Red-light Novels of the Late Qing

By Starr, Chloë F.

Reviewed by John Christopher Hamm
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright April 2009)

Starr, Chloë F. Red-light Novels of the Late Qing. Leiden: Brill, 2007. 294 pp. Paper. Euro 38.00. ISBN-13 (i):978 90 04 15629 6; ISBN-10: 90 04 15629 1.

Starr, Chloë F. Red-light Novels of the Late Qing. Leiden: Brill, 2007. 294 pp. Paper. Euro 38.00. ISBN-13 (i): 978 90 04 15629 6; ISBN-10: 90 04 15629 1.

As a mere reader of fiction, I always found the late Qing and early Republican novels set in the world of courtesans and their clients rather rough going. Anything but “sexy,” they seemed to portray characters ranging from the pitiable to the contemptible, playing out programmatic fates in a world whose claustrophobia-inducing narrowness was intensified by the plots’ indefatigable repetition of trivial detail and the narration’s pose of somewhat precious self-awareness. The intellectual questions following from my visceral reactions—as to the satisfactions this literature might have afforded its creators and audiences, or its place in the technical and institutional histories of Chinese fiction—were but scantly addressed by at least the older criticism, the authors of which, evidently no less disenchanted than I, and in some cases governed by rigidly predetermined ideological programs, represented the works as the derivative productions of an alienated and enervated elite. I took solace in the knowledge that several of my seniors and peers in the academy were motivated to take upon themselves the task of pursuing the topic farther.

Chloe Starr’s Red-light Novels of the late Qing draws from and contributes to the recent decade’s confluence of rich developments in scholarship on the late Qing and early Republic, in particular on the city of Shanghai and the era’s courtesan culture. In the field of history, the most relevant landmarks are the sociological and institutional studies by Christian Henriot and Gail Hershatter.[1] In the field of literary studies, David Der-wei Wang’s reconsideration of “novels of depravity” in his Fin-de-siecle Splendor has been joined by a small wealth of articles and book chapters by Patrick Hanan, Keith McMahon, Paola Zamperini, and others.[2] Most proximate to Starr’s work are perhaps Catherine Yeh’s Shanghai Love, which addresses courtesan fiction in the context of a broader study of courtesan and entertainment culture, and Alexander Des Forges’ Mediasphere Shanghai (see MCLC review by Chris Berry), which employs a partially overlapping set of novels in its examination of the mutual constitution of the modern city and its media.[3] While indebted to (and generously acknowledging) these and other scholars, Starr stakes out her own territory. She addresses a group of six novels written between 1840 and 1910, all of which take relationships between entertainers/courtesans and their clients as their primary subject.[4] She is continuously mindful of broader questions of social and intellectual history, but makes clear from the outset that her own primary interests are literary. “[These works] have never been the subject of a monograph, and have rarely been studied as literature in their own right but almost always as a contrastive genre or control set: or they have been used as cultural or historical texts in gender, dialect, or cultural studies” (p. xxiii). Starr approaches these novels as fiction, and as texts.

Indeed, the relationship between fictionality and textuality constitutes a major theme of Starr’s work. “Fictionality” here refers to “the linguistic codes (i.e., the storyline, the characters on the page, the semantic text, the scanning or recitation of which constitutes reading)” and “textuality” to “the bibliographic codes (the paper and print, the layout of text in a given edition)” (p. xix). Starr insists on the indivisibility of the two; the bibliographic codes are not merely an unavoidable condition of the linguistic codes’ existence, but also shape those codes, at both the point of production (authors’ conceptions of their roles, aims, and potentials) and the point of reception (readers’ access to and perceptions of the texts). The history of literature is inseparable from the history of the book—particularly during a period such as the late Qing, which saw the proliferation of dramatic new options in the technologies and institutions surrounding the practice of literature, and particularly for a set of works that (as Starr demonstrates) “flaunts its textuality” (ibid.). Red-light Novels thus draws broadly on another wealth of recent scholarship—that addressing the overlapping fields of print culture, publishing history, and histories of reading. But unlike the (apocryphal?) historians of the novel who see no need to actually read the objects of their investigation, Starr grounds her work in attentive readings of her chosen texts. One senses that her conviction of the indivisibility of “fiction” and “text” is not an a priori agenda, but has rather grown from an intimate and extended engagement with the works.

Chapter 1 lays the foundation for the latter chapters’ readings by surveying three broad areas of contextualization: literary classification, fictional antecedents, and late Qing textuality. The first section problematizes the notion of “the late Qing courtesan novel” by tracing the genealogies first of conceptions of the “late Qing” as a literary period, and second of definitions of the “courtesan novel” (or some variation of the term) as a genre. Starr’s historicizations are illuminating; her provisional conclusion is almost sphinx-like in its agnosticism:

The selection of six particular novels for study does not imply that they constitute a genre, or represent the most typical exemplars. In keeping with the argument of this volume, there is a textual reasoning behind the choice: the six novels studied are the most frequently encountered of the works which might be included under a red-light label, with the highest textual visibility and availability, most editions and reprints. (20)

While not conceding her texts an intrinsic or essential genre identity, she recognizes their literary affiliations and devotes the next portion of the chapter to a survey of some of their prominent ancestors. Her discussions of selected Ming short stories, late Ming and early Qing caizi jiaren (scholar-beauty) romances, and of course the late-eighteenth-century novel Honglou meng are densely argued and well informed by the secondary scholarship. She covers key thematic concerns, character types, and structural elements; she ends by underlining the legacy bequeathed to the late Qing by the tension between Honglou meng‘s “autobiographical project” (53) and the same novel’s “self-reflexivity on the fictive nature of the text” (48). The last portion of this chapter turns its attention from “fictionality” to “textuality.” Here Starr offers a panoramic but well-organized and cogent overview of “the traditional cultural meanings ascribed to texts in China; technological developments in the Qing; the circulation of texts, including prohibitions; and . . . the respective roles and rights of authors and publishers in the process of textual creation and dissemination” (p. xxxiv).

Chapters 2 and 3, “The Narrator Framed” and “Characterisation in Context,” present the heart of Starr’s readings of the six novels. They are governed by, and serve to substantiate, her central argument: that these works’ reference to extra-literary reality, whether social or purportedly autobiographical, is if anything secondary to their self-reflexivity, their high degree of awareness of themselves as artifacts; furthermore, that their self-consciousness is not only fictional, directed toward literary antecedents, but textual as well, fascinated with their contingent and material histories, “their own encoding and reception processes” (122). Starr begins with an analysis of the novels’ narrators and narrative strategies. These range from intricately constructed frames involving dreams, found texts, and second-level narrators, to cases of ostensibly unmediated transmission. The variety of approaches might be seen as weakening any presumption of generic unity; from another perspective, however, Starr sees them as sharing a concern with detaching the implied author from a traditionally presumed identity with the historical author. This move is perhaps motivated by a felt need to dissociate the empirical author from the opprobrium associated with material deemed trivial and immoral. While many precedents for the strategy of dissociation can be found in China’s fiction tradition, Starr reads these late Qing cases as foregrounding the relationship between author, narrator, and text, and thereby contributing to developments in concepts of authorship and fictionality often located later in literary history and credited to the influence of Western models.

Starr’s treatment of the narrator builds on and in some respects challenges previous work by Hanan, Des Forges, and Henry Zhao.[5] In the discussion of characterization in chapter 3, she enters less traveled ground, for (as she notes at the opening of the chapter) the problem of characterization has received relatively scant attention in studies of traditional Chinese fiction. Starr here analyzes three different modalities identifiable in her group of novels: a focus on a central male figure to whom other figures are supplementary; the deployment of a group of male associates who generate contrastive romantic relationships; and the dramatization of character through conversation unqualified by explicit narratorial intervention. The texts share a presumption of fictional character as socially constructed rather than expressive of individuality and driven to individuation. For all their fascination with the “flowers” of the brothel world, their central concerns revolve around their male protagonists—Starr several times makes the point that they might more properly be called “client,” not “courtesan,” novels. And despite their interest in the margins of society, and the novels’ own sometimes dubious standing, they assume a fundamentally conservative worldview, “affirming family norms, ridiculing the socially naive, commiserating with the lovelorn, and regarding all women as aspiring to marriage” (197). Starr’s discussion draws closer in this chapter than in others to traditional critical concerns with theme and fictional content. She continually points out, nonetheless, the links between the novels’ approaches to characterization and their self-conscious textuality. In common with much traditional fiction, but perhaps to a more acute degree, their characters are shaped less by mimetic concerns than by the texts’ moral, structural, and aesthetic programs.

Chapter 4, “Structure: The Textual Representation of Itself,” presents not “a comprehensive survey of structural form” (199) but rather an extension of Starr’s central argument into several related areas. The first is the novel’s use of such set-pieces as poetry, drinking games, and dramatized conversations to structure the works on a literary level (establishing contrastive relationships between characters, marking periods in the development of the plot, and so forth) and simultaneously on the textual level (linguistically and visually interrupting the presentation of the narrative, and thus foregrounding the text’s hybridic and constructed nature). This discussion leads into an overview of the changing formats of fictional texts during the nineteenth century, and of the relationships between technological advances, publishing practices, narrative structures, and concepts of fictionality. Here Starr draws on possible parallels with the better-documented development of fiction journals in nineteenth-century England; she dialogues productively with Des Forges’ work on similar questions, and addresses the apparent disjuncture between courtesan fiction’s dystopic vision and the glamorization of the courtesan’s image in the visual media studied by Yeh. Perhaps the most provocative section of the chapter is the last, which returns to a topic touched upon several times earlier in the study: the effects of modern editors’ interventions in the texts. Starr shows how such interventions as the excision or repositioning of original prefaces, the framing of a text through scholarly introductions and inclusion in a given series, the prioritization (or not) of textual criticism, and the imposition of modern conventions of page formatting and punctuation, all condition the reader’s reception of the novel. Her readings strongly support her thesis on the indivisibility of textuality and fictionality, and prevent us from forgetting that we as contemporary readers and scholars are participants in, rather than observers of, the texts’ generation of meaning.

Given that, as Starr demonstrates, “the[se] books are as much about writing and the act of textual reproduction as their more obvious content matter” (p. xiv), one is compelled to ask what if any special affinity obtains between the “obvious content matter”—the world of courtesan-client relationships—and the novels’ self-reflective, metafictional dimensions. Do contemporary novels on other themes and topics engage in the same conscious explorations of fictionality and textuality? Many do, Starr acknowledges; but she argues that courtesan fiction offers a uniquely apt metaphorical equivalence between subject matter and fictional practice:

Red-light novels are textually promiscuous; they absorb and interact with other texts and sequels, and spawn new texts from unlikely unions. The illegitimate sex of their storylines is complemented by a tradition of textual illegitimacy, both in the sense that fiction was always assumed to be an inferior mode of writing in Chinese literary history, and in that the works were subject to periodic bans by the state for their immoral content. The novels provide a deliberately provocative matrix of sex and subversion. Both the act of writing and the act of brothel sex can be seen as a form of self-abandonment. The authors were all too aware that text and sex were socially situated acts, being reproduced in a climate of rapidly changing mores, and that readers would closely identify author with protagonists. In their explorations of sexual and textual meaning, the novels provide an insight into wider changes in understandings of self and literary value in the nineteenth century. (pp. xviii-xix)

Like the liminal space of the brothels, in other words, the territory of fiction-writing, rich in tradition yet marginal enough to accept flexibility, provided a ground for experimental reshapings of late Qing literati subjectivity. By detailing the contours of this congruence, Starr makes a strong case for our understanding courtesan fiction not as a tedious excrescence on the literary scene, but as a vital and even path-breaking participant in the literary and cultural developments of the late Qing.

John Christopher Hamm
University of Washington


[1] Christian Henriot, Prostitution and Sexuality in Shanghai: A Social History, 1849-1949, trans. No?l Castelino (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); French text published 1997. Gail Hershatter, Dangerous Pleasures: Prostitution and Modernity in Twentieth-Century Shanghai (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).

[2] David Der-wei Wang, Fin-de-siecle Splendor: Repressed Modernities of Late Qing Fiction, 1849-1911 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997).

[3] Catherine Vance Yeh, Shanghai Love: Courtesans, Intellectuals, and Entertainment Culture, 1850-1910 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006). Alexander Des Forges, Mediasphere Shanghai: The Aesthetics of Cultural Production (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2007).

[4] The novels are Pinhua baojian 品花寶鑑 (ca. 1848), Huayue hen 花月痕 (preface 1858; edition 1888), Fengyue meng 風月夢 (preface 1848; printed edition 1883/6), Qinglou meng 青樓夢 (1878), Haishang hua liezhuan 海上花列傳 (1892-), and Jiu wei gui 九尾龜 (1906-10). Dates are given here as provided by Starr

[5] Henry Zhao, The Uneasy Narrator (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995).