Dong Xiaowan (1624–1651) was a Chinese courtesan, poet and writer, also known by her pen name Qinglian.
Dong has been described as the most famous courtesan of her time, known for her beauty and talent in singing, needlework and the tea ceremony. She lived in the brothel district of Nanjing. Similar to other courtesans of the late Ming Dynasty, Dong’s moral qualities were emphasised among her admirers more than her talents.
She is one of the Eight Beauties of Qinhuai (秦淮八艳) described by late Qing officials. The other famed courtesans of this group are Ma Xianglan, Bian Yujing, Li Xiangjun, Liu Rushi, Gu Mei, Kou Baimen, and Chen Yuanyuan.
The poem below demonstrates a popular emotion, melancholy, focussing on a solitary woman in secluded female quarters.
Casual Composition by the Green Window
I gaze at the flowers through ill eyes, steeped in melancholy thoughts,
Sitting alone by the secluded window, I play the jade-decorated zither.
The yellow orioles also seem to understand people’s mind,
From beyond the willow they send out beautiful sounds time and again.
Magdalene Dong Xiaowan: Her Cooking and Love Story
It’s often said that brothels are some sorts of big source jars, good things never happen over there. Surely, it can be considered as outraged words by common people to uglify a good-for-nothing from a wealthy family or a lounge lizard. Although “drinking accompanied by prostitutes” and cohabitating with them as well, famous Childe Mao Pijiang with “Fushe” (a literary association at the end of Ming Dynasty), seems to be a significant exception. Coming across him among a sea of faces, Dong Xiaowan’s miserable life had finally come to an end.
Since the collapse of Ming Dynasty, Xiaowan had been seeking a refuge in flight with the Family Mao, and thereafter, she experienced weal and woe together with Mao Pijiang till her death. Mao Pijiang, also Mao Xiang, came from Rugao County, Taizhou region, Yangzhou directly-affiliated to Nanjiang, and was born in March of the 39th year of Ming Emperor Wanli. His family was a distinguished cultural family in the Rugao County. This young man has a fine-looking appearance with casual and elegant bearing. He was well-educated, wealthy and ambitious, while as libidinous as general men, otherwise, how could it be possible for him to encounter the “most popular courtesan” in the upscale “Red-light District” along the Qinhuaihe River? Mao Pijiang was 13 years older than Dong Xiaowan and already 28 years old when they met. Close to thirty years old, it is rather easy for him to win the heart of a 15-16 year-old girl. Both of them fitted in readily, swore never to separate from each other, and would live together for their whole lifetime whatever adversities happened.
Thereafter, Dong Xiaowan suddenly transformed herself from a “prostitute” to “Mrs. Mao”. Although just as a concubine, her future is somehow no longer helpless. Dong Xiaowan has just one magic weapon to win over his husband, i.e. serving him best drink and best food by means of “emotional appeal”, to catch on the man’s mouth, manipulate the man’s stomach and dominate the man’s heart.
That a woman could cook well means her possession of capability of holding the man’s heart. Dong Xiaowan was born into a “master of excellent cook”. It’s said that she had an “unsalted-food flavor”, and was not fond of fat and sweet food; therefore, she employed one tiny pot of mint schizonepeta tea to rinse the rice, then chewed carefully and swallow slowly food with two saucers of potherb mustards. However, Mao Pijiang preferred “salty food flavor”, and take a shine to sweet food, marine food products, preserved pork and smoked sausages. How to weather this through? The smart Xiaowan changed her favor immediately and managed to cudgel her brains to satisfy her husband’s craving for delicious food. She devised many more ingenious cuisines – meticulously prepared the fragrant liquid distilled from honeysuckle flowers or lotus leaves, delicately gathered fresh stamens, and smartly made flower pus’paja penetrated throughout the fragrant liquids. By means of these fine procedures, the epurated fragrant liquids were endowed with fascinating redolence, which were extremely difficult to trail on the earth. One gets drunk, and just takes dozens of fragrant liquids with a white porcelain cup for quenching his thirsts. Besides, with her fair hands, she made prickled vegetables, of which the yellow seemed gold, and the green looked like emerald. The hams cooked by her gave off the smelling of pines and cypresses, the acciughe prepared by her abounded in the smelling of muntjacs, the drunk oysters portrayed peach blossom, the soft shrimps resembled dragon beards; the oil-steamed pomfret took after sturgeons, as well as baked rabbit& crispy chicken looked alike cakes pastry and etc…
Xiaowan was also engrossed in studying cookery books, and compiled her food-craving satisfaction experiences into a very popular booklet named Suiyuan Recipe, just as the great sage of Qin Dynasty, Yuan Mei, once did before. Anyhow, Xiaowan was a girl of sincerity and conscientiousness. She did not only summarize her cooking theories, but also conduct in a very realistic manner. Whenever and wherever hearing about some new flavors, she was absolutely trailing to ask for advice. The “braised streaky pork like tiger lines”, also called “fried& boiled pork”, or little-known “dong pork” at present tables, are invented by her.
She was also skilled in making pastry. Early in Qinhuai District, she once used sesame, chow mien, saccharum granorum, pine nut, peach kernel, and sesame oil to prepare crispy sugar, which then was cut into diamonds with the spec of 5*3*1 cm. This type of desserts is externally yellow & internally crispy and sweet but not greasy, so people called them as “Dong Candy”. At present, the famous desserts “Sausage-filled Dong Candy”, “Dong Candy of Crispy Rolls” in Yangzhou, and “Dong Candy” provided at Shuiming Tower of Rugao, are all the local special flavors when receiving friends from every corner of the world.
Furthermore, both Dong Xiaowan and Mao Pijiang took great delight in sitting silently for enjoying fragrance. Xiaowan cherished most what Dongguan people regarded as nonesuch, that is, “Nv’er incense”. She lit the fragrant incense with cotton gauze being separated with particular attention to the sapour and sentiment, quite like “petty bourgeoisie” nowadays who may unfold one piece of serviette, play some romantic classic music, and enjoy a bowl of bean curd jelly. This couple just lived in such an arrogant way, sitting in one corner of tranquil room, with yarn curtain lowered, and door half closed, enjoying plumes of refreshing fragrance in peace – it’s indeed a charming life.
Pitifully, all good things must come to an end and disasters paid a visit. Mao Pijiang suffered from serious diseases for twice just all of a sudden. For the first time, stomach troubles caused hematochezia, so that he could not have water or rice. That frightened Dong Xiaowan to decoct medicinal herbs in midsummer, and took care of him for two whole months even without taking off her clothes to have a good sleep. And for the second time, he got cellulitis on his back, and could not lie on his back. Xiaowan embraced her husband one night after another, so as to enable him to fall asleep by leaning upon her. One hundred days later, Dong Xiaowan was almost reduced to skeleton. However, this considerate woman kept an elegant smile over her face all the time, without any complaining words or behaviors. There’s no wonder that Mao Pijiang said satisfactorily that: “I enjoy all my easy and carefree life with Xiaowan for these nine years.”
On the 2nd day of the first lunar month of the 8th year of Emperor Shunzhi’s reign, Xiaowan passed away at only 28 years old in sorrowful Mao Pijiang’s company. At the moment before she left this world, she still grasped her husband’s hands tightly, affectionately and satisfactorily……