Friday, May 18, 2012

Amy Tan on courtesans-in-training

Photo: John Foley
Amy Tan hasn't written a novel in a long time, probably since Saving Fish from Drowning (which I found highly engrossing, having listened to the audiobook). She's been busy writing an opera and doing research for a new novel in China. She has, however, written a longish story that's available on the digital publication Byliner. They provide an excerpt (caution: x-rated!) as well as a bit of background from Tan:
I had recently run across a photo of a family member, my grandmother’s cousin, who appeared to be wearing courtesan clothes. Like many young girls of the period, she might have been wearing the trendy clothes that courtesans made all the rage. Whether she was a courtesan or not, the discovery piqued my interest in learning more about the courtesan world. I fell headlong into that world and my imagination of the life my distant relative might have had. What was their daily routine? What did a new courtesan need to know? I did some research and the rest was imagination that spilled into 14,000 words, a primer on how to be a successful courtesan and avoid cheapskates, false love, and suicide. I had never written a story that long and, surprisingly, I loved the freedom of not worrying about word count. Few magazines would publish a story of that length....
So now there is a story called Rules for Virgins. It takes place in Shanghai in 1912, when my grandmother’s cousin was a young woman in Shanghai. It concerns a fourteen-year-old virgin courtesan who is mentored by a seasoned one, Magic Gourd, now over the hill at age thirty-three, who has a no-nonsense attitude, modeled after my mother’s. If you take out the nature of these women’s profession, the actual advice is more like the marketing strategies of any business, and in this story’s case, humorous ones having to do with the vulnerability of men’s egos. That makes it an age-old story, I think. Look at our politicians today. Those were the kinds of clients who went to courtesan houses of yesteryear—rich, successful, powerful men of privilege—lured by the illusions of romance and their desire to bed a first-class courtesan, no matter what the cost. The story is darkly humorous and ultimately heartbreaking, as were the lives of many of the real courtesans at the end of their careers.
1972 Hong Kong film
Court lady with phoenix hat holding a parrot
"Shining Eyes and White Wrists." (1887-1893) Wu Youru. Ink on Paper. Collection of the Shanghai History Museum. Women are playing billiards in one of the new public gardens in Shanghai. Since upper-class and "respectable " women were mostly homebound, these women were likely demimondaines, as the French say.

1 comment:

  1. Love the movie poster. The life of a courtesan must have been a wild one, that's for sure.