Gaudy Women and the Value of Salt – The Scholars, Part 5

In this last installment of The Scholars, female characters become the central figures in many of the subplots. The first of these we encounter hearkens back to an earlier post where we looked at the local law prohibiting “gaudy women” from burning incense in temples. In chapters 40 and 41, we meet female poet Chiung-chih Shen. Her father promised her in marriage to a Mr. Sung of Yangchow, but it was under false pretenses. When they are instructed take her to wait at Greater Prosperity Salt Shop, they realize that Mr. Sung intends to take Chiung-chih as a concubine instead of a primary wife, which dismays them. Her father lets her decide if she still wants to go through with the marriage.

After she allows the marriage to proceed to see exactly what Mr. Sung’s intentions are, she realizes that it’s true that she will be a concubine – the merchants take six or seven new ones a year! Her father realizes it too on the outside, and he tries to go through channels to get her out of his clutches:

“This is bad!” exclaimed Mr. Shen. “He’s obviously taking my daughter as a concubine. I’m not going to stand for this!”

He went straight to Chiangtu County yamen to lodge a protest.

“As a senior licentiate of Changchow, Shen Ta-nien ranks as one of the gentry,” thought the magistrate reading the charge. “He would never willingly let his daughter become a concubine. These salt merchants think they can get away with anything!”

So he accepted the indictment.

As soon as Sung knew of this, he despatched one of his clerks with a charge against Shen, and bribed all the officials. The next day Shen’s indictment was endorsed as follows:

“If Shen Ta-nien intended to marry his daughter to Sung Wei-fu as his principal wife, why did he send her secretly to Sung’s house? Obviously she was intended all along for a concubine, but he is now misrepresenting the situation. His petition is rejected.”…

When Mr. Shen presented another petition, the magistrate was angry and called him a trouble-maker. He ordered two runners to escort him under arrest to Changchow. (The Scholars, chapter 40)

Because her father can’t break through the bureaucratic corruption to help her, Chiung-chih flees Mr. Sung’s house and goes to Nanking, lives in the courtesans’ area, and sells her poetry and embroidery to support herself. Chapter 41 shows us this lifestyle in detail and how extraordinary many of our recurring characters in the novel find her. We even find some context for our earlier post’s law quotation regarding gaudy women burning incense in the temple:

On the twenty-ninth of the seventh month there was a great religious fair at the Earth God’s Temple on Chingliang Mountain. Tradition had it that the Earth God kept his eyes closed all the year round, opening them only on this evening. If he saw the whole city filled with incense, flowers and lighted candles, he assumed this was the case the whole year round, and, pleased with the people’s piety, afforded them protection.

On this one night, therefore, each household in Nanking set up two tables with incense urns and lit two tapers to burn all night. The road from Central Bridge to Chingliang Mountain was two or three miles long; and it gleamed like a silver dragon, lit up all night by endless censers, which no wind — no matter how strong — could blow out. Men and women from all over the town came out to burn incense and watch the fair.

Shen Chiung-chih, who lived in one of the houses at Palace Pool, went out with her landlord’s wife to burn incense too. Since arriving in Nanking and hanging up her signboard, customers had come to her to order poems, calligraphy and embroidery. There were plenty of meddlesome young ruffians too, who brought their friends to stare at this beauty. As Chiungchih was returning from burning incense, because she was gaudily dressed a great crowd followed her, among it Chuang Fei-hsiung. When he saw her turn into Palace Pool, he wondered who she could be. The next day he called on Tu Shao-ching. (The Scholars, chapter 41)

The rest of this section of the novel highlights virtuous women inducted in local temples and memorialized after death in chapter 47, and even one young widow who decided to go to the extreme of starving herself after her husband’s death in chapter 48. We also see a few recurring courtesan characters who attend parties in chapter 42. In chapter 51, a young married woman uses amorous advances to trick men out of their money on the river. In chapters 53 and 54, the spotlight returns to a house of courtesans. I should note here that the courtesans referred to in this novel appear to be similar to the geisha class of Japan or the gisaeng class of Korea, more hostesses and entertainers than just strictly prostitutes. I’m not aware of whether they have a special title in China, but in this section they play a type of chess with their visitors.

Another interesting aspect of the novel at this point is the emergence of the salt merchant class, whom we have seen a little in other portions of the novel. It is an important point to make that salt has always been an important commodity of extremely high value going back to antiquity just about everywhere on the globe, but the information at the following link will look more deeply at the value of salt in China itself:

We see some of the conflict over salt and the corruption of the officials in chapter 43:

The two great salt boats were swept aground by the wind. There were two hundred sampans at the shore, and out from the bank sprang two hundred savage-looking men. “The salt boats have run aground!” they shouted. “Let’s help to get them off!” Paddling over, they swarmed up the salt boats, quick as thought seized all the salt in the holds they could carry, and transferred it packet by packet to their sampans. When their two hundred sampans were filled, they took oars and rowed like mad up a little creek, to vanish without a trace!…

As soon as the magistrate received this charge, he summoned the helmsman, clerks and all the boatmen concerned to the second court. “Why didn’t your salt boats keep going?” he demanded. “What made you stop in my county? Tell me the names of the robbers! Do you know them?” “Our boats were grounded by the gale, Your Honour,” replied one of the helmsmen. “There was a creek there with two hundred sampans and hundreds of scoundrels, who seized and carried off all the salt we had on board.”..

When the magistrate heard this he was very angry. “Such a thing couldn’t happen in a quiet, law-abiding county like this!” he roared. “Obviously you slaves have been filching your master’s salt with the connivance of his clerk, to go whoring and gambling. After stealing and selling it all on the journey, you bring this trumped up charge to clear yourselves! But now you’re on trial here — you must speak the truth!” He hurled down a handful of bamboo slips. At this signal, from both sides rushed fierce attendants, who threw the helmsman to the ground and gave him twenty strokes with the bastinado, till his flesh was torn to shreds. (The Scholars, chapter 43)

As always, The Scholars continues to highlight the issues of exam forms, fake scholars and corruption among the officials.

In the end, although The Scholars has some heavy underlying themes, on the surface it is a languid, colorful slice of life with a large cast of characters showing many of the aspects of China’s leisurely culture during the Ming and Qing Dynasties. The novel ends with an epilogue reflecting on the passing of this generation of scholars and what came after them.

Part five of a five part series.

Next time: the diary and short stories of Ichiyō Higuchi!

About Lady Xiansa

Lady Xiansa is a writer, linguist, artist, and dancer. She has been a core volunteer for the Silk Screen Asian Arts Organization from 2007 to 2018 and has provided content for Pitt JCS anime events since 2011. She has taught both ESL and Beginning Korean. Her gothic horror novel, The Haunting at Ice Pine Peak, won the Bronze Award for Young Adult Fiction E-book in the 2016 Moonbeam Children's Book Awards and earned the 2018 Story Monsters Approved Seal in the Tween Category.
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