Friday, March 5, 2010

[3b] Noemí Martín Santo :: Heroic Hetaera: The Idealization of East Asian Prostitution in Early XX Century Hispanic Travel Writing

To be presented in: Workshop 3 // Gender and Nation (read preliminary debate here)

This paper is focused on the presentation of East Asian prostitution in four literary works by Hispanic writers. The term heroic, refers to women idealized only as subjects of “love” or sexual attraction, but as national heroines, symbols of societies more advanced than the European ones. “Hetaera”, from Greek, is a word that the writers use to describe them.

The idea came to me while reading travel books on Eastern countries by 20 century writers who went there as travelers or for living purposes. They are Enrique Gómez Carrillo, Aurora Bertrana, Federico García Sanchiz and Vicente Blasco Ibáñez. They come from different backgrounds and literary genres, but when they write about Asia, they share Orientalist aesthetics that is reflected in the works. They are also related because of their European, cosmopolitan style.

Besides, they present prostitutes as entertainers, music players, dancers, etc. more than focus only in sexual relations. So in this book we find that the “body of pleasure” that travel literature fabricates, is educated, proud and more focused in the pleasures of the soul than the pleasures of the body. They highlight the moral values as proud motherhood, chastity of spirit, or self sacrifice.

The writers have also in common the depiction of the social status of the prostitute as a way of speaking about their nations. In “El Japón Heroico y Galante”, Enrique Gomez Carrillo quotes a Japanese scholar who states that the culture, luxury and elegance of these women flatter the Japanese national pride. This intellectual asserts that “aquí las cortesanas son almas honestas, aunque a los europeos les choque que lo digamos y les parezca inocente que lo pensemos”(53). The scholar mentioned goes beyond the typical Orientalist gaze trying to describe the Japanese customs as a normal and positive tradition.

Vicente Blasco Ibáñez, in “La vuelta al mundo de un novelista”, agrees with Gomez Carrillo, particularly when he affirms that in Japan, becoming a high-rank prostitute doesn´t mean a loss of honor for the woman or the family. He describes one night at the district when respectable families go for a walk in the streets and greet cheerfully their prostitute friends who are waiting for customers.

On the other hand, Federico Garcia Sanchiz, describes in “La Ciudad Milagrosa: Shanghai” the tragic end of the Shanghai courtesan “Perfumed Cloud”, when she kills herself after her two lovers killed themselves. He compares this suicide for the sake of honor with the situation that could have happened if the woman had been in Paris or New York, or if she were white; she would have probably got the vedette in a music-hall. But this Chinese woman, who did not love her protectors, felt herself forced to die: “una vez más se han respetado las tradiciones nacionales, que exigen el sacrificio absoluto” (117).

Lastly, in the French Polynesia, Aurora Bertrana, wrote this about the most famous courtesan Turei on the Island of Tahiti. She was: “una dona sana i simple, sense complicacions malaltisses ni literàries”(65). This woman had four children, and of course nobody knew who the father was, but, that, in Oceania, is not an issue, because all men are siblings, and what belongs to one, belongs to everyone. Turei was respected by the Maori society, and this respect, in Bertrana’s opinion, makes the Maori a kind of utopian society from the Western perspective.

My hypothesis is that the writers implicitly or explicitly are using the topic of exotic prostitution as a way of praising communities that were free of European influence. East Asian cultures became a way of escaping the reality and the crisis of values that Europe was undergoing at the beginning of the Twentieth Century. Those societies, even the ones considered primitive, became for the authors an example of the civilization, the respect, and the moral values that some of them felt were missing in the Western world.

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