In a sunny California apartment, a young woman and her finance arrive to record her great-grandmother's reminiscences. The story that unfolds of Precious Orchid's life in China, where she rises from a childhood of shame to become one of the most successful courtesans in the land, is unlike any they've heard before...***
To be a prostitute was my fate.
After all, no murderer's daughter would be accepted into a decent household to be a wife whose children would be smeared with crime even before they were born. The only other choice was my mother's--to take refuge as a nun, for the only other society which would accept a criminal's relatives lay within the empty gate.
I had just turned thirteen when I exchanged the quiet life of a family for the tumult of a prostitution house. But not like the others, whose parents had been too poor to feed them, or who had been kidnapped and sold by bandits.
It all happened because my father was convicted of a crime--one he'd never committed.
"That was the mistake your father should never have made," my mother told me over and over, "trying to be righteous, and," she added bitterly, "meddling in rich men's business."
True. For that "business" cost him his own life, and fatefully changed the life of his wife and daughter.
Baba had been a Peking opera performer and a musician. Trained as a martial arts actor, he played acrobats and warriors. During one performance, while fighting with four pennants strapped to his thirty-pound suit of armor, he jumped down from four stacked chairs in his high-soled boots and broke his leg. Unable to perform on stage anymore, he played the two-stringed fiddle in the troupe's orchestra. After several years, he became even more famous for his fiddle playing, and an amateur Peking opera group led by the wife of a Shanghai warlord hired him as its accompanist. Every month the wife would hold a big party in the house's lavish garden. It was an incident in that garden that completely changed our family's destiny.
One moonlit evening amidst the cheerful tunes of the fiddle and the falsetto voices of the silk-clad and heavily jeweled tai tai--society ladies--the drunken warlord raped his teenage daughter.
The girl grabbed her father's gun and fled to the garden where the guests were gathered. The warlord ran behind her, puffing and pants falling. Suddenly his daughter stopped and turned to him. Tears streaming down her cheeks, she slowly pointed the gun to her head. "Beast! If you dare come an inch closer, I'll shoot myself!"
Baba threw down his precious fiddle and ran to the source of the tumult. He pushed away the gaping guests, leaped forward, and tried to seize the gun. But it went off. The hapless girl fell dead to the ground in a pool of blood surrounded by the stunned guests and servants.
The warlord turned to grab Baba's throat till his tongue protruded. Eyes blurred and face as red as her daughter's splattered blood, he spat on Baba. "Animal! You raped my daughter and killed her!"
Although all the members in the household knew it was a false accusation, nobody was willing to right the wrong. The servants were scared and powerless. The rich guests couldn't have cared less.
One general meditatively stroked his beard, sneering, "Big deal, it's just a fiddle player." And that ended the whole event.
Indeed, it was a big deal for us. For Baba was executed. Mother took refuge as a Buddhist nun in a temple in Peking . I was taken away to a prostitution house.
This all happened in 1918.
Thereafter, during the tender years of my youth, while my mother was strenuously cultivating desirelessness in the Pure Lotus Nunnery in Peking, I was busy stirring up desire within the Peach Blossom Pavilion.
That was the mistake he should never have made--trying to be righteous and meddling in rich men's business.
Mother's saying kept knocking around in my head until one day I swore, kneeling before Guan Yin--the Goddess of Mercy--that I would never be merciful in this life. But not meddle in rich men's business? It was precisely the rich and powerful at whom I aimed my arts of pleasing. Like Guan Yin with a thousand arms holding a thousand amulets to charm, I was determined to cultivate myself to be a woman with a thousand scheming hearts to lure a thousand men into my arms.
But of course this kind of cultivation started later, when I had become aware of the realm of the wind and moon. When I'd first entered the prostitution house, I was but a little girl with a heart split into two: one half light with innocence, the other heavy with sorrow....