For Book Clubs

Jin Hua Framed in Black Line

Photograph of the real Sai Jinhua that hangs on the wall of her husband’s house on Xianqiao Lane in Suzhou.


Alexandra is thrilled to join Book Clubs to talk about books and writing – and The Courtesan. Contact her on FB or by email – and here are a few discussion questions, just to get you started…

1. At the beginning of the novel, Jinhua’s father faces his death by execution with a poignant quandary: “If I had a single moment more to teach my tiny daughter, what are the words that I would choose? What would I say to make her strong for the life she will live, alone and unprotected in these troubled times?” What advice would you give seven-year-old Jinhua? How might that advice help her navigate the horrific journey that lies ahead?

2. For centuries, mothers (and fathers) in China had a stark choice to make between binding their daughters’ feet, thus crippling them for life, and leaving their feet unbound, which would condemn a girl to a life without the prospect of a good marriage. How might you evaluate this choice if you were the parent of a daughter in 19th century China? How would you feel as a daughter? Can you think of any current day issues for young girls and their parents that might in some (small) way compare to this?

3. Lao Mama, the brothel keeper, is an odious character, but she is also a woman with a tragic history. In one scene she reflects on how she’s rescued the six girls working for her and thinks of them as daughters. How truthful do you think Lao Mama is being in this scene? Is there room for any sympathy for her?

4. The fortune teller tells Madam Hong of Jinhua: “She will lead both one and many lives, and the course of these lives will appear to be a line and yet it is a circle.” In what ways is Jinhua’s life a line and in what ways a circle? It is said that western cultures view life as a linear endeavor and that eastern cultures say that life is circular. Which do you think is more accurate and why?

5. How might Jinhua’s life have been different had she heeded the fortune teller’s advice:“she must allow what is real to be real and what is unreal to fade.”?

6. Lao Mama’s last words to Jinhua when she leaves the Hall of Round Moon and Passionate Love to become a concubine are, “If you are miserable in that house you can powder your face and then hang yourself.” Suicide was a frighteningly common form of personal agency for women in China of this period, and several female characters in the novel do, in fact, make that choice for themselves. Is this a valid form of agency under the circumstances? What other forms of personal agency do you see female characters employ to survive in an environment where women have so few possibilities for self-determination?

7. Friendship between women is a major theme of the novel. Jinhua tells Suyin, “You and I are like skin and bones…we are sisters.” What are the dynamics of this friendship from Suyin’s point of view? When Jinhua tells Suyin, “You are like Nüwa, Suyin. You are the one who will mend everything,” does this turn out to be true?

8. There is a theme of “love out of balance” that runs throughout The Courtesan and impacts almost every character in the book. Discuss the ways in which this theme manifests itself in the lives of the various characters. Why do you think it takes Jinhua so long to recognize that love is out of balance in her own life?

9. The notion that it was considered almost shameful for a Chinese scholar to be sent on a diplomatic mission to Europe might come as a surprise to many readers. As Wenqing tells Jinhua, “it is not an honor—to be sent away to the land of the barbarians.” Why do you think this was so?

10. When Jinhua and Wenqing first arrive in Vienna, he tells her, “I must help make China strong against the West…perhaps it is true that only by knowing what our enemies know and how they think can we restore the maps that show our greatness.” What role do maps play in Wenqing’s worldview? What role does story-telling? Do you see elements of story-telling on his part as his career as a diplomat evolves?

11. While in Vienna, Jinhua spends an afternoon in the company of the Empress Elisabeth of Austria, and the two women find much to talk about. “Strangely, very strangely, it is herself that Sisi recognizes in this exotic Chinese creature…” What does the empress see in Jinhua that makes her feel this way? Why do you think Sisi has such an attachment to Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which the two women discuss? What does the story line of the play mean to Jinhua?

12. How does Jinhua’s understanding of love change throughout the novel as she migrates from her home, to the brothel, to Wenqing’s household, to Vienna, and ultimately back to China? What do you think of Edmund’s answer to her opium fueled question, “What is Great Love?”

13. Suyin is a presence in Jinhua’s life from the time of her arrival at the hall until the very end of the novel. When the disastrous banquet for Prince Duan is about to begin, Jinhua says of her friend, “As always, Suyin accepts the inevitable.” Does this mindset serve Suyin well? How might Jinhua’s life have been different had she been more inclined to “accept the inevitable”?

14. The theme of story-telling has a prominent place in The Courtesan. Near the end of the novel Suyin tells Jinhua, “You are merely telling stories while the water boils and the fire burns.” In what ways does telling herself stories help Jinhua? In what ways is it a dangerous pastime?

15. The Courtesan has as its historical backdrop an era when East and West were becoming acquainted, and there are numerous instances of misconceptions, misinformation, and misunderstandings between the two cultures. Which of these do you find most surprising? Do you think that we are as vulnerable today to cultural misunderstandings when we, as Westerners, engage with China? Why or why not? What is the relevance of this historical backdrop to today’s world and to today’s East-West dynamic? Does the historical context matter, and if so, why?