Living in Dangerous Times: Liu Rushi and the Late Ming Epidemics

by Andrea Janku

When I was invited in April last year to give the keynote on which this essay is based at the annual meeting of the German Association of Chinese Studies, I thought that by November everything would be ‘back to normal’ and I was looking forward to the trip to Zurich. This proved to be a telling example of what Nükhet Varlık, the author of a recent book on the history of plague in the Ottoman empire (2015), described as the misleading popular imagination of pandemics as short-term cataclysmic events (2020). Now, one year on, coming to the end of another long-ish UK lockdown, we still do not know what lies ahead. It seems likely that the world will have to come to terms with a new disease regime – and a level of risk and uncertainty that we thought we had left behind, in other times and other places. 

One example is China’s Jiangnan region where the poet and painter Liu Rushi 柳如是 (1618-1664) spent what might have been the most challenging and creative period of her life as a roaming courtesan in the final decade of the Ming dynasty – right in the middle of a period that was haunted by what Helen Dunstan described as ‘the most widespread outbreaks [of epidemics] of late imperial times prior to the early nineteenth-century cholera’ (1975: 5). The multiple crises of the late Ming are a well-established theme in Chinese historiography. Recently it has become an important element in the re-conceptualisation of the global crisis of the seventeenth century being a time of  climate disaster (Parker 2013). Still, despite the prevalence of epidemic disease in this scenario, Helen Dunstan’s ‘preliminary survey’ of epidemics from the 1580s to the end of the dynasty in 1644 – based on her BA thesis – remains one of the few studies of this particular aspect of the crisis. At the peak of the crisis an outbreak in Suzhou in 1641 is said to have killed more than half of the population. A mortality rate of 80 to 90% has been reported for an epidemic in the same area in 1643. Dunstan is cautious when it comes to identifying the diseases. She mentions the possibility of plague, but finds no conclusive evidence. There were a number of other diseases circulating that almost certainly also played a role, in particular dysentery and the febrile diseases that usually accompanied famine (Leung 2008). More recently Cao Shuji, who looks at the history of disease from the perspective of historical demography, argued that the late Ming epidemics formed part of the second plague pandemic. Cao estimates that in this period ten million people died from two outbreaks of plague in North China (Cao 1997). The mortality for bubonic plague is estimated to be 30 to 70%, and it is above 90% for pneumonic plague. None of the other diseases is as lethal. His study does not, however, cover the Jiangnan region.

Yet, despite the well-established scale and fatality of these disasters, in most studies of this period of Chinese history the epidemics, famines and tsunamis are largely absent – Tim Brook’s Confusions of Pleasure being one of the notable exceptions (1998). One can read about the expansion of commerce, the flourishing of cultural life, elegant gardens and other forms of conspicuous consumption, literati travellers and the courtesan culture that is believed to have reached its peak because of those levels of wealth and consumption. If there was a crisis, it was political. Writings about it deal with Donglin and Fushe partisanship, the exploits of the eunuch Wei Zhongxian 魏忠賢 (1568-1627), and all the other problems the late Ming state had to deal with: the fiscal crisis, a crisis of morality, conflicts with rebel armies and the aggression of outside forces. The Manchus. Pirates. Other steppe peoples. The epidemics don’t figure. Tsunamis don’t figure. Epidemics and famines are seen as concomitant factors of the political catastrophe, not worth studying in their own right as something that had significant impact on the historical process. But was it possible that people travelled about freely, seemingly unimpressed by the epidemics that happened around them? I will leave the discussion of the epidemic for the printed version of this piece and focus on Liu Rushi here. How did she fare in the disease environment in the decade preceding the fall of the Ming in 1644?

Figure 1: Liu Rushi on her first visit to Qian Qianyi, eighteenth-century portrait by Yu Qiushi (1738-1823). Image shows ink portrait on paper, the figure is seated, facing to the right; the image is rendered in mostly dark pigments, with some colour added to the face. In the bottom left hand corner there is a red seal printed. Image from Wikipedia.

Liu Rushi’s movements

Liu Rushi famously spent much of her courtesan life travelling and sojourning. Dorothy Ko observed that ‘between 1631 and 1641 … she rarely lived in one place for longer than a year’ (1994: 279). She ran her own ‘flower boat’ in Songjiang, aged 15, cultivating her professional networks and personal relationships. She stayed with her male patrons and friends in various Jiangnan cities (Figure 2). She enacted her own version of the talented scholar-beautiful lady ideal during a summer of romantic love with the statecraft scholar Chen Zilong 陳子龍 (1608-1647) in Songjiang (Chang 1991), took part in the genteel gatherings at Hangzhou’s West Lake, and maintained connections to political circles and later loyalists related to the Revival Society (Fushe) in Jiading. She visited Suzhou and spent time in between in the brothel in Shengze where she had been brought up. Her final destination was the marriage to the scholar-official Qian Qianyi 錢謙益 (1582-1664). She visited him in the winter of 1640 in Yushan, famously in male attire (Figure 1 and 4). Within ten days he built a residence for her, and a couple of months later he married her with all the rites due to a wife as opposed to a concubine, ignoring the scandal and moral outrage this caused. This marriage in the summer of 1641 effectively ended her career as a courtesan, though, initially at least, not her travels, even though these took on a different – political – purpose, liaising with her loyalist friends and supporting her husband’s exploits.

Figure 2: The Jiangnan (Lower Yangzi) region. The image shows a simplified map of the Jiangnan region with major sites mentioned throughout the article indicated using yellow dots.

When I was reading these accounts I kept wondering how all of this could have happened in the middle of an epidemic that in some places left half of the population dead. Was it possible that the disasters of those years left no trace in the record of Liu’s life? I read through all the chronologies in the relevant local histories and found that it was indeed difficult to map her movements against the foil of the disaster records of the places she frequented. Only the worst outbreaks are documented. The Hangzhou gazetteer for example records a ‘great epidemic’ (dayi) for the summer of 1641, half a year after Liu had left the city. Jiaxing, where she went, has no record of an epidemic. The local history of Changshu, Qian’s home county, does not record any epidemics in those years either. Even though it belonged to Suzhou prefecture, where major disasters – droughts, locust plagues, and in 1641 and 1642 epidemics – are documented for every single year from 1635. Seen in this context, the epidemic seems to have been the culmination of a series of other crises, which might not have affected the scholar-official elite that much. So maybe illness was not an issue and Liu Rushi did indeed manage to avoid it? After all, she most likely travelled on her personal boat, moved in elite circles and might therefore not have been exposed to the worst risks. Was she then able to avoid the epidemics? Is it reasonable to assume that the disease was confined in that kind of way?

How was it possible that people travelled seemingly unimpressed by the epidemics that happened around them when we today are asked to stay put to help stop the spread of Covid-19? For one, the disease environment was a very different one. The possibility of getting ill, including fatally so, was and is always a fact of life, understood perhaps more keenly then than now.  Getting ill was an everyday event, and therefore not necessarily considered noteworthy in itself. If written about, illness is read as a literary trope rather than a life-threatening reality, as analysed by Grace Fong in her study of women’s poetry, writing about ‘ennobling illness’ and the construction of ‘an alternative space in women’s lives’ (2002: 46-47). Or it is mentioned as an excuse for not taking on an office – as Qian Qianyi did. This understanding of illness as an everyday event might also explain why Dorothy Ko, who does in fact notice Liu’s illness, mentions it only in passing. A nuisance that would go away sooner or later.  She recounts that in 1640, after her extended sojourn in Hangzhou, she ‘retreated to Jiaxing, her native place, to recuperate from some nagging illness’ (1994: 279). She does however not notice that this happened at a time when Hangzhou was on the verge of the most deadly epidemic in generations. Knowing this, a passing reference to Qian Qianyi calling her his ‘sick wife’ who was idle in the house but still worried about the country (1994: 281), takes on a somewhat different meaning. Still, that mysterious illness comes across as nothing more inhibitive than the illness Qian used as an excuse not to take on office under the Qing. Chen Yinke’s 陳寅恪 (1890-1969) account is more detailed, as one would expect, but not different in substance. 

According to Chen’s  three-volume biography of Hedongjun 河東君, as he refers to her by the name she had adopted around the time of her marriage, she became ill in Hangzhou in 1640, when she had parted from Xie Xiangsan 謝象三, a book collector from Ningbo. She went to Jiaxing to recuperate for about a month, then went back first to her brothel foster home in Shengze, where she hoped to meet Wang Ranming 汪然明 (1577-1655), her long-standing salt merchant friend and supporter from Huizhou. As  this was not an appropriate place for such an encounter, she hired a boat to the Weeping Rainbow Pavillion (垂虹亭) to wait for him, but Ranming did not honour the appointment. As she could not stay in Shengze for longer and was desperate to meet Ranming, she went to Hangzhou. Only to learn that Ranming was in Huizhou at that time. She went back to Songjiang, still suffering from that illness. When she heard that Ranming had come back to Hangzhou she wrote a letter asking him to come to see her. In the seventh month she received his response citing family issues as the reason why this was not possible. Instead he asked her to come to the West Lake in autumn to meet him. When Liu Rushi wrote the final letter she was already staying with Qian Qianyi. Chen concludes that these letters were written in the most painful period in her life, lonely and adrift, with lingering illness  (Chen 1980: 433-434).

Figure 3: Travelling on a small rowing boat, painting by Liu Rushi, from an album of her landscape paintings. This ink and paper image shows a rowing boat with three seated figures and one standing in the distance; in the foreground a tree, reeds and small arched bridge are shown. To the right the image bears a red seal print, above the scene are hand-written Chinese characters and another red seal. Freer Gallery of Art.

In Chen’s account, too, even though he recognises it as a significant juncture in Liu’s life, her illness remains isolated from the broader context of any epidemic, it almost seems more related to her emotional distress than to the physical ailment. It was something that happened to people all the time, a personal issue, not related to any externalities. This remains the mode of understanding even though the illness stayed on. Liu got ill again in 1641 when travelling with Qian. She again went to Jiaxing to recover, while Qian continued to Hangzhou to ‘watch the plum flowers’ (觀梅). It did not, however, prevent their marriage in the summer of the same year. Chen focuses on Liu’s emotional life and her relationships, of which the illness almost seems to be a symptom.

At this point I wondered if Liu maybe was tested enough not to be too impressed by the threat of illness?

An eternal refugee

There is a different way of telling her story. Liu Rushi might have been an exceptionally talented, self-reliant courtesan entrepreneur, but she also was an eternal refugee. While there is no information about her family background and early childhood, there is some plausibility to the account that she was born into a genteel family in Jiaxing that was struck by some kind of disaster when she was still little. This might have been made up to help her reputation. There is no way to know, but it would not be implausible. It is not entirely true that, as Ko states, ‘Chinese courtesans invariably hailed from humble families’ and that few married leading scholar-officials (Ko 1994: 253). A few of the most famous courtesans were in fact from scholar-official backgrounds. Among the famous ‘eight beauties of Qinhuai’ (秦淮八艷) for example, Bian Yujing’s  卞玉京 (ca 1623-1665) father is thought to have been an official who died early and left the family destitute, and Li Xiangjun 李香君 (1624–1654) was the daughter of a demoted official whose family was killed or sold into slavery. Maybe Liu was orphaned by the tsunami that struck the prefectures of Jiaxing, Hangzhou and Shaoxing in 1627 and left several ten-thousand people dead. She would have been ten sui (ie 8 or 9 years old) at the time (Jiaxing fuzhi, j.35). Or perhaps something else befell the family, in any case she was sold, maybe directly to the brothel in Shengze, where she found a foster mother in the courtesan Xu Fo 徐佛 and adopted the family name Yang. Then the Hanlin scholar Zhou Daodeng 周道登 (? – 1632) acquired her, aged 13, as a slave girl or maybe as a concubine. There, the literature tells us, she found some warmth and appreciation, and continued building her artistic and  literary skills. This lasted for a little while, until she was forced out by the other jealous women of the Zhou household and ended up in the brothel again. It is difficult or, rather, impossible to tell if the foundations of her excellent education had been laid in a genteel family home or in the Shengze brothel under Xu Fo’s tutelage.

Figure 4: Liu Shi (Rushi) as one of the Eight Beauties of Qinhuai in Qinhuai bayan tuyong (Ye Yanlan, 1892), also depicting her in male attire, on her visit to Qian Qianyi. This line drawing is rendered on a blue background. The figure is turend slightly to the right with her hands raised to the back of her neck. Collection of the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Whatever happened, Liu’s was a story of repeated loss. It was indeed the brothel that came closest to the notion of a family home in the long-term. She returned to it every now and then. Still, she had to redeem herself before she could run her own ‘flower boat’ and be her own master in the courtesan business in Songjiang around 1631, until she had to flee the place when local authorities banned ‘floating prostitutes’ (liuji 流妓) in 1633. Chen Zilong accommodated her for what seems to have been a happy summer of romantic poetry and likely more, but before long she was kicked out again, due to another jealous wife. She hoped to see him again during her sojourn at West Lake in 1639, but this might never have happened. She cultivated a close friendship with the salt merchant and art connoisseur Wang Ranming, who admired her, published her poetry and letters, and invited her to come to visit. Maybe she was hoping for more, she sent him many letters, but having him act as an intermediary when she sought refuge in marriage around 1640 was probably good enough. Brook notes that Huizhou merchants were notorious for using their wealth to buy sexual services (1998: 128). Around that time, she was in her early twenties, physically unwell, and possibly desperate to end the vulnerable life of an orphaned refugee and find a new permanent home. She paid Qian Qianyi that famous visit in male attire to court him, impressing him so much with her talent that he was happy to marry her. They travelled to Suzhou together in the winter of 1640-41, but then Qian returned to Changshu alone to celebrate the new year, leaving his sick wife behind. This pattern is repeated in 1642 when Qian set off for a tour to the Yellow Mountains. Liu accompanied him initially, but then stayed back, while Qian escaped the crowded urban centres during the peak of the outbreak. 

It is not surprising, as mentioned earlier, that given medical and hygienic conditions in the seventeenth century, illness was a constant presence, a fact of life. But did an outbreak of epidemic disease of the scale experienced during those years really not make a difference?

Living in dangerous times

Reading the letters Liu Rushi wrote to her friend Wang Ranming, I found that she did in fact write about her illness, in a way that makes it very clear that her ‘nagging illness’ was something rather more serious.

The fever continued, I wished to clear my chest, … who would have thought that by New Year’s day I was vomiting blood. I stayed quiet until today, with hot and cold shivers shaking my body several dozen times a day. The doctor said this was worse than before. He feared that I was close to death and would soon be mourned.

Letter 18 (Hedongjun chidu 河東君尺牘)

And in deep appreciation of Wang’s friendship, she thanked him for the calligraphy he had sent her, finding huge consolation in what she perceived as an expression of great intimacy, going beyond anything that could be expressed in words (Liu Rushi 2002).

Maybe it was because she was young and strong that she survived. So did her courtesan friend Wang Wei 王微 (1598 – ca 1647) who was also sick and housebound at West Lake (Ko 1994: 286). Dong Xiaowan 董小宛 (1624-1651), another courtesan colleague, whose mother had died in 1642 and was ‘quite ill‘ too, was less fortunate and died in 1651, aged 27. It took Liu a long time to recover and the experience left her changed. She went back to Jiaxing to rest. A month later she moved back to her brothel foster home in Shengze where she tried to find calm in Chan Buddhist practice. In the winter of the same year (1640) she went to visit Qian Qianyi, following Ranming’s advice, decided to end her career as a courtesan. She was lucky as she had the resources and connections that allowed her to ‘retire’ into the secure home of her scholar-official husband, 36 years her senior.

How does this fit with Liu’s overall life experience? How devastating was such an illness for a woman who lost her family early in life, was sold repeatedly, first as a servant-concubine to the Zhou household, then to the brothel in Shengze, where she found a new home and was trained to fend for herself in a world of men? She became part of their scholarly circles, as far as this was possible, but had to sell herself again to do so. She found safety in the home of Qian and ultimately solace in the spiritual realm. Qian, with whom she worked on literary projects, in turn commemorated her as the hero of Ming resistance as which we know her. Ultimately, however, she remained a prostitute, even though a famous one. Her life story was tweaked quite a bit for the biography that was included in the local history of Shengze. It appears in the final section of the chapter on women, in the category ‘famous prostitutes’ or, in a more neutral translation, ‘famous female entertainers’ (mingji 名妓). According to this account she had to receive the happy news of the passing of Qian’s wife first before the door of marriage could be opened for her, which contradicts the commonly told version according to which his wife was alive and thus part of the reason why Qian’s marriage with Liu was seen as scandalous. This is probably worth exploring more, but based on the evidence currently available to me it seems that the official history is engaged in quite a bit of whitewashing. Establishing respectability is the aim and this required the restoration of propriety, especially in the post-epidemic, austere social climate of the new Qing dynasty. According to this account it was only through Qian that she became famous. Through him, she became respectable, with him she had a daughter at the age of 31, whose marriage into a genteel household is an important part of Liu’s biography. That Liu sacrificed her life to follow her husband in death only consolidated her reputation further (Shenghu zhi, j.10: 42a-b). As Liu Rushi left almost no written documents from the time after her marriage – the couple’s library was destroyed in a fire –, there are only later accounts that tell of Qian’s efforts to ennoble her by telling the story of her bravery in resisting the Manchus and his own efforts to prevent her from committing suicide in protest against the conquest. In fact, however, the decisive turn in her life came with the epidemics that made life as a courtesan unviable. The subsequent political change only reinforced what was already on its way.

So far the second plague pandemic – of which the epidemics in the South might or might not have been a part – has not been noted as a major factor in China’s history. Timothy Brook makes this point in a recently published article on ‘comparative pandemics’ (2020). Nükhet Varlık has shown how limited and skewed our understanding of the plague pandemic is due to the failure to see it as a long-term and global phenomenon. We don’t know yet what outcomes we will get if the histories of epidemics and other environmental factors are taken seriously and we stop letting the established stories about political loyalties and silver flows dominate everything.  The emergence of private philanthropic institutions in the late Ming might appear in a new light, for example. And the change that came for the once flourishing courtesan culture after the Qing conquest might be about more than just the rise of Qing Neo-Confucian austerity.


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