It is difficult to discuss Japanese literature of the Edo period without touching on the pleasure quarters of Yoshiwara and so on. The same applies to Chinese literature across the sea. In particular, licensed quarters flourished in Nanjing, Suzhou, Yangzhou, and other cities in the Jiangnan region during the late Ming period, which saw the efflorescence of a highly developed culture. The interactions between first-rate writers and famous courtesans constituted an indispensable part of this culture.
Best known was the pleasure district of Qinhuai in Nanjing. Large numbers of brothels stood along the Qinhuai River, which flowed through Nanjing, and provided the setting for the dramas that unfolded between writers and courtesans. Rumours circulated about the love affairs of leading writers of the time with renowned courtesans, such as Qian Qianyi and Liu Rushi, Mao Xiang and Dong Xiaowan, and Gong Dingzi and Gu Mei, but these were told as elegant and heart-warming stories. Famous courtesans at the time were also poets and artists skilled in painting and calligraphy.
With regard to Nanjing’s pleasure district of Qinhuai, there exists a body of literary works that might be called Qinhuai literature, and these include the Banqiao zaji (Miscellaneous Records of the Plank Bridge), a nostalgic account by Yu Huai of the pleasure district destroyed during the Ming-Qing transition, and Kong Shangren’s play Taohua shan (The Peach Blossom Fan), whose two main characters are Hou Fangyu and the courtesan Li Xiangjun. It is no exaggeration to say that, unless one knows something about the Qinhuai pleasure district, it is impossible to understand a considerable portion of late-Ming and early-Qing culture and literature.
It was for this reason that in 2002 I wrote Pleasure Quarters in China: The World of the Courtesans of Qinhuai in the Ming and Qing (Seidosha). In this book I dealt with the geography and history of Qinhuai, gave biographies of courtesans who lived there, described the entertainment to be had in the brothels, and touched on literary works about Qinhuai. A Chinese translation of this book was published in 2007 by Lianjing Chuban in Taiwan.
Pleasure quarters on a par with those in Nanjing were also found in Suzhou (and Yangzhou), but whereas Qinhuai immediately springs to mind in the case of Nanjing, in Suzhou not even the location of its pleasure quarters was clear. This present book is, as it were, a sequel to Pleasure Quarters in China: The World of the Courtesans of Qinhuai in the Ming and Qing and presents the results of my investigations into the pleasure quarters of Suzhou. It has become evident that many of Suzhou’s pleasure quarters were in Shantang Street along the Shantang Canal, which ran from Changmen, Suzhou’s northwest gate, to Huqiu (Tiger Hill), a place of scenic beauty in Suzhou’s northwestern suburbs.
Like Qinhuai in Nanjing, Shantang Street was a cultural area where many bookshops, antique shops dealing in paintings and calligraphy, restaurants, and so on were concentrated, and there were also brothels here. When writing this book, not only did I examine many written works of the Ming-Qing period, including anthologies, local gazetteers, diaries of men of letters, and works of fiction, but I also made many visits to Suzhou, walking repeatedly along Shantang Street from Changmen to Huqiu with old maps in my hands and ascertaining firsthand the sense of distance and so on. On occasions when disparate pieces of information came together, as if attracted by the magnet of Suzhou, Shantang Street, and pleasure quarters, I was able to savour real intellectual excitement and experienced the true joys of scholarship.
Although not mentioned in this book, the song “Suzhou Nocturne” (lyrics by Saijō Yaso, music by Hattori Ryōichi), which is often covered even today, is set in this vicinity, not far from Hanshan Temple.
(Written by Yasushi Oki, Professor of Institute for Advanced Studies on Asia / 2018)