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three pairs of lovers with space



Li Yu 李漁 (1610-80) was a prolific and widely-read Chinese writer, some of whose works offer valuable insight into the practice of pederasty under the late Ming dynasty, just before the fortunes of Greek love began slowly to deteriorate in China.

Amongst those devoted principally to pederasty was one of the twelve short stories in his Shí'èr lóu 十二樓 (Twelve Towers), namely the tale Cuìyǎ lóu 萃雅樓 (House of Gathered Refinements), which is presented here. Probably published in 1658,[1] the setting for the tale is 1563 or 1564 to 1565, since it took place over a year and at least a few months and ended with the death of the historical imperial minister Yan Shifan, the villain of the story, whose execution on 24 April 1565 it purports to explain.

The text is from pp. 83-115 of Patrick Hanan’s translation,  Tower for the Summer Heat (Columbia University Press, 1998), his translation of six of the stories in the Twelve Towers.


Chapter 1

The flower-seller won’t sell flowers from the rear courtyard,
While the customer is accustomed to buying priceless treasures.


Could this be a vision of Heyang county?
Or the Quarter of Tattered Brocade?[2]
When bought, the flowers were just in bud;
Now sold, their scent has stayed.
A swarm of bees! The market scene’s
As bust as a butterfly’s wing.
Grudge not the cost, my lords – all is
For sale but the beauty of spring.

This poem was written twenty years ago by the Romancer Who Awakens the World.[3] At the time I was buying flowers in the market below Tiger Mound,[4] and I lingered there, among its riot of colors and profusion of scents, unable to tear myself away. An old man, more interested in collecting memorable lines than in making profits, handed me brush and ink and asked me to write a poem for him, which is how I came to write this on his whitewashed wall.

A market is the most vulgar of places, while flowers are supposedly the most refined of objects. And yet, incongruous as the terms vulgar and refined may be, these flower-sellers not only make good money, they also enjoy a tranquil life, which is why they are the object of such envy in my poem. But flower-selling is not the only enviable trade. I know of two others. And what might they be, you ask? Bookshops and incense shops – which, together with flower shops, are known as the “three refined trades among the vulgar.”

People who open these shops do so for karmic reasons; they open them, not just because they happened to learn the trade, but because their last existences were spent as insects or animals. What kinds of insects or animals? Florists were bees, booksellers were bookworms, and the men who run incense shops were musk deer.

But there is one other trade that is the most refined of all, so why is it not at the top of my list? Those who run antique shops are known as the connoisseurs of the market-place, and since they pass themselves off as cultivated men, oughtn’t they be listed before the three trades I have mentioned? But because antique shops sell books, flowers, and perfumes together with their antiques, the owners are reluctant to consider great literature, rare flowers, and exotic perfumes as if they were new products. Nevertheless, for all their protestations, both the vulgarity and the refinement of business resides in these men.

There are cases in which the business is the essence of refinement but the merchants are the height of vulgarity. These merchants spend their lives among books, flowers, and incense and not only fail to appreciate them, they loathe the smell of flowers and incense and are bored to death by the classics and histories. Are they not somehow involved with these objects against their will? They, too, must have been insects or animals in a previous existence and now find themselves in their present state because their physical form has changed but not their temperament. Bees only know how to plunder flowers, not how to appreciate them, to toil their lives away for the benefit of others. Bookworms know only how to devour books, not how to understand them, and grow old and die in graves of half- eaten volumes. The musk deer is full of scent, of which the deer itself is completely oblivious. It may have a richly perfumed navel and scrotum for other’s pleasure, but to the deer its scent is a burden. Such merchants are not the refined among the vulgar, but the vulgar among the refined.

I shall now tell of a few people who did manage to change themselves completely and appreciate these things, and who supposed that they had hung out their shingles in a genteel business where customers would patronize them. But there was just one problem. They also had another shingle, signifying physical beauty, which should never be displayed, lest it lead to trouble, I respectfully urge all handsome young shopkeepers to take caution as their watchword.

Wanping seen across the Lugou Bridge

During the Jiajing reign[5] of the Ming dynasty there lived in Wanping county of Shuntian prefecture[6] two young men, Jin Jongyu and Liu Minshu, who were fellow students as well as good friends. They were far too distracted by a variety of arts and pastimes to devote themselves to full-time study, so neither succeeded in the examinations, and on reaching their twenties they gave up their studies for careers in business.

They had an even younger friend, Quan Ruxiu, who came from Yangzhou and whose face and figure rivaled He Yan’s and Shen Yue’s for beauty.[7] Male though Quan was, his looks surpassed those of the most gorgeous women. He carried on a rear courtyard relationship[8] with both Jin and Liu who, treasuring their friendship, managed to avoid any jealousy over him. Indeed they did more than avoid jealousy, they used him as a means toward a closer physical bonding themselves. For all people knew, two young men had taken on a third, but the truth was that all three had coalesced.

“We’re all well educated.” they said, discussing their future. “We’ve given up our studies but still to choose a specialty. Only if we select some genteel trade will we be able to keep our status as cultivated men.” In reviewing all thirty-six occupations, they found few that appealed to them. Books, incense, flowers and antiques were the only ones to meet with general approval, so they decided to start a business that would combine all four products. Renting a three-unit shop on West Riverbank, they knocked the units into one and in the middle installed a bookshop run by Jin, on the left an incense shop run by Quan, and on the right a flower shop - to which was attached an antiques section - run by Liu.

At the rear stood a tall building to which they give the name House of Gathered Refinements. The superb quality of its design and the tastefulness of its furnishings go without saying. On balmy, moonlit evenings they would gather in this building, and there would be music and singing of consummate artistry that ravished the senses of all who listened. There was no rare or remarkable book they failed to enjoy there, nor any strange incense, nor any exotic species of plant or flower. They would touch no antique after the Han, nor hang on their walls any paintings later than the Song. And when they had finished enjoying a piece, they would sell it, and the longer it had been in their possession, the higher would be the price that they asked - as if the world should foot the bill for the pleasures of these artistic connoisseurs.

painting on silk, 19th century

Jin and Liu had wives who lived elsewhere, while Quan, who was single, lived in the shop as wife to both men, who stayed with him on alternate nights, nominally to look after the shop but actually to enjoy the pleasure of the rear courtyard. By day they made their money, by night they took their pleasure. Where else in the world would you find two such heavenly immortals? There was not a single young man in the capital who did not admire and envy them - admire the serenity of their lives, envy their rare delights.

They ran their business differently from other shopkeepers. Although their aim was always to make a profit, they observed a certain style in the way they did it. There were three conditions under which they wouldn’t buy and three more under which they wouldn’t sell. When wouldn’t they buy? When the goods were inferior, fake, or of suspicious origin. “These are high class businesses,” they would say, “and if you stock inferior or fake goods, you’ll not only ruin your reputation, you’ll drive people away, with unpleasant consequences. As for goods of suspicious origin, whether stolen by thieves or servants, although the prices are tempting, there’s not much money to be made from them, and the legal trouble they may involve you in will cost you your reputation as well as your investment. Putting your head in a noose - that’s not what a man of refinement or a connoisseur would do!” By imposing these conditions on themselves, they avoided any risk of disgrace.

What of the conditions under which they wouldn’t sell? They wouldn’t sell at too low or too high a price, or if the customer had any doubts. “Genuine goods at honest prices” may have been just a slogan for other shopkeepers, but they took it seriously. Although their prices were not fixed, they would discount no more than ten or twenty percent. Not only would they refuse to go higher, if someone they knew offered them the nominal price, they would weigh out the discount and return it, to demonstrate their honesty. Sometimes a customer they had not dealt with before would wrongly identify an article and suspect it to be a fake, and in such a case, even though the money had already changed hands, they would decline to complete the sale, explaining: “What’s the point of paying out your money and getting nothing but doubt and suspicion in exchange? You’d be better off trying somewhere else.”

They never deviated from these rules. When the shop first opened, business was slow, but it picked up steadily until the premises could no longer hold all the customers. From commoners to officials, from officials to mandarins, no class failed to patronize them. So famous did they become that even the emperor’s own palace women, if they wanted a famous flower or an exotic incense, would send a eunuch over to the House of Gathered Refinements to buy it.

Whenever a mandarin or an official visited them, the owners would invite him upstairs to sit down, and only after serving him tea would they fetch the goods he was interested in. When the patrons noted how elegantly the room was furnished and how cultivated the owners were, they would make an exception and treat them differently from other shopkeepers. Some patrons would leave them standing while they chatted, while others would ask them to sit down. Generally speaking, Jin and Liu were more often left standing, while Quan, although a commoner, was treated as if he were an officeholder and regularly asked to sit and chat. Why was that? Because he was young and had a lovely face, and presumably the officials were no sticklers for morality but enjoyed a homosexual affair on occasion. Whenever Quan joined them, they would have loved to make their laps into easy chairs and clasp him to their bosoms. How could they bear to leave him standing at a distance? Which explains why he sat far more often than he stood.

Yan Shifan depicted in the Chinese television series Ming Dynasty in 1566

At the time in question, Grand Secretary Yan Song’s son, Yan Shifan, whose sobriquet was Donglou, served as a Hanlin compiler and enjoyed immense power.[9] One day as he sat in the court anteroom chatting about painting and antiques with his colleagues, they began praising the objects in the House of Gathered Refinements as uniformly exquisite. And not only were the objects of high quality, they said, the shopkeepers were quite cultured themselves. At this point one or two of Yan’s colleagues volunteered: “The most delightful is the youngest, who is sweetness and innocence itself. With him sitting opposite, you’ve got your rare incense, your exotic blooms, your antiques, your books right there in front of you. Why bother to look at anything else?”

“If they’re running short of pretty boys on Lotus Seed Lane, do we have to go behind the counter for them?” asked Yan. “I simply don’t believe you can find a beauty like that in the marketplace!”

“Words alone won’t convince you. If you’re at all interested, why don’t we go and see him?”

“Very well, let’s go over as soon as court’s out.”

This suggestion prompted his colleagues to send word to the shop. They had two motives in mind. In the first place they wanted to curry favor with the great man; if he approved of their choice, it would show that they shared his tastes. And secondly, they wanted to ingratiate themselves with the shopkeepers by informing them that a Very Important Person was on his way over and giving them time to get ready. If the shopkeepers could satisfy this customer, he would be worth as much to them as dozens of other officials, and the profits would be considerable. When they went shopping there, a little something would surely be knocked off the price. So they told their servants to deliver the following message: “His Honor Yan is coming to inspect your wares, and you ought to make some preparations. He’s different from other officials; you can’t afford to slight him. Not only must the tea be of the finest quality, even the person who serves it and keeps him company ought to spruce himself up and appear well groomed and smartly turned out. If His Honor consents to say one word of approval, this will be your lucky day! The Yan household on its own is worth at least half as much as the palace. And not only will you make money, you’ll find it quite easy to land an official post.”

Jin and Liu were alarmed. “Seeing to the tea - that’s our job. But why this talk about the person who keeps him company? Why should he have to spruce himself up? He’s not some official’s pet doorman or singing-boy! When officials go upstairs and have no one else to talk to, we send him up to list what we have in stock and discuss prices. By now it’s evidently become de rigueur, and they expect to see him! From what they say in their message, it’s obviously him, not our goods, that they’re interested in. I imagine those officials gave old man Yan a glowing account to tempt him here - worshipping Buddha with borrowed flowers, as it were. But this old man is different from others; he’s bold and ruthless, and if likes what he sees, he won’t be content to scratch the itch through his boot, he’ll do his damndest to fool around with the lad. We may not be jealous of each other, but we’ll certainly be jealous of an outsider!”

After talking it over privately, they called Quan in and asked him to decide.

“I don’t see any problem,” he said. “Let me leave before he gets here, then just tell him I’ve gone out. Officials get carried away and boast about their pleasures in front of their colleagues, that’s all. He’ll hardly go so far as to arrest me!”

“You’re right,” said Jin and Liu, hiding him away and getting on with their preparations.

Within a matter of minutes Yan swept in followed by several officials. They were escorted by a squad of fierce looking servants.

Entering the shop, Yan cast an eye all around and, seeing no young man there, assumed he had gone upstairs. When he arrived upstairs and still saw no sign of him, he asked his entourage.

“He’ll be out in a moment,” they replied. “When we visit, he always comes and keeps us company. Now that his lucky star has descended from Heaven, he’s hardly going to run away!”

Yan was a master of intrigue, an exceptionally shrewd man, and he realized that the shopkeepers must have been tipped off about his visit and have packed Quan off somewhere else. “In my opinion,” he said, “he certainly won’t be out to see me today.”

We gave them notice, his colleagues thought. We didn’t just drop in on an impulse. He must want to expand the business. He can’t have run away! It never occurred to them that extraordinary men might also be found in the marketplace, men who, unlike officials, value friendship over status and would sooner antagonize a powerful official than a friend.

Yan’s colleagues were confident enough to suggest a wager: “If he doesn’t show up, we’ll treat you to a banquet. Let’s bet on it.” Yan accepted the bet, and they waited for Quan to bring the tea.

Unfortunately the tea, when it came, was brought by an elderly hunchback instead of the young shopkeeper. Asked where the young master was, the servant replied: “He didn’t realize you gentlemen would be honoring us with a visit today and went out.”

Their faces dropped. “His Honor Yan is not just another customer, you know. It’s terribly hard to get an interview with him. Hurry up and find your master, lest he spoil the whole occasion.” The servant departed.

After a short wait Jin and Liu came upstairs and saluted. “What sort of things would Your Honor like to see? We’ll be happy to bring them up.”

“I’d like to see everything you have, no matter what the kind. But bring only your choicest, most expensive pieces, the ones no one else can afford.”

Porcelain jar of the Jiajing reign

The two shopkeepers flew downstairs and gathered up their most valuable antiques, their most exotic flowers and perfumes, plus a book catalogue or two, and brought them up and set them before Yan.

Yan’s aim had been to see Quan, not buy anything, but now, although furious at the youth’s absence, he betrayed no hint of anger. Instead he set aside all of the most valuable pieces, praising them as he did so. No mention of the youth escaped his lips.

“I’d like to buy all of these,” he said, after making his selection. “I understand that your prices are not completely dishonest. Let me take these pieces with me, and I’ll pay you when I receive your invoice with the net cost.”

Jin and Liu had been afraid that Yan, having come on Quan’s account, would not leave without him but would insist on waiting, and they knew they would be sorely embarrassed as time dragged on. So when Yan wished to leave promptly and with no sign of irritation after buying a great quantity of goods, they felt particularly grateful and quickly agreed. “Our only concern was that Your Honor night not want them. By all means take them with you.”

Yan ordered his servants to bring the items, and they followed him out of the shop with the goods stuffed in their pockets or slung over their shoulders. Stepping into his sedan chair, Yan apologized once more and then was borne merrily away.

His companions, however, were chagrined, not so much because they had lost their bet and would have to stand treat, as because they feared Yan’s displeasure. They had miscalculated in this trivial matter, and he would be less inclined to entrust them with more important things in the future. Such is generally the way with those who are overly concerned about their own advancement.

Having brought his tale this far, the author must pause for a moment; the next episode is too long to be told without a break.

Chapter 2

In protecting the rear, they lose the front;
By joining a benefactor, he meets a nemesis.

Jin and Liu waited until Yan and his entourage had left the premises before making out the invoice, which came to exactly a thousand taels. They were reluctant to collect the money at once and delivered the invoice only after five days had passed. At the Yan mansion a steward accepted it and soon returned with the message: “His Honor has taken note of it.”

Jin and Liu were well aware that the official mentality differed from that of other people - officials were quick to take goods but slow to pay for them - and concluded they would not succeed at the first attempt and might as well go home. A few days later they tried again and received the same answer. From then on they took turns going every few days but were never offered a single tael, not even a cup of tea. The very words they received were doled out like precious gems. Nothing was ever added to the has taken note formula.

You have to give money to get money, they thought. Collecting from officials is like alchemy: You can’t start the reaction with nothing, you must seed it with a little silver. Unless we leave a package at the gate, his people will never put themselves out!

They weighed out five taels and gave them to the steward in charge, urging him to do his best to transmit their message. They even promised him a commission; if the payment were made in full, they would set aside ten percent as a gratuity. When the steward realized that they knew the ropes, he offered them his candid opinion.

“You two will never be able to collect your money like this. I understand there’s another shopkeeper who’s young and good-looking and that His Honor has heard about him but not yet seen him. Well, His Honor intends to keep these goods of yours in hock to persuade the young man to visit here. Provided he comes, the money will be paid. Look, you two are shrewd enough. Why throw the key away and try picking the lock with a piece of wire? What happens if you break the spring?”

Jin and Liu felt as if they were awakening from a dream. In a cold sweat, they stepped aside to talk the matter over: “We’ve been too clever for our own good. If we’d let him see Quan that day, perhaps he wouldn’t have taken our things. But who would have imagined that goods would spell disaster?[10] To get them back we have to sacrifice him, and vice versa. We’ll have to give up one or the other, but which should it be?”

After a moment’s thought, they came to a firm conclusion: “A thousand taels is far easier to come by than genuine beauty. Let’s give up the goods.”

They turned back to the steward. “That assistant of ours is just a boy,” they said. “He comes from an old family who have sent him to us to learn the business. He’s never even been allowed out - we’re afraid his parents might worry. Whether or not His Honor pays us, we aren’t going to hand over someone else’s child for money! Besides, we put up the capital for those goods and deserve to get a return on it. We shan’t be back again. If by some fluke the money does become available, please let us know and we’ll come for it.”

The steward laughed. “Tell me, gentlemen,” he said, “are you going to keep your shop open now that you’ve decided not to collect the money?”

“Of course. Why not?”

What! You own a shop here in the capital, so how can you be so ignorant of who holds power? As the proverb says, The poor and humble are no match for the rich and powerful. If you don’t collect the money, it’ll be a clear sign of your hatred and contempt. Is he a customer you can afford to hate and insult? If he wanted to sleep with your wives, I could understand it. Naturally you’d risk anything to stop him. But all we’re talking about here is a friend of yours. Taking him along for the master’s appreciation is like sending him an antique or a painting; even if it comes back a little the worse for wear, it will still not have lost all its value. Why give up thousands of taels for a cup of vinegar? What’s more, after you’ve given up the money, other things will start happening to you; you’ll never feel quite secure again. I strongly advise you against a course of action that spells nothing but trouble.”

The partner began to regret what they had done and told the steward that they fully agreed with him.

Once home, they wept in front of Quan, then told him the heart-breaking news and asked him to go with them to collect the money. He firmly refused. “If a virtuous woman won’t take a second husband, how can a loyal man take a third master? Apart from you two, I shall never consort with anyone else. I’d rather have the cost of those goods chalked up to my account than do anything so disgraceful!”

Jin and Liu impressed on him the dangers they ran. “If you don’t go, not only will we lose our money, it will be very difficult to keep the shop open. We’re bound to be hit by some disaster or other.”

Firm as Quan’s resolve was, it could not withstand his partners’ pleading. He had no choice but to consent and accompany them to the Yan mansion.

The steward at the gate was delighted to see them and rushed inside to report. Yan at once ordered them admitted, and Jin and Liu saw Quan as far as the inner gate before turning back.

Meeting Quan for the first time, Yan examined him from head to foot and concluded to his vast satisfaction that this was indeed the most beautiful boy in the entire city. “You’re a young man of taste and I’m lover of art, so why did you hide from me that day when the other two were willing to meet me?”

“I happened to be out when you visited. I would never dare hide from Your Honor!”

“I’ve been told that you play various instruments exquisitely and that you’re also an expert at tending flowers and arranging antiques. As for burning incense and making tea, that’s your forte and there’s no need to test you. I need someone to keep me company in my library and would like to prevail on you to come and live here as my external concubine. It would save me the trouble of engaging a companion, which would be a great boon. Are you agreeable?”

“My parents are both elderly, and since we’re a poor family, I shall need to earn some money to support them. I’m afraid I couldn’t leave them for very long at a time.”

“But I understand you’re an orphan! Why are you trying to deceive me? You’re so thick with those two scoundrels that you can’t beat to part with them. That’s why you’re making these excuses! Do you mean to say that an official like me isn’t worth as much as two shopkeepers? They managed to hire you all right. You thing I don’t have the means?”

“Those two are my sworn brothers as well as my colleagues, and there has never been anything improper about our relationship. Your Honor should not be so suspicious.”

Yan know this was untrue but took no notice. I still haven’t won him over, he reflected, and he doesn’t feel any affection for me yet. Why would he abandon his old friends to consort with me? He kept Quan in his library and spent the next three nights with him.

Yan was devoted to homosexual affairs, and there was not a single attractive catamite in the city of Beijing who had escaped him. Even his subordinates, qualified officials though they were, if they were young and good-looking and willing to mount the stage, would be shown exceptional favor and invited to a rendezvous in the rear courtyard. With such wide experience, he was naturally a connoisseur, and when he saw that Quan’s skin was as smooth as butter and his rump whiter than snow - virginal, despite the two husbands - he fell madly in love with him and insisted that he stay.

In the course of the next three nights he used a vast amount of cajolery to win Quan’s favor by the soft and gentle approach. But the young man proved himself a veteran campaigner. So confident was he in his adamant refusal that blandishments fit to call down flowers from Heaven had no effect whatsoever.[11] To every approach he had a reply, to every proposition an excuse. Unable to persuade him, Yan had to send him away – at least for the present. On the fourth day he had the goods brought before him and looked them over once more, then chose a few of the best pieces for himself and sent the rest back. In addition to the cost of the pieces that he kept, he paid Quan twelve taels in personal compensation.

Quan could scarcely refuse. He tucked the money in his sleeve and, as he went out the gate, he handed it to Yan’s servants. He was ashamed to betray his friends by accepting it.[12]

On meeting Jin and Liu, he was indeed overcome with shame, and his only thought was to kill himself. His partners had to plead with him again and before he reluctantly agreed to go on living. Afterwards, whenever he saw Yan’s sedan chair passing by, he would duck out of sight lest Yan come in and molest him again. From time to time Yan would send an invitation, but Quan always declined on the grounds of illness. After he had done this a number of times, he felt he could hardly refuse anymore, so he chose a day when he knew Yan was out to go and sign the visitor’s book. In doing so he was clearly treating Yan the way Confucius had treated the usurper Yang Hu.

Yan was furious. An eminent man like me, one whose lieutenants staff the court, a man who can get anyone he wants - why, not even a raving beauty, the daughter of a multimillionaire, would dare refuse me if I wanted to marry her! And yet this orphaned nancy-boy from a commoner’s family has the nerve to snub me when I make an overture! It’s the fault of those two rogues, who have gotten him so firmly hooked that he won’t change, but I’m still furious about it. I shall have to think of some way to entice him here. There’s just one snag. With a handsome youth like that in the household, my concubines are inevitably going to be attracted. Even if nothing happens, they’re bound to make invidious comparisons and I’ll look older and uglier than I really am. I shall need to find the perfect solution before inviting him here, if I’m to get any permanent advantage. But although he thought long and hard, nothing came to mind.

Ming dynasty imperial court eunuch (modern portrayal)

At that time a eunuch named Sha Yucheng enjoyed great power. From his position inside the palace he had colluded with the Yans in a variety of nefarious schemes, and like them he stood high in the Emperor’s favor. A chronic asthmatic, he had returned home at nine o’clock that day to rest, after attending the levee. Although he held the title of palace eunuch, Sha was no different from an official. He had begun his career as an art connoisseur and had a keen appreciation of plants and antiques. No matter how hard Yan Shifan worked to earn a connoisseur’s reputation, he was a rank impostor in comparison with the eunuch.

One day Yan paid a call on Sha and found him arranging his objets d’art and watering his plants, not doing the work himself but shouting orders at his staff. Despite the stream of orders, he seemed quite unruffled.

Yan made a gesture of help, then commented: “These things were meant to bring us pleasure. If they involve us in this much effort, they’re nothing but a burden.”

“When your boys can’t be relied on, you have to see to things yourself,” replied the eunuch. “I’ve been trying to find a suitable boy for years. If Your Honor has any conscientious lads who are knowledgeable about these matters, I’d be greatly obliged if you’d let me have one.”

This remark brought back all of Yan’s previous concerns, and with them came a plan.

“My boys are even more hopeless than yours, I’m afraid. However the city has recently produced a young connoisseur who’s not only very knowledgeable but also a brilliant musician and chess-master. Many officials have been after him as a page-boy, so far without success. But I suppose he might come if you were to invite him. There’s just one problem with the lad. He’s past puberty and now thinks of nothing but girls, so even if you do manage to get him, you won’t be able to keep him for long. The only solution would be to remove his desire to leave by doing what was done to you: castrating him.”

“That’s no problem,” said the eunuch. “I’ll get him in here with a trick I know. If he’s willing to be castrated, fine. If he isn’t, I’ll get him drunk on drugged wine and gently relieve him of his privates. He may not be willing to serve as a eunuch after he comes to, but he certainly won’t be able to grow them back again!”

Delighted, Yan urged him to put the plan into operation as soon as possible, lest someone else get the boy first. Before leaving he offered another suggestion: “While Your Grace has a use for him, this question won’t arise. But if the time should come when you pass on and have no further need of him, I hope you’ll see to it that he’s returned to his sponsor. Whatever you do, don’t let him go to anyone else.”

“Of course! An invalid like me - how many years do I have anyway? And a eunuch is hardly going to have any sons to inherit his property. By all means come along and claim the lad.”

This was the whole point of Yan’s stratagem. He had calculated that an invalid like Sha would have only a few years to live and that the boy would come his way at the eunuch’s death. His aims - to avenge Quan’s snub and also work out a long-term arrangement - would be fulfilled by proxy. When Sha guessed what was on his mind, Yan burst into laughter, after which they enjoyed a few drinks together and parted.

Next day Eunuch Sha sent a servant to summon Quan: “A while ago I bought some bonsai from you that have not been pruned and have grown rather straggly. The youngest partner is requested to come and restore them. In addition, the palace has placed an order, mainly for creams, perfumes, and the like, and I want to have him take it away and check off the items.”

Jin and Liu promptly accepted and told Quan to go to the palace at once. Since Sha was a eunuch, they assumed there was no reason for suspicion, even if he kept Quan overnight. Moreover, having offended Yan Shifan, they were afraid of his retaliation and thought that Sha, who was on good terms with Yan, might come to their rescue in an emergency. This is why they accepted so promptly, their only concern being that Quan might not perform his duties well enough.

Quan accompanied the servant to the palace, where he paid his respects to Sha and chatted briefly before asking the eunuch’s wishes.

“Seeing to the plants and checking the order for the palace---that’s the least of it. I’ve long heard of your great reputation but never had the pleasure of meeting you, so I want this visit to pave the way for a friendship between us. I’m told you’re a specialist in the arts, particularly music - in fact that you’re the most accomplished artist in the capital. On your visit today I’d like you to demonstrate all of your talents and not stint on the things you have to teach me.”

Quan, who had come there to cultivate the eunuch’s friendship, did not scruple to use this opportunity to win his way into the eunuch’s favor and gain his protection. He not only ignored all modesty, he even exaggerated his accomplishments, lest, by confessing to a single field in which he was not proficient, he forfeit the chance of another invitation. Eunuch Sha was delighted to hear the claims. He ordered his boys to bring out a variety of musical instruments and set them in front of Quan on a mat. He then asked his visitor to demonstrate his talents while joining in the drinking. Quan obeyed scrupulously, pouring all his skill into the performance.

Young Yan certainly knew what he was talking about, thought Eunuch Sha as he listened. A boy with these gifts will never agree to serve me unless I castrate him. But rather than ask him, in which case he’d probably refuse, I’d better act on my own.

He winked at one of his servants, who brought in some drugged wine and filled the young man’s cup with it. Soon after drinking it, Quan began to grow limp. His head lolled forward and he slumped in the easy chair like an unwakable Chen Taun.[13] Eunuch Sha roared with laughter. “Come on, lads! Go to it!” he called. Before the drinking began, he had hidden the castrators behind the ornamental rock. They now came forward, pulled off the boy’s trousers, gripped his genitals, and with a light, deft cut sliced them off and threw them on the ground for the Pekinese dog After some watery blood had oozed out, they applied styptic powder to the wound on a hot compress, wiped away all traces of blood, and pulled Quan’s trousers on again as if they had never been off.

After sleeping for an hour, Quan awoke with a start, but although he felt some pain, he was still under the influence of the drug and did not know where the pain came from. With a conscious effort he focused his gaze on Eunuch Sha.

“I’m afraid I drank too much and took liberates that offended Your Grace.”

“You look a little tired,” said Eunuch Sha. “You’d better go into the library and rest.”

“Just what I feel like doing.”

Eunuch Sha told his staff to help Quan into the library where, because of the lingering effects of the drug, he fell asleep as soon as his head touched the pillow.

We do not know when he will awaken from his long sleep and what despair he will feel. Having read this far, gentle readers, are you able to steel your  hearts and feel no pain on behalf of the little shopkeeper?

Chapter 3

The great man loses power, and his skull makes up for genitalia;
The castrato takes revenge, and his urine compensates for spittle.

In the ivory-inlaid bed Quan slept on and on, dead to the world. He slept until after midnight, when the effects of the drug wore off and his wound began to ache. Awakening with a cry of pain, he felt his body all over - something was missing! Then, as he touched the place where it had been, the pain grew unbearable. He ran the events of the previous day through his mind and suddenly awoke to the truth: the benefactor he had allied himself with had turned out to be his enemy! And his own flaunting of his talents had been the cause of his undoing! At this thought he could not help wailing and sobbing, which he continued from three o’clock until dawn.

At nine o’clock two junior eunuchs came in and offered their congratulations. “From now on you belong to His Majesty’s household, and no official has any authority over you! No man will ever dare harass you again!”

But their congratulations only made Quan feel worse. He had lost all chance of ever taking a wife. Worse still, he would have to part from his husbands and could never rejoin them in marriage.

At the height of his anguish another eunuch entered, this time with a summons: “His Grace has arisen. Come and make your kowtows.”

“But I’m a guest in this house. Why should I kowtow?”

“Now that you’ve been castrated, you come under his control. Of course you have to kowtow!” All three eunuchs left the room.

Even if I don’t kowtow, I’ll still have to take leave of him in order to get out of here, thought Quan. If I totally ignore him, he’ll never let me go!

Clambering out of bed, he hobbled painfully, step by step, out of the library and into Eunuch Sha’s presence. He was just going to bow when the eunuch, whose stem expression and tone were vastly different from the day before, forbade him. “Your wound hasn’t healed yet, so you’d better omit the kowtows for the present. Come back and pay your respects in five days’ time. With effect from today, I’m putting you in charge of the library; all the antiques and books will be in your care. I’m also assigning you two boys to help with the plants and trees. If you’re willing to give me loyal service, naturally I’ll show you special favor. But if you fall short in any respect, you need expect no mercy. Someone who’s been castrated can only join us eunuchs here. There’s no escape for him, not even to Heaven itself!”

A shiver of fear ran through Quan as he bent at the waist and pleaded: “Now that I’ve been castrated, of course I wish to serve Your Grace. But I can hardly perform my duties before the wound heals. I beseech Your Grace to grant me a few days’ leave in which to go home and recuperate. There’ll be time enough to come back and take up my duties after I’m better.”

“Very well. I’ll allow you ten days to recuperate.” He gave an order to his servants: “Boys, escort him out of the palace and deliver him to the owners of the House of Gathered Refinements. Tell those clerks to take good care of him. If they let him die, I might want more than just their penises in compensation.” The eunuchs saluted and began helping Quan out of the gate.

Jin and Lin had exulted when Quan received the call from Eunuch Sha. They hoped he would stay a few extra days and reveal more of his talents for the eunuch’s appreciation, so that all three of them might enjoy protection, When Quan did not return, they felt quite easy in their minds and never went to meet him - the opposite of their attitude during his visit to Yan, when they slept not a wink the whole three nights. On that occasion they could scarcely wait for dawn to harness up their donkeys, or for evening to light their torches. The reason, of course, was that Eunuch Sha lacked even a weapon to hunt with, while Yan was armed with the panoply of war. Strangely enough, however, when they had agonized over imminent disaster, only the rearguard perished, while now that they felt confident of smooth sailing, the entire vanguard was lost at sea.

When they saw a group of junior eunuchs helping Quan in the door, his face the picture of misery and his flesh drained of color, they assumed he had been unable to hold his liquor and needed help in getting home after a night away. Little did they realize that Quan’s sexual fortunes had run out and that his hopes of marriage were dashed forever. He blurted out the story of his castration and then broke down, so affecting his lovers that they wept, too, and practically drowned in their tears. The eunuchs who had escorted Quan grew impatient and pressed Jin and Liu for a guarantee that they could take back to His Grace. Needless to say, if the slightest mishap occurred, the victim’s relatives would have to pay for it with their lives.

Terrified of becoming involved, Jin and Liu at first refused to sign. The eunuchs began pulling Quan away, intending to take him back, at which point the two men had no choice but to write out a pledge: “If we should be guilty of any oversight, we are prepared to answer for it with our lives.”

After seeing off the escorts, Jin and Liu began sobbing again. They searched far and wide for capable doctors and eventually got the wound to heal. Their main concern during those days was to save Quan’s life, and they had no time to think of their own pleasure. Then just as Quan’s wound healed and they were about to express their old love for him in a final farewell, a group of eunuchs came bustling in.

“Your time’s up,” they declared. “Hurry back to the palace and take up your duties. If you’re just a few minutes late, we’ll have to bring in the people who signed the pledge, and they may find themselves castrated too.”

Jin and Liu were sacred out of their wits. With tears in their eyes, they saw Quan to the gate.

Back in the palace, Quan realized that, castrated as he was, he had no chance of escape and would have to knuckle under and serve the eunuch. Perhaps, who knows, it was in his destiny to become a powerful eunuch himself; promotion might come his way. So he threw himself unstintingly into his duties, and Eunuch Sha was delighted with him and treated him as his own son.

At first Quan was ignorant of how he came to be castrated, but on questioning his colleagues he learned that the master intriguer himself was responsible. Consumed with hatred and eager for revenge, he still feared that if he told anyone and it came to Yan’s ears, not only would his own life be in danger, but his two lovers would be implicated and lose their lives too, and so he feigned complete ignorance.

Whenever Yan paid Sha a visit Quan would try to ingratiate himself. “My work kept me so busy before that I couldn’t visit you very often,” he told Yan. “But now that I’m here, it’s just as if I were living in Your Honor’s own mansion; if there is anything you need me for, just send for me. So long as His Grace is prepared to let me go, I’ll be happy to spend two days in every three with you.”

Yan was delighted. He often asked Quan to keep him company on the pretext that his plants and trees needed attention. Eunuch Sha, lacking genitals, had no need of him at night and was always ready to share him with a kindred spirit.

Once inside Yan’s mansion, Quan set to work as a spy. Anything Yan did or said that conflicted with the court’s interests or harmed the nation was jotted down in a notebook for future reference.

A few months after Quan’s castration, Eunuch Sha suffered an unusually severe attack of asthma. His condition steadily worsened until, a year later, he collapsed and died. On his deathbed he fulfilled his promise and presented Quan to Yan.

Quan was even more pleased to find himself in his enemy’s sole employ and in less than a year had ferreted out every offense for which father and son had been responsible.

It so happened that the Yans’ crimes had come to a head and were about to be revealed. On the very day that Quan finished his investigations, trouble broke out.

Yang Jishing, imperial court official, executed ten years earlier for denouncing Yin Shifan

When Yang Jishing[14] submitted a memorial condemning Yan Song’s “ten crimes and five evils,” the emperor disregarded it and even had Yang executed a decision that all loyal officials protested, some by seeking to resign, offers by impeaching Yan. The emperor’s only recourse was to a temporary display of authority; the he ordered Yan Song to resign and sentenced his son Yan Shifan, his grandson Yan Gu, and others to exile in a malaria-ridden part of the country. He did so to remove the Yans from the scene in the face of mounting criticism, but he fully intended to reinstate them as soon as the furor had died down. However he was foiled in this covert intention of his by the most junior of his loyal aides. Not only did the Yans fail so get reinstated, they were displayed as criminals in the market-place - a sight to warm the heart.

After Yan Shifan was exiled, the members of his staff were placed in the custody of the prefectural and county offices to await the disposition of the case, when they would either become movement property or be returned to their original masters. As the roll was called, Quan cried out in a ringing voice: “I’m not of Yan Shifan’s servant-boys, I’m a eunuch on the staff of the Sha household. At the time of His Grace’s death, death, I ought to have been presented to court, not handed over to a private individual! I beseech Your Honor to lose no time in drawing up a recommendation that I appear before His Majesty to explain the circumstances. If Your Honor tries to hush the matter up, I fear that when the truth comes out even your office may not be immune.”

Of course the perfect did not dare hush it up, but wrote a report to his superior, who passed it on to his ministry. When the ministry communicated it to court and Quan was summoned to the palace, the case was finally brought to a close.

The Forbidden City in Peking, 15th-century painting

As he entered the Forbidden City, Quan noticed that all the creams and soaps in use by the palace women, like the ornaments they wore at their waists, bore the imprint “House of Gathered Refinements,” and he said as much to the women: “All these things come from our shop. It must be fate; first the goods come here, and now the shopkeeper comes to join them.”

“So you’re the owner of Gathered Refinements! A good-looking lad like you - why didn’t you marry and have children instead of getting yourself castrated?”

“There is a reason, but I can’t go into it just yet. If it got out of the Forbidden City and came to the ears of that gang of traitors, I would never be able to avenge the wrong they did me. I prefer to explain everything to the Imperial Father when I see him.”

The women went at once and tattled to Emperor Shizong: “That eunuch who has just arrived used to be in business but fell foul of the tyrant and has been forced into his present situation. He’s suffered some wrong that he wants to protest, but he won’t tell anyone about it except Your Majesty,”

The emperor had his aides bring Quan into his presence and questioned him again and again. Quan gave a detailed account of the castration, adding nothing and omitting nothing. The emperor was enraged. “They told me that he used his power to oppress the people and did nothing fair or just, but I didn’t believe them. In the light of this, he really is a tyrant; there can be no doubt about that. But while living in his household all that time you must have learned about other actions he took. Apart from this case, are there other crimes that might harm the court or nation?”

Kowtowing endlessly, Quan cried out “Long Live Your Majesty!” over and over again. “The fact that Your Majesty condescends to ask about such matters is due to the nation’s glorious destiny as well as the spiritual power of ancestors and gods. This man’s villainies are too numerous to count. Out of concern for the court, your humble servant set to work to spy on him. I wasn’t able to record all the things he did, but I do know a good portion of them. I have a little notebook here in which I jotted down only those incidents that I had heard or seen myself. If it contained a single incorrect word, I wouldn’t dare inflict it on Your Majesty and commit the unpardonable crime of deceiving my sovereign.”

The emperor took the notebook and read it. Then a thunderous roar escaped him, and the sun broke through the clouds. Rapping on the imperial desk, he exclaimed: “What a fine man Yang Jisheng was! A second Bi Gan or Ji Zi![15]  Every word of his memorial was right. In wrongfully killing a loyal officer, we have made ourselves an object of scorn to all eternity and brought ruin upon our nation! Our original intention was to let the thunder roar and then follow it up with gentle rain, waiting until people’s feelings had cooled before reappointing the Yans. But in the light of your evidence, dismissal and exile are too good for them. We must certainly bring them back and execute them in the marketplace - to avenge the fury of a loyal officer and bring joy to the innocent hearts of the people. Every day they live, even in some malaria-ridden place, will be spent stirring up trouble for us. How do we know they aren’t calling on the barbarians to rise in rebellion at this very moment?”

The Jiajing Emperor of this story (temple name: Shizong)

As the emperor was pondering his course of action, fate decreed that Yan should die a cruel death, for others now arrived to pour oil on the flames. Several loyal officials came in with a sealed report: “The Japanese are invading, sent by Yan Shifan, who has been bribing them for some time. The officials at court and in the provinces know all about it but didn’t dare say anything because of his enormous power. Since his exile, however, numerous people have come forward. We beseech Your Majesty to enforce the law with all due haste and eliminate this threat!"

This report confirmed the Emperor’s own revised opinion, so he handed down a secret order dispatching a commander to bring Yan back to the capital as quickly as possible and execute him under the law.  

Quan waited until Yan Shifan had been brought back and was about to be executed, then went to the execution ground and, jabbing his finger at him, denounced him bitterly. He also wrote a fine poem and presented it to Yan to vent his own outrage and warn all who heard it that the wages of sin are quickly paid, in the hope that no one in power would ever try to emulate him. After the execution he made Yan’s skull into a chamber pot. Yan had drooled with desire before doing this evil thing, and then, in taking his pleasure, had used a great deal of spit. Quan now settled accounts with urine.

The poem, in old style verse of irregular line length, contained a powerful moral message. It ran: 

You took my manhood;
Your head I’ll claim.
A high for a low –
Surfeit of shame!
You played with my rump;
In your mouth I’ll piss.
A clean for an unclean -
The stench will not cease.
And now I urge all mortal men:
Let not your hearts be cruel and cold.
For when you come to pay the price,
Your schemes will be assessed twofold.


Since catamites take the woman’s role in sex, their genitals are superfluous, and it is really a convenience to have them removed. However the decision must be that of the youth himself, as it was in the case of You Ruilang in the First Collection.[16] Yan Shifan failed to obtain this young man’s consent and took action on his own account that was distinctly brutal. Small wonder Quan ached for revenge! I also mock Yan for the lack of discrimination he showed in using castration in the wrong case - the result of having a successful intriguer’s power but not his talents or skills. Had he been a real master of intrigue, he would have done to Jin and Liu what he did to Quan and deprived those who possessed the catamite of their underpinnings. Not only would it have brought joy to his own heart, it would have been greeted with paeans of praise from the entire capital; people would have said that Yan Shifan had actually been responsible for one heartwarming action in the course of his life. Alas, he was not perceptive enough to see this. He lost his chance for goodness, both in name and reality, and the episode became just another instance of his wickedness.    

[1] The preface by Du Jun was dated autumn 1658 (Patrick Hanan, The Invention of Li Yu (Harvard, Massachussetts & London, 1988), p. 23.)

[2] When Pan Yue (247-300) administered Heyang county, he planted flowering peaches everywhere. The Quarter was a country retreat of Pei Du (765-839) that contained a hundred apricot trees. [Translator’s note 1]

[3] One of Li Yu’s fiction-writing pen names. The poem is found in his Independent Words 5. The third line differs. [Translator’s note 2]

[4] A resort outside Suzhou. [Translator’s note 3]

[5] 1521-67.

[6] Shuntian was the prefecture which included the capital, Peking. Wanping was part of the latter, which is thus the setting for the whole of this story, explaining how the House of Gathered Refinements was able to serve top government officials and the women of the Forbidden City.

[7] Household words for male beauty. [Translator’s note 5]

[8] Euphemism for anal intercourse. [Translator’s note 6]

[9] Yan Song (1480-1565) and his son Yan Shifan (1513-1565) have been recorded in history as abominable tyrants. [Translator’s note 7]

[10] A pun: the words for goods and disaster are both pronounced huo. [Translator’s note 8]

[11] Expression originating in Buddhist myth for blandishments or verbal exaggerations. [Translator’s note 9]

[12] The text alludes to the Shang dynasty loyalists Bo Yi and Shu Qi. [Translator’s note 10]

[13] Chen Tuan was a legendary Taoist figure who could sleep for years at a time. [Translator’s note 11]

[14] A censor who lived from 1516 to 1555. [Translator’s note 12]

[15] Bi Gan protested against the tyrannical actions of the last Shang ruler and was disemboweled for his trouble. Ji Zi protested against the same actions and was thrown into jail. Although rescued by the Zhou, he continued to regard them as usurpers. [Translator’s note 13]

[16] The homosexual lover of a story in Li Yu’s Silent Operas collection. See “A Male Mencius’s Mother …” in Patrick Hanan, ed., Silent Operas (Chinese University of Hong Kong Press, 1990). [Translator’s note 14]




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