Secret of a Thousand Beauties

BOOK: Secret of a Thousand Beauties
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A
LSO BY
M
INGMEI
Y
IP
The Nine Fold Heaven
 
Skeleton Women
 
Song of the Silk Road
 
Petals from the Sky
 
Peach Blossom Pavilion
SECRET OF A THOUSAND BEAUTIES
Mingmei Yip
KENSINGTON BOOKS
All copyrighted material within is Attributor Protected.
Table of Contents
To Geoffrey
 
Our life together is like rich silk embroidered with intricate, colorful patterns.
A
CKNOWLEDGMENTS
Although writing is hard work, I find out the more I write, the more I want to do so. Once at a writing conference I was asked by a reader if I ever get bored locking myself in a room and staring at a computer screen for hours and hours.
It was an interesting question. I thought about it, and replied, “No, how can it be boring? When I write I meet all sorts of people: the ones who inhabit my novels—adventurers, art collectors, courtesans, nightclub singers, magicians, spies, gangsters, even Buddhist nuns—whom in real life I would probably never meet. So, far from being bored, I find it exciting that I can live their lives, though just vicariously.”
In order to continue to live this exciting life, first I have to thank my husband, Geoffrey Redmond, himself an excellent writer and my best critic. Without Geoffrey’s support and compassion, I would never have had the chance to know any of my interesting characters, let alone give them the chance to live in my books.
I would also like to thank the fantastic Kensington group: my wonderful and supportive editor, Martin Biro; publicist Karen Auerbach; Associate Director of Communications Vida Engstrand; designer Kristine Mills-Noble, who graces my books with beautiful covers; Jacqueline Dinas, who has worked hard to have my books sold to ten countries so far; as well as Kensington President Steven Zacharius and Vice President Laurie Parkin, who have made me able to fulfill my dreams year after year.
Many readers have friended me on Facebook, bought my books, and cheered me along the way. I owe them my sincerest gratitude.
Dear Reader,
 
Like my other novels,
Secret of a Thousand Beauties
is about women determined to overcome great difficulties to make a life for themselves. It is set in 1930s Soochow (Suzhou in modern spelling) and Peking (Beijing) at a time when an imperial embroiderer might be your next-door neighbor. This was an era of great creative ferment, but also social turmoil with modernizers, revolutionaries, and gangsters vying to determine China’s future. Women were attaining more freedom, but the old oppressions, such as the ghost marriage in the novel, persisted.
I have always admired people who can create delicate handiworks—seamstresses, knitters, quilters, jewelry makers, embroiderers—as well as those who arrange flowers and perform tea ceremony. When you work with your hands, your mind and senses come alive, and you have the chance to add something beautiful to the world.
China has a grand tradition of embroidery, carried out by many thousands of women, usually anonymous, often working under great strain. I decided to write about some of these women and the trials they endured to create the works that give us so much pleasure. Their skill was the result of almost inhumanly stringent training and bitter practice. Many were drafted to labor away in the imperial palace, serving the near-insatiable appetites of the rich and highborn for their elegant handiwork. To prevent distraction from their work, they were required to remain virgins during their years of service in the palace. Of course, the rule was flouted, but romance could only be pursued in secrecy and with great danger.
Aunty Peony, the head of the novel’s small community of supposedly celibate women, was an imperial embroiderer schooled in the famous
Su
style of the Suzhou province. All five of the embroiderers in this novel belong to this 2,000-year-old tradition.
Many women trained in this school, like Aunty Peony, were taken into the palace to sew imperial garments, including the lavish dragon robes for the emperor and alluring undergarments for his many concubines. These court embroiderers had to compete for the emperor’s attention, with their skill and sometimes with their bodies as well. They held great sway over the hundreds of concubines, from whom they extracted bribes in return for ever more seductive embroidered garments to entice the jaded emperor.
After the Qing dynasty was overthrown, all who had been employed in the palace were forced to fend for themselves. Some of the embroiderers succeeded as freelancers, but many were only a few commissions away from destitution.
Secret of a Thousand Beauties
is about the life of one of these women and her orphaned followers.
I learned a little about embroidery in elementary school when it was a required subject for girls—but not for boys, of course. The research for the novel was based mainly on Chinese sources including old embroidery displayed in museums throughout the world, scholarly books, and archeological finds (bone needles, thread, even bits of silk embroidered 3,000 years ago). I also made use of videos demonstrating
Su
embroidery techniques.
When a skillful woman embroiders, it is like the spring breeze across her tapering fingers.
—Ancient Chinese saying
 
 
If our love is forever like the first time we met,
No one would be abandoned like a fan in Autumn,
In an instant the heart can change,
But we never blame ourselves,
Instead, only the easy changing of our heart.
 
—Nalan Shengde (1655–1685), “Ending Friendship”
 
 
For me, if someone is dear to my heart
He and I would never part,
Even when our hair turn white.
 
—Zhuo Wenjun (Western Han Dynasty), “Song of White Hair”
 
 
Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light . . .
I would spread the cloths under your feet . . .
—William Butler Yeats (1865–1939)
“Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven”
PART ONE
Prologue
I
t was my wedding day.
I was horrified.
Because my soon-to-be-lawful—and awful—husband was not even a man.
He was a ghost.
Well, a man, but a dead one! A sinister being, his cold hands reaching toward me from the
yin
world....
When we were engaged, in accord with tradition, I’d never met him. In fact,
no one
had ever met him, because my ghost husband-to-be and I had been engaged long before we were even born. My mother and her best friend, my ghost husband’s mother, lived in the same village and happened to get pregnant around the same time. Following the ancient tradition
zhifu weihun,
they pointed to each other’s protruding bellies, and proclaimed, “If we give birth to a boy and a girl, they’ll be husband and wife when they turn seventeen.”
So, because of our extremely old and extremely unfortunate tradition, my fate had been decided even before I was born. I was going to marry a man I could never know, not even see, because he’d died before he could make it outside his mother’s belly. Like a snake, her umbilical cord wound around his tiny neck and squeezed the tiny breath out of him.
“But, Spring Swallow,” said my mean aunt, addressing me by name, “a promise is a promise.”
It was my misfortune to have been raised by this very mean woman because both of my parents had died in a bus accident not long after their future son-in-law’s failure to enter this life. It was whispered around the village that because the baby could not lure
his
parents to join him in hell, he dragged down his intended parents-in-law instead.
My heartless aunt went on. “You know, failing to keep a promise not only shames your ancestors, but will bring your husband’s ghost back to haunt you. So, you have no choice but to marry him, dead or alive. Also, because not only your future husband but your parents also died, no man will marry you.”
Before I had a chance to ask why, she cast me a malicious glance. “No man wants to marry a bad-luck woman!”
But I knew the real reason that Mean Aunt was so eager for me to marry a ghost. Not because I was bad luck, but because I would be good luck for her. My ghost husband’s family was one of the richest in the village. Though the wedding would bring me no husband, it would bring her a bundle of cash and a heap of expensive gifts. But, of course, rich people do not give away their money just because they are nice. Once married to their ghost son, I would be obligated to take care of my mother-in-law until she died!
My aunt went on to threaten me. “You think any man would want to marry you? Born under an all-destroying star? Spring Swallow, you really have no choice. So don’t even think of escaping. I won’t let you destroy my reputation and ruin my life!”
Escape. That was exactly what I had in mind all along. I didn’t care about my aunt’s reputation and life. Because living in our remote village and being an old maid, she didn’t have much of a life to begin with anyway.
BOOK: Secret of a Thousand Beauties
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