'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

BOOK REVIEW: The Sing Song Girls of Shanghai 

Columbia University Press has published some excellent translations of Asian novels in recent years. I have been fortunate enough to read two of them, Floating Clouds by Hayashi Fumiko and the subject of this review, The Sing Song Girls of Shanghai by Han Bangqing. Eileen Chang translated it before her death and Eva Hung revised and edited it upon the subsequent discovery of the manuscript. Some of you may be indirectly familiar with it if you have seen the film adaption, The Flowers of Shanghai, directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsein. Apparently, neither the translated novel nor the film have been well received, although cinephiles, more familiar with Hou's work, recognized substantive and aesthetic qualities in the film that were lost on most American critics.

Perhaps, the problem is that both are centered around a brief period of courtesan life in Shanghai just before the industrialization of the city near the very end of the 19th Century. Our present day liberal universe is one that, quite rightly, emphasizes the importance of gender equality, so the prospect of reading an over 500 page novel about the social life of the so-called pleasure quarters, no matter how dispassionately portrayed, is probably not a very appetizing prospect. Additional hurdles include, as appears to be typical of classical Chinese fiction, an enormous number of characters drawn from all levels of society within the brothels, as well as a modernist sensibility in the execution of the narrative.

In fact, it is this sensibility that makes Sing Song Girls a mesmerizing novel, one of the most highly regarded works of Chinese fiction, even as, in the words of David Der-wei Wang in the Introdution, it remains one that has never been popular with general readers. He gives a plausible reason for it, Bangqing's avoidance of the extremes that apparently characterize the courtesan novel genre, sentimental narcissism or, alternatively, what he delicately describes as the sensationalization of the sordid dealings of the prostitutes and their clients. Indeed, the novel is so lacking in explicit sexual content that it could have been used in a literature course before I departed high school, and, I suspect, could still be today.

Bangqing had higher ambitions, but taxes the reader before revealing his intentions. For the first 200 pages or so, we are subjected to a seemingly endless merry-go-round of parties, where the wealthy patrons of the courtesans eat, drink, smoke opium and sometimes gamble at their establishments. Keeping all the characters straight is a challenge, even as Bangqing seeks, through an accumulation of outwardly mundane detail, to distinguish them from one another in important ways that will become obvious in the final quarter of the novel. His discipline in this regard is admirable, as he effectively creates a modernist form of storytelling that would subsequently be commonplace throughout much of the world in the next century.

An essential key towards understanding what transpires in the novel is the concept of mystification as developed by French sociologist Henri Lefebvre. For Lefebvre, mystification was a process whereby most ideologies have succeeded at certain times in making men accept certain illusions, certain appearances and introducing these appearances into real life and making them effective there. Lefebvre provided a Marxist variation of something that has always been a prominent feature of Chinese culture, especially within literature, the notion of the real as opposed to the illusory, and the fact that each frequently masquerades as the other, to the great detriment of those mislead by the deceit. It is an oversimplification, but a fair one as a form of shorthand, to say that Bangqing lays out the mystification of the pleasure quarters in the first half of the novel, so as to dispel it in the second half.

Ultimately, one must have several things to successfully navigate the brothels, whether one is male or female, money, obviously, but something more as well, common sense, for lack of a better word, as well as education, or perhaps, more accurately, a habitus, a set of durable dispositions normally shared within particular classes and groups and the cultural capital that often goes along with it. Interestingly, while Pierre Bourdieu invoked the concepts of habitus and cultural capital to explain social influence somewhat independent of financial capital, in Sing Song Girls, there is much less of such an oppositional tendency, as in late 19th Century China, it would have been difficult to develop them without some wealth.

Of course, it goes without saying that the men, with some exceptions, possess much greater wealth than the courtesans, but, as Bangqing demonstrates, they are not powerless, with the interaction between the habitus of the male elite and the habitus of the courtesans providing much of the novel's narrative drive. Without doubt, an evaluation of Sing Song Girls in relation to the work of Bourdieu and his theories of social reproduction could prove to be a very creative research project, if it hasn't already been done. For now, at the risk of upsetting potential readers of the novel, I will briefly make reference to several important stories within the novel in order to highlight this interaction.

Modesty Zhu, the shy younger brother of businessman Amity Zhu, is initiated into the life of the pleasure quarters, where he takes a fancy to Twin Jade, a new courtesan in the Zhou House, a first class establishment. After observing the affection between Modesty and Jade, Script Li, a wealthy, high ranking official, proposes that they marry. Modesty and Jade become inseparable, but his family thereafter intercedes, with the assistance of none other than Script Li, to arrange a marriage for him with someone else. Upon finally learning of the marriage, Jade realizes that she has mistaken the unreal for the real, and proceeds to pressure the Zhu family to provide sufficient funds to enable her to buy her release from Zhou House.

One is tempted to construe this story as one of bitter betrayal, but Bangqing tells it in such a way as to suggest other, more disquieting possibilities. Upon reflection, Script Li comes across as less an insensitive cad, and more like someone playacting within the artificial world of the brothels as he would do without the slightest hesitation because of his wealth and social status. Jade, upon learning of Modesty's marriage, draws upon her experience of life in the pleasure quarters and successfully obtains the money she needs to leave Zhou House, revealing in the process that the prospect of leaving was more prominent in her mind and heart than her love for Modesty. If anyone could be said to be a victim, it was Modesty, lacking in the understanding of the habitus of both his social class and the pleasure quarters, thus finding himself pushed into a marriage imposed upon him by others.

Accordingly, the interaction between brothel patrons and courtesans is necessarily a personal, emotional and economic form of unequal exchange, one in which the courtesans accept the transformation of their attractiveness, their musical and theatrical skills, their refinement and, of course, their sexuality into a form of mercantile commerce so as to have an opportunity to assert their personal independence. Green Phoenix, a leading courtesan at another first class house, Huang House, is an excellent illustration of this aspect of the novel. Her favorite client is Vigor Quan, a client with whom she has developed a high level of trust to accompany their enduring sexual attraction.

Upon encountering another prospective client, Prosperity Luo, a magistrate, at a party, Phoenix immediately recognizes that he is enamoured of her, and seizes the opportunity to accept him as another client on her own terms. Luo is enraptured by her intelligence, her practicality and her independence, and she eventually manipulates him into paying a substantial amount for her release from Huang House. She then sets up her own house, where she will be able to continue to see both Luo and Quan as clients. Bangqing relates her story with little romantic flourish, instead highlighting her financial and legal knowledge as well as her entrepreunerial sense, essential qualities for any good courtesan.

Such qualities are invariably rare in a world where entertainment, sex and commerce are intermingled, and Bangqing acknowledges it as part of his process of demystification. Twin Jade and Green Phoenix are exceptions, not the rule, as revealed by the tragedies that befall Little Rouge and Second Treasure. Little Rouge and Lotuson Wang really do love one another, but because their desire is incapable of bridging the gap created by the habitus of class and the habitus of the brothels, she ends up alone and impoverished. Second Treasure, unwilling to acknowledge that her departed lover has reneged on his promise of marriage, continues to spend money for the anticipated wedding, and, eventually, upon discovering that she has been abandoned, stumbles blindly into a most terrible fate. For their male patrons, life goes on, in seemingly circular fashion, but for the courtesans, the slightest misstep can result in disaster, and often does.

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