The Courtesan: A Novel

The Courtesan: A Novel

by Alexandra Curry

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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.

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.

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, Austria-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. As the Boxer Rebellion brews and finally breaks, Jinhua’s Western sympathies will threaten not only her own survival but the survival of those who are most dear to her. 

An authentic and beautifully written portrait of China’s relationship with the West, the story of the incredible Sai Jinhua, told the way it might have been, is not to be forgotten.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780698405271
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/08/2015
Sold by: Penguin Group
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 158,589
File size: 745 KB
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Alexandra Gambrill Curry, Canadian-born of Austrian and British parentage, has spent happy years living in Asia, Europe, Canada, and the United States. A graduate of Wellesley College, she now lives in Atlanta. The Courtesan is her first novel.

Read an Excerpt

***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***

Copyright © 2015 Alexandra Curry


Lao Mangzi

It is the Hour of the Snake, a time of day when the sun works hard to warm the earth. The black cockerel with the all-knowing eye struts, haunting the execution ground as he always does, and Lao Mangzi is wondering what he always wonders: Is the man guilty?

He is quite still, this man, a most venerable person kneeling in the shadow of a high pagoda, his eyes cast down toward the earth. He has a neat queue and a straight spine; his hands are tied behind his back. A mandarin, he is wearing glasses and a grass-cloth gown that is too thin for this morning’s chill air, and he appears to be studying the splotches of blood, newly spilled and not his own, splattered on the ground in front of him. He seems unconcerned about the rabble that has gathered to watch his beheading.

With such a crowd at hand Lao Mangzi feels important and not a little conspicuous; although he cannot count so well beyond ten—or thirteen—he thinks there must be a thousand pairs of eyes at least, and all of them are looking at him. The apron he has just put on over his blood-spattered tunic is bright, imperial yellow— the color of an egg-yolk, his low and worthless wife said when she saw it. It is a color not often seen in this place, not that Lao Mangzi would know about that. To him, the apron is like everything else, a muted shade of gray. His name, Old Blind Eye, a name he was given and of which he is more than a little ashamed, implies that he is sightless, but this is quite inaccurate; it is only colors Lao Mangzi cannot see. Other things—most things, in fact—he sees quite as well as the next fellow.

It was the dead of night when the envoy arrived on a galloping horse from Peking. He carried a torch with a flame that soared, and he woke Lao Mangzi from a deep dream. “I bring this decree from the Great and Glorious Guangxu Emperor,” the envoy said. “And from the Current Divine Mother Empress Dowager Cixi of the great Qing Empire,” he continued after a large breath. He handed Lao Mangzi a scroll and a package wrapped in silk. The scroll was an imperial order for the summary execution of the scholar official whose name is Sai Anguo of Suzhou Prefecture, a man who was born in the seventeenth year of the illustrious Daoguang emperor. “Decapitation without delay,” the envoy announced more loudly than was needed for Lao Mangzi’s ears to hear. “The arrest is taking place right now,” he said, and sleepy neighbors peeked out of their doorways to see who had come at this late hour.

The envoy’s horse was magnificent; his boots were black, his helmet richly tasseled. Later, when Lao Mangzi had unwrapped the egg-yolk apron and held it out to show his wife, she shrank away from it. Her eyes were round with fear. Lao Mangzi knows she doesn’t like his line of work. But is he guilty, this kneeling, venerable mandarin? Does a man like this deserve the knife, the saw, the axe—the sword?

The boy, whose head has just rolled from his shoulders, whose blood is still seeping into the ground, was certainly guilty. Guilty of stealing a meat bun. Guilty of having an empty belly. An executioner knows better than most that a bowl of rice is a bowl of rice, and a man’s fate is a man’s fate. And yet, Lao Mangzi prides himself on knowing who is innocent and who is not. There is more to his craft than a swipe of the sword. The bowl of rice must be avenged, of course, but sometimes Lao Mangzi worries about the ghosts who are missing their heads when they pass to the spirit world in the Western Heaven. Sometimes Lao Mangzi sees blood in his dreams, and he sees it then the way others see it always. He sees it as the mandarin sees the boy’s blood now: thick and rich and bright— and red.

Unlike the boy, the mandarin has been offered narcotics and a hood, both of which he declined, and a reed mat on which to kneel, which he accepted with a deep bow. He seems unafraid, something Lao Mangzi has never seen in one whose head he is about to cut off. The boy knelt, hunched and shivering, and he drew his child-size shoulders sharply upward when Lao Mangzi signaled the final moment with a quick intake of breath and the raising of his two hands, sword in full swing. That last shrug and the vulnerable scrunch of the neck always come when the sword is ready to plunge. But perhaps not this time. The quiet mandarin is different from the others, Lao Mangzi thinks. He will not shrink back. This man is brave and dignified, someone to be honored.

In his last moments the boy sobbed aloud, and he soiled himself, and Lao Mangzi decided to think of him as innocent. He knows just how tempting a meat bun can be. He knows the way that hunger can tug at your guts and whisk away all notion of what it is to steal another man’s possessions.

This morning, the mandarin’s first wife sent for Lao Mangzi. It was just before dawn, before the day had even begun—it was after her husband’s arrest. Dry-eyed, mute, neither young nor old, with her face made strange by the flame of a lantern, she dropped a coin into his hand, and the coin gleamed more brightly even than the flame. A bodhi-seed rosary darkened the woman’s wrist, and her eyes searched Lao Mangzi’s face. She said nothing, but he understood her meaning. She wants a sharp sword. A single cut. A swift death for her husband. Lao Mangzi nodded and bowed, and he murmured, “A mi tuo fo.” A Buddhist blessing for the Buddhist wife. And he marveled at the great house in which the woman lives. Afterward, he honed the blade of his sword on a whetstone he turned with his callused toes and then tested it on the turnip his own wife will boil for supper. Lao Mangzi’s stomach clenched at the sound of the blade slicing through crisp vegetable flesh, and with a single swipe the turnip split. It was his wife who bent down to pick up the pieces and carry them into the house.

A new twinge in his belly reminds Lao Mangzi now that he need not waste his pity. This woman with the dark rosary whose husband kneels and waits for death will dine this evening on much better food than a poor turnip and a few grains of rice. She is lucky in some things, maybe in most. And then Lao Mangzi thinks of something his late and virtuous mother said: “A single happiness can scatter a thousand sorrows.” His thoughts go to the coin in his pocket, and to the slab of pork he will bring home to his cold dwelling to boil with the turnip, and to his worthless old wife, who will give him a rare smile when she sees what he has brought. And then his eyes crinkle, and he smiles broadly at the thought of his children with their bellies full of not just rice but pork-meat as well, and maybe a skewer of candied fruit.

Now the crowds are pressing closer, hungry to see blood. Five guards wearing dome-shaped helmets snap their whips to hold them back. And yet, Lao Mangzi knows that when he raises his sword high in the air most of the onlookers will flinch and shrink back and turn their eyes away, and they will think of the wolf in front and the tiger behind, and how their own fates may change to the worst, and how this can happen in less time than it takes to drink a cup of water. Almost, Lao Mangzi thinks, that quickly. And then, when the sword has fallen and the blood has spurted and the head has rolled like a cabbage onto the ground, the crowd will rush forward as one, every man wanting to dip a coin or two in the mandarin’s blood for good luck.

The black cockerel is blinking, and Lao Mangzi is thinking, not for the first time, that the lacquered creature is passing judgment. The bird steps in front of the mandarin and puts his profile on display, and his wide eye sees all. “Innocent,” the executioner confirms, and he is certain of the truth of this. The cockerel is almost never wrong, and as everyone knows, in these times even chance remarks can lead to a public execution.

The great bell at the Cold Mountain Temple is beginning to toll. Air is moving, and around the pagoda’s roof in nine umbrella layers the sky is a cheerful color that to Lao Mangzi is just another shade of gray. It is time to shed the layers of imperial silk that cover his sword. They fall to his feet in a crumpled heap. The rooster ruffles his feathers, and the blade shines like a honed sliver of crescent moon, and Lao Mangzi runs his thumb across it one last time. A thin line of blood beads, and he nods and thinks briefly how lucky he is to be color-blind in daylight. The sun is moving across the sky, and the shadow of the pagoda tilts, then bows over the crowd and darkens the mandarin’s face. Overhead, geese with wide wings and rough, untidy honks fly westward in a not-quite-perfect skein formation—and the mandarin looks up and murmurs something so sad, so full of anguish, that years later Lao Mangzi will remember what he said and how he said it. “A poet can capture the essence of birds,” he says, “with the choice of just a few words. If I had a single moment more to teach my tiny daughter, what are the words that I would choose? What would I say to make her strong for the life she will live, alone and unprotected in these troubled times?” He speaks so softly that only Lao Mangzi, bending to remove the mandarin’s glasses, can hear him.

The crowd is restless. The mandarin is facing west, his chin lifted. Drenched in sweat, the executioner tightens his grip on his sword, and closes his eyes, and repeats the blessing: “A mi tuo fo.” May the Buddha protect you. His hands soar, and his shoulders heave, and Lao Mangzi is thinking of the tiny daughter who will live alone in troubled times, and who will not learn one more thing from her father. He knows that the quick, guttural grunt of his breath will be the last sound her father hears. That, and the cockerel’s all-knowing crow, and Lao Mangzi wonders, What will she do, this little child, when the mandarin father is dead?

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The Courtesan: A Novel 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed it & wanted to keep reading!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great Read!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Wiliam_Maltese More than 1 year ago
AN ENGAGING PEEK BEHIND THE BAMBOO CURTAIN Definitely, I needed a break from all the formula mystery and spy novels I’ve been reading lately, finding too many of them pretty much as I remembered the ones that came before them. THE COURTESAN was just the change I needed by way of a shift in gears, being a book to remind me of how few books I’ve actually read about China and its history. Based upon the life of a real woman who lived at the ending of China’s Qing Dynasty, this book’s based-on character has been written about so often, so many tales and stories told about her, many of them contradictory, that it was pretty much up to the author to interpret fact from fiction. Jinhua is left an orphan, is sold to a brothel, becomes the concubine of a very important man in Chinese politics, ends up in Vienna, Austria-Hungry, hobnobbing with the Empress Elisabeth, and returns to China, and Peking, in time for the infamous Boxer Rebellion. The author weaves a fascinating little tale against the backdrop of China emerging from self-imposed isolation, not always by choice, and juxtaposes how each side, East and West, deems the other “barbarian”. All the while, the so-often repeated conflict between Christianity and the other religions of the world plays its part in the action. If I have any complaint, it’s that large chunks of the story are left out, providing transitions that are less smooth and less informative than they might have been. That said, though, I found THE COURTESAN well worth my time and effort and would especially recommend it to others who know very little about China which is looming ever larger, in these modern times, on our horizons.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Able to take you to a land far away
Mirella More than 1 year ago
Review by Mirella Patzer - The exotic setting of old China has always fascinated me. This novel is set in the Qing Dynasty of the 1880's and opens with the execution of 7 year old Sai Jinhua's father. Her mother was a concubine who died in childbirth. Her father remarried, but he has been executed for political reasons. Unwanted, Jinhua's stepmother sells her to a brothel where she will live until she is old enough to begin work as a prostitute. The life there is very harsh and Sai Jinhau is subjected to having her feet bound. At twelve, Sai Jinhua loses her innocence and joins the other prostitues in their work. The novel follows her life and her rise when she is sold to Hong, a Chinese Diplomat who is beguiled by her resemblance to his first wife who committed suicide. Together, they travel to Vienna where Jinhua is a novelty. There, she experiences freedom and knowledge and gains self-confidence. But Hong dislikes her newfound strength and empowermentis and more and more he keeps her locked away from society. Nicely researched, I thought the complexities of the Qing Dynasty were aptly described. The early life of this poor orphan who faced such horrendous circumstances was fascinating. I found the first half of the book unputdownable, and the pace slowed a bit thereafter, and I became a bit detached from the story. Some of the magic was lost, but the story still held my interest enough to get to the ending. A nice novel that swept me into a time and a world of long ago. A fascinating woman of history indeed! Thank you to the author and publisher. I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
AvidReaderREE More than 1 year ago
I was given an advanced copy of this novel from the publisher via Netgalley for an honest review. When I read the description of the novel I was very excited, it sounded really interesting and I love historical fiction based on a real person and the book started off quite well and then just....blah. At one point in the novel there was a dramatic time shift and it took a while for me to figure out if it had been 3 years or 10 years, and that's a LOT of time to have just skipped over. The author sort of covered what kind of happened during the huge time block, but not enough to satisfy my curiosity. And then the last bit from the huge time gap on was just difficult to read and not enjoyable at all. This became a very difficult novel to finish. The novel started off with so much promise and was likened to Memoirs of a Geisha (which is AMAZING) but then this was just a disappointment. What makes it even worse is I feel like the description given of the novel is false and then the author's note at the end of the novel also points to the historical figure and how the author could have taken the story this or that direction because of so many conflicting historical accounts...but the author didn't take it any of those ways! The book became boring and I feel if the author had followed more of her author's note or even the description of the novel this would have been much more enjoyable. Big disappointment.
April_E More than 1 year ago
Barnes and Nobles had this book in their new Author section, the cover caught my eye and the first page caught my interest. I have a lot of amazing things to say about this book; however, the most profound is that the author did not fetishize the life of this courtesan. The book is shocking, believable, and represents the pain of not having choice. This is a book for true feminist who fight for women to have choices, to not be owned, and a reminder of the mutilation women bear for the sake of aesthetics, tradition, and culture. I wasn't expecting Alexandra, but I'm glad this book caught my eye!
gaele More than 1 year ago
Sai Jinhua is a legendary figure in Chinese history, but like many who have attained legend-level popular knowledge, the truth of the life takes second stage to the stories that are perpetuated. Alexandra Curry attempts to use research and imagination to tie Jinhua’s life together from childhood and taking knowledge of the time, practices and attitudes to ‘fill out’ her story. With larger and more important details true to the history, the personality and friendships give this story life, and breathe humanity into a figure, and creating an intriguing read in the process. Told in multiple parts, this book reads more as snapshots in time around important milestones, not all the pieces flow neatly together as such, but the end result is a fairly comprehensive picture of a life: friendships, growth, and personal power all are solidly depicted in each section, and we see how Jinhua came to incorporate the truths that often varied with place and company. From heartbreaking and occasionally hard to read moments early in her story, to a less obvious sort of heartbreak and disillusionment with life, until her death. With several unanswered questions, there are gaps in her story that may trouble readers: this is not a story that ends with “and they all lived happily ever after”. Life, particularly the one lived by Jinhua is complicated and complex, and it isn’t always necessary to give every minute detail, real or imagined. Taken as a snapshot, each section provides a small glimpse into the life, but in no way provides a full picture. Most notable is the lack of options for all women in China, and while her travels did allow her to see and reach for something more, and the conflicts that created for a woman who’s life took so many unexpected and often fortuitous turns. This is a very intriguing, if not breezy read, it will take you through several moments, years, places and events. But, the story is worth the time invested if you are a fan of historic fiction, and promises wonderful things to come from this debut author. I received an eARC copy of the title from the publisher via Edelweiss for purpose of honest review. I was not compensated for this review: all conclusions are my own responsibility.
jeanniezelos More than 1 year ago
  The Courtesan,  Alexandra Curry Review from Jeannie Zelos book reviews Genre:  Literature/Fiction Adult. I’ve read some fabulous historical books about life for girls in Japan and China. Initially this reminded me a few of them and I really enjoyed the first half. Its a fictional account of the life of a real person, based loosely around events that did happen to her. Once Jinhua married though it lost some of the attraction for me, odd as I thought the travel part would be an area I’d enjoy, but the book just lost much of the magic it had, the have to keep reading even though events are grim and shocking. The early part is tough, harsh, cruel and at times very emotional. I felt for poor Jinhua, traded off to a brothel at just seven years old, to endure years of harsh training, and the horrors of foot binding even though she’s past the age it’s usually done. Its something that always shocks me, how parents put their girls through such pain, supposedly loving them and yet allowing their bones to be broken so the foot could be “reshaped,” and the growth stunted to produce tiny three inch long feet,( four inches in western measurement) revered by Chinese men of the time and a sign of a Lady, someone who couldn’t do any manual work of course because of her feet. Horrifically cruel and yet if they didn’t do it then the girls would grow up shunned for ugly feet, not make good marriages and end up in a life of poverty. Weird how we humans are didn’t really die out until the early 1900’s. Anyway, there’s poor Jinhua. gone from having a father who adored her, who is killed on a moments whim by order of a child emperor, and that changes her whole life. We see how she gets sold, trained as a “money tree”, how tough her life became and how her only friend was the maid Suyin. Suyin also had her feet bound when she was older, and in her case it went wrong and left her with permanent deformities and a limp, so she’s only fit for life as a maid, someone to be beaten when Lao Mama, the house owner, loses her temper and can’t hit one of the girls in case she marks them. The friendship that developed between Suyin and Jinhua was very real, when both the girls had no-one else. Again it reminded me of scenes in other books. They were living in an intense situation, and neither had anyone else, and I could feel just how close they were. This early part was my favourite, despite how horrific some of it was, how causal life was treated – it echoes reality of those times ( and probably now too in some places) I felt very close to Jinhua and her situation, but as she grew older and that changed the story just lost its magic for me. Stars: three, that early part felt very real but somehow as it went on I felt detached from the story and became less and less interested in Jinhua’s predicaments.  ARC supplied by Netgalley and publishers. If you enjoyed my review I'd love it if you would please click “Like” and if you didn't I'd love to know why, in case I've inadvertently added a spoiler and need to edit.