Amy Tan’s Rules for Virgins is a short work of fiction published by the prolific Chinese-American writer. Published as part of the Byliner series, Rules for Virgins—like other books in the series—are works of fiction and nonfiction that are supposed to be read in a single sitting. Other famous writers who contributed to this collection are Jon Krakauer and Ann Patchett.
The novella tells the story of a courtesan in Shanghai in 1912. She is still a virgin, but soon her virginity will be sold to the highest bidder. She is being counseled by an older woman who tells her how to please men while retaining her dignity and status as a valuable courtesan. The entirety of the work consists of the older courtesan giving rules to the younger courtesan, hence the name of the book.
The book’s purpose seemed to be to examine the dichotomous nature of proper Chinese society. Men took wives because that was their duty, but they also turned to courtesans to perform more lascivious acts. The courtesan must pretend that she is of the highest society, but still she is paid for her services. He must perform traditional courting rituals such as buying a courtesan a fine necklace, but then must pay her for her services, of course, as well.
I was certainly surprised by the lewdness of Tan’s work. I’ve read a number of her novels before, including her famous The Joy Luck Club, and she is known for exploring relationships between Chinese mothers living in the United States and their Chinese-American daughters. While a number of her works depict graphically violent episodes or sexually disturbing themes, none of them go into as much sexual detail as did Rules for Virgins. The novel discussed possible apparatuses, positions and kinks to great detail. I certainly hoped that my seatmate on the plane on which I was reading the novel wouldn’t look over!
Additionally, the book is rather difficult to conceptualized because it acts as a long monologue from an aging courtesan to a younger courtesan. Tan has worked in this style before—her book The Kitchen God’s Wife is all a monologue from mother to daughter—but it’s quite unbelievable if you think about it too long.
Certainly, this short novella isn’t the first Amy Tan novel that you should read. It gives some insight into the shifting culture in early-20th century China and is briefly titillating, but Tan’s longer novels are more memorable both in length and in substance.
Are you a fan of Amy Tan’s work? Are you surprised by her publication of Rules for Virgins?