This paper investigates perceptions of courtesans and the discourse on gentility from various perspectives, using both literary and non-literary sources. Analysis focuses on representations of the celebrated courtesan, poetess and painter Xue Susu (fl. 1575–1635) by writers of different backgrounds, gender and class, including contemporary and later literati, gentry wives, courtesans, and Xue Susu herself. In late Ming times women emerged on a larger scale than ever before as protagonists, readers, writers, and artists in the public eye and on the cultural scene. Courtesans gained prominence in elite circles and the arts, playing a formative role in shaping cultural ideals. Late imperial Chinese discourse embeds the image of the courtesan in the formation of new beauty ideals and negotiations of gender roles and power. Paradoxes abound, linking the courtesan with notions of chivalry, chastity and loyalism. The search for gentility involves not only the courtesan but also the social and cultural aspirations, dreams, and desires of those who write about her. Her quest epitomizes the literati’s attempts to reassert their status and identity.
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55th Annual Meeting of the Association for Asian Studies