A friend of a friend was celebrating her birthday at a swanky club in Wan Chai, the interior of which affected a louche and decadent ambiance accented by qipao-wearing and fan-waving female employees writhing about like so many lewd reptiles.

In one corner of this pretend den of iniquity stood a large cage within which a pole was erected. In between performances by paid dancers, club patrons were allowed to enter the cage to perform barbed wires, half choppers and other pole-dancing moves. And many did. Apart from the question of hygiene, given that some of them weren’t wearing much, foremost on my mind was figuring out how practitioners of this edifying art form could seemingly defy gravity with nary a grip on the slippery pole.

In pictures: pole dancing for the gods in Taiwan

Zhao Feiyan (45-1BC) was a professional dancer who became empress of the Western Han dynasty’s Emperor Cheng. A bewitching beauty, Zhao was supposedly so slender and light that she was able to dance on the palm of a lifted hand.

Pole position: Meet the 69-year-old Chinese grandma who loves to pole dance

When Cheng died, in 7BC, she was made dowager empress and placed her male relatives in important positions in government. The new emperor, Ai, a minor prince who ascended the throne because his grandmother had bribed Zhao, reigned for a few short years and died in 1BC.

Pole dancing middle-aged woman puts on show on public bus in China

Afterwards, with the court now controlled by her rivals, Zhao lost her grip on the “slippery pole”. Stripped of her royal titles, she took her own life.