|Publisher:||Hale, Robert Limited|
|Product dimensions:||6.20(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.50(d)|
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Blue Dress Girl
By E.V. Thompson
Robert Hale LimitedCopyright © 2012 E.V. Thompson
All rights reserved.
'Keep still, She-she! You're wriggling about so much it's a wonder I haven't stuck every one of these pins through your skin.'
'Perhaps Li Hung will send her back thinking the rash of pin pricks is something he may catch.'
'I doubt it. If all that's rumoured of Li Hung is true he'll waste no time inspecting She-she's body for spots. They say he takes as many as six of his concubines every night, peeling the clothes from them as he would the skin from an orange. After savouring the fruit he casts it aside and reaches out for another.'
'Ai-yah! This must be why he is such a small man and always looks as though he is about to fall asleep.'
'Surely he must have forgotten what sleep is? How are you going to keep such a man happy, sister?'
'Enough of such talk! Have you no shame?' The mother of She-she and her two sisters entered the room on slippered feet, unnoticed by two of her three daughters. 'Out you go, or the dress will become as ugly as your thoughts. I'll finish pinning it myself. Go!'
As her two unrepentant sisters were driven from the room, She-she remained balanced precariously on a stool in the centre of the room. She said nothing, but her shoulders sagged despondently.
Closing the flimsy bamboo door firmly behind the two giggling girls, She-she's mother returned to the centre of the room. Walking in a full circle about her eldest daughter, she nodded approval of the sheath of bright blue silk that was pinned tightly to accentuate the body beneath.
Her expression became one of loving concern when she looked from the slim, silk-clad figure to a face that reflected none of the brightness of the unfinished dress.
'Take no notice of your sisters, She-she. They are young and know nothing. They merely echo the crude banter of the fish-market. Li Hung is the Hoppo, the chief customs official of the Canton district. He was appointed by his Imperial Majesty. Li Hung is a very important man. As one of his concubines you too will have importance. Not at first, of course. The older women must take precedence. But he is rich and as he takes more concubines they will look up to you as you look up to the others. You will see.'
'But ... Li Hung is old!'
'Age brings wisdom and distinction. Have you ever heard of a young Hoppo? He has much power. Because Li Hung has taken you for a concubine your father has become head boatman on this part of the river. A girl who can find a place in a wealthy household and improve the lot of her family too should be filled with happiness and gratitude at such good fortune.'
The stern expression left the mother's face as swiftly as it had appeared. Taking hold of one of She-she's hands, she squeezed it in painful affection.
'All will be well with you, She-she. I know it will. As for me, I will swell with pride whenever someone mentions Li Hung's great house by the river at Canton, knowing you are living there.'
Unwanted tears suddenly sprung to her eyes. 'But I will miss you, child. I will miss you more than any mother has ever missed a child that was born of her body.'
For a few minutes mother and daughter clung to each other in a rare display of emotion. Then She-she's mother pulled away with a sudden exclamation. 'Ai-yah! You are a porcupine ... but what are a few scratches?'
As she spoke her critical eye followed the line of pins that drew the silk dress together on one side of She-she's body. She realigned three of them with a deprecatory clicking of her tongue. 'Those sisters of yours! I pity the man who takes either of them into his house-hold. Their minds are like a butterfly's wings.'
She-she's mother stood back from her daughter and as her glance went from dress to face, her expression softened once more. 'Your heart is closest to my own, She-she. Yet you are the greatest dreamer of them all, your mind forever travelling far beyond this village and the great river on which we live.'
'That is because your own brother taught me to read and allowed me to bring home his books. There is much to be learned of faraway places in books. You know so. You most of all would enjoy it when I read aloud to you and the girls.'
'It is not good for a girl to learn to read when so many men and boys cannot. It is fortunate you are going to the house of a learned man, or your knowledge might have caused you trouble. A man does not like his wife to know more than he.'
'I'm not to be a wife to anyone.' There was a note of wistfulness in She-she's voice as she added, 'I wonder what life will be like as a concubine of Li Hung?'
'That I do not know, although I once spoke with the concubine of a great Tartar war lord. He came through this very village when I was a girl, and I was ordered to take food to the women of his household.' I asked one of them the very same question. She told me it was an honour to be the concubine of such a great man – and so it is. All the women in the village are envious of you, while the men wish they had a daughter with beauty enough to attract the attention of a high official like Li Hung. Then they too might be given an important post, like your father.'
'Where is he? I had hoped he would be here to give me his blessing before I leave.'
'You will not be going until late this afternoon. He should be home by then, although his work keeps him very busy. But unfasten your dress carefully and step out of it. We must have it finished by the time Li Hung sends for you.'
O-hu, head eunuch in the household of the Canton Hoppo, arrived at the door of the small house in the riverside fishing village as the sun was sliding gently towards the distant western hills. Such surroundings as these were not to the eunuch's delicate tastes. He grumbled at the time She-she took to say farewell to her family, viewing the simple furnishings of the hut with disdain.
A curtained carrying-chair had been brought to the door to takeShe-she to the Hoppo's boat which was waiting alongside the river-bank. As she stepped inside the brightly painted conveyance, She-she tried hard to hold back the tears which threatened the make-up so assiduously applied by her mother.
The other three women had no such reason for controlling their own emotions. As She-she was carried away she parted the curtains that hid her from the view of villagers she had known all her life. The last glimpse she had of her mother and sisters was of three faces contorted with grief, their cheeks wet with tears.
For She-she, the pain of parting was made far worse by the absence of her father. His quiet strength and wise words had always been available to her when they were most needed. She wondered whether he had deliberately stayed away. His way of telling her that things were different now she was about to become a woman in another man's household.
She dismissed the thought. Her father was hard at work in the service of Li Hung, earning the promotion she had brought him. He would probably be waiting for her at the river.
She-she's father was not at the river and, minutes later, she was being borne away by boat, in an enclosed cabin. Drawn curtains prevented her from looking back at her family and the village that had been her home since her birth, sixteen years before. She would never see either again.
Twenty-four hours later She-she was carried from the boat and borne along a dirt road in the carrying-chair to enter the cobbled yard of Li Hung's impressive residence. She risked a glance from behind the curtains of the cramped and hot carrying-chair, but there was time only to observe an abundance of flowering, climbing shrubs before the chair was lowered to the ground. She raised one hand to her hair, but then the curtains were drawn aside and the Hoppo's senior eunuch said, 'Come.'
It was the moment She-she had been secretly dreading. She had dismissed the stories told about Li Hung by her two younger sisters, bringing to bear upon them all the scornful authority afforded by her few extra years. Now she wished she had allowed them to tell all they claimed to have heard. What if the rumours were true? Would Li Hung be awaiting her in his room ... the bedroom? If so, what would he do? What would be expected of her?
This time there was impatience in the eunuch's voice and She-she put her fears aside, hurriedly stepping from the carrying-chair. All the gossips, family and otherwise, were agreed on one point: the senior eunuch in an important official's household wielded great power, albeit assumed power. It would be foolish to upset such a man before she had even set foot in Li Hung's house.
As she straightened up, She-she tried to apologise, but the eunuch ignored her. He walked away and passed through a doorway hung with bamboo curtains, to which were attached many tiny bells. They continued their soft music after the eunuch had passed through. After a moment's hesitation, She-she followed.
The door led to an enclosed garden. Following her guide, She-she caught a sudden, unexpected glimpse of a number of young women, perhaps a dozen or more. They were gathered about a small dog to which were attached a number of squirming, teat-hanging puppies, each hardly larger than a man's closed fist.
One of the girls glanced in She-she's direction and nudged a companion. As She-she followed the eunuch from the garden she could hear giggling behind her. It sounded very much like the merriment of the two sisters she had left in the village that was her home no longer.
'Are they concubines too?' She-she spoke to the eunuch politely, but he ignored the question as he had ignored her attempted apologies. She wondered whether he was being deliberately rude, or was merely hard of hearing.
When they reached the far side, She-she followed the eunuch through a doorway that opened into the house itself. She found herself in a corridor that was part of an awesomely rich world. Here were silk drapes and huge items of intricately carved camphor-wood furniture. Wall paintings depicted birds, cloud-capped mountains and men and women dressed in the style of the ruling Manchu dynasty.
The eunuch pushed aside a silken curtain that served as a door for a room off the corridor, saying, 'This is yours. You will keep it clean and tidy. When a gong sounds once it is time to eat. If it sounds many times you will assemble with the other girls in the room at the end of the passageway.'
With this brief information, the eunuch turned – and was gone.
Left alone, She-she stood in the room and her feeling of bewilderment grew with each silent passing moment until it bordered on panic. She had been left with so many unanswered questions. This was not how she had imagined life would be as a concubine of the Hoppo, Li Hung. She had thought she would be surrounded by other concubines and servants. Yet the eunuch had told her she was expected to keep her own room clean and tidy!
She-she turned to see a girl of about her own age standing inside the curtained doorway. She had entered the room quietly, her small feet making no sound on the heavily carpeted floor.
'I am Kau-lin. We heard from the eunuchs that a new girl was expected today. What's your name? Where are you from?'
She-she introduced herself eagerly, greatly relieved to have found someone in this vast and unfamiliar place who was at least prepared to speak to her.
Kau-lin proved to be both friendly and informative. She, like She-she, was a Hakka girl and she went about the room opening cupboard doors and pointing out the clothes that had been provided for She-she. There were slippers to wear about the house – and a light, silken robe she must wear when she went to bed.
This latter piece of information was accompanied by heavy innuendo. She-she felt emboldened enough to ask the question that had been uppermost in her mind since first being told she was to become a concubine of the great Hoppo.
'When I am dressed for bed will the master come to my room? Or will I be summoned to go to him? And ... will it be tonight?'
'The master? You mean Li Hung?'
She-she nodded, puzzled by the other girl's evident amusement.
'Li Hung will not send for you. You're a Hakka girl. A peasant, the same as me. Look at us – at our feet. 'They were never bound when we were children, as were the feet of the wives and concubines of Li Hung. He would not so much as look at us.'
She-she's mouth dropped open at Kau-lin's revelation, 'I thought ... I was told ...
'You thought you had been brought here to be a concubine for the Hoppo?' Kau-lin laughed, but seeing She-she's bewildered distress, stopped quickly. 'Never mind, you are not the only girl whose family has been fooled by such a tale.'
'But if I am not to be a concubine, why am I here? Why are you here?'
Kau-lin reached out and touched the dress worn by She-she. It was the same colour and material as her own.
'This shows everyone why you are here. You are a "blue dress girl". "Foreign devils" like blue. It is the colour of their eyes.'
'"Foreign devils"? I still don't understand.'
She-she's eyes showed her fear. She had never met a Fan Qui – a 'Foreign devil'. It was the term given to Europeans. They were so fearful that the Emperor of China restricted them to only a few ports around the coast, never allowing them inland. Canton was one of such ports. She-she had not thought about this in the excitement of her changing life ... but Kaulin was talking again.
'After an evening spent drinking with the Hoppo and his officials and a night sharing a bed with a blue dress girl, the "Foreign devils" are less inclined to question Li Hung's customs dues. Don't worry, She-she, the "Foreign devils" are not as frightening as they are said to be. Once you have become used to their hairiness and their smell, you will find that some of them are not too bad....'CHAPTER 2
She-she's tears flowed for much of that first night in the house of Li Hung. It was almost daylight before she eventually drifted off into an exhausted sleep. Mercifully, the nightmare of the day was not carried into the night. During the brief sleep her troubled mind conjured up no disturbing dreams.
Leaving her family and the hard but familiar life she had always known had been deeply distressing to her. Yet even at the moment of parting she had her pride to sustain her. Pride in the belief she had been chosen by the Hoppo to become one of his concubines. It had brought honour to her family, recognition to the Hakka village, and given her father a new importance in the community.
Now the pillar of her pride had been toppled, it had brought the world she thought she was entering crashing down about her ears. Far from being an honourable concubine of a high Imperial official, she had become a 'blue dress girl', virtually a prostitute. Even worse, she was a prostitute whose body was to be provided for the pleasure of the Fan Quis, the 'Foreign devils'. It was a prospect that filled her with unspeakable horror.
During the sleepless hours, She-she wondered whether her father had known what Li Hung intended for her. Could this be the reason he had not put in an appearance when she left home? She had been deeply hurt by his failure to say goodbye to his eldest daughter.
She immediately dismissed the thought that he could have known anything of the life to which he was sending her. There had always been too much love in their family. He would not knowingly have done such a thing to her. There must have been something else to keep him away. The pressures of his new duties. He did not know – and must never know – of her place in Li Hung's household. He would not survive the shame.
In spite of her unhappiness, life was not unpleasant in the Hoppo's house during that first day. There were ten blue dress girls and they passed the hours talking, playing mah-jong, or walking in their part of the extremely beautiful gardens. The garden used by the blue dress girls was separated by a wall from that used by the concubines, but the official mistresses could be heard calling to each other, and at midday they had musicians to entertain them.
The concubines were scornfully dismissed by Kau-lin as foolish, empty-headed dolls filled with jealousy of one another. She declared they spent their days tottering awkwardly on bound feet, telling tales about each other and squabbling about the favours bestowed upon them by their lord and master, Li Hung.
Kau-lin, like She-she, was a Hakka. Their feet had been left unbound because few Hakka families could afford to have a girl in the household who was not able to work to earn her keep. Kau-lin, in particular, was fortunate to be alive. As she told She-she, every other girl born in the village in her birth year had been consigned to the Canton river.
Excerpted from Blue Dress Girl by E.V. Thompson. Copyright © 2012 E.V. Thompson. Excerpted by permission of Robert Hale Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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