This classic novel’s Chinese name means “romantic illusions,” but the academic publishers of this new translation probably hope to catch the eye of a wider public than mere scholars with their more sensational title. It was written by someone who called himself only The Fool of Yangzhou and is dated 1848. Its first known publication was in 1883, though for all anyone knows it may have been published previously in another, lost edition.
It’s about the brothels of Yangzhou, their residents and their patrons. It pre-dates two other remarkable East Asian novels on the same theme, Nagai Kafu’s Rivalry: A Geisha’s Tale [reviewed in Taipei Times March 2, 2008] and The Sing-song Girls of Shanghai by Han Banqing [reviewed in Taipei Times June 22, 2008].
The semi-anonymous author claims in a brief preface that he’d spent 30 years and all his money on the spurious pleasures of “false love and affection,” and that he hopes by writing this book he can warn others off such a sorry lifestyle. But this, of course, is a very familiar form of disclaimer, offering a self-righteous moral purpose for what is in reality a salacious story that is far more likely to attract newcomers to the pleasures it describes than to put them off them. Sermons, after all, don’t make much money, but Sex and the City-style narratives certainly do.
So, what does this literary trail-blazer have to offer? It’s about the loves and fortunes — often misfortunes too — of five married males who are all enthusiastic brothel-goers. Two things are clear about them, as Patrick Hanan, the book’s highly accomplished translator, explains. First, they are by no means unhappy in the experiences they encounter, so that the novel’s ostensible function as a warning to future customers is undermined from the very beginning. And second, the women they fall for are a long way from being only exploitative gold-diggers. They too have their feelings — their pride, their hopes and
As for the opium, it’s in no way seen as the harmfully addictive substance it’s nowadays routinely portrayed as in both official Western and Chinese thinking. The 19th-century brothels offered it to customers, in Hanan’s words, “almost as readily as they offered them tea.” Historian Frank Dikotter’s argument in Narcotic Culture [reviewed in Taipei Times Dec. 12, 2004] that opium consumption in China was a largely harmless occupation until its use became politicized is in no way challenged by this old novel.
Nevertheless, there is a chapter in Courtesans and Opium where the call girl Phoenix is urged to give up smoking opium if she can, and an “antidote” is described in detail that will help her shake off the habit. (Elsewhere in the novel there’s a detailed doctor’s prescription as well, for “cold and hot elements blocking each other.”) The possibility of opium addiction, in other words, isn’t entirely outside the scope of this author’s consciousness. But the reason why Phoenix is being urged to give it up is that the local prefect has announced a ban on the substance, along with prostitution itself. What’s most significant, however, is that everyone believes neither ban will last very long, and that they were probably put in place to increase government revenues (in the form of bribes) in the first place. And both bans are indeed soon relaxed.
This is the traditional Chinese world of drinking contests, elaborate meals, dragon boats, financial deals, sworn brotherhoods, sentences of exile, auspicious dates, marriage brokers, ancestor worship, tea-drinking, exorcisms, rice-growing and fireworks. It probably hasn’t changed that much in essence, though the opium has gone, being replaced by other substances. The massage girls are certainly back in business. And today Yangzhou itself, where Marco Polo once got a job, is an important tourist destination.
As for the sexual content of the book, it’s of course not as explicit as we’re used to today. Nevertheless, it’s arguable that the old games continue unaltered — fully justified accusations of infidelity answered by unbelievable vows of constancy, demands for money answered by protestations of insolvency — jealousy and avarice, in other words, mixed in with a hunger for compliments (and a knowledge by the men of what their compliments might be rewarded with), and a fundamental female need for love — if only the partner really could be trusted.
There are various formal elements in the novel. There’s a quaint summary introducing each chapter, a number of poems are introduced here and there, and every chapter ends by urging the reader to turn to the next one to find out what happens next, who’s arrived, or even what a couple did in bed (though this particular expectation isn’t in fact satisfied).
Patrick Hanan’s translation of this book is exemplary. It’s colloquial and up-to-date without being anywhere inappropriate — a difficult balancing act to achieve at the best of times.
If forced to choose between the three East Asian brothel novels mentioned here I’d probably opt for Nagai Kafu’s Rivalry, if only because the author’s sardonic presence is so all-pervasive and so fascinating. But Courtesans and Opium has many virtues — it’s nowhere dull, and probably surpasses the other two books in period detail. What is particularly significant, though, is that all three novels are published in English by Columbia University Press. The service Columbia is doing in making Chinese classics available
to the West in strong translations
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