Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Legend of the Beijing Courtesan! A rags to riches to rags story!

Sai Jinhua

Sai Jinhua was born from humble beginnings. At the age of twelve, she was forced into prostitution, one of the few options open to an orphan. Her brothel was a pleasure boat where Jinhua serviced wealthy clients who lived nearby. 

One of her clients was Hong Jun, a very wealthy government official. The age difference between them was more than thirty years. In his capacity as an ambassador, he took her with him to Europe, a rare opportunity because Chinese women did not travel.

Sai Jinhua made the most of her time there - learning German, studying fashion, and making a splash among society's elite because of her uniqueness, dress, and tiny feet that had been painfully bound since childhood. After three years, they returned home to China, but Hong soon died. Disgusted by her role as a prostitute, Hong's family cast her out of the family penniless.

Alone and homeless, what was a girl to do? She returned to the only work that was familiar to her - prostitution. This time, she started up her own brothel in Beijing. Because of her connection with Hong, her notariety brought the curious, and as Madam, she enjoyed watching her business blossom. 

The year was 1900 and the political climate was soon to explode. A group of rebels trained in Kung Fu were bent on ousting all foreign influence from their beloved China. At random, they began killing foreigners. And they were popular, even getting the nod from the empress herself. The movement grew and became more powerful, until finally a coalition of allies under the command of a German General named Von Waldersee, put a stop to their rebellion by marching into China and seizing control of the country.
The Empress and her court fled Beijing. Those who failed to escape or were captured faced execution. Jinhua, who could speak German, was suddenly very important. Rumor has it that not only did she help bridge the communication gap between army officers and the Chinese, but she also saved many political prisoners from being beheaded. As her reputation for saving people grew, so did her brothel business. Rumors abounded and so did some of the legends surrounding her. Some called her an angel, others called her the General's whore. No one will ever know for certain for she kept much to herself. But bad luck had a way of finding Sai Jinhua. She was conficted of beating one of her prostitues who worked for her. Her sentence was banishment. She travelled to Shanghai where she remarried twice. Each time, her husbands died, and each time, their family's cast her out without a penny. 

Under an assumed name, Sai Jinhua moved to Tianqiao, a city outside Beijing. She was middle-aged and used an assumed name to avoid attention. Nearly destitute, she was forced to seek support. Somehow, a journalist discovered who she truly was and published a story about her. Suddenly, everyone was interested, for they had never forgotten all the lives she had saved. People sent gifts and money, and became the subject of books, plays, songs, and poems.

In 1936 Sai Jinhua died. Controversy continued to plague her - is she national hero or liar? Despite all the rumors and the turbulent notariety, Sai Jinhua is remembered as a strong woman who faced adversity and had the courage to do what was right, even to the risk of punishment. 

Sai Jinhua's life has been poignantly portrayed in a novel by Alexandra Curry entitled The Courtesan. 

Opening Sentences: It is the hour of the Snake, a time of day when the sun works hard to warm the earth. The black cockerel with the all-knowing eye struts, haunting the execution ground as he always does, and Lao Guzi is wondering what he always wonders: Is the man guilty?

Synopsis: A timeless novel of one woman who bridged two worlds in a tumultuous era of East meets West. The Courtesan is an astonishing tale inspired by the real life of a woman who lived and loved in the extraordinary twilight decades of the Qing dynasty. To this day, Sai Jinhua is a legend in her native land of China, and this is her story, told the way it might have been. The year is 1881. Seven-year-old Jinhua is left an orphan, alone and unprotected after her mandarin father’s summary execution for the crime of speaking the truth. For seven silver coins, she is sold to a brothel-keeper and subjected to the worst of human nature. Will the private ritual that is her father’s legacy and the wise friendship of the crippled brothel maid be enough to sustain her? When an elegant but troubled scholar takes Jinhua as his concubine, she enters the close world of his jealous first wife. Yet it is Jinhua who accompanies him--as Emissary to the foreign devil nations of Prussia, Austro-Hungary, and Russia--on an exotic journey to Vienna. As he struggles to play his part in China's early, blundering diplomatic engagement with the western world, Jinhua’s eyes and heart are opened to the irresistible possibilities of a place that is mesmerizing and strange, where she will struggle against the constraints of tradition and her husband’s authority and seek to find “Great Love.” Sai Jinhua is an altered woman when she returns to a changed and changing China, where a dangerous clash of cultures pits East against West. The moment arrives when Jinhua’s western sympathies will threaten not only her own survival, but the survival of those who are most dear to her. A book that shines a small light on the large history of China’s relationship with the West, The Courtesan is a novel that distills, with the economy of a poem, a woman’s journey of untold miles to discern what is real and abiding. 

Review by Mirella Patzer -
The exotic setting of old China has always fascinated me. This novel is set in the Qing Dynasty of the 1880's and opens with the execution of 7 year old Sai Jinhua's father. Her mother was a concubine who died in childbirth. Her father remarried, but he has been executed for political reasons. Unwanted, Jinhua's stepmother sells her to a brothel where she will live until she is old enough to begin work as a prostitute. The life there is very harsh and Sai Jinhau is subjected to having her feet bound. At twelve, Sai Jinhua loses her innocence and joins the other prostitues in their work. The novel follows her life and her rise when she is sold to Hong, a Chinese Diplomat who is beguiled by her resemblance to his first wife who committed suicide.  Together, they travel to Vienna where Jinhua is a novelty. There, she experiences freedom and knowledge and gains self-confidence. But Hong dislikes her newfound strength and empowermentis and more and more he keeps her locked away from society.  

Nicely researched, I thought the complexities of the Qing Dynasty were aptly described. The early life of this poor orphan who faced such horrendous circumstances was fascinating. I found the first half of the book unputdownable, and the pace slowed a bit thereafter, and I became a bit detached from the story. Some of the magic was lost, but the story still held my interest enough to get to the ending. A nice novel that swept me into a time and a world of long ago. A fascinating woman of history indeed!

Thank you to the author and publisher. I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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