A hundred years ago, in a country on the verge of collapse, a woman from the shadows stood up and defended her Chinese countrymen. Abandoned by the imperial government, and occupied by western forces, the fate of Beijing was placed on the narrow shoulders of a common courtesan.
But who was this saint like figure? A plain prostitute or a Maria of the East? The lover of a German general? A brothel madam? An opium addict? Or a liar and a cheat?
To most Chinese the name of Sai Jinhua will ring a bell. They might not be able to remember the full story behind it, but the majority can recall something about an affair with a German general within the Forbidden City.
80 years ago this was totally different. Sai Jinhua was on everybody’s lips. The story of the courtesan who stood up to foreign occupiers, intrigued a whole nation. Sai Jinhua became a living legend, a symbol of resistance first against the hated eight allied nations who quelled the Boxer Rebellion and then against the Japanese.
Looking in to the story of Sai Jinhua it is very difficult to tell right from wrong. The story becomes particularly confusing because of the many different narratives. Some are interviews with the real historical person and some are pure fiction.
The early years
What can be established with certainty is that Sai Jinhua came from an area close to Suzhou in the South. Allegedly she was born there in 1874. Already as a juvenile she worked on a pleasure boat, a kind of floating brothel, entertaining wealthy customers in the canals. This was where she met her first husband, Hong Jun.
Hong Jun brought her into his home making her his third wife. He was an incredibly wealthy official of the imperial government and was more than thirty years older than his young bride. Not long after the wedding, Hong Jun was send to Germany to act as an ambassador, and Sai Jinhua followed her husband to Europe. It was highly unusual for women to be able to travel abroad, and the experience would leave a permanent impression on the young girl. In Europe Sai Jinhua learned German and gained a whole new perspective of the world. After three years in Germany (1889-1892) Sai Jinhua returned to China with her husband. But not long after the return Hong Jun died. Embarrassed by her being a prostitute and allegedly not willing to give her any share in the heritage, Hong Jun’s family expelled Sai Jinhua.
On her own again, Sai Jinhua turned to the one profession she knew: prostitution. Quickly she earned a name for herself as a high-class courtesan playing on her past as a wife to one of the most respected diplomats in the country. But the fame she gained from this affiliation was nothing compared with what would come.
Becoming a living legend
In the year 1900 Sai Jinhua had found her way to Beijing and opened a brothel at the infamous entertainment district, Bada Hutong.
This was the year of the Boxer Rebellion. The Boxers, a sectarian band of Kungfu trained rebels, wanted to rid China of all foreign influence. Foreigners and anyone associated with them were literally getting killed in the streets. It was in many ways a popular revolt, even the imperial government sympathized with it. The rebellion did not end till an army of allied colonial powers forced themselves into China and occupied the capital.
The Imperial court fled and left Beijing without any constituted leaders. In this whole new environment Sai Jinhua got to play a role because of her ability to speak German.
Command of the German language was especially important because the supreme commander of the allied forces, General Von Waldersee, was German. Some sources question how much German she could actually speak, but it must have been at least enough to have a small conversation, because first hand sources describe speaking to her in German.
According to legend Sai Jinhua saved numerous Chinese from being beheaded and brokered deals with the occupiers by speaking to officers of the allied forces. This gained Sai Jinhua a reputation as a savior of the city, and brought thriving business to her brothel.
The story of the heroic courtesan saving her country men just seemed to grow stronger and stronger, already a few years after the Boxer Rebellion the first stories of Sai Jinhua were published. In most of them she was a pure angel, but in some she was accused of having an affair with General Von Waldersee inside the Forbidden City on imperial bed sheets. This relationship has never in anyway been proven.
Sai Jinhua did not get to enjoy her success for long. Because in 1903 she was convicted of maltreating a prostitute in her brothel. Upon the sentence she was expelled from Beijing. She returned to the South and lived for a long time in Shanghai. She married twice but both of her husband’s died only a short time in to the marriage. After both of these marriages, the story repeated itself and just like after her first marriage she was expelled by the family upon the death of her husband.
Sai Jinhua returned to Beijing in 1918 with her third husband. After his death she settled south of the city at Tianqiao, a poor area of mixed reputation. Nobody knew who this middle-aged woman was, because Sai Jinhua registered under a different name. But in 1930 she had become so poor that she could not even pay her rent. This made her apply for a kind of social support at the local police station, and this was how a journalist of a small newspaper realized who she was and published an article about her.
The story of her reappearance spread like wildfire. Sai Jinhua received both money, fruit baskets and other gifts from supporters all over the city. Even though she had been expelled from the capital in disgrace her reputation as a guardian angel seemed intact.
Poems and plays were written about her and the famous intellectual Liu Bannong wrote a book about her based on 10 interviews conducted with her at the 5 star Dongfang hotel.
One of the reasons behind this outburst of support was the Japanese threat. The story of Sai Jinhua - a common prostitute standing up to foreign occupiers could not help resonate in the environment of the 1930’s where a foreign power once again stood on China’s doorstep. At some theaters the play about Sai Jinhua was even banned by the government for fear of enraging the Japanese.
In 1936 Sai Jinhua died. She was buried in Taoranting Park as a national hero. After her death people who had known her published a number of accounts on her, and not all of these publications portrayed the “real” Sai Jinhua in a favourable light, some even accused her of being a liar.
Despite of this the legend of the courtesan who stood up against foreign powers survived, and last year the theater play about her that was banned in the 1930’s premiered at Beijings Poly theater.
The role of Sai Jinhua was played by Liu Xiaoqing, an actor who infamously claimed to be the best actor in China in the 1980s, a time where this kind of boasting behavior was not looked lightly upon. Apart from this Liu Xiaoqing have also just like Sai Jinhua gone through several marriages and even served more than 400 days in prison for tax fraud. Having such a prominent yet controversial character play Sai Jin Hua vitalized the part, and proved that a story of a righteous selfmade woman, standing up against the norms of society, still have resonance in China today.
“The life and legend of Beijing’s most famous prostitute: Sai Jinhua, a walk in Beijing’s old red light district” -the story of a very unlikely hero with tiny Lily feet.
Follow us on May 5, 12 and 26 on an exclsive walk through Beijing’s old entertainment district . During this walk we will gain exclusive access to an old brothel, create a portrait of Dashilan, the more than 600 year old entertainment area and Ba Da Hutong - the old Red Light district where Sai Jinhua worked at two different brothels that are still standing. The walk will end at Capital M with a well deserved drink
For inquiries about the walks on May 5,12 and 26 please contact Bespoke Beijing on this mail:
Tickets will be on sale from Monday April 15