Born and raised in Hong Kong, Alice Poon steeped herself in Chinese poetry and history, Jin Yong’s martial arts novels and English Literature. Always fascinated with iconic but unsung women in Chinese history and legends, she cherishes a dream of bringing them to the page. She lives in Vancouver, Canada. I’m delighted to have Alice here to give us a look behind the novel and the women who inspired Tales of Ming Courtesans.
Thank you, Mary, for having me on your esteemed blog.
Today, I would like to talk about the status of women in the context of Chinese history and literature, and how that has spurred me into giving voice to three notably talented courtesans of the late-Ming era in my new novel Tales of Ming Courtesans.
One day many years ago I was glancing through the lists of Official Biographies in Chinese history books that cover the time stretch from 960 (start of Northern Song dynasty) right up to 1912, i.e. a total of nine-and-a-half centuries or 952 years, and something hit me out of the blue.
It struck me that from this wide span of history only six females (four empresses and two woman rebels, yes, rebels) were deemed worthy of a little space in official historical records. Lucky as the four selected empresses were, on paper their achievements were almost reduced to playing well the role of dutiful wives/mothers/guardians to emperors. It was also quite apparent that the two woman rebels were included merely to stigmatize them. Perhaps nothing more need be said about how deeply rooted gender discrimination is in the traditional Chinese culture.
It thus follows that stories of many notable Chinese women who had great contributions to the arts and cultural history (sometimes even military history) of China never found their way into official histories and can only be gleaned from literature and folklore.
But then again, for hundreds of years, the stories of my main characters, Liu Rushi (an acclaimed poet), Chen Yuanyuan (a talented musician and kunqu singer) and Li Xiangjun (a famous kunqu opera singer), have been told by men in literary writings from the male perspective. As a result, these three artistically gifted ladies have always been known on paper as Great Beauties of Qinhuai, as if beauty was their only attribute. [Qinhuai is a main setting in the novel and is the name of the glitzy pleasure hub in Nanjing. It is also the name of a main river that ran through the city centre.]
Typically, male writers cannot avoid the trap of measuring these women solely in terms of their beauty/femininity and the men in their lives. They tend to conveniently gloss over the women’s incredible moral courage in their fight against subjugation, and the fact that they were extremely intelligent human beings with a mind of their own. In the eyes of self-styled moralists, these women were nothing but witless tramps whose only aim was to ruin men. What has been left unsaid is that society’s cruel bigotry and misogyny was in fact the main culprit that wrecked these women’s lives.
Eminent historian/writer Chen Yinke (1890 – 1969) was an outstanding exception. He was the adoring biographer of Liu Rushi, a poetry prodigy. In teasing out the complicated life story of Liu, he concluded by remarking that she was the embodiment of the nation’s spirit of independence and liberal thinking. That remark alone was enough to goad me into writing this novel. I was really glad to have stumbled on the 800,000-word, 3-volume, epic biography.
After reading my research materials, I was convinced that these women, who were victims of bigotry and sexism, had far more moral courage and integrity than people gave them credit for, not to mention the lasting legacy they left behind in literature and music. There was only one way to do them justice, and that is, to give them voice – something which has always been denied them. I imagined what they might have said, thought, felt and done in their daily struggle for survival, dignity and hope in a deeply misogynistic society. My musings then became Tales of Ming Courtesans. The story is told entirely from their viewpoints.
Tales of Ming Courtesans not only describes the main characters’ tragedies but also celebrates how they transcend the challenges to show kindness toward their friends and inspire them to stand up for their dignity.
To conclude, I would like my novel to send a positive message: that the human spirit is most resilient in the darkest of hours and that hope and solidarity will not only empower the oppressed but will become the very seed of positive change.
Many thanks for sharing the background and motivation for Tales of Ming Courtesans, Alice. And for your timely concluding message – one that we definitely need to hear today. Best wishes for success.
Tales of Ming Courtesans by Alice Poon ~~ From the author of The Green Phoenix comes a riveting tale of female friendship, honor, and sacrifice for love, set in 17th Century China and featuring the intertwined stories of three of the era’s most renowned courtesans, escorts skilled in music, poetry and painting who could decide themselves whether or not to offer patrons bed favors.
Inspired by literary works and folklore, Tales of Ming Courtesans traces the destinies of the three girls from the seamy world of human trafficking and slavery to the cultured scene of the famously decadent pleasure district of the city of Nanjing, evoking episodes in Memoirs of a Geisha.
The girls all existed – Rushi was a famous poet, Yuanyuan became the concubine of a general who changed the course of Chinese history by supporting the Manchu invasion in 1644 and Xiangjun challenged the corruption of court officials to try to save her lover. Rushi’s daughter, Jingjing, gradually pieces together the stories of the three from a memoir left to her by her mother.
Betrayal, tenacity and hope all come together in a novel that brings to life an important era in China’s history, and particularly highlights the challenges faced by independent-minded women.
Alice visited the blog in 2019 with History as a Mirror of Our Present.
M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.