Wild Goose Pass
The Emperor and the Courtesan 徽宗和李師師

The Emperor and the Courtesan 徽宗和李師師

Yang Jian said: “If Your Majesty wants to leave the palace and have some fun, this is easy to do.” What was Yang Jian’s plan? He continued: “If Your Majesty announces his presence, the streets will clear and everyone will speak of it. The people will welcome you with reverence, but you will have no freedom. But if you change your clothes and dress like a scholar, you can leave through the back gate; in this way you can visit the city, see the sights in secret, and indulge yourself to your heart’s content!”

When Huizong heard these words he was overjoyed and immediately went to change. He took off his dragon robes and put on a black gown, a purple Daoist robe fastened with a red-tasseled belt, a black scholar’s cap, and raven-colored boots.

Then, together with Yang Jian and Gao Qiu, the commander of the Palace Guard, he snuck out of the palace through the rear entrance, leaving one half of an engraved tally with the guard Guo Jian at the gate; when he returned, he merely needed to give the guard the matching half and he could reenter the palace.

From the palace they took the main road into the city. They soon found themselves surrounded by wondrous sights: music venues and dance halls, winehouses and brothels, each more extraordinary than the last. Taken together, they resembled a field of flowers embroidered on silk brocade.

When evening fell, the companions found themselves on Gold Ring Alley, which was particularly renowned for its pleasures. Behind the extravagantly carved doors on this street were the most famous courtesans in the capital. The peals of their laughter carried out through the open windows; the sounds of joyful flute melodies danced over the walls to reach the emperor’s ears. From the street, the Son of Heaven saw girls whose blushing cheeks were like peaches and apricots; their silk shawls trailed low, revealing bare shoulders and powdered white skin. When Huizong saw these girls, he was secretly delighted.

As he continued walking down the lane, he came to a residence with white walls and a crimson gate, adorned with brass rings and the snarling faces of lions. The upturned eaves were topped with mandarin duck tiles, reflecting the green leaves of the towering locust trees. Just inside the front gate were enchanting groves of slender bamboo, swaying gracefully in the breeze and beckoning the companions inside.

The Son of Heaven gazed at this place and sighed in admiration. Then he asked Yang Jian and Gao Qiu, “Whose house is this? It’s so distinctive!” No sooner had he finished speaking these words then he heard someone cough nearby.

He looked in the direction of the sound, and at that moment a green blind was raised, an embroidered curtain was parted, and a mysterious girl appeared as if stepping straight out of a dream. Her hair was styled like midnight clouds, above which flew golden phoenix hairpins. When she glanced at Huizong, he saw her eyes were like crashing autumn waves beneath brows that were as dark as a thunderstorm in the spring mountains. Her waist was as slender as a willow and her skin glistened white. Her fingers were as delicate as the first shoots of spring; her bound feet were like an archer’s bow, as exquisite and firm as golden lotuses.

Who was this girl? None other than the unattainable dream of every poet and philanderer in the country, the most sought-after courtesan in the realm. Her name was Li Shishi, and all she cared about was one thing: separating a fool from his money. She was so clever she could grasp the mist in one hand and the clouds in the other. The sons of rich families who chased after her squandered their fortunes in a single night, and woe to the country boy who crossed her path, for his only fate was an early grave. Any man who succumbed to her charms would eventually finish by begging in the streets.

Even Sakyamuni himself would have been so enraptured by Li Shishi’s beauty that he would have fallen off his lotus seat. And if this was so, then you can imagine: what chance did our crazed fool of an emperor have?