Shanghai Love: Courtesans, Intellectuals, and Entertainment Culture, 1850-1910.
Shanghai Love is a very detailed account of the entertainment culture during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the Foreign Settlements of Shanghai. The author describes the courtesans along with the tabloid industry as "a new kind of commercially driven entertainment culture, which had profound implications for the larger transformations of the city." Instead of looking at politics and intellectual thoughts, she focuses on the Foreign Settlement of Shanghai, the courtesans, and the new class of urban intellectuals who developed the new print industry.
Yeh argues that Shanghai Foreign Settlements experienced a development that was unique. The environment of the Shanghai Settlement attracted sojourners of diverse class and social backgrounds, including various classes of courtesans, as well as men of letters who could no longer get secured positions in the government bureaucracy. In addition, the foreign business community, who had little interest in administering morals, provided freedom to redefine their lives and allowed the new entertainment industry to foster.
The role of courtesans is an important theme in the book. Differentiating the courtesans in the late Qing and. Republican periods from the ones in earlier dynasties who worked in private settings, Yeh stresses the increasing freedom enjoyed by the new courtesans, which is evidenced by their greater visibility and movement in public place. The subjecthood of courtesans is most obvious in the rituals of the brothels, their use of the press as a tool of promoting business, and the incorporation of Western material goods into their daily lives and traditional Chinese settings. Being the pioneers of new fashion and consumer culture, they set examples to new generations of modern urbanites. By the turn of the century, Yeh argues, courtesans were no longer shameful objects living behind closed doors, but became "stars" and role-models as they emerged to be central characters depicted in plays and novels.
Yeh's book is not just about courtesans, but also about intellectual elites who had close relationships with the courtesans. Yeh traces their transitions from intellectuals who prepared for imperial examinations to moneymakers in print entertainment. On the one hand, their loss of power reveals deep anxieties over the alienation accompanying their loss of elite status and the development of new urban centres. On the other hand, they contributed greatly to the popularization of the entertainment industry. The turn of the century witnessed an explosive development of a modern publishing industry with new media. Because of their intellectual background, they easily found new means of living through producing publications and writings filled with images of courtesans. While their survival depended on the new courtesan culture, courtesans relied on the help of their writings to become more popular.
There has been increasing scholarship in the past decade on the entertainment industries in late Qing and Republican Era, but none of them have incorporated visual sources and materials objects to such extent. By writing on the new entertainment industry, Yeh also contributes to the scholarship of cultural history. Towards the end of her book, she states: "In a true cultural history of Chinese modernization, changes and their meaning in the details of daily life certainly deserve as much attention..." (pp. 343-344). To analyze various aspects of public culture and social life, Yeh extends her sources beyond conventional ones, such as government documents and other archival materials. The sources she uses include postcards and city maps; guidebooks introducing courtesans; novels and poetry; photographs; demographic statistics; advertisements; description and illustrations of architecture, furniture, and fashionable clothing; tabloid newspapers; and memoirs. The author does a good job in reading against the grain, revealing the unintentional effects of the materials in the setting.
For example, one chapter examines how role-playing and games based on famous stories such as "Dream of the Red Chamber" (Honglou meng) elevated the image and status of courtesan entertainment and allowed clients to indulge in fantasies without worrying about their social roles in reality. Courtesans even took on names of characters in the novel, and customers had a good time playing along. In "Dream of the Red Chamber" and other similar stories, the male protagonists were usually meek. Thus, Yeh contends, such role-playing helped women to be more dominant in their relationships with their clients. Such adoptions from popular stories turned Shanghai into a city of modern romance. Although rich and fascinating as a piece of literary analysis, this chapter is a bit incoherent with the rest of the chapters, which mainly focus on the "reality" of the commercial culture rather than the contents of texts and fantasies.
In various places, the author challenges scholars who conceptualize Shanghai in terms of colonialism or "cultural imperialism," and states that "such an approach obscures the true dynamism of the city and is self-defeating, because there was much mixing and fusing among different cultural traditions" (p. 346). Instead, she proposes to analyze the setting of the Foreign Settlement as a "hybrid" one. I do not find such "hybridity" elaborated in the book, besides the obvious Western influence on material culture. Although Yeh states that the peculiar political situation and foreign administration allowed women more freedom in public life, the significance of the Shanghai Foreign Settlements as a special place of courtesan and entertainment culture is not clear. Most recent works on the public culture of Shanghai or other cities in Republican China also explore similar themes: the disappearance of intellectual elites and the rise of the middleclass, the democratization of courtesan culture, and the change of public morals along with urbanization. Thus, the uniqueness of the location and its distinctive "hybrid" influence on courtesan culture perhaps deserves further insights. The general audience who wants to learn more about courtesans and Shanghai's social life, however, will appreciate the author's relentless research on every aspects of courtesans' lives and her vivid descriptions of the entertainment culture.
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|Publication:||Canadian Journal of History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2007|
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