“Tales of Ming Courtesans” by Alice Poon

Tales of Ming Courtesans, Alice Poon (Earnshaw, June 2020) Tales of Ming Courtesans, Alice Poon (Earnshaw, June 2020)

The Ming Dynasty ended in a slow-motion train wreck that inspired poetry, opera and wistful memoirs. It also provided a platform for remarkable women entertainers, the mingzi, to shine and even outshine their male contemporaries, politicians, literati and courtiers. Later observers admired the “manly” virtues of three heroines, Chen Yuanyuan, Liu Rushi and Fragrant Princess Li, their loyalty, their incorruptibility and their refinement, as well as their incomparable beauty and musical talent. All three met tragic ends in the collapse of the dynasty, but continue to live in literature, opera and cinema.

Alice Poon offers us a modern retelling of their intertwined lives. Tales of Ming Courtesans has two objectives: to bring these three women to life in a way that seems credible and relevant to this generation, and to describe enough of the culture of mid-17th-century China to help us appreciate what has been lost. It is a tightrope act, which, aside from a few stumbles, Poon negotiates from end to end without falling off while providing an entertaining and thought-provoking read.

Poon’s sketches her characters broadly in line with their historical and literary models. Liu Rushi is a passionate rebel, Chen Yuanyuan is more passive, while Fragrant Princess Li is reserved but determined. In Poon’s telling the three women come together at a house of entertainment and pledge sisterhood to one another, via an exchange of tokens, in this case, embroidered handkerchiefs. Then through thick and thin, with lovers pursuing them or pursued, kidnapped by villains or humiliated by arrogant patrons, the women try to help one another with moral support, timely loans of money and other expediencies. They live in a Dickensian world where life goes swimmingly one day and one falls into an abyss the next day.

The three women all suffer from having been sold, as children, into houses of entertainment registered as jianmin, the outcast social category in Ming China, and weighed down with a bond debt that only the most successful entertainers could redeem. Poon’s book naturally dwells on this unfair condition, but from a point of view that seems provocatively contemporary, not necessarily reflective of the attitudes of Ming China.

 

How to situate the jianmin?  Loutish patrons in this book abuse the heroines as prostitutes, and indeed that is what the official categorization implied. Poon emphasizes, correctly, that accomplished female entertainers sought to avoid at all costs a venal reputation. But Poon comes across as too simplistic when she writes that Madame Li “operates a profitable opera and music salon and is the only salon owner in Qinhuai whose girls are not forced to serve patrons in bed.”

On the other hand, Poon shows greater sensitivity about the complex institution of pre-20th Chinese marriage. Not only did wealthy families practice polygamy, they also made distinctions between wives and concubines. The fate of the mingji entering a great household could span the gamut. Literati Mao Xiang’s principal wife treated Xiao Wang with great tact. Chen Yuanyuan, on the other hand, is humiliated by the wives of Wu Sangui.

With #metoo the 21st century needs to make an effort to understand how the mingji saw themselves or how they appeared to others. The Ming literati believed deeply in the power of beauty and passion, but they had less to say about women’s rights, or indeed human rights. How much freedom did anyone enjoy in 17th-century China with its strict societal norms? Even the wealthy playboys in Poon’s novels married brides chosen by their parents. Poon’s heroines, unlike most of the other characters, pursue sentimental fulfilment. Is this a valid interpretation of the lives of the great mingji?

 

Show business is, generally speaking, no business for sentimental people.  A famous anecdote involving the Anglo-Canadian press magnate Lord Beaverbrook and an American starlet goes like this:

 

LB: Madam, would you sleep with me for one million dollars?
Actress: My goodness. Well, I’d certainly think about it.
LB: Would you sleep with me for five dollars?
Actress: Certainly not! What kind of woman do you think I am?
LB: Madam, we’ve already established that. Now we are haggling about the price.

 

In fact, the tell-all memoirs of Louise Brooks’s life in Hollywood describes Beaverbrook shepherding a young starlet into a hotel. “A few days later she told me she had a contract at MGM,” wrote Brooks.

Money and the support of a powerful man could offer a woman security, freedom, and entry into any salon in Hollywood or Hangzhou. It offered what many marriages could not provide to an ambitious and talented woman. American screen actresses and Ming mingji alike were prepared to trade their favors to promote their careers. This was a world away from ordinary prostitution, where the women were effectively enslaved and doomed to a very short shelf-life. This was the reality of the great women entertainers of the Ming era, a reality that Alice Poon touches on with very long kuaizi (chopsticks).

Portraying her characters as cynical would have deprived them of interest for many readers; so Poon’s modern rendering of the three mingjii is understandable. This sacrifice of historical realism is offset by Poon’s extensive recreation of the material life of the mingji. Their clothes, their jewelry, how they cruised in their bright painted boats on the West Lake of Hangzhou or celebrated the lantern festival under the canopy of candles swathed in silk, are all vividly evoked. Poon’s description of what the women cook for one another brings saliva to one’s lips.

The three women’s story is engrossing and needs to be told. Some readers look to the recently published memoirs of Mao Xiang (who appears in this book) and Yu Huai for first-hand, non-fictionalized accounts of this period, but memoirs do not always make reliable history. Who knows? Maybe the Ming era mingji did talk and think as Poon portrays them, in which case, Tales of the Ming Courtesans might indeed tell us what really happened.


David Chaffetz is the author of Three Asian Divas: Women, Art and Culture in Shiraz, Delhi and Yangzhou (Abbreviated Press, November 2019). He is working on a new book about the horse in Asian history.