The world of Shanghai courtesans

The world of Shanghai courtesans

The Sing-song girls of Shanghai. A novel by Han Bangqing.

The action of this novel takes place, as its title indicates, in the world of the singing girls of Shanghai, of which it is also a description. The singing girls were a type of sex workers situated in the upper echelon of the profession, who flaunted many other artistic and social skills, perhaps the most similar figure to the Japanese geisha that has occurred in China. For certainly as we see throughout this novel these ladies were much more than prostitutes, and also had a mastery of another series of arts, which will make them intermediaries in the social world in which the man could not appear alone, and his wife could not accompany him because of the restrictions that Confucian ideology imposed on the female sex. This was a type of woman that contrasted radically with the one that the powerful had at home, with whom a complex and asymmetrical relationship was established. 

That is why the description of the life of these ladies is at the same time a description of part of the life, or leisure, of the most powerful class in Shanghai at the end of the 19th century. A world that the author, Han Bangqing, is said to have known very well, and that in addition to reflecting it in this novel, for some critics one of the 10 best Chinese novels of the 19th century, he did so in another series of publications. The novel also presented an added novelty, as it was written in the Suzhou dialect, the one spoken in that environment, making it difficult to read for Chinese readers from other regions.

It is clear that we are talking about a very specific time and a very special social class, so no one should think that they will find in this book a portrait of life in Shanghai, but only the life of a few people, and even a small part of that life. But even so, the author’s knowledge of that environment fills the narration with very important details, which give us to know in a pleasant and at the same time detailed way, many aspects of the social relationship between people of the upper classes.

The flaw of the work is at the same time its virtue, since it is tremendously concentrated in describing the situations that occur at each moment, the characters appear without history, without a past, except for some in which it is briefly delineated. Possibly it is this account of the present one of the reasons why this work seduced Eileen Zhang, one of his great admirers and author of a first translation into English. Nor do we know what will become of their future, we only know the interaction that they are doing in this place and at this time. In other words, the various streets where the girls’ houses are concentrated are the stage through which about 300 characters pass. Some of them are barely mentioned, and others carry much of the narrative weight, but we repeat, only while they are in this environment. As an appendix to these houses we have part of the novel that takes place in the Great Garden and the great mansion of Mr. Harmony Qi, but that is the exception. The rest, except for a few brief escapades to some entertainment centers is developed inside these houses of singers.

What this novel ultimately tells us about are the social interactions of the characters who appear in these houses. On the one hand, the clients, all wealthy. On the other hand, the main protagonists, the girls themselves, their assistants, and their mothers or madams. These are the four fundamental elements of the novel, although there are also the clients’ servants and various other servants. In these relationships, the reader’s attention is drawn, on the one hand, to the power that these women had over their clients, who are already very powerful people in society, and several instances are described in which they manage to impose their will on some important aspects of the lives of these potentates and others in which they also manage to extort a significant amount of money from them.

The second is the rather complex relationship between the girls and their mothers, generally not their real mothers but the people who bought them when they were children and who have educated and prepared them to do this job. If they have done it well the girl may become a source of money, but at the same time she will then want to buy her freedom and will do everything possible to establish herself on her own. This would mean a serious financial loss for the mother, who by all means has to try to maintain a good relationship with the girl she has raised, because her business depends on her.

Also striking is the large expenses and income that are generated with all this business, and while throughout the novel it is normal to hear talk of hundreds, or thousands, or tens of thousands of dollars, the few times in which these amounts are put as opposed to the income of ordinary people show us that we are dealing with very large amounts indeed.

It is in the clients where we actually see a greater human diversity, as there are from successful businessmen to officials, some of whom seem to be in Shanghai waiting to be assigned to a new destination, and aristocrats whose source of income is not very well known, but what is clear is that they are all people of a very high class and a great culture. They all know the classics perfectly well and can recite them by heart, and it is not difficult for them to discover in them allusions to animals or to the subject of any conversation. In this cultural environment everyone can enjoy a good poem, a good calligraphy, a painting or a play.

The main problem is that the author has described in such detail the relationship between these people that the work ends up being a bit repetitive. Because in many of the meetings where they go to dinner they follow the same development. That someone invites other friends to attend, and sends them a card to go there, and then they play drinking games, and then they play hand games, and they invite girls to come, who sit behind them, and sometimes replace them when it’s time to drink. These are scenes that are repeated many, many times throughout the book and are really not that interesting.

In addition, some of these scenes that were common and familiar to people in the environment in which the author was writing are strange to today’s readers, that is why I strongly recommend to start by reading the epilogue, where the meaning of many actions that take place during the novel are clearly explained.

In the midst of this apparent routine. different human dramas unfold. From the customer who falls in love with a girl to the girl who sees her world and her own existence in danger because a customer starts to stop frequenting her, or the girl who is forced to throw herself into that life because of financial hardship, or the power of the police or the gangsters.  And these scenes awaken the reader’s interest because he or she is already familiar with the protagonists.

In short, the novel is very successful in describing a very special world, very much of a very specific time that was lived in this Shanghai of the upper class of the late nineteenth century.  And for that alone it is worthwhile and tremendously enjoyable.

Having spent more than a week since the end of its reading, I discover that the repetition of scenes and performances that makes it difficult to read, provides on the other hand a familiarity with the environment, immerses the reader in a certain way in a world of stereotyped gestures that characterizes it and gets a certain addiction to know how the small stories of these protagonists with whom we have already lived so many experiences will continue to develop.

The world of opium as described in the novel deserves a special mention. Set in a time when its consumption was legal in Shanghai and China, the characters in the novel have different responses to the availability of  this drug, even more varied than the one they have with alcohol. While opium is always available and each girl’s room has a sofa where customers can lie down to enjoy it, there are only a couple of characters who could be said to be really addicted to it, but from a vice that, on the other hand, does not seem to prevent them from leading a normal life.  The other customers consume it occasionally without, in spite of all the fears subsequently instilled about their addiction, suffering particularly from it. In some passages the danger of its excessive use and the addiction it can create is mentioned, but most of the characters make moderate use of it.

The Sing-song girls of Shanghai. Translated by Eileen Zhang and Eva Hung. Columbia University Press. 2012.

To cite this post: Ceinos-Arcones, Pedro, "The world of Shanghai courtesans," in Ethnic China, 9 junio 2021,

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