Abstract

Abstract:

The brothel and the local yamen are the two main institutions around which life revolves in the 1848 novel Fengyue meng 風月夢 (Seductive Dreams) by an anonymous author. Loan-sharking, squeeze, and extortion are the most prominent ways besides prostitution of making a living in this milieu, which features an array of characters rarely described before in fiction in such detail: yamen functionaries and other working or idle underlings, including clerks, runners, servants, entertainers, laborers, and beggars. The most down-and-out characters resemble the subject of one of the deepest instances of self-expression in the novel, a song about an opium addict, whose lament addresses a key aspect of the life of underlings like him, that he has left village and family to enter the broad mix of people living in Yangzhou, the city of opium, prostitution, and corruption. The novel is about the raw and practical interactions of that world and the new types of relations that take place there. My focus is on the terminology and descriptions used to identify these people and the ways in which the novel narrates the transactions of their brothel-dominated, usury-prone, and squeeze-driven society in terms of both money and that money's equivalent in terms of a character's survival.

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