Book Review: Tales of Ming Courtesans, by Alice Poon

Tales of Ming Courtesans is a freedom book. Utilizing an approach that is very different from Lisa See’s in her Peony in Love, Alice Poon has created characters that do more than make the most of miserable situations. Rather, they rail at the injustice of them and seek liberation. In one passage, Poon credits very liberal expressions to the Hangzhou merchant Wang Wei and includes a ringing endorsement from Liu Rushi, perhaps the most intrepid of the three Ming courtesans portrayed in this book:

‘Confucius was dead wrong to have classed women as inferior humans. Just think of all the female talent that has gone to waste over the past several millennia because of that stupid gender discrimination! Aiya, too tragic! And our society is so depraved to exploit girls from poor families and allow the thin horse [human trafficking and procurement] trade to thrive! Why aren’t learned men ashamed at just ignoring it and do nothing about it! Let me tell you this: [Qian] Qianyi and I have always shared the same view on this issue. We have even planned to jointly petition the Emperor to ban the slave trade. That’s why we are great friends!’

‘Ah, now I understand why you call your boat the “Untethered Villa”! You are a freedom lover, true? Wasn’t it the Song poet Su Shi who had used the term “untethered boat” to portray his freedom from the burdens of officialdom?’ (p. 183)

Such discourse was indeed atypical of old China, but it was not unimaginable in the late Ming dynasty, when traditional dogma came under bold scrutiny and received norms of gender relations were challenged. Of course, Liu Rushi and her sisters are not merely interested in “freedom from the burdens of officialdom” but are desperately seeking to escape from brutal chains of control and chronic abasement. As their desperation increases, idealistic talk of freedom fades, and only the struggle for survival remains.

Nonetheless, they fight the good fight. Tales of Ming Courtesans is compelling and very exciting – and hard to put down. Readers will be sorry when it’s over, and if they are like me, they will be eager to learn more about Liu Rushi and her extraordinarily forward-thinking times.