Title: The Jade Temptress
Author: Jeannie Lin
Genre: Romance, Historical Fiction
Rating: ★★★★☆ | 3.5 out of 5.0
Some days, I have this pipe dream of fiction set in historical China written by Chinese people, where their Chinese characters can be as unapologetically Chinese as they want to be without pandering to a white gaze. Some days, I dream about a representation of China that is beautiful, but is not used to fetishise and aestheticise in some picture of imagined Orientalist glory. A critical take on historical China that is not condemnatory, where culture and history are worlds to inhabit, not setpieces for authors who don’t know how to play in a world without smashing it to pieces.
Some days, it’s really hard to have this dream, because there exists so much excrement in the dredges of publishing. From white men who don Chinese women’s names to write bad poetry to white women who have visions of a futuristic China ruled by Japanese emperors, it’s hard out there for a Sino girl who grew up on Princess Returning Pearl and wuxia!
And then Jeannie Lin comes along and my eyes, they grow wide. My heart, it starts to thump wildly. What is this mystical thing I’m witnessing? It couldn’t possibly be a novel about a courtesan whose exoticism is not repeatedly emphasised, whose relationship to her livelihood is complex and nuanced! A hero who is not a traditional hero, especially not a traditional Chinese hero, because our heroes tend to be pale-skinned moon-faced willowy scholars lost in their own heads. And a murder that––is not a murder? (To be determined at a later date.)
I’d actually picked up the first novel of this series, the Pingkang Li series, on a whim because it was recommended to me on Goodreads, and because it is exactly the type of 才子佳人 (talented man, beautiful woman; it’s a genre, very historical, long story, no time, etc.) novel I would kind of expect. But actually that one didn’t do anything for me. But then someone on Twitter posted a notice about the second novel, Jade Temptress, going on sale on Amazon and, like the spendthrift I am, I thought gee whiz! I didn’t like the first novel so of course it makes perfect sense to pick up the second novel! This is how reading works, right?
I’m really glad I bought it, but honestly, if I hadn’t liked Jade Temptress as much as I ultimately did, I would have kicked myself.
Jade Temptress tells the story of Mingyu, the best-known courtesan in Pingkang Li. She knows what men want from her, and she knows how to get what she wants from men. But Wu Kaifeng, a constable at the county magistrate’s office, defies all her expectations. He is not interested in playing games, not interested in flattery. What he wants is to solve the murder of General Deng, Mingyu’s patron. A murder in which Mingyu is implicated.
Mingyu and Kaifeng have History, this much is evident, and it’s a history that haunts the both of them. But it cannot prevent them from falling in love, even when that love could destroy everything they’ve worked for in a city where favour is fickle and power is king.
I was initially really wary, because some of the history between Mingyu and Kaifeng (and this isn’t a spoiler, this is mentioned in the first few chapters or so) includes him having tortured her during the previous novel. This was a sort of wildly inbalanced power dynamic that immediately raised my hackles, but it actually didn’t become too much of an issue, largely because we understand the protagonists as holding equal power in relation to each other, and because Kaifeng is described not to be a cruel man who enjoys torture, but rather (and this isn’t a comment on the modern practice of torture, but this is a historical fact within the imperial Chinese justice system) a constable whose primary objective is to get information. He is shown to do what he needs to do, but go no further.
Similarly, it would have been really easy for Mingyu to be a stereotype. The “Hooker with a Heart of Gold” figure or the dragon-lady seductress, using sex to manipulate men into doing what she wants. But she’s not, she’s human, and it sucks that I’m so excited about that, but there it is. What’s so great about Jade Temptress is that it neither seeks to discount the power Mingyu carves out for herself––the ability to steer conversations, to influence powerful political players––nor invest her with uncritical power––she is, however high she can rise, still in essence a slave, bought and paid for by the mistress of the bordello.
Though this was ostensibly a mystery romance (romantic mystery?), the mystery element of the story was so-so. I wanted more, I think, of a show-down, a more dramatic close, but I was okay with how Lin chose to wrap up the novel, because for me, the true draw of the novel lies in its interpersonal dynamics and its sharp grasp of contemporaneous politics. It was honestly such a great read––not that long, just enough sexual tension to make me clutch my pearls, and a world that was so familiar.
That’s not to say this novel is perfect, though, because there were a few things that really kind of…rankled. Lin’s positioning of fair skin as being beautiful over dark skin is certainly a contemporaneous (and let’s be real, a contemporary) attitude, but the emphasis on Mingyu’s beauty as it is tied to her paleness and Wu Kaifeng’s looks as being, if not explicitly ugly, then at least not handsome, as it is tied to his darkness (particularly when factoring in the fact that he’s at one point described as “barbaric”) and how this is reflected in their social roles––Mingyu in a position of cultivation and admiration, Kaifeng in a position of inferiority, closely associated with violence––make for an exceptionally uncomfortable read.
Theoretically, you could make the argument that this is merely a reflection of the beauty standards of the day. And this argument might hold water––if the author did not also make sure to stress that Mingyu and the other beautiful ladies in the novel are willowy and slim, which are distinctly modern attitudes, as the Tang Dynasty in particular is known for prizing fatness in women. And while there are beautiful women who are known for their thinness specifically (such as Zhao Feiyan), the defining beauty of the Tang Dynasty was Yang Guifei, who was fat, which is how we came to the expression “环肥燕瘦”–– “fat Yang Yuhuan and thin Zhao Feiyan,” which is used to describe the wide range of beauty that exists.
The novel was also pretty aggressively heterosexual? Not in the whole ‘everyone is straight’ kind of way (excuse me this is like 1200 years ago the concept of sexuality is a modern one, blah blah etc. etc. historicity and historiography bleh bleh bleh) but in that
He bent to kiss her the way a kiss should happen between a man and a woman. Not out in the open. Not with drums beating and the threat of intrusion from the outside world.
Like…I get it? She’s comparing this to one of their earlier kisses, and as she’s a woman and he’s a man, I’m not exactly pissed at it, but the way it’s phrased is not a cute look. The stress––though not overbearing––on the man/woman, maleness/womanness, masculinity/femininity is definitely present and…well. Yikes is all I can really say.
I did really enjoy the novel despite some of these problems. It has a sophisticated grasp of the Tang world that felt textured with reality while not being afraid to touch the fantastical. The characters were richly drawn and on equal footing with each other, their interactions full of the things that are both said and unsaid, both juggling what they should do with what they want to do. But while the novel portrays a sweet love story, there is a bitter edge that isn’t afraid to look with a critical eye, which is something I enjoy in a novel.