In 1907, seven-year-old Cassia finds herself sold into a life of servitude at an upperclass Shanghai brothel. With her unbound feet, she is determined unfit to ever be a courtesan in the elite pavilion, but as she grows, so does her beauty. At the age of sixteen, her life changes when she gains the attention of one of Shanghaiís most powerful men, Chang Lixiong, Grand Master of the Hong Brotherhood. With Master Chang, she discovers love and passion, but itís not meant to last. When Master Chang is brutally assassinated, Cassia must learn to survive on her own.
A few years later finds her leading a troupe of actors and herself rising in fame on stage. But running a theatre troupe requires money, and before long, Cassia finds herself tied once again to the underground Triad society and reunited with Yu Qiyang, a man who inspires a passion in her that she thought long since lost. Using her intelligence and beauty, Cassia sets out on a path to become the most powerful woman in Shanghai.
Though her work may be banned in her native China, author Ying became famed internationally for her novels, K: The Art of Love and Peacock Cries. In The Concubine of Shanghai, she once again brings forth a novel of emotion and eroticism. Most of the story reads with fluidity, but there are parts that come across more as a summary rather than allowing readers to experience situations as they happen. There are also some sections where the author interrupts the tale with her own voice and thoughts; while interesting, these also pull away from the experience of being completely immersed in Cassiaís life.
Cassia herself is a figure worth reading the novel for. With so many historical fictions on bookstore shelves where the main character is an Asian woman forced into a life of prostitution in order to survive, itís nice to read a book that diverges from the trend in the story of a woman who breaks the conventions of her time and sets out to forge her own destiny. Confident in herself and her sexuality, Cassia is a character of great charisma and strength. Another mark that sets The Concubine of Shanghai apart is the level of depth and detail it gets into Triad society at that time. The politics of it, the rivalries, are all fascinating.
So while there may be a number of Asian-themed historical fictions available to choose from, The Concubine of Shanghai is a unique one. Sensual, dark at times, beautiful at others, and with a powerful female lead, the book doesnít disappoint.