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Prostitutes in Southern Song

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Prostitutes played an important and necessary role in Southern Song Society. Confucian scholars who dominated the civil service saw them as excesses and blights upon society’s morals. Buddhists also despised them for tempting men to live hedonistic lives. Other women considered them threats and rivals for the affection of their husbands. But for the most part Prostitutes gave sensual pleasure and companionship to those who worked hard for the good of the Empire. From the lowly urban workers to the Celestial Emperor the Prostitute was a pleasurable fact of life.

Prostitution, they say is the oldest profession, although not all prostitutes entered that service of their own free will. Many were driven to prostitution, as they are today, by poverty and hardship. Chinese ethics of that time espoused having many children to help work in farms or in the family business. However, more children also meant more mouths to feed. Starving, poverty-stricken rural families were forced to sell their children to traveling merchants who would then sell them as maids, workers or more often then not prostitutes in the cities.

            Prostitutes spent most of their lives among other forms of worldly entertainment in pleasure grounds where places were moral and social mores were largely be ignored (Gernet 222-25). However, in large cities such as Hangchow, the pleasure grounds appeared to have spread to the whole city. Virtually every public place, tavern , restaurant, hotel,  and market had become a pleasure ground. Even Marco Polo was so astonished at this when he arrived in China that he was led to record afterwards:

Certain of the streets are occupied by the women of the town who are in such number that I dare not say what it is. They are found not only in the vicinity of the market places, where usually a quarter is assigned to them, but all over the city. They exhibit themselves splendidly attired and abundantly perfumed. In finely garnished houses, with trains of waiting women, these women are extremely accomplished in all the arts of allurement, and readily adapt their conversation to all sorts of persons, in so much that strangers who have once tasted their attractions seem to get so bewitched, and are so taken with their blandishments and their fascinating ways that they never can get these out of their heads.  Hence it comes to pass that when they return home they say they have been to Kinsay or the City of Heaven, and their only desire is to get back thither as soon as possible.”

            However, Prostitutes were not wholly just sex workers. Many were also talented singers, dancers and musicians. In fact, the youths and not so youthful who frequented them came as much for their company as for sex. They are not the lowly streetwalker variety that comes to mind when the term prostitute is used. In fact, the term courtesan or concubine is more appropriate. Like Japanese Geisha many served an exclusive clientele of merchants, government officials and other wealthy individuals. Some even took them home to become concubines or in the rare fortunate occasion their legitimate wives.

            The Chinese Philosopher Confucius taught that a hierarchical social order was best for the good of society. As early as the Han Dynasty, this belief was already deeply imbedded into Chinese culture (Gernet144–145). Especially since, in order to join the government a universal civil service exam, the first of its kind, had to be taken and the majority of the topics in the exam was the classical teachings of Confucius and his followers. By the Song Dynasty, virtually all of China followed this hierarchical social order.

            Confucius taught proper moral behavior and that superiors should teach their inferiors proper behavior through their good example. This structure started in the family where the father is his own little emperor in the household. By extension, increasingly senior government officials are the ‘father’ of their subordinates until the Emperor is then the father of all. The Tang legal code that the Song largely retained codified this series of complex relationships of superiors and inferiors. Jaques Gernet wrote: “The family relationships supposed to exist in the ideal family were the foundation of the entire moral outlook, and even the law, in its total structure and its scale of penalties, was nothing but a codified expression of them. (Gernet 145-146)”

            In this hierarchical social order, Prostitutes fall into the very bottom. As merchants of flesh they produce no goods for the betterment of society. Givers of pleasure they winnow away at the Confucian work ethic of their customers making then spend their time seeking pleasure rather than working for society. Worse, as paramours and discreet lovers they are a threat to married women and the family as a whole. As a result, they are seen by the Confucian Scholars as a blight upon society, at least superficially, though they hardly exerted efforts to actually eradicate prostitution.

            Buddhism a religion that was founded by Siddhartha Buddha in India around 3rd Century B.C. was already well established in Southern Song. Buddhist idealized self-sacrifice, welfare and charity. They emphasized meditation and self-reflection to attain a higher state of being. The deeply spiritual among them spent their lives in monasteries living lives of contemplation and prayer. Against the backdrop of their faith Buddhists saw Prostitution as an abomination.

            Confucian Scholars and Buddhists were not the only ones who believed that prostitutes should be eradicated. Women in general found them a threat to their well being as well. While not as liberated, brazen or assertive as their Tang counterparts, Song Dynasty women were educated and could express themselves well (Gernet 166). Some even attended formal schooling in science or philosophy. Clearly, Song women were cut against the grain, not the stereotypical woman who spent all her days at the beck-and-call of her man (Gernet 167).

Even the ideal of a chaste, modest and pious young woman was questionable in some urban settings. Greedy and flirtatious women existed in Hangzhou and Suzhou. Gernet even wrote that if the husbands of these women could not satisfy them they could take on as many as five ‘complementary husbands’. If they lived near a Buddhist monastery the monks there could serve as lovers. Prostitution then was a two way street (Gernet 164).

Song women were uniquely interested and involved in the affairs of their family. They could manage businesses, work in cottage industry and have a legitimate say in family affairs (Gernet 165). Although at the end of the day Confucian ethics still dictated that their will is subordinated to that of their husbands or father.

            The economic strength of the Song period greatly contributed to this. Wealthy or poor, families provides as extravagant a dowries as their fortunes could afford in order to attract wealthy son-in-laws that could provide stable and secure lives for their daughters. As a result of these excessive dowries the family sought benefits for their daughter.  Among these protections they sought was from prostitutes and concubines who would steal the husband from them. As with any woman, wives were jealous and conniving towards the concubines and prostitutes who served their husbands. After all, the old saying goes ‘the man will only stray if his needs are not met at home.’

            In spite of all the negative views against them, Prostitution was widespread in China. The main reason was because they were wanted. As the World Wildlife Fund saying goes “when the buying stops, the killing stops” the same is true for prostitution. When people stop seeking their services, women will stop selling themselves.

            Many women were married off on the basis of their dowries to men who best served their families needs. In these arraigned unions, love and affection play a secondary role. Trapped in a marriage with a woman they did not love and that they could not bear to be with, it is not uncommon for married men to be driven to seek companionship outside of marriage. This provides a healthy market for “singing girls” as they were euphemistically called.

            Another source of clients were the young university students. These youths sent to study by the wealth of their parents often frequented the singing girls out of a sense of adventure and hedonism. Granted generous allowances by the prosperity of the Song Era they had more than enough money to spare to satiate their curiosity.

            If the Confucian Ideal is taken to its logical extreme state that the Celestial Emperor is the father of all his people, the people then are expected to follow his good example. Yet the Celestial Emperor, more often than not, had the largest collection of prostitutes himself. The practice of foot binding came about because an Emperor’s concubine named Lovely Maiden danced with her feet bound for the viewing pleasure of the Emperor. An elaborate system based on Chinese Geomancy was developed so that the Emperor would lie with his Empress on the luckiest nights. His favorite concubine would sleep with him on the next lucky night  and so forth so as to produce a lucky heir directly from the Empress and Emperor. In other words, he had so many concubines he had to have a schedule to determine who he would sleep with on a given night. Against such a backdrop, it is not surprising that men, while they may condemn prostitution in public, patronized prostitutes.  After all, if it is good enough for the Father, the Celestial Emperor, its good enough for us.

            Despite the moral outcry against prostitution it persisted in Song China for no other reason than because were sought after. Also, the outcry against them was largely muted by the moral decline of the times. A prostitute was an illicit entertainer with whom the strict moral formalities could be set aside. For as long as there are those who demand it, there will be those who supply it.

Works Cited

Gernet, Jacques. Daily Life in China on the Eve of the Mongol Invasion 1250-1276.

Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1962.

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