Published by Linen Press
in paperback and ebook on 1 April 2017
About the book:
A rape. A war. A society where women are bought and sold but no one can speak of shame. Shanghai 1937. The courtesan culture. Violence throbs at the heart of The Dancing Girl and the Turtle.
Song Anyi is on the road to Shanghai and freedom when she is raped and left for dead. The silence and shame that mark her courageous survival drive her to escalating self-harm and prostitution. From opium dens to high-class brothels, Anyi dances on the edge of destruction while China and Japan go to war. Hers is the voice of every woman who fights for independence against overwhelming odds.
The Dancing Girl and the Turtle is one of four interlocking novels set between 1929 and 1954, The Shanghai Quartet, which span a tumultuous time in Chinese history.
Prologue – The Dancing Girl and the Turtle
I shot the horse four days ago.
Its foreleg was broken and the horse screamed for release. A farmer and his wife heard the cries.
He said, ‘You can use my gun. I’ll bury the horse too, but you’ll have to give me your wagon in payment.’
What else could I do?
His wife took pity on me and fetched a handcart her son had once used. I put all I could into that child’s cart and walked away. When I turned back, the farmer’s wife was fingering the books and scrolls I had left behind, as stunned as if she had just been anointed Empress of all China.
The road had looked honest and straight. A journey of two weeks, I thought. But here in the mountains the mist rises from the river and the road turns milk-white and the way forward is lost.
Soon, I’ll be out of this hinterland, back in the city where there are people and bowls of soup and a dry place to sleep. Soon, my Uncle and Auntie will find me on their doorstep and how surprised they’ll be! They’ll praise me for having found my way all alone from Soochow to Shanghai. They’ll welcome me into their home and my new life will begin.
I walk on. The cart squeals with every step I take. I close my ears to its agony. I only want to look and smell.
The sea! Its silver threads lace the air, weaving themselves into the trees. The road curves just ahead, a path of seashells made to mark the land or maybe just to please a child. The afternoon sun spreads from the path and warms my knees.
The wheels of my cart slow and finally stop. It was only a matter of time before I would have to jettison a little more of my past. What do I leave on the road this time?
The sky is still clear, the promise of a radiant night. Now that the wheels have stopped, I can hear the birds.
They sing to me, ‘Don’t cry, Song Anyi, daughter of the most famous silk weaver in Soochow. You cannot fail now, so close to Shanghai.’
I turn. The two boys are ragged and dirty, no older than I. They wear the ill-fitting uniforms of privates in the Chinese army. There’s a man, too, whose boot presses the wheels of my cart into the soft earth. He doesn’t speak as he approaches. He takes my long braid in his hand as if it were a strand of pearls. He smiles at me but I cannot smile back. He hits me and I fall to the ground.
The birds wheel away, cawing for help. The man tears my garments, scraping each layer away until I am a fish with no scales, flailing on the chopping board. The boys know what to do. They each take an arm. The man takes my legs.
‘Cover her face,’ he growls and the boys obey. Dead leaves fill my mouth, strangely sweet.
I count faces, fingers, teeth and toes. I was good at counting. It was the one thing I did that earned my father’s praise. Fourteen yuan for a roll of washed silk, thirty-five yuan for a heavy brocade. I sat behind the screen at Baba’s workshop and counted. There was a time when the great and the good would come and beg Baba to weave something special, just for them. So many rolls of silk left, the mould creeping from thread to thread, all because Baba wouldn’t sell to the Japanese.
What would you say now, Baba? Do you and Mama look down from the heavens and weep?
I will not cry.
I smell the earth, damp and fecund with the seed of these men. They rest for a while, lounging bare-bottomed on a fallen tree. The boys smear mud on my face while the man throws stones at my bleeding hole. They laugh and the trees laugh back.
‘Shame!’ the birds cry.
They sit in black rows. Their red eyes glow in the night.
‘Shame on you, Song Anyi. You were too proud to marry any local boy. You were too good to live in Soochow. Ambition has brought you to this end.’
The birds deliberate. The trees shiver in the wind. A leaf drops, delicate in the air. A perfect specimen adrift on the forest floor, so close I can see its veins.
‘Is she dead?’ one of the boys asks.
‘Who cares,’ the man says.
‘Should we bury her?’ the other boy wants to know.
The man pulls on his pants. He spits into his hands, wipes the grime off his shirt.
‘Leave her for the dogs,’ he says. ‘They’ll come soon enough.’
About the author:
Karen Kao is the child of Chinese immigrants who settled in the United States in the 1950s. As a young lawyer in Washington, DC, she fell in love with a Dutchman. Karen moved with him to Amsterdam. Unfazed by a new language, culture and legal system, she launched a second career as a high-flying corporate lawyer.
In 2011, she abandoned the law for a third career: a return to her love of writing and the stories she heard as a child of Old Shanghai. She writes: ‘My heart belongs to Shanghai. It’s the star of my novel.’
Kao is a former student of Lan Samantha Chang from the Paris Writers Workshop (2013) and of Yiyun Li at the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference (2016).
Her debut novel has been praised by critics from London to Hong Kong for its sensitive portrayal of violence against women and the damage silence can do.