Tan rules with Virgins
Updated: 2012-01-06 10:37
By Kelly Chung Dawson (China Daily)
US author Amy Tan visits Beijing in November to attend the US-China Forum on the Arts and Culture. [Zou Hong / China Daily]
The latest offering from Amy Tan is a 42-page novella written from the perspective of a courtesan in 1912 Shanghai
Amy Tan recently released her first published fiction in six years, the 42-page novella Rules for Virgins, written from the perspective of an aging courtesan in 1912 Shanghai. Addressed to a new courtesan, the story covers such worthwhile subjects as "avoiding cheapskates, false love and suicide", the subtitle reads. The 42,000-word story was published by Byliner, a digital publisher, and is available for $2.99 from online outlets including Barnes and Noble, Amazon and the Apple iBook store.
"Amy Tan is an extraordinary writer and a global treasure and it's a great thrill to be launching our new Byliner Fiction imprint with her remarkable story," says Mark Bryant, editorial director and co-founder of Byliner.
Tan became interested in the subject after discovering an old photograph of her grandmother's cousin, dressed in the clothing popularized by courtesans of that era.
"At the time these women were comparable to the pop figures we have today, like Lady Gaga," Tan says. "They were public figures who were in many ways envied for their knowledge of what people wanted and the illusion that they were able to create. They were icons, and they understood that if they wanted certain things, they could say, 'This is what I want, and this is what I need to get there'."
In the story, Tan describes the ornate clothing worn by courtesans, such as expensive silk that's as "lustrous as a pearl", and "shocking Western details" like buttons and pleats.
"Women on the streets will envy and admire your clothes," she writes, in the voice of the aging courtesan. "For many young girls, a glimpse of you will provide the greatest excitement of their lives. It is annoying that rich girls imitate us, but it is also flattery. This will raise your status."
The courtesans who made the "top 10 beauties" list were not necessarily the most beautiful, Tan writes. "They are the ones who understand human nature, that of men and women both."
Indeed, the manipulation of human nature is at the core of Rules for Virgins.
"I think that what motivated me was the idea of the parts of these women that are really a part of all of us, and how much ego and envy play into our desires and our ability to manipulate somebody," Tan says.
"These women could come up with illusion, selling romance, but at the same time often got caught in their own trap. Every man has a myth of himself and who he wants to be, and if a woman nurtures that, he won't let her go. When someone recognizes the myth of who we each want to be, we love that person because we love ourselves - but it's false love."
Tan researched the story through old novels, visited museum exhibitions and revisited tabloid newspapers of the time (nicknamed the "mosquito press" for its buzzy coverage of society and scandal).
Her own mother was featured in the mosquito press when she had a "scandalous divorce", Tan says.
She recently spoke with film director Zhang Yimou about his latest film, The Flowers of War, which also spotlights the stories of Chinese courtesans.
"We talked about what it was like, we looked at the clothing and imagined this world," she says.
"In writing the story there was a lot of imagination having to do with the situation, of what went on behind closed doors. But I also did research about the ointments and sex toys that might have been used, and learned about the popularity of male-looking courtesans."
In the story she writes about a role-playing service offered in the courtesan houses, called "The Illusion of the Night Scholar". The role required "the Ming hat of a philosopher, long robes".
Tan handles the often obscene material with playful humor, but the story is above all one with tragic undertones, of women who were capable of manipulating men who would never truly love them.
"You will give yourself freely," she writes, in the voice of the older woman. "You will believe with all your heart that this happiness will last forever. This will happen to you many times with many men. And I will be there to restore your common sense."
For Tan, who has been with the same man for more than 30 years, life and love have not proved disappointing, she says.
"But as a writer, I'm always fascinated by human nature. My work might only be words, but behind the words there's a lot of contemplation about human nature."