L is for Jeannie Lin

{Content note: the following post very briefly quotes fictional acts of torture during a police interrogation — and, in case anyone else cringes at such things like I do, I should mention the torture involves hand injuries. GAH. 

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Despite the casual malice of Othello and the oceans of blood in Macbeth, I have always found King Lear to be Shakespeare’s most chilling tragedy. There’s a dark purple void at the heart of that story into which all good things fall, never to be seen again — it’s simultaneously frightening and fascinating, a masterclass in showing how human isolation can tear a whole world to pieces.

I would never have expected to get shades of that same feeling from a historical romance set in Tang Dynasty China, but such are the marvelous gifts the romance genre sometimes offers to its reverent acolytes. And by “romance genre” I mean Jeannie Lin, whose Chinese-set historicals just keep getting better and better: Jade Temptress is a stunning and memorable book, maybe even a masterpiece of the genre. The Shakespeare angle only clarifies how the book deconstructs the interlocking systems of money, class, and power.

Cover image for Jeannie Lin's The Jade Temptress. A woman with pale skin, dark hair, Asian features, and deep red lips wears a white gown patterned with bright flowers and wrapped with a blue sash. Large red flowers are woven into her hair. One hand is languid and the other held against her face in a pose of subtle invitation.The first scene of King Lear sets up everything that follows: the king divides his kingdom between his three daughters, offering the most riches to whichever one who loves him most. Or rather, whichever one claims to love him most, since of course love is not so easily measured or proved as Lear seems to believe. It’s a stupid game, thoughtless at best and malicious at worst. As the two eldest fall over themselves in their haste to kiss dad’s ass, Lear’s youngest and best daughter Cordelia decides the only way to win is not to play.

LEAR: … what can you say to draw

A third more opulent than your sisters? Speak.

CORDELIA: Nothing.

LEAR: Nothing!

CORDELIA: Nothing. (Lear I.i.87-91)

Lear imagines himself as something like a fairy-tale king who can discern true goodness and reward it with the appropriate amount of wealth. It is stagey and disingenuous, particularly since he has plainly saved the best part, the “third more opulent,” for his darling youngest daughter. Cordelia’s “nothing” shatters the king’s comfortable little play: she rejects the idea that love can be exchanged for anything except itself. To exchange love for money turns love into something like work — or something like prostitution, though Cordelia doesn’t say so. Lear throws a tantrum, the King of France proposes to Cordelia on the spot, the two elder daughters are embarrassed, and everyone agrees Lear is a royal ass. Things proceed to go quite rapidly to hell.

Jade Temptress heroine Mingyu, a famous courtesan in the imperial capital of Changan, is caught in a similar web where familial relationships and profit-based relationships are conflated. Her fellow courtesans are her “sisters,” and the scheming brothel-mistress Madame Sun prefers to be known as “Mother”:

Though they called each other mother and daughter, Mingyu never forgot the truth. She had a true mother once. Her birth mother had sold her and her sister for a small handful of coins. Madame Sun, her foster mother, would never let her go for so little. (Kindle location 352)

A nice little twist of the knife, there: are you really more valued simply because your foster mother sets a higher price on you? (Short answer: no.) Madame Sun is even less able than Lear to imagine human worth as anything other than a financial measure —  as a result, her affections are always expressed in terms of prices and profit. It’s unclear how much of this is artifice, manipulation for her personal gain, and how much is simply her own deeply ingrained belief: even Mingyu is left uncertain about this, at the end. But she is quite clear on her own position in this dynamic: “Always ‘us.’ There was no Mingyu. There was Madame and there was the Lotus Palace . . .” (375). Since her love (or at least its performance) can be purchased, it becomes a commodity — which is to say it has economic value, and therefore cannot/should not be given away for free. Any sense of the courtesan as a person capable of love outside of currency relationships must be suppressed in order to maintain the value of the courtesan’s love as a luxury item. At the same time, since all her wages go to the Lotus Palace and not to herself, the courtesan is distanced from economic agency: she can earn, but she cannot spend. She is in essence a lever by which money moves from her suitors to her foster mother, who quite literally owns her. As indicated by “There was no Mingyu,” our heroine reads this framework as an erasure: “This is a dream world,” she says later of the city’s pleasure district. “We don’t exist outside it” (1223). This is Cordelia’s thought turned inward: Mingyu recognizes that her participation in the sex trade has made her into nothing, both in a legal and an emotional sense.

Since she is nothing, Mingyu has learned to use nothingness as a weapon in Changan’s tangled web of money, gender, and class. She cultivates a quiet and mysterious air of unreadability — an emptiness behind which she conceals her own truth. Hero Wu Kaifeng recognizes this:

“You make yourself into a blank canvas and let your admirers fill it as required.”

“A mirror,” she corrected, unperturbed. “A courtesan is a mirror. The bureaucrats value their own learning, so I give them poetry and music. The generals value competition and strategy, so I confirm the brilliance of their plans.”

“And myself?” . . .

“You value justice, Constable. Unfortunately, that is the one thing I cannot speak to. I know nothing of it.” (2023)

And this is true: Mingyu and her Lotus Palace sisters are disempowered in Changan by the trifecta of gender, class, and economics. They are all women, of low birth, whose earnings go to Madame Sun. They only have agency insofar as they control the agency of others — specifically, men: “Sometimes exploiting a man’s power is the only influence a woman can wield” (526), Mingyu explains. Love becomes a means of channeling power, and money a measure of both. The higher the price a courtesan commands, the more power she wields — and vice versa. (Which goes a long way toward explaining Madame Sun.) Love separated from money is rendered meaningless, unmeasurable: nonexistent. Mingyu’s fellow courtesan Ziyi, burned by heartbreak, expresses this most succinctly: “The inspector is wealthy and offers you his protection. He’ll pursue you at any cost. It’s hardly different from romantic love. In some ways, it’s more reliable” (2565).

This is some Jane Austen-level irony in a genre romance — especially since the inspector in question, imperial official Xi Lun, is so very easily read as the horror-movie version of the classic alpha romance hero:

Xi was pleasing enough to the eye. His face was square and his jaw broad. To match the strong features of his face, his clothing was impeccable and his manners cultured. He was young compared to many highly ranked officials and he was free with his wealth. (1724)

Handsome, powerful, rich, worldly, and younger than many at a similar point in his career — all my Dom Billionaire alarm bells were ringing like mad. His pursuit of Mingyu is relentless and he completely ignores the charms of the other courtesans, all while giving our heroine crushing kisses, pricey gifts, and a barrel full of disregard for her limits and boundaries. This is the complete set of genre-recognized Stalker Romance Hero Cues. Mingyu responds the only way she can: by getting profoundly creeped out. Xi Lun has entirely bought into — see what I did there? — the system of love-as-commodity that she feels erases her as an individual and an agent. He offers her valuable objects and Mingyu knows this is because he sees her as only another type of object. His intent to purchase her bond — to make her legally his property — is the novel’s biggest threat, and even his erotic desire is an expression less of physical lust than of an eroticized control: “Sex would just be another way for him to exert his dominance” (2160). Again, this is language we are used to seeing as the mark of an alpha hero, but in this context the alpha billionaire’s confidence and compliments turn impeccably sinister.

Xi Lun is only the most obvious symbol of a patriarchal system where all women are commodified to greater or lesser extent. I was strongly reminded of activist blogger Melissa McEwan’s “The Terrible Bargain We Have Regretfully Struck,” which details the way marginalized groups — specifically women, though she recognizes parallels to LGBTQ people and people of color — learn to respond to the constant barrage of microaggressions with wariness and guardedness toward privileged groups, as a form of self-protection. For Mingyu and Ziyi and the other courtesans, every man in Changan exists as a potential threat. Even the wealthy men they hope to seduce into providing for them. Even our hero, Constable Wu Kaifeng.

If Xi Lun is a villainous romance hero, Wu Kaifeng is a heroic romance villain. We know Kaifeng interrogated Mingyu at one point in the first book, The Lotus Palace, but it’s only now that we learn the full extent of what happened. Turns out, he tortured her. Actual physical torture as part of a police investigation — and it’s explicitly sexualized:

The first time Wu had interrogated her, he’d taken out six bamboo sticks and laced them between his fingers. He’d held her hand still in his own as he completed the task, a gesture that was grotesquely intimate. (573)

In the hands of an author I trust less, this would have had me side-eyeing the text something fierce. But Ms. Lin has remarkable control of her material and has not led me wrong before — more concretely, this is not the first time Mingyu has been abused at the hands of a man in authority. The late General Deng was fond of making his possessiveness known in subtle but unmistakably douchey ways. She knows how to read abuse rather than merely react to it: Wu Kaifeng puts her in physical pain, yes, but he does it in the course of his duty — torture being an accepted part of Changan police procedure — and most importantly of all, he stops the torture long before he needs to. (And apologizes for it later in a perfect and specific way.) This one fact is enough to show Mingyu that the constable operates outside the usual dangerous networks of social privilege:

“I don’t trust you because you are kindhearted and honorable, Constable Wu. I trust you because you don’t care who Deng Zhi is or how vast his forces are. You don’t care who I am, which means you don’t care that a lowly courtesan was found with her dead and high-ranking lover. Or that her life means nothing to the magistrate or his superiors. All you care about is finding the truth.” (596)

Note all the negatives in this early passage — Mingyu is starting to rebel against the values of the Pingkang Li by seeing value in nothingness more generally. She will grow bolder about this as the novel progresses.

Merely being a member of the privileged gender is not enough to put Wu Kaifeng at the apex of power in Changan, and he knows it: “I’m ill-mannered,” he says later. “Unsightly. Nothing to anyone that matters” (1271). Mingyu initially recognizes in Kaifeng a lack that gives him power, similar to her own mirror-like unreadability: “Part of her envied Wu Kaifeng and his unyielding approach. It must be freeing to walk through this world and feel nothing” (596). But their positions are differently privileged by class: Mingyu may not have money of her own — except for what she’s been able to hide away in secret — but she does have access to a moneyed lifestyle. Her clothes, her social skills, her musical ability, all these mark her as a member of the rarefied upper echelons of society, even if she only exists there as a shadow of her true self. The constable, in contrast, is a man of unknown birth, fortuneless and indifferently educated, a pariah in the imperial world where scholarship and bloodlines are directly tied to career advancement and power. Mingyu’s position might be a cage, but it’s a cage raised far above the level a man like Wu Kaifeng can hope to reach. If he resists the kyriarchal network of money and privilege, as Mingyu sees, it is because he has as little hope of agency within that network as she does.

A third of the way through, at the very moment when Kaifeng insists he is nothing, Mingyu contradicts him:

“It’s not true,” she murmured. “You’re not really like that.”

He smiled crookedly at her. “Not ugly?”

“Not . . . nothing.” (1271)

And then something happens: he kisses her. Something else happens: Mingyu kisses him back. (This seems as good a time as any to state that Wu Kaifeng is one of the swoon-worthiest heroes I’ve read in quite some time. Jeannie Lin writes the best first kisses.) “Don’t think too much of this,” Mingyu warns. “I won’t,” Kaifeng promises (1271). And then they part: “They both knew that nothing more could become of it” (1309). This kiss, like Mingyu and Kaifeng, is nothing — but like them, and like Cordelia’s ‘nothing,’ this nothingness has a power outside the system of commodified love and desire. Thanks to the iterative nature of romance narratives, the reader knows damn well that something will indeed come of this. Mingyu is changed almost immediately: “Her stolen and precious hour with Wu Kaifeng had emboldened her more than it should have” (1440). She’s using the language of value — stolen, precious — to describe something that by law and custom shouldn’t even exist.

Kyriarchal power systems are bending beneath the weight of actions motivated by honest mutual desire.

Wu Kaifeng may have started as a torturer, but he moves increasingly away from any attmpts to claim, control, or possess Mingyu. All these terms are standard romance sex scene tropes — hell, they’re practically subgenres at this point — but Kaifeng makes a great case for the pure undiluted hotness of un-claiming: “He found her sash and looped the length of silk around her wrists to secure her arms overhead, but the gesture was only symbolic. Almost poetic, for someone untrained in poetry. He couldn’t tie her there, he couldn’t keep her” (2383). [My notes at this point are simply “SWOON SWOON SWOON.” From me, not Mingyu. She’s not really the swooning type.] This deliberate and careful unclaiming consistently allows Mingyu the metaphorical space to claim herself, to exist again as a person: “When Kaifeng took her like this, single-mindedly, with no motive but for his pleasure and her own, she finally belonged to herself. Her body was her own and this pleasure — this pleasure was hers for the taking” (2737).

But this progression is unsustainable and comes to a head at the climax: Mingyu is growing bold enough to want to free herself from the entire money-love-power system, and talks of leaving the city. Wu Kaifeng knows that although he has come to love her anything he does to claim or take or possess her will only keep her imprisoned. So he retreats entirely, saying they must part.

This next move will take some explaining, so bear with me. Mingyu and Kaifeng are falling in love while trying to solve the mystery of the death of Mingyu’s protector General Deng. (SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS!) At first it appears Deng was beheaded by one of his bodyguards, so the general is given a state funeral and a very expensive new head made of jade. But then it turns out — SPOILERS NO REALLY IT’S COMING UP — that the headless body belongs to one of the bodyguards, and Deng has faked his own assassination so he can start a coup, and he’s been hiding in the family mausoleum, but by the time our protagonists figure this out someone else has killed all the surviving bodyguards and also poisoned the general. And servant confesses and commits suicide, but maybe he didn’t really do it either? And maybe he was poisoned by the real killer? It’s a giant MacGuffin of a murder investigation, with near-constant deceptions and a complete lack of meaning at the end — in short, it’s perfect. And the late general’s oh-so-valuable jade head? Is broken up by Wu Kaifeng and used to buy Mingyu’s freedom from Madame Sun.

So the head of a man who was not actually beheaded is broken, and the pieces used to pay Mingyu’s very real debt — a concrete example of something coming from nothing, of emptiness being turned into profit. Now that the courtesan owns herself again, of course, she is able to reunite with Wu Kaifeng. Mingyu has some money she’s hoarded and they spend most of it renovating a derelict tea-shop: in the book’s final scene, Kaifeng has bought Mingyu a very pretty musical instrument with basically the last of their cash. Now, at the happy ending, nothing is all they have. They’re hoping the tea-shop will turn a profit, but they don’t know. It’s the diametric opposite of the usual romance narrative, where the couple ends up wealthy or at least comfortable — but while a lack of funds might jeopardize the normal HEA, we’ve had the whole rest of the book to know how capable our hero and heroine are at making something out of nothing. Where King Lear let nothingness destroy his life, his family, and his kingdom, Mingyu and Kaifeng find nothingness a haven from the interconnecting dynamics that work to dehumanize them. The vast amount of nothingness at the end of this novel is not a lack, but an opportunity. It’s really quite elegant, as a twist on the usual trope.

A brief postscript: Let this analysis not be taken to mean that sex work per se is necessarily degrading or corrupting or dehumanizing. This is a study of a single fictional text and its motifs. But the intersections beneath which sex work takes place in both Ms. Lin’s Tang Dynasty setting and in our own modern Western Judeo-Christian culture — systems of class oppression and gender bias most especially — these often do great damage to sex workers as individuals and as a class. If Mingyu feels erased as an individual, so too do many real-world sex workers, who are criminalized by an imperfect justice system, and whose voices are discounted by a culture that considers them less than fully human.

An even briefer, much less serious postscript: using the words ‘nothing’ and ‘something’ so often has gotten “Something Good” from The Sound of Music thoroughly stuck in my head — and it occurs to me that the lyrics to that song also set up a system where goodness is rewarded with love as if love is a prize for moral behavior and how is that not a type of commodification and I should probably just stop now before my brain dribbles out my ears.

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Dear Author’s group review of this book touches on the class issues as well as themes of artifice and reality — it’s a really great discussion of a really wonderful book. Miss Bates has a review the parallels many of my own reactions here.

Jeannie Lin’s first book in this series, The Lotus Palace, sold less than expected, so that Harlequin pulled The Jade Temptress from print distribution and made it digital-only. Ms. Lin blogged about her complex reaction to the news, and Courtney Milan responded with print sales figures of her own to back up Jeannie Lin’s thoughts. It’s an interesting conversation on how we interpret sales data in light of race and romance, and there are no easy answers anywhere.

This post from Racialicious is brief but illuminating and touches on capitalism in China, contact between Asian and European cultures, Orientalist stereotypes, and the difference between a concubine and a mistress.

My own views on sex work are rendered largely irrelevant, I think, by the fact that I am not nor ever have been a sex worker. (And no matter what they tell you, erotic romance authorship is not the same thing at all.) For years I have looked to Seattle’s own Mistress Matisse for considered and knowledgeable opinions in a very volatile field of discourse and experience: her Twitter feed is a great source of activism and writing. And while I’ve only just started reading Melissa Gira Grant’s recent book Playing the WhoreI can tell you that it is robust, insightful, and pulling no punches.

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Lin, Jeannie. The Jade Temptress. Toronto: HQN, 2014. Ebook.

Shakespeare, WIlliam. King Lear. Shakespeare Online. Web. 1999. Accessed April 4, 2014.

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7 thoughts on “L is for Jeannie Lin

  1. I haven’t read The Jade Temptress yet, but The Lotus Palace is perhaps my favorite genre m/f romance ever. In addition to all of the things you note, I love how Lin’s protagonists are not all beautiful or handsome; Wei Wei in The Lotus Palace is disfigured, and Constable Wu is not conventionally handsome, yet they find love anyway. In addition to writing of a faraway place and time that isn’t traditionally associated with romance (cough cough Regency England), Lin upends or subverts just about every trope or assumption of the genre along the way.

  2. Thanks for this – just went and bought every Jeannie Lin ebook at Harlequin, and got Beverly Jenkins at my library.

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