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Dangerous Pleasures

March 20, 2010

Gail Hershatter. Dangerous Pleasures: Prostitution and Modernity in Twentieth Century Shanghai. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Sharon Chen (2003)

In Gail Hershatter’s enterprising exploration of prostitutes in twentieth-century Shanghai, she claims that prostitutes were both “victims and perpetrators.” They were victims because uncontrollable circumstances often forced them into the denigrating practice of selling their bodies; at the same time they were perpetrators because even in these roles, they were still able to amass some semblance of power by manipulating standards of masculinity, and by shaping discourses on society, law, and China’s own deteriorating political situation. Hershatter’s well-researched book maps the complexities and the nuances of this working class of women, ranging from the elitist courtesan to the common streetwalker, and shows the ways in which these women found visibility and left an indelible print on Shanghai’s social fabric.

This hefty book is divided into five parts. The first part focuses mainly on the categorizations and the classifications of prostitutes, and on the various social views concerning prostitutes. Part Two charts the amazingly complex and diverse world of the prostitute, ranging from the changsan, the classic, elegant courtesan to the yeji, or pheasant, the common streetwalker. Madams, the redoubtable and shrewd proprietors of the courtesan houses, exercised an amazing amount of autonomy and control over their domain. The courtesan herself is likened to a debutante – she lived in a perpetual social whirl, and her numerous admirers/clients and the flurry of curious gossip surrounding her all testifies to her overwhelming popularity. In their roles as classy enchantresses, courtesans had the power to humiliate or cheat the socially inept man, to set fashion trends, and even to free themselves of their status as ‘inferiors’. Indeed, the courtesan and her environment acted as producers and shapers of masculinity, and to some extent, of popular culture. At the opposite end of the ‘prostitution spectrum’ were the streetwalkers. These women were not imbued with the glamour and allure that characterized the courtesan, and they did not have the same (limited) autonomy that the courtesans possessed.

The lives of prostitutes were also circumscribed by danger, and Part Three highlights the more unsavory aspects of prostitution. The path leading into prostitution was fraught with deception and coercion, and the profession itself was host to various dangers such as sexually transmitted disease and murder. It is notable, however, that Hershatter focuses as overwhelming amount of attention to the dangers that men faced, such as being duped or humiliated by a courtesan, or contraction of disease from an unhealthy streetwalker. Her goal of giving voice to the voiceless prostitute seems to be negated here; she is placing the prostitute in a role peripheral to that of the always-dominant male. Part Four, titled “Interventions,” places prostitutes within a nationalist context. In a time when China’s power was sapped by foreign aggression, “sex work in China was taken as paradigmatic of a social decay that was then evoked to explain China’s position vis-à-vis colonizing powers” (248). Finally, “Contemporary Conversations” deals with questions such as how the state categorized and sought to regulate reform-era prostitution, and the surge of prostitution that accompanied Deng’s reforms is located in a present-day context. However, it is odd that as the conclusion of the book “Contemporary Conversations” does not contain one conversation with a contemporary prostitute. Instead, Hershatter delves into police records, magazine articles, and even movies, when interviews and ‘contemporary conversations’ would have added much to the book, and would have truly given voice to the voiceless.

Hershatter’s book nonetheless does attempt to give a voice to those who, historically, have been voiceless. As she acknowledges, prostitutes “entered into the historical record when someone wanted to appreciate, castigate, count, regulate, cure, pathologize, warn about, rescue, eliminate, or deploy them as a symbol in a larger social panorama” (3). However, rarely do we hear a prostitute voicing her own thoughts and emotions, or explaining how it really felt to be a courtesan or streetwalker. In this sense, regrettably, prostitutes remain voiceless. But Hershatter also shows the ways in which prostitutes indirectly, and maybe even unknowingly, seized a voice for themselves. They shaped social, political, and economic discourses, and either positively or negatively made themselves visible.

This study of prostitution in twentieth-century Shanghai is impressive. Hershatter provides a wealth of fascinating, as well as sobering, anecdotes about prostitution and city life, and indirectly about China’s project of modernization. However, it is easy to lose track of Hershatter’s argument amidst the wealth of research that she presents. As Ming-Bao Yu notes, “this is regrettable as the many insightful observations well warrant further analysis” (Journal of Asian Studies, ?,?:496-7). Yu also points to a tension inherent in giving voice to the voiceless: “the narrative oscillates noticeably between wanting to bestow some form of agency upon these prostitutes while still recognizing that their ‘presence’ is still a subject-effect of discourse.” Nonetheless, Hershatter’s book is engaging and informative.

© Copyright 2003. All rights reserved.

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