A lot of source material about courtesans in the Tang Dynasty is found in poetry of the time, and poetry is full of symbolism and euphemisms. Here are some euphemisms I’ve found while reading that can help you puzzle out what the flowery language is ACTUALLY talking about! I’ll include the associated characters whenever possible, and this list will update from time to time as I find more useful info.
My Chinese is terrible and all of these were taken from other sources/translations, so if I’ve gotten something wrong or if you know more terms or euphemisms, let me know in the comments!
ji 妓, chang 娼, chi – “For the purposes of this article, I will generally use the terms “entertainer” or “courtesan,” but these English terms are at best crude approximations; I shall argue that they do not capture important distinctions implied by the words ji and chang up to and through most of the Tang.” (Taken verbatim from Bossler, B., “Vocabularies of Pleasure”), sometimes also translated as “prostitute” or “whore”. Edward Schafer suggested that the term ji implied greater gentility than chang, but he did not explore the origins of the distinction; see his “Notes on T’ang Geisha,” Schafer Sinological Papers (1984), nos. 2, 4, 6, 7 (Library of University of California, Berkeley), no. 2, p. 4.
chia-ji/jia-ji – “household” courtesans/entertainers, privately owned, acquired either by being purchased or gifted
ming-ji 名妓- brothel courtesans/entertainers, usually owned by courtesans-turned madams
guan-ji 官妓- official courtesans/entertainers, owned by the government and assigned to civil officials
ying-ji 營妓- military courtesans/entertainers, owned by the government; note that these were not of lower class than the other types of courtesans–they served the military officials rather than being “camp follower”-type prostitutes
kung-ji – palace courtesans/entertainers, owned by the government
Note: Wang Shu-hu notes 23 different terms that refer to courtesans and prostitutes, so there are many more that I don’t have listed, see Wang, Chung-ku ch’ang-chi shih. (I have not actually read this article yet, as I don’t read Chinese, but I’m hunting down a copy and will see if I can get it translated.)
jiaofang – Entertainment Bureau, where entertainers/courtesans registered with the government
demimonde – a common romanticized term for female entertainers
changlou 倡 or 娼樓 – “entertainment pavilions” (brothels)
ji lou 妓樓 – courtesan/entertainment pavilion, see changlou
liyuan dizi 梨園弟子 – “Pear Garden disciples”, later a euphemism for courtesans and eventually a rude slur; the Pear Garden was the palace school for entertainers/courtesans
guanji 觀妓 – watching courtesans
tingji – listening to courtesans
tanxue – conversation and jokes
geling – singing lyrics and drinking games
changjia – a dashing and wealthy young man who frequented the houses of courtesans
yunji – a reserved and cultivated person
qie 妾 – concubine; these women were neither wives nor courtesans, but functioned like wives with fewer rights in a household, meant to bear the “husband” children and exclusively for him (as opposed to a house courtesan, who could be loaned out or gifted to others)
Long-legged horses – young girls, often used in context of them being sold as slaves
Silk socks (lo-wa) – a dancer’s feet
Se, meaning “color” or “beauty” – often insinuates sexuality
“Kingfisher pins” or “carmine sleeves” – imply beauties/beautiful women
Zhuanglou – either a woman’s boudoir or to a qinglou, a bordello/brothel
Genyi – euphemism for privy, also a person who works in the imperial wardrobe
Eastern mountain wanderings – poetic trope for dallying with courtesans
Spring boats, painted boats, flower boats – courtesan or prostitution boats, especially “notorious” in Yangchou
“State toppler” – a particularly beautiful woman, implies the dangers of beautiful women
“Fallen flower” – courtesan/prostitute
“Clouds and rain” – sex
Waiting for a flower to bloom – waiting for a girl to have her first menstruation and therefore be available for sex
Bossler, B. 2012. “Vocabularies of pleasure: Categorizing female entertainers in the late Tang Dynasty.” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 72.1 (2012): 71-99.
Yao, P. 2002. “The Status of Pleasure: Courtesan and Literati Connections in T’ang China”. Journal of Women’s History. v. 14, No. 2, pp. 26-53. https://muse.jhu.edu/article/17470/summary
Wang Shu-nu. 1933; reprint, 1988. Chung-kuo ch’ang-chi shih. (A history of prostitution in China). Shanghai: Shang-hai san-lien shu-tien.
Wangling Jinghua. 2009. “Singing Lips in Observation: Ninth-Century Chinese Poetry on Female Entertainers”. Ph.D. diss., Harvard University.
Schafer, E. 1984. “Notes on T’ang Geisha,” Schafer Sinological Papers. nos. 2, 4, 6, 7 (Library of University of California, Berkeley), no. 2, p. 4.