Genre: historical fiction
Setting: 17th century China
I read it as an: ARC from the author (thank you, Alice!)
Source: review copy
Length: 354 pp
Published by: Earnshaw Books (1 June 2020)
Her Grace’s rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Tales of Ming Courtesans is the interwoven story of three young women who trained and worked as courtesans in 1600s China. Rushi, Yuanyuan, and Xiangjun were all real women, and they had a shared background of being sold as children to “thin horse traders,” who were essentially sex traffickers. Their paths cross in a performance house in Nanjing and their friendship sustains them through some truly awful events, ranging from small personal tragedies to sweeping national crises.
The thing I liked best about this book was how incredibly descriptive it was. Images, smells, and locations were all so vividly described, I felt like I could see the river, smell the flowers or the cooking, hear the birds and noise of the town. I liked the names of a lot of the houses or other places – Villa of Alluring Fragrance, for example. It’s descriptive and mysterious and lyrical. I loved it. It makes me want to take a trip to China to see some of these places.
The women themselves were a force to be reckoned with – or should have been except that life, men, and the caste system kept them down. I know literally nothing about Chinese history, and even less about this particular period transitioning between the Ming and Qing dynasties. I enjoyed learning some of the history and culture of that time. It is such a rich culture with many interesting rituals, art, and literature.
I have a very likely inaccurate vision of these courtesans as something akin to Inara Serra from Firefly. My understanding is that courtesans were pretty well educated, trained in poetry, dance, music, performance, and yes, bedroom skills. But they could choose whether or not to take a patron to bed for money, and that choice was the real defining difference between courtesans and prostitutes, who had no choice at all. At any given moment, all three women in this novel worried they would have to sell themselves to a brothel to pay off a debt or avoid homelessness. Owing a debt literally meant you could be sold like chattel to anyone who could pay off the debt by buying you. It is a horrifying thought that the women effectively were forced to participate in their own slavery and sale of their bodies. The courtesans seemed to be in high demand as well, which gives a really interesting dichotomy because it isn’t the sort of role I typically associate with being desirable. The ways in which families sought to have a child by using concubines was new to me. I guess I just need to read more since I am woefully ignorant about this part of the world, in any time period.
Literally the only quibble I had was that, sometimes, the dialogue between characters felt a bit odd. Sometimes it seemed really formal, especially for just talking to friends or family, but maybe that is how people talked to each other in 17th century China. Other times it had some anachronisms that I am not sure about, like saying a courtesan can “hook up” with anyone she chooses to. That drew me out of the story a little bit, but the rest of it was so good that I got over it quick.
I definitely recommend this one! It made me curious and want to know more about a place or time or culture, which, to me, is the very best thing any book can do!
Favorite part/ lines (potential spoilers!):
- You can strive all you can to change a condition, but people can choose to ignore facts and cling to their bigoted views.
- It sickened me to realize that Zhengyu was one of those people who could turn their back on a good friend just because standing up for the truth would inconvenience them. As Fo had remarked previously, it often took a critical incident to reveal the true nature of a person.
- You must never let anyone make you doubt your own worth.
- Time rushes forward and never back, oblivious of human joy or pain. We cannot but be driven by the tide of life.
- What gives one person the moral right to call another human worthless? It’s just not right. A human is a human, regardless of high or low birth.
- I’ve always believed food is the best glue to bind people together.
- Love alone can transcend time.
- Look at the flowing water. Water is humble. It always heads to a low point. Water is soft, formless and flexible. It slides meekly and wittily around rocks, and it nurtures the plants on all sides. That way, it is content and it sings. If you are humble, wise and nurturing in the same way as water, you will not feel shame. You will have peace.