Sing-song girls

Sing-song girls (also known as flower girls) is an English term for the courtesans in China during the early 19th century.


Prior to the Xinhai Revolution in 1911, it was possible for a husband already married to find a concubine to have a son. By Chinese custom, only males carry on the last name. Some families only had daughters, and a second wife was needed to "prolong the family line".

The custom could be invoked without the wife's consent: the husband's actions were protected by law. Basically it was not considered adultery as long as it was for the purpose of perpetuating the last name. Essentially both wives would co-exist in the same family. A man might choose a courtesan to be his concubine. Many of these courtesans would sing songs to attract potential husbands, hoping to become secondary wives.


Many of the Westerners in China at the time saw these girls sing, but had no idea of what to call them since they were not classified as prostitutes. Thus the term "Sing-Song Girls" came about.

There is another version of the source of the term. According to the 1892 fictional masterpiece by Han Bangqing called Sing-song girls of Shanghai, also known as Flowers of Shanghai, people in Shanghai called the girls who performed in sing-song houses as "xi sang" (Chinese: 喜丧) in Wu language. It was pronounced like "sing-song" and the girls always sang to entertain the customers, thus the Westerners called them Sing-Song girls. The word xi sang in this case is a polite term used to refer to an entertainer.

The life of Sing-song girls

Sing-song girls were trained from childhood to entertain wealthy male clients through companionship, singing and dancing in special sing-song houses. They may or may not provide sexual services, but many did. They generally saw themselves as lovers and not prostitutes. Sing-song girls did not have distinctive costumes or make-up. Often they wore Shanghai cheongsam as upper-class Chinese women did. Sing-song girls had one or several male sponsors who may or may not be married, and relied on these sponsors to pay off family or personal debts. Sometimes, even to sustain their high standard of living. Many sing-song girls ended up marrying their sponsors to start a free life.

Historical use of the term

  • The concept has been around for 2000 years as recorded by emperors of the Han Dynasty who needed to provide female entertainment for troop amusement. In ancient China, many different terms given to these female entertainers, such as "gē jì" (Chinese:歌妓, literally "singing female entertainer" or "singing courtesan"), "gē jī" (Chinese:歌姬, literally "singing beauty"), "ōu zhě" (Chinese:謳者, literally "singing person"), etc.
  • The English term came from 1911 (see Origin).
  • During the 1930s, Li Jinhui started the Chinese popular music industry with a number of musical troupes. The groups were mostly girls performing and singing. The term Sing-Song-Girls stuck with the singers, since the Communist Party of China associated pop music as Yellow Music or pornography in the 1940s.


  • Sing-song girls are popularized in the 1892 fictional masterpiece by Han Bangqing called Sing-song girls of Shanghai (also known as Flowers of Shanghai).
  • Sing-song girls play a minor role in Isabel Allende's Daughter of Fortune (Hija de la fortuna). Tao Chi'en dedicates his work to attempting to heal sick girls (although most of them end up dying), because it is when they are sick that he can sneak them out of the house under the pretext of doing "experiements". Of the ones that end up surviving, he tries to help them to improve their lives and not be prostitutes any longer.


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