Among all European countries, Russia’s relations with China are unique in that the two countries—empires for most of their relevant histories—shared a border. Trade between the two was, on the whole, carried out by caravan rather than ship; there were border garrisons a stone’s throw from each other. People and information transited the border along with goods.

A lucrative international black market exists for nearly every plant and animal imaginable. Donkeys are stolen and slaughtered in Africa for the gelatin found in their hides, which is sought after in China. Otters are captured in Indonesia and Thailand and trafficked to Japan to supply the latest pet craze. Succulent plants are stolen from protected areas in South Africa, the American West, and Peru to be smuggled to collectors around the world. Even insects are the occasional victims of massive heists.

In the summer of 1924, Soviet playwright Sergei Tretyakov took up a one-year appointment as Professor of Russian at the University of Beijing. He returned with material that resulted in the 1926 play Roar, China!, based upon a historical incident in Wanhsien in which an American businessman drowned after an argument with a local boatman. The captain of the British gunboat Cockchafer, which happened to be in the area, demanded that when the ferryman could not be found and executed, two other men be executed instead or he would bombard the town.

In this extended essay, David Chaffetz, a scholar of Persian and related literary traditions who has lived for years in China and Southeast Asia, zeroes in on erasures in the history of these traditions: the brilliant and highly trained women virtuosos—poets, singers, and dancers—who cut a swath through the opulent courts of Iran, India, and China.