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Prostitution and Sexuality in Shanghai. A Social History, 1849-1949. (Reviews).

Prostitution and Sexuality in Shanghai. A Social History, 1849-1949. By Christian Henriot, translated from French by Noel Castelino (Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press. 2001. xiii plus 467 pp. $85.00/cloth).

As far as subject matter is concerned, Christian Henriot's book on prostitution in Shanghai can be seen as "killing two birds with one stone." The author has deliberately chosen not to conceive of his subject as "women's history" or "womens studies" (p.6), but the very nature of this work--a study of female prostitutes--inevitably place it in the vibrant field of gender, sexuality, and womens studies. The book also deals with another hot topic, Shanghai, a city that has been an unusually favored object of research in the West for more than two decades. In this regard this book is evidence of the unfailing zeal for Shanghai in the China field. It is the author's second book on Shanghai in six years, the first being his Shanghai 1927-1937: Municipal Power, Locality, and Modernization. Both books were originally written in French, and the French version of the current book was published simultaneously with another major study of the city's prostitution, Gail Hershatter's Dangerous Pleasure: Prostitution and Mode rnity in Twentieth Century Shanghai.

The fourteen chapters of the book are organized into four parts. Part I discusses the higher class courtesans, whose services to men were believed to be more directed at satisfying the refined tastes of the elite than mere lust, something that bore similarities to the world of the geisha of Japan (though few comparisons are made in this book). Part II treats the common prostitutes, including streetwalkers known as "pheasants" (yeji), female guides and escorts ( xiangdaonu), and what the author calls "ancillary forms of prostitution" such as the waitresses in amusement centers nicknamed "tea glasses" (bolibei) and sexual services provided in massage parlors and dancing halls. Together, Parts I and II provide a panoramic view of the variety of prostitution, and the author has quite convincingly argued that, in contrast to other views on the hierarchy of Shanghai prostitution, the lower categories of prostitutes were always the most numerous in the period examined. Part III starts from outside the brothels by lo oking at the source of prostitutes, that is, the female market in China, and the houses of prostitution in the urban space of Shanghai. The author then brings the reader inside the brothels to peruse the interiors, organization, and management of these houses. Part IV examines state and society relations as they were reflected in the matter of prostitution. Chronologically it covers the period from the late nineteenth century to 1949 and thematically includes the efforts of Western and Chinese authorities and charities to cope with prostitution. Together, Parts III and VI present a political economy of prostitution.

Researchers on Chinese prostitution have heavily relied on literary works, which reflected the view of brothel visitors and spectators rather than that of the protagonists, the prostitutes, whose voices were almost entirely silent, especially on the question of the details of their daily lives. For example, we know little about the contraceptive measures taken by Chinese prostitutes, which must have been a critical daily concern for them. Because of the taboo nature of the subject, prostitutes seldom talked about themselves, which makes the writing of a social history of this group a formidable task. The merit of Henriot's book is that the author has nearly exhausted the materials currently available to scholars and has presented readers with a study that is richly clotted with details, insights, and sensitivities. Henriot was very conscious that he "was dealing with real lives, not merely with historical figures or images" and that his job was to retell "the history of Chinese prostitutes for themselves" (p. xv).

Such an approach or attitude has resulted in the remarkable array of information and delineation this book offers. Readers will see how country girls were lured or forced into Shanghai's alleyways (lilong) where most of the city's brothels were located, how these houses were managed and physically laid out, and what life looked like inside. Readers will find the price of a woman in the female market (both in Shanghai and nationwide), the rates for whoring, the bargains available in massage parlors, the income of prostitutes, the taxes levied on brothels, the treatment of venereal diseases, and so on. Readers will also be struck by the considerable violence against prostitutes delineated in the book such as kidnapping, brutal punishment meted out by madams, revenge and mistreatment by brothel patrons, thefts in their houses, and robberies of prostitutes on their way to render "room service."

The author is fully aware of the fact that the "information available on prostitution and sexuality in East Asia far too often belongs to the realm of approximation" (p.358) and frequently reminds us of the limitations on what scholars can do about it. We therefore perhaps should be even more appreciative of the author's precision and meticulousness. For instance, virtually all the book's tables are compiled from decades of newspaper data and other sources of statistics. Among an impressive array of source materials the author has painstakingly searched is archival documentation, most notably, the French Concession files. Although Shanghai's French Concession was a key component of the city, researchers have generally neglected the administration of this part of Shanghai and the relevant French sources. In this regard, Henriot's study significantly remedies the disproportional approach and greatly contributes to our understanding of how the Shanghai municipal authorities and Chinese society took measures "to manage prostitution, contain it, or repress it" (p.4).

Henriot points out in the Conclusion that Chinese prostitution sheds little light on the question of sexuality, largely because of the paradox in which Chinese men "enjoyed a degree of moral liberty that had no equivalent in JudeoChristian culture" while "sexuality in China remained a taboo subject that was routinely passed over in various writings on prostitution" (pp.356-57). According to him, that "[Chinese] men could assiduously visit prostitutes (as an ordinary act of social life) points to the absence of any of the unease, embarrassment, or shame that is attached to this activity in the West" (p.356). I find this a bold statement, which, not surprisingly, must be the result of an extensive reading of the prominent literati literature on prostitution that is readily available to researchers. But out of the shadow of literati writing, which is often sensational and melodramatic, the fact remains that brothel visiting in China, even among the literati, was considered an unmistakable mark of a moral defect, if not an offence against decency.

On the subject of prostitution in modem Shanghai, this book is encyclopedic in its scope and should find a place on the shelf of standard references on Chinese prostitution, women's history, the history of sexuality, and Chinese social and urban history.
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Author:Lu, Hanchao
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2002
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