Dangerous Pleasures: Prostitution and Modernity in Twentieth-Century Shanghai

Dangerous Pleasures: Prostitution and Modernity in Twentieth-Century Shanghai – Review

Antonia Finnane

Gail Hershatter. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. xii, 603pp., illust., tables, appendices, glossary, bibliog., index. $U$45.00 (Hc.), ISBN 0-520-20438-7; US$18.95 (Pb.), ISBN 0-520-20439-5.

Antonia Finnane History, University of Melbourne

In the 1930s Shanghai was reputed to be the city with the greatest number of prostitutes per head of population in the world, so it was perhaps inevitable that prostitution in Shanghai should eventually capture the interest of more than one historian of China. Over the past few years, an unusually close contest has been run between two scholars working from different sides of the Atlantic on precisely this topic: Gail Hershatter, the author of the volume under review, and Christian Henriot, director of the Institut d’Asie Orientale in Lyons and author most recently of Belies de Shanghai: Prostitution et sexualite en Chine au XIXe-XXe siecles (1849-1949) (1996). The two clashed in print in 1996, when Henriot took Hershatter to task in an article in Modern China, one of the leading sinological periodicals in the USA. Hershatter, in a response to Henriot published in the same issue, questioned whether his analysis was, after all, very different from her own.

Henriot will in fact find little to quarrel with in the main historical thesis of Dangerous Pleasures. The book pays some attention to prostitution as a social and political issue in contemporary China, but is in the main concerned with conditions in the first half of the twentieth century. The gist of Hershatter’s account might be summed up as follows. In late imperial times, the demi-monde featured marked divisions in status among its inhabitants which corresponded to status divisions in mainstream society: high class courtesans with their literary and musical skills were patronised by the well-educated literati of the male world, and street girls stood in a parallel relationship to local layabouts and ruffians. It may be the case, as Henriot argues, that there was some gap between the taxonomy devised by literary commentators to describe the demi-monde and the prevailing social realities, but his disagreement with Hershatter in this respect seems to be one of emphasis.

The two historians agree that changing economic circumstances in Shanghai in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries led to corresponding changes in social organisation and behaviour. Factors which stimulated the growth of the Shanghai demi-monde and altered its character include the displacement in Shanghai of old elites by the nouveaux riches classes, the latter being the beneficiaries of imperialist and comprador capitalism; and the development in the city of a large working class along with an equally substantial lumpenproletariat. In this busy, growing city, its apparently endless cash flow matched only by the ceaseless movement of human beings in, around and out of its streets, the leisurely courtesan culture of earlier times gradually disappeared to be replaced by a franker exchange of sexual services for money. In the demi-monde as in the world beyond, a status-dominated society gave way to a money-dominated society. Much of Hershatter’s book is devoted to documenting the organisation of prostitution during the period of transition.

In the course of tracing this transition, Hershatter documents the organisation of the sex industry in Shanghai and also the dialogue on prostitution accompanying the transition, which was strongly informed by nationalist concerns. Readers of Alain Corbin, to whose work Hershatter makes reference, will not be surprised to find that a modernising China became preoccupied with health and hygiene as well as sexuality, and that both these preoccupations were expressed in records of prostitution in the 1930s, as they continue to be in the present time. It is the systemic linkage between these issues and national politics which most clearly suggests the aptness of the topic of prostitution for theorising on the discourse of modernity in Shanghai.

Dangerous Pleasures is only partly successful in developing this latter theme. In English-language studies of Chinese history, culture and society, the tensions between information retrieval and the theoretical development of a particular point are often marked. The context of the problem being explored and the nature of the documentation tend to be relatively unfamiliar to the anticipated audience, and the temptation for the researcher-cum-author to expose in English what she has just excitedly discovered in Chinese is all but irresistable. One senses this in Hershatter’s work, which is dotted with excerpts from her sources, painstakingly translated for the benefit of the reader. The resulting density of the work in terms of accessible information has its advantages. One valuable service sinologists provide to the non-Chinese world is that of translation and in Dangerous Pleasures Hershatter, through direct and indirect rendering of Chinese texts, has proved herself an adept cultural as well as textual translator. Her book will be a valuable reference work for sinologists at large, to historians with an interest in gender relations, and to cultural historians in general – to identify but three of the many overlapping categories of scholar to which it might appeal.

The back-cover of this book bears an endorsement by Marilyn Young, herself an historian of women’s issues in the Chinese context. Young writes of the present work that it is among other things ‘a gendered history of late nineteenth- and twentieth-century China’. This overstates the scope of Hershatter’s work and by claiming too much for it fails to do justice to the author’s real achievement. Hershatter has produced an intelligently written, closely documented, and wide-ranging study of an important facet of the sexual economy of the premier city of China during a century of social, political and economic upheaval. This contributes to, rather than itself being, a gendered history of China in the same period.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Australian Anthropological Society

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