#AsiaNow Speaks with Wai-yee Li

Wai-yee Li is 1879 Professor of Chinese Literature at Harvard University. She translated and edited Plum Shadows and Plank Bridge: Two Memoirs about Courtesans, by Mao Xiang and Yu Huai, published by Columbia University Press and winner of the 2022 AAS Patrick D. Hanan Book Prize for Translation.

To begin with, please tell us what your book is about.

The book is a triptych: the first part is Mao Xiang’s (1611-1693) memoir of his relationship with the famous courtesan Dong Bai (1624-1651), who became his concubine and died young, the second is Yu Huai’s (1616-1696) memoir describing twenty-seven Qinhuai courtesans, the third presents anecdotes, stories, and poetic writings related to two of the most famous seventeenth century courtesans—Chen Yuanyuan (b. 1623) and Liu Rushi (1618-1664). The world these writings evoke is that of the Lower Yangzi area in the final decades of the Ming dynasty and in the aftermath of its collapse in the early years of the Qing dynasty. They provide a window into the sights, sounds, smells, and texture of pleasures and passions but also bear the burden of witnessing the traumatic dynastic transition and remembering a lost world.

What inspired you to translate this work?

The courtesans at the core of this book as well as the men who loved, admired, and wrote about them are fascinating characters. I have always wanted to have the writings by and about these characters available for teaching, especially when addressing topics such as emotions, gender, and private life in the Chinese tradition. I also want to introduce them to a wider public.

What obstacles did you face in this project? What turned out better and/or easier than you expected it would?

I did not face any significant obstacles. This was absorbing and enjoyable work that I could do even when traveling. At some point I decided to add “translator’s notes” to explain cultural, literary, and historical contexts. That made the project even more gratifying—it opened the space for ruminations and creative interventions. I felt as if I were engaging in a dialogue with the prospective reader.

What is the most interesting story or scrap of research you encountered in the course of working on this book?

I started the translation in July 2018. I had flown to Taipei for a meeting and was waking up at 2:00 or 3:00 every morning. I got into the habit of working on the translation when I woke up. It was the perfect antidote for jetlag. On one of those mornings, I researched materials about the God with White Eyebrows. According to Shen Zhou (1427-1509) (and other Ming sources), on the first and fifteenth day of the month, courtesans would pin their handkerchiefs to the face of the God with White Eyebrows. The handkerchiefs then attained magical power. A courtesan would throw the handkerchief at the face of a difficult or faithless client. When the handkerchief fell, she would ask him to pick it up, and this was how the man would be conquered.

What are the works that inspired you as you worked on this book, and/or what are some other titles that you recommend be read in tandem with your own?

Chen Yinke’s work on the life and times of Liu Rushi (Liu Rushi biezhuan) continues to be a source of inspiration. Ōki Yasushi’s books on Mao Xiang, Dong Bai, and seventeenth century courtesan culture (Chūgoku yūri kūkan: Min Shin shinwai gijo no sekai, Bō Jō to “Eibaian okugo” no kenkyū; both are available also in Chinese translations) have been very helpful. Readers interested in exploring the world of seventeenth century courtesans (or, more generally, women in late imperial China) may also want to read Dorothy Ko’s Teachers of the Inner Chambers, Susan Mann’s Precious Records: Women in China’s Long Eighteenth Century, Daria Berg’s Women and the Literary World in Early Modern China, Grace Fong’s Herself an Author: Gender, Agency, and Writing in Late Imperial China, Xiaorong Li’s Women’s Poetry in Late Imperial China, and my earlier book, Women and National Trauma in Late Imperial Chinese Literature.

Finally, what has captured your attention lately—as a reader, writer, scholar, professor, or person living in the world?

I have recently discovered the joy of audio books. While walking, cooking, or doing laundry, I have been listening to books—some of them I read many years ago and I am amazed at how much I missed. Right now I am listening to the Iliad. It is such a luxury to have someone read to you. It is a different way of savoring language.

My next project: I will start translating Peach Blossom Fan in May. I plan to follow the model of Plum Shadows in providing “translator’s notes” that will explain interpretive contexts.

The AAS Secretariat is closed on Wednesday, June 19, in observance of Juneteenth.