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  • Lost Bodies: Prostitution and Masculinity in Chinese Fiction
  • Lily Wong (bio)
Paola Zamperini . Lost Bodies: Prostitution and Masculinity in Chinese Fiction. Leiden: Brill, 2010. xi, 238 p. Hardcover $133.00, ISBN 978-90-04-17978-3.

Paola Zamperini's Lost Bodies: Prostitution and Masculinity in Chinese Fiction is a comprehensive study of representations of courtesans and prostitutes in late-Qing fiction. Zamperini reads the courtesan figure as a multilayered literary icon that is perpetually constructed to perform shifting ideas, dreams, and anxieties of the men who write and read them into being. Through the dynamic figure of the sex worker (both prostitutes and courtesans), Zamperini delineates a genealogy of male desire and sexuality that, she argues, constantly produces variant meanings of masculinity and, by extension, femininity in the late-Qing literary imaginary. Departing from previous scholarship on courtesan novels, Zamperini insightfully destabilizes the theme-based and moral-induced category of "wayward novels" that Lu Xun famously coined, a category which most literary scholars have since uncritically adopted. Zamperini instead emphasizes the flux and flow of this literary genealogy, taking into account its highly intertextual and ever-transforming nature. In so doing, she touches on a wide array of novels and sees them, together, as a complex assemblage of ideas and images of the sex worker that flows beyond the confines of dynastic divisions or particular authors. She thus innovatively arranges her chapters in sequence of the various life-stages of the courtesan/prostitute figures' fictional life: childhood, youth, maturity, and old age/ death.

In chapter 1, Zamperini discusses narrations of these fictional courtesans' childhoods. The author starts from their often supernatural origins and traces the figures' gradual fall from grace into the realm of humans, a fall that, the author demonstrates, leads to their eventual superhuman experience of sexualization. To trace this vertical, downward journey of the heavenly creature-cum-sex worker, Zamperini focuses mainly on Wu Jianren's satirical novel Haishang mingji sida [End Page 294] jingang qishu (Extraordinary stories of four noted Shanghai courtesans) in which the four guardian gods in the noted Ming novel Fengshen yanyi (The investiture of the gods) are reborn into the human realm as the four most famous courtesans of late-Qing Shanghai. Through her careful analysis, Zamperini highlights how the courtesans' bodies become central sites through which the politics of desire are depicted. In particular, it is the very malleability of their bodies—transfiguring boundaries of gender and sex, human and superhuman, reality and myth—from the very beginning (be it their supernatural origins or vulnerable childhoods) that defines the courtesan figure's narrative meaning as a nexus of desire.

Zamperini further elaborates, in chapter 2, the mechanism by which politics of desire are fought over the courtesan's malleable body in her analysis of representations of the courtesan's shi shen (loss of body)—the moment when they lose their virginity. The courtesan's loss of body, as Zamperini notes, also signifies the figure's loss of social-familial value. Once deflowered outside of wedlock, the courtesan's body is marked as purchasable sexual pleasure as opposed to a family asset for regenerating the family lineage. In the author's view, depictions of shi shen thus mark a pivotal moment in which the value of the courtesans' bodies shifts from familial to economic worth. Zamperini argues that, compared to Ming dynasty pornographic novels, late-Qing novels, in particular, dramatize and even satirize the courtesan's shift in value—from domestic to public, familial to economic—at their moment of deflowering. In her argument, virginity is depicted as one of the many commodities on the late-Qing leisure economy, a commodity that can even be counterfeited and reconstructed with just some alum and pomegranate. As Zamperini shows, in the world of late-Qing novels, politics of gender, sexuality, and class are rapidly constructed and deconstructed through the courtesan's marked and remarketed bodies. On their bodies values are attached, lost, and then refurbished as they transform from untouched goods to refashioned merchandise.

Following discussions in chapter 2 of the courtesans' transformation from private to public goods, Zamperini's chapter 3 details the transition in the figures' power positions in and...