“You are too young yet to know what nostalgia truly means. It takes time to become sentimental. But for the sake of your success, you must quickly learn. When you touch a man’s nostalgia, he is yours.”
Set in Shanghai in 1912, Rules for Virgins is a short story in the form of a monologue by Magic Gourd, a former courtesan who has retired and become the attendant of Violet, a fifteen-year-old courtesan-in-training who is one week away from her debut, which will lead up to the sale of her virginity. No longer young enough—at the ripe old age of thirty-three—to be a courtesan herself, Magic Gourd turns her calculating mind to a new goal: helping Violet become one of the Top Ten Beauties of Shanghai. Rules for Virgins is her attempt to impart the wisdom and experience she gained from her years as a courtesan to her young charge. Magic Gourd recounts both her glory days and her mistakes, determined to help Violet achieve the same successes she had, without the bumps earned through ignorance.
Magic Gourd addresses Violet as “you” throughout the story, asking the reader to identify with the situation of a young woman who never speaks. This works to a certain extent, because the reader is likely to be as ignorant as Violet of what it takes to be courtesan in post-Imperial China. However, I could not help but feel that there was a fuller story to be told here about the relationship between an attendant and her new courtesan, and I wanted to hear both of their voices. The second person address becomes less awkward once you settle in to the story, but I would not precisely describe it as successful.
Where Tan does succeed is in portraying the perilous balancing act performed by the courtesans as they strive to become women of independent means. Competition between the beauties is intense, and the attention spans of most patrons are fleeting at best. Magic Gourd ruthlessly crushes sentiment, and strives to instill economic principles in her young charge. Pleasures houses are businesses, and Violet must learn their best practices quickly, or she will find herself unable to repay her debt to the Madam of the house. Thus Magic Gourd tells Violet to “forget about love. You will receive that many times, but none of it is lasting. You can’t eat it, even if it leads to marriage.” Instead, she is told to focus on attaining the “four necessities” for success: fine jewelry, modern furniture, a contract with a stipend, and a comfortable retirement fund. Although the title would imply that this short story is about a virgin courtesan, it is Magic Gourd, whose time has already passed, who we come to know as she tries to distill a lifetime of knowledge and experience into a strategy guide for success, seduction, and independence.
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