A timeless novel inspired by the legendary real-life Chinese courtesan Sai Jinhua, an extraordinary woman who bridged two worlds in the twilight decades of the Qing dynasty, a tumultuous era of East meets West.1
I was relatively clueless going into this book. It was available as an audiobook and the idea of a Courtesan appealed to me being a huge fan of Memoirs of a Geisha. A Geisha should not be confused for Courtesan as Courtesans are just a fancier name for prostitute. I was also unaware that Jinhua was an actual personal and not strictly just a fictional tale. The Courtesan is a historical fictional tale of the life of Sai Jinhua and of how events may have played out in her mysterious life.
Jinhua is left orphaned when her father is sentenced to death by beheading. His beheading stays with her and haunts her for her entire life causing her to draw a thin red line on her neck each day in memory of his death. Her step mother sells her for a few pieces of silver to a brothel where at seven years old she is trained on the ways of a Courtesan.
Later when a man comes to the brothel looking for the young woman with the red line at her neck she is taken from the brothel to live as his concubine. The man believes that Jinhua is an old lover who died of suicide. His guilt has brought himself to find Jinhua and to try to make amends. When he is summoned by the Emperor he chooses to take Jinhua with him to Prussia, Austria-Hungary, and Russia. Like many Chinese, her husband does not like the foreign Devils and cannot adjust to their strange customs. Jinhua, having had to make drastic adjustments many times in her life is more open, learning the German customs and language as best as she can. When her journey crosses paths with a handsome foreign devil her heart and her choices seal Jinhua’s fate as well as the few around her that she truly cares for.
The Courtesan is a glimpse into Chinese history with customs that are just as strange to western culture as the western was to the Chinese. The introduction of Western culture to China has saved many women from the fate of a courtesan against their will; however, each country and culture has its own version of courtesan and prostitutes and I feel the introduction of western culture has robbed the Chinese of these, albeit crude customs, its beauty, intrigue and mystery.
I was not overly moved by Jinhua’s story. The fact that she was orphaned and thrown into a brothel at a young age is disturbing but her actions were selfish causing heartache for herself but death for others. Her pursuit for love and happiness I can support but she essentially threw her life and the lives of those around her into oblivion for a man who smiled at her and turned a few phrases for her.
The Courtesan is a fictional telling of the life of Jinhua as although articles have been written and even interviews done with Jinhua while she was alive, the full events of her life are unknown and differ from the tale written by Alexandra Currey.
The fact that it is inspired by a real person does make the story a little more interesting; however, I feel like the Courtesan lives up to its name in comparison to a Geisha. Memoirs of a Geisha was beautiful and moving while The Courtesan is a cheap tale that tries to seduce you in the backstreets of dark alley.
I don’t recommend you bother with this one, even if there was a movie to save you the time. Read the Wikipedia page of Jinhua if you must which tells a very summarized different tale and place your efforts into something more worthwhile such as Memoirs of a Geisha (both book and film).
1. Book summary courtesy of Penguin Random House book page.