Sai Jinhua (赛金花; “Prettier Than Golden Flower”; circa 1872-1936) was a Chinese courtesan who became the acquaintance of Alfred von Waldersee, a German field marshal who became Chief of the Imperial German General Staff. Her real family name was Cao.

The Legend of the Beijing Courtesan,from rags to riches to rags story

Sai Jinhua was born from humble beginnings. At the age of twelve, she was forced into prostitution, one of the few options open to an orphan. Her brothel was a pleasure boat where Jinhua serviced wealthy clients who lived nearby.

One of her clients was Hong Jun, a very wealthy government official. The age difference between them was more than thirty years. In his capacity as an ambassador, he took her with him to Europe, a rare opportunity because Chinese women did not travel.

Sai Jinhua made the most of her time there – learning German, studying fashion, and making a splash among society’s elite because of her uniqueness, dress, and tiny feet that had been painfully bound since childhood. After three years, they returned home to China, but Hong soon died. Disgusted by her role as a prostitute, Hong’s family cast her out of the family penniless.

Alone and homeless, what was a girl to do? She returned to the only work that was familiar to her – prostitution. This time, she started up her own brothel in Beijing. Because of her connection with Hong, her notariety brought the curious, and as Madam, she enjoyed watching her business blossom.

The year was 1900 and the political climate was soon to explode. A group of rebels trained in Kung Fu were bent on ousting all foreign influence from their beloved China. At random, they began killing foreigners. And they were popular, even getting the nod from the empress herself. The movement grew and became more powerful, until finally a coalition of allies under the command of a German General named Von Waldersee, put a stop to their rebellion by marching into China and seizing control of the country.
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The Empress and her court fled Beijing. Those who failed to escape or were captured faced execution. Jinhua, who could speak German, was suddenly very important. Rumor has it that not only did she help bridge the communication gap between army officers and the Chinese, but she also saved many political prisoners from being beheaded. As her reputation for saving people grew, so did her brothel business. Rumors abounded and so did some of the legends surrounding her. Some called her an angel, others called her the General’s whore. No one will ever know for certain for she kept much to herself. But bad luck had a way of finding Sai Jinhua. She was conficted of beating one of her prostitues who worked for her. Her sentence was banishment. She travelled to Shanghai where she remarried twice. Each time, her husbands died, and each time, their family’s cast her out without a penny.

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Under an assumed name, Sai Jinhua moved to Tianqiao, a city outside Beijing. She was middle-aged and used an assumed name to avoid attention. Nearly destitute, she was forced to seek support. Somehow, a journalist discovered who she truly was and published a story about her. Suddenly, everyone was interested, for they had never forgotten all the lives she had saved. People sent gifts and money, and became the subject of books, plays, songs, and poems.

In 1936 Sai Jinhua died. Controversy continued to plague her – is she national hero or liar? Despite all the rumors and the turbulent notariety, Sai Jinhua is remembered as a strong woman who faced adversity and had the courage to do what was right, even to the risk of punishment.

Sai Jinhua’s life has been poignantly portrayed in a novel by Alexandra Curry entitledThe Courtesan.

From History & Women

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