Monday, February 17, 2020

Brief History of the Chinese Courtesan Culture

Spring and Autumn Period –

The origin of the Chinese courtesan culture can be traced as far back as the Spring and Autumn period (771 – 476 BC). In those ancient times, it was customary for kings and aristocrats to own slave consorts whose function was to perform music and dance at court functions and to serve their masters in bed. Many of these slave consorts and other street prostitutes were female relatives of defeated war enemies.
Guan Zhong, a chancellor of the State of Qi, saw fit to set up 700 brothels in a designated area so as to apply some administrative control. It was in fact a ploy to extract levies on the prostitution business to finance the army. Also, administrators could summon these prostitutes to entertain visiting state dignitaries. This was the earliest form of official prostitution.

Han Dynasty –

During the Han Dynasty and Three Kingdom period, imperial rulers kept harems of consorts while court officials owned and trained slave courtesans in music and dancing in their homes.
In times of battles, wives and daughters of slain or captured enemies were routinely forced into sex slavery. It was Emperor Wu of Western Han (206 BC – 9 AD) who established a centralized system of “barracks courtesans” to serve soldiers of all ranks in military camps. When battles ended, these barracks courtesans were normally sold to brothels or given to soldiers’ households to serve as maids.

Tang Dynasty –

It was not until the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907) that the courtesan culture became institutionalized and more visible in society.
Throughout the Tang and subsequent dynasties, the Ministry of Rites was responsible for running separate music and dance schools to train courtesans. Talented performers were selected to become court entertainers in the inner court of Imperial Palaces. Novices could be bought from slave traffickers.
Social code grouped all courtesans, musicians, actors, actresses and prostitutes in what was called the jianmin caste 賤民 (meaning worthless people), which was hereditary. Marriage to commoners was strictly forbidden.
Emperor Xuanzong (712 – 755), a zealous music lover, personally set up the Pear Garden 梨園 (the imperial music academy) and hand-picked hundreds of top-rated musicians from the music school, training them to be elite court entertainers. The prettiest girls from both the music and dance schools would usually end up being picked out to serve as imperial consorts in the Emperor’s harem.
This kind of music and dance training then became trendy in society. Theatre apprentices, novice music players and dancers as well as prostitutes were all eager to get enrolled and trained at the prestigious court-run music and dance schools, which offered them possible path to a vocation either as court entertainers or high-class courtesans.
As courtesans became more cultivated in the arts, romantic liaison between cultured courtesans and scholars began to flourish and, very often, poetry writing acted as a conduit. Poetry was an important part of Tang culture and officialdom, as it was used as a yardstick in civil service examination to select scholars as state officials. By extension, poetry skills also began to define cultured courtesans.
Two of the most renowned courtesan-poets of the Tang Dynasty were Xue Tao (770 – 832) and Yu Xuanji (840 – 868).

Song and Yuan Dynasties –

In the Song (960 – 1279) and Yuan (1271 – 1368) Dynasties, the registration and regulation of courtesans and entertainers remained in the hands of the court-run music and dance schools, whose recruits could include girls sold by impoverished families to slave traffickers. Those who were designated as “government courtesans” were mostly enslaved female relatives of criminals and political prisoners, and were on call to entertain ministry officials at public functions or in their homes.
In general, social attitude towards courtesans was negative because of rigid class distinction. With the rise of orthodox Neo-Confucianism in the Northern Song Dynasty, scholar-officials’ association with courtesans was considered immoral and generally frowned upon by society. Granted, it was common for scholar-officials and wealthy merchants to purchase and keep trained courtesans for sex and private entertainment.
The most famous Song courtesan-poet was Li Shishi (1062 – 1127), who had a secret passionate love affair with Song Emperor Huizong (1082 – 1135).

Ming Dynasty –

When Zhu Yuanzhang (1328 – 1398) began his reign as the first Ming Emperor, he made Jinling 金陵 (present-day Nanjing) his capital. During his rule, he established an entertainers’ compound along the banks of the Qinhuai River 秦淮河 for the purpose of hosting public functions, to which courtesans were routinely summoned to perform music and dance. This led to brothels congregating in the area throughout the Ming Dynasty, and Qinhuai achieved renown as the Jinling pleasure hub, while nearby Yangzhou became known for its supply of “thin horses” (i.e. girl slaves trained for sale).
However, the Great Ming Code decreed that it was a crime for scholar-officials to sleep with courtesans, and offenders would be slapped with a punishment only one degree below the death penalty. But in real life, it was not uncommon for scholar-officials to flout this law.
Historians have suggested that it was definitely in the late-Ming period that cultivated courtesans came to be highly extolled, as romantic association between the literati and cultivated courtesans normalized. Poetry writing and appreciation often acted as a conduit in these romantic liaisons, and many courtesans were well versed in the craft of poetry writing, calligraphy and painting. In fact, many courtesan-poets/artists married into gentry families, becoming wives and concubines of prominent scholar officials. This phenomenon was considered unique to the late-Ming era.
In Sufeng Xu’s 2007 dissertation entitled Lotus Flowers Rising from the Dark Mud: Late Ming Courtesans and Their Poetry, the McGill University scholar argues that the phenomenon owed much to the rise of literary-political societies throughout the region of Jiangnan (South of the Yangtze) during the troubled times of the Ming-Qing transition.
Elite and non-conformist scholars of these societies would meet regularly and freely discuss poetry and politics. Through promoting and anthologizing poetry writings by cultivated courtesans, and through romantic involvement with them, these scholars were in fact championing a counterculture, which could be seen as open resistance to the austere Neo-Confucianism teachings. It was also a kind of protest against the officialdom examination system that valued solely the art of prose (called “eight-legged essays” 八股文), a relatively insipid form of literature compared to Tang and Song poetry.
Thus, it was this conscious effort on the part of the free-minded, poetry-loving literati that helped to exalt the courtesan culture in the late-Ming period.
The most celebrated late-Ming courtesan-poet was Liu Rushi (1618 - 1664), who was known for her independent spirit and free thinking.

Qing Dynasty –

However, ascetic classism again came to the fore during the Qing Manchu rule to denigrate courtesans’ literary writings and suppress the semi-liberated courtesan culture.
It wasn’t until the reign of the Qing Yongzhen Emperor that courtesans, entertainers and prostitutes were finally freed from the jianmin stigma and from then on ranked as commoners.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

History Tidbits of the Pipa 琵琶

This is a brief introduction to the history of the Chinese classical plucked string instrument – the pipa 琵琶. In Tales of Ming Courtesans (coming soon!), two protagonists - peerless beauties Chen Yuanyuan 陳圓圓 and Li Xiangjun 李香君 - are both dazzling pipa players and kunqu singers in the glitzy Qinhuai pleasure district.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

History Tidbits of the Guqin 古琴

This is a brief introduction to the history of the Chinese classical plucked string instrument, the “guqin” 古琴. In my soon-to-be-published historical novel Tales of Ming Courtesans, one of the protagonists, famed courtesan Liu Rushi 柳如是, is a skillful guqin player, apart from being a brilliant poetess and painter. In one scene, she smashes her guqin, which is a gift from one client, in a blinding fit of fury.

Friday, January 3, 2020

"Xianxia" Web Drama Series - "The Untamed"

[Snippets with English subtitles (in closed captions)]

With Jin Yong's wuxia novels in translation (notably the initial three translated volumes of the Condor Heroes trilogy) gaining a world-wide audience, "wuxia novel" (武俠小說) seems on track to become a prominent subgenre under the historical fantasy umbrella. 

I recently learned that another related subgenre called "xianxia novel" (仙俠小說) has become a rising star among younger readers in Mainland China. Then by chance I stumbled on a web tv drama series titled "The Untamed" (陳情令) with 50 episodes. The drama series were adapted from a popular "xianxia" web novel series titled 魔道祖師. My own interpretation of "xianxia" is something like a Chinese martial arts (中式武俠) version of "Twilight Zone" (a hugely popular Western tv series with supernatural themes targeting a young adult audience), with a mix of martial arts heroes (武俠英雄) and immortal beings endowed with supernatural powers (仙俠) as main characters. An interesting subgenre!

I love the theme song of "The Untamed" and the choreography of xianxia-in-action (see below). There are other soundtracks that are just as beautiful. In the soundtrack "醉夢", the guqin (古琴) (a seven-string zither) represents Lan Wangji (藍忘機) and the flute (橫笛) represents Wei Wuxian (魏無羨) - perfect combination!

Book Review - "The Girl Who Wrote in Silk" by Kelli Estes

Before I read this novel, I had never heard of the discriminating Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 in the U.S., which was not repealed until 1943. I respect the author's honest attempt to bring an unsavory truth of Chinese-American history, through fiction, to the attention of a wider audience.

The story consists of a dual time-line: one that follows Mei Lin's tragic life in the 1800s on Orcas Island and the other one that traces Inara Erickson's present-day attempt to gradually unravel that tragedy. Although Mei Lin's story was the more compelling of the two, the tight weaving of the two universes nonetheless leaves the reader breathless. I'm giving the novel 4.4 stars. 


Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Book Review - 近代中國史綱(下) (A Short History of Modern China, Vol. 2)

I had read Vol. 1 about a year ago (review here).

Vol. 2 covers the period from the establishment of the Nationalist Party under Sun Yat-sen’s leadership in 1912, through the brief Yuan Shikai autocratic reign, then the Warlords Era, the Japanese invasion and occupation of China, right up to the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

Having gone through annihilating tumults of the 1800s that various foreign powers incited to gain control over Chinese territories and reap economic concessions, by 1912, China was already a very sick nation with deep internal wounds. European aggression showed brief signs of let-up with the outbreak of First World War, but Japan and Russia immediately jumped at the chance to encroach on Chinese territories and seize other privileges. After declaring war on Germany, Japan seized the moment to impose its so-called “Twenty-One Demands” (i.e. territorial and economic concessions) on China.

Yuan Shikai was never a believer in Sun Yat-sen’s Three Principles of the People (i.e. democracy) and was always looking for a chance to become the emperor, even at the cost of selling out to Japan. When his schemes were debunked, other factions rose against him. Thus began the Warlords Era which lasted until the establishment of the Communist Party in 1920 and beyond.

In 1919, at the Paris Peace Conference, the major Allied Powers approved the transfer of Germany’s concessions in Shandong Province to Japan instead of reverting them back to China, and this ignited the nationalist and anti-imperialist May Fourth student movement, which demanded the government to abstain from signing the Paris Treaty and to refute Japan’s Twenty-One Demands.

From 1925, the year Sun died from sickness, China became the battlefield between Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Party and Mao Tse-tung’s Communist Party and the remnant warlords. Chiang was repeatedly criticized for his dictatorial ways within his own Party, while Mao firmly believed that using armed force was the only solution to end his contest with Chiang.

In 1937, Japan, who had already seized and occupied Manchuria in 1932 and had tried to take over five northern Chinese provinces, started an all-out war with China (known as the Second Sino-Japanese War) in Shanghai and Nanjing, using some flimsy excuse. In December that year, Japanese soldiers subjected Nanjing to a brutal massacre and mass rape for six days. This bloody war lasted until Japan was defeated by the Allied Forces in 1945. Meanwhile, Russia was eyeing Outer Mongolia and Xinjiang, and sought to continue its influence on the Communist Party.

After this war, China was again plunged into civil war until the Communist Party finally won out in 1949 and set up the People’s Republic of China, forcing Chiang and his Nationalist Party to flee to Taiwan. Unfortunately, both Mao and Chiang imposed despotic rule and inflicted more sufferings on those under their rule.

These two Volumes of Modern China history are a result of painstaking research by the author, which was supported, apart from Chinese-language sources, by research materials found at the University of Hawaii East-West Centre, Harvard University East Asia Centre and Columbia University East Asian National Resource Center. But the author has also stated that the books are not an academician’s work and are meant for a general readership.

Both volumes chronicle a mind-boggling amount of historical account minutiae. They have helped me understand a lot better Modern China's history. I’m glad that I’ve read the books. This Volume warrants 4.5 stars.