01 – Amy Tan’s “Rules for Virgins” and why the Oriental seductress stereotype needs to die

I think I might have started my book reading project on a very wrong note. I really don’t have any idea why I though this would be a good thing. I’ve never liked Amy Tan, so I don’t know why I thought she could write something actually interesting.

Rules for Virgins is Amy Tan’s novella about China’s courtesans. It’s set in 1920s Shanghai, but you won’t get that from the book. It’s difficult piecing together the setting of the novella, and the book offers very little in terms of the world it wants to describe. It’s like the bubble boy of books.

Three things:

  1. The novella vacillates between wanting to tell a story and wanting to be a documentary. I would have preferred a documentary, because Tan is talking about a particularly complicated world — the courtesans of China were interesting yet tragic creatures. Real life is often a lot more sordid than any author can come up with.

  2. There is a disconnect. I do not feel anything for the characters, precisely because there’s nothing to go on. Narrator says they are manipulative people. Okay, then what? What happens? I don’t like it when a book can’t even give me the basics like, “who are you?” Is Tan asking me to sympathize with someone I can’t even picture without referencing other similar characters like Mameha from Memoirs of a Geisha?

  3. It’s been done before. Tan wants to “reveal” a very secluded, shrouded world, but others have done it before, and done it much better. If you want a glimpse into the tragic life of a courtesan, watch Rouge instead.

For some reason, the novella seems a bit trashy and dirty, not because of the content, but because it goes out of its way to be shocking. really, distilling all of your research on ancient Chinese sex toys into a novella? What are you trying to pull?

Maybe Amy Tan got tired of her cookie cutter goody two shoes Asian stereotypes that she’s now ventured into sensationalist Madame Butterfly territory.

Why are we still perpetuating the Oriental seductress stereotype?

Maybe because Western audiences are still lapping it up. Because that’s how people still picture Asia and Asian women: alternately innocent and manipulative, using their magical sexual powers to destroy men.

Well someone needs to drop the pen and start reading Edward Said.


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