Gail Hershatter, Dangerous Pleasures: Prostitution and Modernity in. Twentieth- Century Shanghai. Berkeley: University of California Press,. 1997. xii + 591 pp.
Moving into politically more volatile territory, the 1994 film Blush (Hong fen), by the renowned woman director Li Shaohong, offered an oblique comment on the limited success of the 195os campaign to reform prostitutes. In the film's opening sequence, Qiuyi and Xiao'e, two Suzhou courtesans, are rounded up for reform. Disdainful of the entire process, Qiuyi stops to purchase a sweet potato, commenting that "even a condemned man gets a last meal." She escapes from the reform institute immediately upon arrival and goes to live with one of her customers, a gilded youth named Lao Pu. Xiao'e remains incarcerated. Frustrated by the hard work of bowing cotton in the institute factory, she tries unsuccessfully to hang herself.
In one of the film's most interesting moments, Xiao'e's political instructor urges her to tell her "classmates" that she attempted suicide because she was worn down by the oppression and exploitation of her past life as a pros- titute. Without directly contradicting the instructor, Xiao'e makes it clear that it is not the past that troubles her: rather, she is afraid of the future, exhausted by the work, and uncomfortable because of blisters on her hands. Undaunted by Xiao'e's refusal to draw the proper political conclusions, the instructor then goes on to tearfully recount what is apparently her own story. She is the daughter of a prostitute who sacrificed to put her through university, yet it has taken her many years to get over her shame at her mother's occupation and to appreciate her efforts. Communist reformers are not pilloried or satirized in this account-in fact, the reform campaign is treated sympathetically--but it is clear that the attempt to impose a single narrative of oppression on a heterogeneous group of women is doomed to fail.
The remainder of the plot (which is based on a story by the popular young male writer SuTong) is worthy of a first-class soap opera. Like SuTong's story Raise the Red Lantern, which became a prize-winning film by Zhang Yimou, Blush contains enough inconsistencies and problems to annoy feminists, historians, and assorted other viewers. Qiuyi's liaison with Lao Pu during her stay in his family's house is incoherent: the two use each other mercilessly in an exchange of protection for sexual pleasure, then suddenly and inex- plicably discover their undying love for each other long after the liaison has ended. By that time Qiuyi has left Lao Pu in a fit ofpique, become a Buddhist nun, discovered she is pregnant with Lao Pu's child, miscarried, and mar- ried an older teahouse keeper whom she does not love. Meanwhile, Xiao'e is released from the reform institute, works briefly in a factory, quarrels with a woman who implies that she is still a prostitute, and marries Lao Pu. In the process she metamorphoses rapidly from petulant prostitute to sweet young worker and back. Xiao'e and Lao Pu are unhappy together; they fight continually about money, and Xiao'e exhibits what the reformers would undoubtedly call an unreconstructed courtesan's mentality, demanding material goods and throwing tantrums.
Ultimately, Blush is not a story about reform at all. Rather, the author and filmmaker regard the 195os reform efforts as a safely distant treasure trove oflong-ago times, to be mined for interesting dramatic material rather than contemporary political lessons. And the film's success-it won the Silver Bear award at the 1995 Berlin Film Festival-suggests that such material will find a receptive audience in the international artistic realm as well.
In these late twentieth-century reconstitutions of the past, prostitutes were multiply deployed: as figures in Republican China's interconnected social ills, as important historical figures who contributed to the nation's cultural heritage, as worthy subjects of elite male observation and writing, as exemplars of traditional female virtue, as sites of nostalgia and popular entertainment, as subjects incompletely reformed by the state. But perhaps something more was promised as well. As the editor's introduction to the reprint of Hell on Earth explained, "Through this book, longtime Shanghai residents can arouse their childhood memories; young people can see the bizarre and motley character of old Shanghai, and sense the health and prosperity of new Shanghai; social historians can find material they need; psychologists can rely on it to research the particular states of mind of the people who were active in those circles; linguists can make use ofit to investigate changes in Shanghai dialect."18 The reissue of courtesan novels was meant not only to facilitate research, but also to restimulate individual memories that might well have been buried under the state's master narrative of twentieth-century history. At the same time, although the introduction expressed the pious hope that young people would appreciate the contrast between the bad old days and the healthy present, the book itselfaimed to make available to them a textured and colorful body of knowledge about the past, one that they might well use to fashion their own understanding so fold Shanghai, of their own heritage, of their own Chineseness. Prostitutes were important figures in this reach for a new and improved past, making it likely that the meanings of prostitution will continue to be re-created and negotiated in China as elsewhere.