European and Japanese powers are vying for Chinese trade and even takeover in the late 1800s. Meanwhile, seven-year-old Jinhua’s peaceful world is about to undergo cataclysmic changes, beginning with the horrific demise of her father and her sale into prostitution. She suffers the unimaginable agonies of having her feet bound in the ancient traditional manner. Her only comfort is her new friend, Suyin, who tries to make Jinhua realize the harsh aspects of life in a brothel are nothing like the fanciful tales her father used to tell her.
Time passes, and Jinhua is rescued by Master Hong, who believes Jinhua is his former love reborn and takes her as his concubine, to the dismay of his first wife. However, Jinhua will soon become a new woman as she travels to Vienna, where Master Hong is to serve as China’s ambassador in “the land of foreign devils.” There she discovers real love. On their return to China, she starts an independent life and later has her life threatened by the Japanese in their invasion of China.
The Courtesan is a literary novel that exquisitely describes Jinhua’s amazing transformation from a naïve child to a glamorous, intelligent, strong, and adventurous woman who blends the best of traditional and modern China and Europe. Her final choices are shockingly tranquil in the face of history’s stark brutality. The best historical novel I have read this year!