The twilight of the Ming Dynasty in Southern China, with its elegant courtesans, poets and playwrights, pageants, drinking bouts and boat rides, bedazzled the generation which witnessed its fall in 1644. It inspired a literary legacy which has fascinated readers ever since. The Ming twilight in “Southland” is immortalized in Kong Shang-Ren’s (d. 1719) classic opera “The Peach Blossom Fan”. Kong interviewed many protagonists of the late Ming, including Yu Hai (d. 1693), whose memoirs are translated here by Harvard’s Wai-Yee Lee.
In view of this fascination, it is no surprise to see two translations of the period appear in 2019 and 2020. Professor Li’s Two Memoirs of Courtesans has been preceded by Jun Fang and Lifang He’s Romance of a Literatus and his Concubine. Both volumes contain Mao Xiang’s (d. 1693) reminiscences of his love affair with the famous beauty Dong Xiao-Wan, (影梅俺憶语). Lee’s volume goes on to include Yu Hai’s “Miscellaneous Records of the Plank Bridge” (板桥杂记).
Mao Xiang’s memoir is at the same time frank and off-putting. Dong Xiao-Wan was an exceptionally talented and sensitive artist, who eschewed bawdy drinking parties and flirtatious picnics for the quiet of her study. Although cultivated patrons admired them for their artistic talent, courtesans of the pleasure quarter were exposed to the unwanted attentions of rough and vulgar admirers. These men used blackmail or worse to coerce the women into relationships. After all, in the eyes of the law, they were technically prostitutes. To escape the latent violence of the pleasure quarters, many courtesans sought to become concubines of their distinguished patrons. So it was with Dong Xiao Wong, who fixed on Mao Xiang to be her lover and protector. Initially it was Mao who could not get a rendezvous with Dong, and when he did was entirely smitten by her. As Lee translates:
Her face was faintly aglow with the hint of early spring, and her eyes, still slightly intoxicated, wandered and lingered. Charming and beautiful, she was fair as white jade. She had a natural and artless grace, and was too languid to exchange a word with me.
After several encounters, Dong proposes to become Mao’s concubine. To the surprise of modern readers, Mao demurs. Initially his pretext is concern about his father’s security in this time of unrest. As she continues to pursue him, he objects he must prepare for state service examinations. He escapes from her a third time again returning to help his father. Impassive in face of rejection Dong Xiao-Wan follows Dong across war-torn Southland. The scholar, moved by the courtesan’s sincerity and bravery in exposing herself to danger, finally brings her into his household. The editors’ commentary in both books is required to understand Mao’s humiliating treatment of the beautiful and vulnerable Dong.
Palliating our harsh judgement of Mao is his loving description of their life together. Living in reclusion during the turbulence of the dynastic transition from the Ming to the Qing, the couple undertook to edit a huge anthology of Tang Dynasty poetry. Here Mao discovers that Dong Xian Wan is a gifted scholar and an indefatigable copyist and editor. She is frugal, works hard at household chores, and befriends Mao’s principle wife. Then, in an Eric Seagalesque turn of events, she sickens and dies at age 27, and Mao is left to regret the time he wasted putting off their union.
Professor Li’s volume continues with Yu Huai’s description of courtesan life in Plank Bridge, one of Nanjing’s most famous pleasure quarters. Yu Huai knew Mao Xiang and Dong Xiao-Wan. He retells their story, as well as other well-known scholar-courtesan romances like that of Hou Fang Ye with Fragrant Princess Li, the protagonists of “The Peach Blossom Fan”.
Yu Huai is a poet with an elegiac bent. His stories emphasise the willow-like beauty of the women, the fleeting happiness they enjoyed, the tragic fate that many suffered at the hands of warlords. He liberally quotes poetry, his own, those of other famous literati, and occasionally of the courtesans themselves. While Yu Huai’s writing does not have the psychological depth and immediacy of Ma Xiang’s confession, its many vignettes leave an unforgettable image of the grandeur and decadence of the courtesans of Southland.
The Fang/He translation of the Mao Xiang story has the advantage of offering the Chinese text (in traditional characters), while the Wai-Yi Lee volume’s inclusion of Yu Huai and her commentary including citations from other contemporary poets and memorialists further enriches our understanding of the period. Both books provide copious scholarly apparatus and notes. Lee, Fang and He ensure the romance of beautiful, doomed Southland continues to bedazzle the English-speaking audience.