Sai Jinhua-the Life and Legend of Beijing's Most Famous Prostitute

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A hundred years ago, in a country on the verge of collapse, a woman from the shadows stood up and defended her Chinese countrymen. Abandoned by the imperial government, and occupied by western forces, the fate of Beijing was placed on the narrow shoulders of a common courtesan.

But who was this saint like figure? A plain prostitute or a Maria of the East? The lover of a German general? A brothel madam? An opium addict? Or a liar and a cheat?

 

To most Chinese the name of Sai Jinhua will ring a bell. They might not be able to remember the full story behind it, but the majority can recall something about an affair with a German general within the Forbidden City.

80 years ago this was totally different. Sai Jinhua was on everybody’s lips. The story of the courtesan who stood up to foreign occupiers, intrigued a whole nation. Sai Jinhua became a living legend, a symbol of resistance first against the hated eight allied nations who quelled the Boxer Rebellion and then against the Japanese.

Looking in to the story of Sai Jinhua it is very difficult to tell right from wrong. The story becomes particularly confusing because of the many different narratives. Some are interviews with the real historical person and some are pure fiction.

The early years

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What can be established with certainty is that Sai Jinhua came from an area close to Suzhou in the South. Allegedly she was born there in 1874. Already as a juvenile she worked on a pleasure boat, a kind of floating brothel, entertaining wealthy customers in the canals. This was where she met her first husband, Hong Jun.

Hong Jun brought her into his home making her his third wife. He was an incredibly wealthy official of the imperial government and was more than thirty years older than his young bride. Not long after the wedding, Hong Jun was send to Germany to act as an ambassador, and Sai Jinhua followed her husband to Europe. It was highly unusual for women to be able to travel abroad, and the experience would leave a permanent impression on the young girl. In Europe Sai Jinhua learned German and gained a whole new perspective of the world. After three years in Germany (1889-1892) Sai Jinhua returned to China with her husband. But not long after the return Hong Jun died. Embarrassed by her being a prostitute and allegedly not willing to give her any share in the heritage, Hong Jun’s family expelled Sai Jinhua.

On her own again, Sai Jinhua turned to the one profession she knew: prostitution. Quickly she earned a name for herself as a high-class courtesan playing on her past as a wife to one of the most respected diplomats in the country. But the fame she gained from this affiliation was nothing compared with what would come.

Becoming a living legend

In the year 1900 Sai Jinhua had found her way to Beijing and opened a brothel at the infamous entertainment district, Bada Hutong.

This was the year of the Boxer Rebellion. The Boxers, a sectarian band of Kungfu trained rebels, wanted to rid China of all foreign influence. Foreigners and anyone associated with them were literally getting killed in the streets. It was in many ways a popular revolt, even the imperial government sympathized with it. The rebellion did not end till an army of allied colonial powers forced themselves into China and occupied the capital.

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The Imperial court fled and left Beijing without any constituted leaders. In this whole new environment Sai Jinhua got to play a role because of her ability to speak German.

Command of the German language was especially important because the supreme commander of the allied forces, General Von Waldersee, was German. Some sources question how much German she could actually speak, but it must have been at least enough to have a small conversation, because first hand sources describe speaking to her in German.

According to legend Sai Jinhua saved numerous Chinese from being beheaded and brokered deals with the occupiers by speaking to officers of the allied forces. This gained Sai Jinhua a reputation as a savior of the city, and brought thriving business to her brothel.

The story of the heroic courtesan saving her country men just seemed to grow stronger and stronger, already a few years after the Boxer Rebellion the first stories of Sai Jinhua were published. In most of them she was a pure angel, but in some she was accused of having an affair with General Von Waldersee inside the Forbidden City on imperial bed sheets. This relationship has never in anyway been proven.

Expelled

 

Sai Jinhua did not get to enjoy her success for long. Because in 1903 she was convicted of maltreating a prostitute in her brothel. Upon the sentence she was expelled from Beijing. She returned to the South and lived for a long time in Shanghai. She married twice but both of her husband’s died only a short time in to the marriage. After both of these marriages, the story repeated itself and just like after her first marriage she was expelled by the family upon the death of her husband.

Rediscovered

 

Saijinhua03Sai Jinhua returned to Beijing in 1918 with her third husband. After his death  she settled south of the city at Tianqiao, a poor area of mixed reputation. Nobody knew who this middle-aged woman was, because Sai Jinhua registered under a different name. But in 1930 she had become so poor that she could not even pay her rent. This made her apply for a kind of social support at the local police station, and this was how a journalist of a small newspaper realized who she was and published an article about her.

The story of her reappearance spread like wildfire. Sai Jinhua received both money, fruit baskets and other gifts from supporters all over the city. Even though she had been expelled from the capital in disgrace her reputation as a guardian angel seemed intact.

Poems and plays were written about her and the famous intellectual Liu Bannong wrote a book about her based on 10 interviews conducted with her at the 5 star Dongfang hotel.

One of the reasons behind this outburst of support was the Japanese threat. The story of Sai Jinhua - a common prostitute standing up to foreign occupiers could not help resonate in the environment of the 1930’s where a foreign power  once again stood on China’s doorstep. At some theaters the play about Sai Jinhua was even banned by the government for fear of enraging the Japanese.

The legacySaijinhua04

 

In 1936 Sai Jinhua died. She was buried in Taoranting Park as a national hero. After her death people who had known her published a number of accounts on  her, and not all of these publications portrayed the “real” Sai Jinhua in a favourable light, some even accused her of being a liar.

Despite of this the legend of the courtesan who stood up against foreign powers survived, and last year the theater play about her that was banned in the 1930’s premiered at Beijings Poly theater.

The role of Sai Jinhua was played by Liu Xiaoqing, an actor who infamously claimed to be the best actor in China in the 1980s, a time where this kind of boasting behavior was not looked lightly upon. Apart from this Liu Xiaoqing have also just like Sai Jinhua gone through several marriages and even served more than 400 days in prison for tax fraud. Having such a prominent yet controversial character play Sai Jin Hua vitalized the part, and proved that a story of a righteous selfmade woman, standing up against the norms of society, still have resonance in China today.

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-北京最有名的风尘女子的生命传奇

一百年前,国家在崩溃的边缘,一个弱女子挺身而出保护她的同胞。当时的北京被朝廷放弃,让西方列强占领了,这个城市的命运压在了一个风尘女子瘦弱的双肩上。 

大多数中国人都知道赛金花这个名字。他们也许不记得整个事件,但大多数人都会想起在紫禁城里她和一个德国将军的故事。

80年前可完全不是这样。那时人人都在谈论赛金花。一个烟花女子直面外国侵略者的故事激起了所有人的兴趣。赛金花成为了活着的传奇,成为了反抗八国联军的象征,后来又成了抗日的象征。

深入研究赛金花的故事你会发现难以判断对错。那么多的信息来源尤其令人困惑。这些信息有的是对真实历史人物的访谈,有的只是纯粹的小说。 

                                             早年 

Saijinhua_Wedding可以确定的是赛金花大约在1874年出生于苏州附近。小时候就在花船上接客,花船其实是一种流动妓院用来在运河中供有钱人玩乐。她就是在花船上认识了她的第一任丈夫,洪钧。

洪钧把她带回家,赛金花成了他的第三个姨太太。洪钧是个极其富有的官员。

洪钧比她大30岁。1889年婚后不久,他就被派往德国成为清廷驻德国大使。赛金花和他一起前往欧洲。在当时很少有女人出国,所见所闻给她留下了不可磨灭的印象。赛金花学习了德语,对世界有了全新的看法。3年后他们一起返回中国。过了不久洪钧就去世了。由于她以前做过妓女,而且估计洪家也不愿意分给她任何遗产,洪家赶走了赛金花。

赛金花又孤身一人了,她不得不重操旧业。很快作为中国最受尊敬的外交官的前姨太太,她在行业内名声大噪,不过和她后来即将得到的名声相比简直微不足道。

                                                                成为活传奇

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1900年赛金花北上北京,在八大胡同开了一家妓院。这一年义和团运动爆发了。义和团的口号是”扶清灭洋”,他们要杀掉洋人以及和洋人有关系的人。虽然清廷同情义和团,实际上还是造反。直到八国联军占领北京,义和团才被镇压下去。

皇室逃离了北京。在这个新的环境中,赛金花注定要扮演一个重要角色 – 因为她会说德语。有些人质疑她到底德语水平如何,不过可以确定她至少可以用德语进行简单交流,因为有第一手资料记述了她用德语聊天。

由于八国联军的统帅,瓦德西将军是德国人,会说德语变得尤其重要了。传说赛金花通过和联军将领沟通救了无数中国人的命。人们视她为城市的保护者,她的妓院门庭若市。妓女拯救同胞的故事越传越广,义和团运动几年之后,关于赛金花的第一批书就出版了。大多数把她描写成一个天使,但也有些批评她在紫禁城的龙床上和瓦德西鬼混(其实并未有任何证据证明)。

                                     放逐 

辉煌很短暂,1903年赛金花被指控虐待妓女。她被逐出北京,回到了南方,在上海住了很长时间。她又结了两次婚,但两任丈夫都在婚后不久就去世了。每次她都被夫家赶出了家门。

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                                                          被重新发现

Saijinhua041918年赛金花和她的第三任丈夫重返北京。丈夫死后她住到了天桥这个龙蛇混杂之地。她是用另外一个名字登记的,所以当时没人知道这个中年妇女是谁。但到了1930年她连房租都付不起了,不得不到当地警察局申请社会救助,一家小报馆的记者意识到了她的身份,发表了一篇关于她的文章。赛金花重新出现的消息很快传开了。人们给她送来了钱,水果和其它礼物。                                                                    

                                                           遗迹

 尽管她曾颜面尽失地被驱逐出城,不过她守护天使的名声似乎未受任何影响。

赛金花于1936年去世,被作为民族英雄葬在了陶然亭公园。她死后认识她的人发表了许多有关她的文章。并非所有的文章都在说她的好话,有些甚至说她是个骗子。

尽管如此,妓女直面侵略者的故事流传了下来。在30年代被禁演的关于她的戏剧去年在北京保利剧院上演了。

赛金花由刘晓庆扮演,她被誉为中国80年代最好的演员,也想赛金花一样结过几次婚,还由于偷税漏税蹲过四百多天的监狱。有着如此出名而又充满争议的经历使她演活了赛金花这个人物,也证明了直至今日一个正直的白手起家的女人和社会现实对抗的故事仍能产生共鸣。