Of opium pellets and smoke-filled alleys: an episodic novel of the Chinese demimonde, first published in 1894.
Literary scholar David Der-wei Wang offers in a foreword that this is the “greatest late Qing courtesan novel,” highly specific praise indeed. Han blends psychological realism and stylized convention in writing of courtesans, bearing such names as Twin Pearl and Gold Phoenix, who have made their way from unpromising places in the countryside to establish themselves in China’s first modern, westernized city; some of their customers, law-abiding citizens and family men such as Lotuson Wang and Bamboo Hu, actually think that the girls love them, but the girls themselves know that their work is part of an elaborate charade. In the way of a period opera, the action moves slowly; as one chapter header has it, “a new girl is given strict instructions at her toilet, and old debts are lightly dismissed by a hanger-on.” Though Chang (Written on Water, 2005, etc.) thought well enough of Bangqing’s novel to undertake a translation first from Wu into Mandarin Chinese and then into English, the book was never popular in China; even Chang allows that “there is no sensuous quality” in the book, unlikely to fulfill any would-be reader’s prurient expectations. It does not help that the English translation, revised by Hung, has a certain tin-ear, unidiomatic quality: “Instead of a party, just treat me to your buns. That’s easy for you and won’t cost you anything, right?”; “You know, I had just fallen asleep when you made all that racket and got yourself cursed at”; and “The two of them drank sparingly as they poured out their feelings to each other, and dinner was over only when they had fully enjoyed themselves.”
Unlikely to appeal to the average reader.