“The Courtesan” by Alexandra Curry might be her first novel, but a reader would never know it from picking up this superb read. Set in 1881 China, during the start of its upheaval from outside interference, it follows the story of a young girl. Sai Jinhua loses her mandarin father, after he is executed for speaking his mind to the emperor. Orphaned, Jinhua is sold to a brothel-owner, and forced into servitude. Her feet broken and bound to make her more attractive, only Jinhua’s friendship with the brothel maid, Suyin, keeps her going.
Trading one type of sexual slavery for another, Jinhua is taken as a concubine by a high level official, who finds himself posted to Vienna. Jinhua is fascinated by the new culture, and soon finds her world shaken by the chance for a “Great Love”.
Years later, Jinhua and Suyin have made a new life in China together, but the Boxer Rebellion threatens not only their success but their very survival. Will Jinhua’s fondness for the western world tear apart all she’s built?
Alexandra Curry has done an amazing job of bring an actual historical character alive. Based on the changing Chinese government, Jinhua has been lauded as a revolutionary thinker or an immoral woman with a fondness for western weakness. After reading “The Courtesan” I’m definitely interested in learning more about this fascinating woman and time period.
A timeless novel of one woman who bridged two worlds in a tumultuous era of East meets West
The Courtesan is an astonishing tale inspired by the real life of a woman who lived and loved in the extraordinary twilight decades of the Qing dynasty. To this day, Sai Jinhua is a legend in her native land of China, and this is her story, told the way it might have been.
The year is 1881. Seven-year-old Jinhua is left an orphan, alone and unprotected after her mandarin father’s summary execution for the crime of speaking the truth. For seven silver coins, she is sold to a brothel-keeper and subjected to the worst of human nature. Will the private ritual that is her father’s legacy and the wise friendship of the crippled brothel maid be enough to sustain her?
When an elegant but troubled scholar takes Jinhua as his concubine, she enters the close world of his jealous first wife. Yet it is Jinhua who accompanies him--as Emissary to the foreign devil nations of Prussia, Austro-Hungary, and Russia--on an exotic journey to Vienna. As he struggles to play his part in China's early, blundering diplomatic engagement with the western world, Jinhua’s eyes and heart are opened to the irresistible possibilities of a place that is mesmerizing and strange, where she will struggle against the constraints of tradition and her husband’s authority and seek to find “Great Love.”
Sai Jinhua is an altered woman when she returns to a changed and changing China, where a dangerous clash of cultures pits East against West. The moment arrives when Jinhua’s western sympathies will threaten not only her own survival, but the survival of those who are most dear to her.
A book that shines a small light on the large history of China’s relationship with the West, The Courtesan is a novel that distills, with the economy of a poem, a woman’s journey of untold miles to discern what is real and abiding.