in one form or another. The younger, more refined and better looking women might be able to find their way to the North Hamlet of the ‘Gay Quarters’ (‘gay’ meaning carefree and jolly, in this case) of the capital city of Changan. Others would have to make do with lesser positions, less income, less respect and, all round, shorter and meaner lives.
The courtesans of the North Hamlet, would be put to study from an early age and would be expected to receive guests fully from the age of 11 or 12. By that time, they were expected to be able to take charge of a dinner party, to be able to improvise poetry (presumably at least some of this could be prepared beforehand) and to be able to administer and participate in drinking games. Courtesans generally lived with a foster mother in a separate apartment. It was possible for the foster mother also to have been the biological mother but this tended to be unusual. Instead, pretty young girls were more likely to have been sold to suitable foster mothers by their poor families, large numbers of whom were regularly close to starvation and unable to do much with a girl child, who was (before marriage and until able to work) considered to be little more than an extra mouth to feed.
Given the kind of life she had to lead, most courtesans had comparatively short careers and would have been mostly concerned to make enough money to pay back her ‘debts’ to her foster mother and then save sufficient to provide an income for her later life, perhaps by becoming a foster mother herself. The women were paid for their time and could also expect to receive gifts from men wishing to enjoy their company. Customarily, one fee was charged for a dinner party, for a round of drinks and for a meal, while an extra fee was charged if the revelries continued after the first candles burned themselves out. As can be imagined, in a cash-based economy fuelled by emotion and strong drink, the possibility of crime and violence was ever-present.
Sexually transmitted diseases were prevalent in Changan, with a version of gonorrhea known to the doctors of the time. However, syphilis was only brought to China by European travelers in the sixteenth century.
For more details, see Charles Benn’s China’s Golden Age: Everyday Life in the Tang Dynasty.