Rules for Virgins

BOOK: Rules for Virgins
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Copyright © 2011 by Amy Tan
All rights reserved

Cover image: ZenShui/James Hardy (Getty)

ISBN: 978-1-61452-019-1

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Rules for Virgins

Wherein Magic Gourd advises young Violet on how to become a popular courtesan while avoiding cheapskates, false love, and suicide

* * *

Shanghai

1912

By Amy Tan

BYLINER FICTION

Table of Contents

Copyright

Rules for Virgins

About the Author

About Byliner

Byliner Originals

Do you want to wear out your insides by the time you are sixteen? Of course not. Then learn these lessons well.

While you are still a virgin courtesan, you must know all the arts of enticement and master the balance of anticipation and reticence. Your defloration won’t happen until the New Year, when you turn fifteen, and I expect you to have many ardent suitors by the time Madam is ready to sell your bud.

You might be thinking, “What does my attendant, old Magic Gourd, know about romance?” When I was nineteen, I was one of the Top Ten Beauties of Shanghai. And not too many courtesans last until they are thirty-two. So you see, I know more than most.

* * *

Reputation

Always remember, little Violet, you are creating a world of romance and illusion. When you play the zither, it should be the aching or joyous companion to your song-poem. Sing to your suitor as if no one else is in the room, as if it was fate that brought you two together at this moment, in this place. You cannot simply pluck the silk strings or let memorized words fall from your mouth. You might as well not play at all and just take the sedan directly to a brothel where no one bothers with illusions or preludes.

Most beauties learn only ten song-poems throughout their career. You will not be like most. You will be unusual. Over the next year, you will learn three melodies about mountain retreats, three rustic ballads about maidens and young boys who meet in the mountains, three classic song-poems about returning from war and slaying tigers, one sing-speak tune to make guests laugh, one lively favorite for happy celebrations, and one farewell hymn about companions who will soon depart, which adds warmth at the end of a party and extends an invitation to get drunk together again.

You are an educated girl, so I know you are capable of learning quickly if you are disciplined. If you want to become one of the Top Ten Beauties of Shanghai, your repertoire must be large enough to choose a different song for each suitor who hosts a dinner in your honor. When you sing it to him, he will forget all other women. When it comes time for the public to vote for the Top Ten Beauties, guess which beauty out of all of the first-class houses will get the most votes? Each month, you will learn another song, and with each you must sound natural and honest, as if this song is flowing from your heart. I will accompany you on the zither until your warbled notes don’t sound like two cats screeching over the same dead mouse.

We’ll choose your song-poems carefully. Forget winter mountain poems, because they are always cold and bare in mood. But those having to do with spring thaw are fine, because they speak of renewal and abundance, the opposite of death and loneliness. Songs of summer yielding to autumn are acceptable, especially if they include the tasting of fruits your suitor enjoys. Make sure the fruit is not overly ripe, however, because that suggests worms will follow. The sounds of nesting swallows carry promise, but avoid any songs that have to do with the arrival of magpies or the departure of phoenixes, since they herald bad news and the retreat of life.

Later, when you are closer to your defloration, you will learn a few song-poems about the death of a beautiful girl. I know it seems strange to choose sad songs, but tragedy opens the aching heart and increases longing, passion, and desperation. A man will do anything to remove regret and feel his loved one back in his arms. Even if he has never lost anyone he truly loved, he will want to lie next to you, to unite with your departed spirit, to revel once again at the peak of passion. The tips to attendants and maids are especially good when the songs are tragic, to say nothing of the gifts that will be placed at your goddess feet.

In time, we will add to your repertoire those song-poems that match each man’s idea of his self-importance. Is he a scholar, a businessman, or a politician? These are songs you would perform for the host in front of his friends, and the more songs you know, the better you can sing praises not just to a scholar but to the president of a university, not just to a businessman but to the chief officer of Renji. There are many captains of industry; you need to know the nature of those industries. Occasionally, you might entertain the abbot of a temple. That one is easy: He loves songs for the gods. When sung with whispered intimacy, words sound true, and his chest will swell, knowing that others are there to hear these honest praises. The effect is the same for every man: He will feel more powerful, more virile, and in a conquering, generous mood, the more so if he has drunk plenty of wine. You must be attentive to filling the half-empty cup.

Madam said you will attend your first dinner party next week. It is not your formal debut. Madam wants you there so that gossip will reach the mosquito press. The buzzing of men who were at the party will make others eager to host debut parties night after night. But don’t do anything that leads to stinging gossip. Why do you think it’s called the mosquito press? Each party will breed more stories in the tabloids. How you behave next week can set the course of your career. I don’t want you to act like a little girl, nor a seductress. And don’t show off your fancy Western education or your smart opinions. If you laugh, cover your mouth. You never remember to do that. No man at this party will want to see what’s ugly inside of your mouth. If the older men are becoming impertinent, call them Grandpa. Some of those old men will try to pull you onto their laps. Bastards. If that happens, I will come quickly to you to say, “Mr. Wu on East Prosperity Road is waiting for us.” I will always say that whenever I want to remove you from an undesirable situation. Don’t be stupid and ask me who Mr. Wu is.

The first party is for an important man named Forthright Fang. I don’t know why he is so important, but he is hosting a big banquet and wants two courtesans for each of eight men. So that tells you how important he is. It’s good for you to start out at a rich man’s party. You’ll see just how fierce the competition will be. All four beauties of our house will be there and also those from other houses. He asked if our house had a virgin courtesan, and Madam was happy to say she had a new one, fresh and naive. He was pleased and said he liked a variety of ages, for interest. Maybe he has a special eye for virgins. Even so, don’t try to charm him—Madam has her eye on him for Vermillion’s husband. If you make slight mistakes of etiquette the first time, everyone will be forgiving. They may consider it proof that you are pure and innocent. If you are terribly clumsy, stupid, or haughty, there goes any chance of a comfortable life. You’ll be lucky if Madam lets you stay on as a maid to pay your debt.

You may not be asked to do anything special, but don’t think that means you don’t have to do anything at all. First, you must observe and learn my cues. Greet the guests, ask the customer you are standing behind whether he desires more tea or a particular dish, and then let me know. I will bring what he ordered. I doubt the host will ask you to provide entertainment, since there will be several accomplished beauties who are popular in the storytelling halls, but I’ve been taken by surprise before, and it was unfortunate. Just in case, I have come up with a story you can learn over the next week. You will tell it, while I accompany you on the zither.

The story is about eternal youth. If it is told in the right way, any man who hears it will wish to have your youth rub off on him. The actual rubbing, of course, will not happen until your defloration. With this story, you are creating a promise for the future. Immortality. The tale has been promising immortality for over a thousand years. It is called “Peach Blossom Spring,” and even a child can recite some version of it.

Because it is an oft-told tale, you must use special talent in performing it. Lots of expression—sadness, wonder, surprise, genuine regret, and so forth. You pause here, look there, and move your eyes sideways to increase anticipation. In my younger years, many men said they had never felt closer to immortality than they did while listening to me. Even the other courtesans said so, and they are not ones to flatter another beauty, except insincerely.

My version went more or less like this: A poor fisherman falls asleep on his boat, which floats into a secret grotto. He emerges on the other side in a haven where people dress and speak in the style of a bygone era. The people are free of war and worry, hate and envy, sickness and old age. There is only one season, spring. The maidens are always virgins, the wine is always sweet, the peonies are always blooming. Standing on every hillside are trees whose branches are heavy with voluptuous peaches.

“What is this place?” the fisherman asks a young maiden, and she replies, “Peach Blossom Spring,” and then pleasures him in ways he never imagined possible. (“With wine and song,” you should say with innocence. Everyone will get a big laugh out of that.) Time does not pass in this heaven on earth. It renews itself, as does his insatiability. Eventually, he regains his senses, realizing that everyone back home must be worried sick about his absence. He sails for home laden with delicious meats and fruits for his mother, father, and wife. He will tell his friends to come with him to this utopia. The boat is a leaky wreck by the time he reaches his hometown. Half the village has burned down, the pagoda has collapsed, and the people are frightened by his long, matted beard and hair. He learns that two hundred years have passed, three civil wars have been lost, and his family and friends are long dead. Sadly, he returns to his boat and sails back toward the grotto. Many years pass, and he is still sailing, unable to find Peach Blossom Spring.

That is the story everyone knows, but I like to add on a happy ending. It goes like this: The fisherman is about to drown himself when he spots the same pretty maiden on the riverbank, eating a peach so enormous she has to use both hands to bring it to her cherry lips. She waves to him, and together they sail through the grotto to Peach Blossom Spring. Nothing has changed. The maidens. The peach trees. The weather. The contentedness. The fisherman is again young and handsome—and, of course, looks remarkably like the host of the party.

The maiden looks like you.

When I recited this ending, I mentioned the erotic pleasures the lucky man would enjoy. Everyone knows them. Swimming with Goldfish, Tasting the Watermelon, Climbing Higher on the Peach Tree. Often they were the ones I already knew that the host loved. But of course you should not include these details while you are still a virgin courtesan. Maybe next year. As I accompany you on the zither, my playing will help you know what you say next: a bit of glissando to signal the surprise arrival, tremolo for mounting passion, a sweep over all twenty-one silk strings for the return to the past. During the next week, I will train you to deliver every word with precise gestures of your face and body while still looking natural and spontaneous, as if the story is unfolding before you, as if all your emotions are genuine and unexpected. You will learn to use an innocent girl’s melodious voice, with its sweet trills up and down, its hesitant pace, or a mounting rush of pleasurable release.

There is another quality to a superior performance. Some girls perform without emotion, with mere skill. They may be masters of technique, but they wear a frown of concentration. I call that style “Looking at the Arrow and Not the Target.” So boring. After three minutes, the men are hoping the story will soon end so they can return to a more boisterous evening.

Another style is called “Plucking Your Own Heartstrings.” That kind of beauty closes her eyes and appears to be caught in another world. Her face beams with pleasure, and she might raise her eyebrows a little or smile to herself to show she is pleased with the way she is playing the music. So conceited.

I call the third style “Floating Together in Ravishment.” This is the one you will learn. Think of the story as I tell you what to do. Follow what I do. Your eyes are partly open, your lids still weighted by dreams, and as they drift to take in the surroundings, they meet your host’s. Look at him fully with a longing gaze. Then let your eyelids fall halfway closed again, as if you have entered paradise together. Let your mouth relax, your lips part. Keep your eyes on him as your face flushes with uncontrolled pleasure. Suddenly, you gasp softly and you show uncertainty—not a frown or a grimace, but a questioning look that changes to acceptance of fate. With this dream of him in your eyes, you are being swept away. You’re an innocent girl, a little frightened because you don’t know where you are going. Close your eyes, breathe quickly, warble uncontrollably to match the zither’s tremolo. Then close your eyes and say, “Ah!” with ecstasy that devastates your senses. That means you should wear a slightly painful expression, as if you have died, but it’s a small pain, a temporary death, so don’t move for a few seconds. (No, goose head, it does not actually hurt.) Finally, let your face relax, and when your dreamy eyes meet his, he won’t be able to loosen his purse strings fast enough in hopes he’ll win your defloration.

BOOK: Rules for Virgins
10.56Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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