Courtesans and Opium

Courtesans and Opium: Romantic Illusions of the Fool of Yangzhou

Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 344
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  • Book Info
    Courtesans and Opium
    Book Description:

    In his preface, the anonymous author of Courtesans and Opium describes his book as an act of penance for thirty years spent patronizing the brothels of Yangzhou. Written in the 1840s, his story is filled with vice and dark consequence, portraying the hazards of the city's seedy underbelly and warning others against the example of the Fool.

    Chinese literature's first true "city novel," Courtesans and Opium recounts the illustrious career of a debauched soul enveloped by enthralling pursuits and romantic illusions. While socially acceptable marriages were arranged and often loveless, brothels offered men accomplished courtesans who served as both enchanting companions and sensual lovers. These professional sirens dressed in the latest styles and dripped with gold, silver, and jewels. From an early age, they were taught to excel at various arts and graces, which transformed the brothel into a kind of club for men to meet, exchange gossip, and smoke opium at their leisure.

    The Fool's fable follows five sworn brothers and their respective relationships with Yangzhou courtesans, revealing in acute detail the lurid materialism of this dangerous world-its violence and corruption as well as its seductive but illusory promise. Never before translated into English, Courtesans and Opium offers a brilliant window into the decadence of nineteenth-century China.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-51983-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Introduction
    (pp. vii-xvi)

    In his preface, and again in his first chapter, the author of Fengyue meng (Romantic Illusions) describes his book as a kind of penitence for thirty years spent in the brothels of Yangzhou—he hopes that it will serve as a warning to others not to follow his example. But although Fengyue meng is indeed a cautionary novel, it is also much more than that.¹ It explores the raffish underside of life in a famous city, and it does so in masterly fashion, in a well-crafted work. It is the first “city novel” in Chinese literature, confining itself to the...

  3. Chapter One
    (pp. 1-10)

    In the Warring States period of the Eastern Zhou dynasty, Guan Zhong,² the prime minister of Qi, set up three hundred brothels for the ease and comfort of the traveling merchant. Although the brothels were designed to enrich the state and facilitate commerce, the pernicious custom spread throughout the land and has continued ever since, in recent times even reaching beyond our borders. In the city of Yangzhou, which has always favored lavish display, the brothel quarter is the equal of any other, even those of Suzhou, Hangzhou, and Nanjing. Untold numbers of men, entranced by the Yangzhou courtesans, have...

  4. Chapter Two
    (pp. 11-18)

    In Jiangdu county of Yangzhou prefecture there lived a man named Yuan You, style Youying. His grandfather, Yuan Zhang, had been a student at the prefectural school, while his father, Yuan Shou, had succeeded in the provincial examination, military division. Yuan You had enjoyed a pampered childhood. He never completed his academic studies and was too slight and feeble to take part in military training. Following precedent, his grandfather bought him a position at the ninth rank, secondary level. He was married to a Mistress Du, but so far they had no children.

    Yuan You was of a wily, deceitful...

  5. Chapter Three
    (pp. 19-26)

    After meeting Yuan You by chance in the Futura teahouse on the Parade, Lu Shu returned to his uncle’s house, where he had supper and chatted with his aunt until it was time for bed.

    Early the following morning he prepared visiting cards for Yuan You’s parents (“from your nephew”) and for Yuan You himself (“from your younger brother”) and put on a fashionable bright-red woolen hat with a high crown of tribute silk and a medium-blue lined crepe-silk robe tied with a silken sash that had a white-jade dragon-shaped catch. From the sash hung a foreign watch, a fan...

  6. Chapter Four
    (pp. 27-33)

    Accompanied by his page with the canvas case and the water-pipe bag, Wei Bi left the compound and went along First Lane,¹ then turned east and continued on through Little East Gate until he came to the Jinyuan noodle house on Progeny Street, where in the inner room he was welcomed by the waiters. He picked out a large table in the center, while his page took himself off to the front room and set the two bags on one of the tables there. In the inner room a waiter approached Wei Bi’s table, called out “Sir,” wiped the table...

  7. Chapter Five
    (pp. 34-48)

    Wei Bi invited his friends to the Jinyulou, where the house steward led them upstairs and someone showed them into a room on the west side, pulling back the door curtain and asking them to be seated. After a servant had offered them tea, a woman of twenty-two or -three with unbound feet came in. Her hair was drawn up in a fashionable chignon and fastened with a rhinoceros horn pin. Inserted at an angle was a silver ear-pick hairpin decorated with a soft-wing butterfly done in gilt and kingfisher feather. Above the butterfly’s wings rose two quivering silver antennae...

  8. Chapter Six
    (pp. 49-57)

    When Cloud heard Jia Ming offer to serve as matchmaker, she replied, “I appreciate the generous thought. It’s all one might hope for, and I couldn’t possibly refuse. There’s just one problem, though. Fragrance is still a virgin, and although she has lost her parents, her uncle expects to make a fortune out of her, which is why matters have dragged on until now. Since Master Lu has taken a liking to her, he should first cultivate her friendship and then talk things over with the uncle. After that, congratulations would be in order.”

    “Excellent!” said Jia Ming. He told...

  9. Chapter Seven
    (pp. 58-74)

    The guests were chatting in Cassia’s room when they heard talk and laughter and the sound of footsteps outside the door. Then the curtain opened, and in walked a prostitute dressed in boys’ clothing. It was Fragrance, and they invited her to join them. After greeting the guests and introducing herself to Cassia, Paria, and Wenlan, she took a seat beside Lu Shu. While the maid busied herself serving tea and replenishing the tobacco, the servant who had come with Fragrance brought in a water pipe with fittings of foreign-engraved silver and an ebony stem incised with decorative images. On...

  10. Chapter Eight
    (pp. 75-83)

    Hearing the uproar in the room opposite, Fragrance began to tremble with fear. As soon as Wu Zhen heard the men lighting their torches and leaving, he called Sanzi into the room. “Who were those people just now? And what were they quarreling about?”

    “I know only two of them,” said Sanzi. “One is You Deshou, commonly known as You Butou, who used to be in the local militia. The other is Yan Xiang, who was a pastry cook in a teahouse. Together with a few disreputable young low-class types, they came here for an introductory tea party, but once...

  11. Chapter Nine
    (pp. 84-92)

    Yu Jiafu and the two runners went up to Paria’s room in Qiang Da’s house, where Qiang joined them and thanked them for their help. He ordered tea and tobacco and arranged for an opium lamp to be lit so that Yu Jiafu could satisfy his habit.

    The moment Lucky heard of their arrival, she rushed in and greeted them. “I quarreled with them over those things of yours—jewelry, a silver dollar, and a note,” Yu Jiafu told her, “but no one would own up to having them. I’m afraid you’re just fated to lose out on this. One...

  12. Chapter Ten
    (pp. 93-102)

    Jia Ming and his brothers had been enjoying a banquet at Qiang Da’s house on Ninth Lane when they were disturbed by You Deshou and his followers. Before parting for the night, they had arranged to meet the following morning at the Futura teahouse on the Parade. Arriving at the teahouse one after the other, they ate their breakfast and then went to the Hill Garden bathhouse at the top of Ridge Street to take a bath and have their heads shaved. Then they went on to the Chaoyanglou restaurant for lunch, and afterward arranged to attend introductory tea parties...

  13. Chapter Eleven
    (pp. 103-111)

    Lu Shu escorted Fragrance back to the Jinyulou, where he took a seat in her room and bantered with her. She sent out for four plates of pastries and made a great fuss of him, biting open the melon seeds and handing him the kernels. As they frolicked about with much fondling and foot play, Lu Shu noticed that the bracelets she was wearing were made of silver. “Why aren’t you wearing gold bracelets?” he asked.

    “Don’t be silly! Do you really think that if I had a pair of gold bracelets I wouldn’t want to show them off?”


  14. Chapter Twelve
    (pp. 112-122)

    Because Jia Ming had several times given Phoenix money and bought her opium, and also had a quantity of clothing made for her, she felt particularly grateful. This was also the first time he had spent a night in the brothel, so she showed off all her secret bedroom techniques and tried to gratify him in every conceivable way. It was not until dawn that they fell into a sound sleep, still locked in each other’s arms.

    Wei Bi was the first up in the morning. He rushed over to Phoenix’s room, pushed open the door, tiptoed over to the...

  15. Chapter Thirteen
    (pp. 123-138)

    By the fourth of the month Lu Shu had completed all of the arrangements for the excursion Fragrance had asked for. On the morning of the fifth, he paid his respects to his uncle and aunt and, on the pretext that he had been invited to celebrate the festival at a friend’s house, hurried off to the Jinyulou, where Mother Xiao and the staff offered him compliments of the season. He then went upstairs to Fragrance’s room. She, too, offered him her compliments, and the maid served him tea and tobacco. Fragrance told the maid to unwrap a quantity of...

  16. Chapter Fourteen
    (pp. 139-146)

    A month or more slipped by as the love-struck Lu Shu continued to spend all of his time at the Jinyulou. One morning, following breakfast at the Futura teahouse, he accompanied his sworn brothers to a restaurant for lunch, after which he went on to the Jinyulou, only to find Fragrance lying on her bed fully dressed but with her hair still not done. She did not even get up to greet him when she saw him come in. “You still haven’t washed or done your hair?” he remarked in surprise.

    “I feel a little dizzy, my eyes are all...

  17. Chapter Fifteen
    (pp. 147-153)

    When Lu Shu reached the Futura teahouse, he found the brothers already there. He greeted them and joined them at their table, then poured himself a cup of tea. “Brothers,” he said, as he sipped his tea, “you’ve got to help me avenge myself. Last night someone insulted me.” When the others asked what had happened, he told them how Mo Ai, who had wanted to spend the night with Fragrance at the Jinyulou, had cursed him before Drummer Hua had eventually persuaded the man to leave. “I’ve been seething over it all night. I’m not familiar with your city,...

  18. Chapter Sixteen
    (pp. 154-164)

    Because of Fragrance’s desire to visit Mount Guanyin and fulfill her vow, Lu Shu sent Felix to ask the brothers to come and advise him on hiring a boat. “Brother Lu,” said Wu Zhen, “since you’re looking for excitement, you’ll need to hire a big boat for us and our ladies, and also a lantern boat, for which you should engage half of a ten-piece band to play and sing for us. Yes, indeed, the lake will be jammed with boats on the eighteenth, and we’ll need to do something special if we’re to have any fun.”

    Lu Shu was...

  19. Chapter Seventeen
    (pp. 165-173)

    Lu Shu returned to the Jinyulou with the three courtesans and, as love struck as ever, continued to spend his days and nights in revelry. On his first visit to the brothel, he had been attracted by the seductive looks of Maid Zhang, the woman with the unbound feet, and had wanted to start an affair with her. He had often engaged her in suggestive banter, but later, after taking Fragrance’s virginity, he had been prevented from acting on his desire by fear of the latter’s jealousy. Maid Zhang, for her part, was impressed by his youth and good looks...

  20. Chapter Eighteen
    (pp. 174-183)

    As love struck as ever, Lu Shu continued to spend all of his time at the Jinyulou. He was in bed one morning when he heard Maid Wang calling from outside the curtain: “Sir, wake up! Master Yuan has sent his steward over with a letter for you, and he’s waiting for an answer.” Startled awake, Lu Shu quickly put on his underwear and got out of bed. He saw that the red recipient’s slip on the envelope read, “For the perusal of Master Lu Wenhua.” Beside it, in small characters, were the words “Reply urgently requested,” and on the...

  21. Chapter Nineteen
    (pp. 184-191)

    Lu Shu was in Fragrance’s room, standing beside the dressing table and watching a maid comb Fragrance’s hair. He held a white copper tobacco container in his hand and was bending over to fill Fragrance’s pipe. When Felix arrived at the Jinyulou, he went upstairs and stood in the doorway of the room before pulling aside the door curtain. The sight of his page at the door gave Lu Shu an uneasy feeling, and he flushed. “What is it?” he asked.

    “Sir, your aunt would like you to go back and see her. She has something important to say to...

  22. Chapter Twenty
    (pp. 192-197)

    Yuan You had fought with his wife over money but had not dared defend himself against his parents’ reprimands. He managed to control his temper and, still seething, made his way to Qiang Da’s. As it happened, there were no clients in Paria’s room, and Sanzi showed him in, while the maid offered him tea and tobacco. Paria noticed his silence as well as the furious look on his face. She also noticed the scratches on his left cheek and wondered who he had been fighting with. After he had been sitting there for some time, she engaged him in...

  23. Chapter Twenty-One
    (pp. 198-205)

    When Wu Zhen noticed the two scratches on Yuan You’s cheek and asked who he had been quarreling with, Yuan sighed. “Dirty linen shouldn’t be washed in public, I know, but yesterday a friend asked me to lend him a few taels, and when I went home last night to collect them, my shrew of a wife not only hid the money, she said a whole lot of vicious things to me. That made me angry, and I lost my temper and grabbed her hair and was about to hit her. We were flailing away at each other when her...

  24. Chapter Twenty-Two
    (pp. 206-215)

    Lu Shu was held in the grip of Fragrance’s husband, whose sword was plunging into his chest. He let out a great cry and awoke from what proved to be a dream, his whole body dripping with sweat. He glanced at the lamp’s faint glimmer and the bright moonlight outside the window and was astonished. Fragrance has been so affectionate, so infinitely loving, and she’s sworn so many oaths and taken so many vows, he thought, I can’t believe she could say such things or be so heartless. It must be my own suspicions that have given rise to this...

  25. Chapter Twenty-Three
    (pp. 216-225)

    Wu Zhen had not only refused to lend Wu Jingyu the money he wanted to borrow, he had also engaged in some bragging, which Cassia reported to Wu Jingyu, holding nothing back. From that reason, Wu Jingyu nursed a grudge against Wu Zhen and tried to think of some way to avenge himself. As luck would have it, at this time the prefect happened to circulate an order to his subordinates to investigate and arrest anyone caught smoking opium. The two counties of Yangzhou, Jiangdu and Ganquan, dispatched many runners to make arrests throughout the city, and numerous rich households...

  26. Chapter Twenty-Four
    (pp. 226-234)

    Yuan You invited the jailer Ge Ai to the Great Wave teahouse on the west side of the yamen and chose a secluded table. As the waiter poured the tea, Yuan said, “I’m hoping to get Wu Zhen’s irons removed, and that’s why I’ve invited you here for a talk. About how much would it cost?”

    “Oh, I can’t take the sole responsibility for that. You’ll have to ask Master Duan Qinggeng, the supervisor, to come over and discuss it with you.”

    “If I wait here, could I ask you to go and invite him? I hope you won’t take...

  27. Chapter Twenty-Five
    (pp. 235-247)

    After Yuan You and Clerk Bian had finished their discussion and parted company, Yuan went to the prison, where Fazi had already delivered the clothes and other items. At the sight of Yuan You, Wu Zhen jumped to his feet and knelt down in front of him: “Brother, thank you, thank you for everything!”

    Yuan You quickly bowed in return: “Do get up! We’re brothers, after all. There’s no need for this sort of thing.” He helped Wu Zhen to his feet and asked about the shackles, which had been removed the night before.

    Ge Ai came to the office....

  28. Chapter Twenty-Six
    (pp. 248-256)

    Paria’s uncle, Wang Eight,¹ had arrived in Yangzhou and quarreled with her. Suspecting her of living with someone, he had demanded an annual payment of sixty thousand cash; if it were not paid, he would take her home. “Don’t you start suspecting that I’m living with someone and making a lot of money,” said Paria. “The truth is that the prefect here banned prostitution, so Qiang Da had to close down, and I had nowhere to go. Master Yuan was kind enough to borrow this house from a friend of his and let me stay here for the time being....

  29. Chapter Twenty-Seven
    (pp. 257-263)

    Jia Ming and Phoenix were smoking opium and chatting together when suddenly they heard an old woman outside asking for Phoenix. She came into the reception room, where Maid Gao asked her name, where she was from, and what business she had with the mistress. “My surname is Yang,” she said, “and I used to live next door to your mistress. I heard today that she was back in Yangzhou, and I’ve come to pay her a visit.”

    From her room Phoenix heard a voice that sounded familiar. Pulling back the door curtain, she looked out and recognized Mistress Yang,...

  30. Chapter Twenty-Eight
    (pp. 264-272)

    Now that Mistress Dai had departed for Suzhou with Ailin, Phoenix felt as if a pair of thorns had been removed from her side, and at last she knew some peace. Jia Ming continued to spend most of his nights with her.

    On the first anniversary of the death of Jia Ming’s father, priests were invited to the family house to hold a service for the soul of the deceased. There would be music, sacrifices of food for hungry ghosts,¹ and bright lights. When Phoenix heard about it, she insisted on attending the service for her own pleasure, and Jia...

  31. Chapter Twenty-Nine
    (pp. 273-283)

    Phoenix had been smoking opium in her room with Jia Ming when they heard someone in the reception room. Maid Gao asked who he was and why he had come. “My name is Ge Ren,” he replied, “and I’m manager of the Lüxing Garden Guesthouse on Ridge Street. Yesterday a gentleman from Shandong surnamed Lu arrived at the guesthouse. His father used to be a grand secretary, and he himself is an official in one of the ministries and wears a crystal button on his cap.¹ He has brought a large retinue with him and has rented a whole separate...

  32. Chapter Thirty
    (pp. 284-292)

    Wei Bi had invited Jia Ming to the Futura teahouse for a talk. “I did so much for her these last few years!” exclaimed Jia Ming. “When I had a bad foot, she visited me every day to prepare and apply the medicine and to nurse me. When I had trouble with my eyes, she slept on my bed at night and licked my eyes until the fifth watch. We were together all the time, and she swore vow after vow that she would live and die with me and never part from me for an instant. And so I...

  33. Chapter Tirty-One
    (pp. 293-304)

    Yuan You’s condition grew steadily worse, and after three months he could not even get out of bed. Paria called in well-known and well-regarded doctors from everywhere around, all of whom said that his pulse was extremely weak and his life in danger. They gave a variety of excuses for not writing a prescription, until Paria went down on her knees before them and begged for one. Then, after consulting together, they very reluctantly wrote out a prescription for ginseng broth, after which they collected the money for it, as well as their fares and tips, got into their sedan...

  34. Chapter Thirty-Two
    (pp. 305-314)

    Because Paria had sacrificed her life to die with her husband, Yuan Shou had been filled with admiration for her and had invited the warden and the neighbors to join him in presenting a petition to both the director of studies and the magistrate of Jiangdu county. The officials accepted the petition and within a few days approved it, each appending a statement of his own findings. They then prepared a document to submit to the prefect of Yangzhou, the intendant of the Huaiyang circuit, and the Jiangning lieutenant governor of the province. Each of these men appended his own...

  35. NOTES
    (pp. 315-328)