Situating women in Chinese Literature: the sing-song girls of Shanghai and the cross-strait businesswomen in teahouse

Iting CHEN

Research output: Other Conference ContributionsConference Paper (other)Other Conference Paperpeer-review


This research is part of my PhD dissertation. It aims to question the appropriation of “sex worker” as a scholar term to describe migrant women from mainland China who based in the teahouse in urban Taiwan to run their business. During my dissertation, I found difficulties adopting “sex worker” in understanding experience and self-narrative of this group of women, who I call “cross-strait businesswomen.” As I spend more time with the businesswomen in either the teahouse or the massage parlour where one of them runs her business as an “instructor of massage,” I gradually realised that their experience should be situated differently. To reconfigure the theoretical theme, I then found figures of “xian sheng” (先生, a word can be understood as instructor or tutor) in the late-Qing novel titled The Sing-song Girls of Shanghai echoing with the businesswomen’s daily practice. Their practices of being a businesswoman and instructor are beyond sexual services. For instance, through the interaction with clients, they preach the essence of “goodness” (仁, ren) and other philosophical concepts, teach clients about health cultivation, and solve their doubts about life or relationship with their wives.

Therefore, this research will read text in The Sing-song Girls of Shanghai closely in understanding the characteristic of xian sheng, or female instructors, who appeared not only in “shuyu” (書寓, the elite brothels) but also in teahouses and restaurants. In doing so, this research intends to methodologically practice “alternative frames of reference” articulated by Indian scholar Tejaswini Niranjana in 2000 to emphasise the importance of illustrating experience in the third world without only referring to Western modernity. Chinese history manifested through the representation of cinema and literature in general, The Sing-song Girls of Shanghai in particular, hence, will be seen as the primary source of reference in this research where the alternative conversation with cross-strait businesswomen in the teahouse can be initiated.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2019
EventInter-Asia Cultural Studies Society Conference 2019: Fluid Circuits: Cultures of Knowledge After the Digital Turn - Silliman University, Dumaguete City, Philippines
Duration: 1 Aug 20193 Aug 2019


ConferenceInter-Asia Cultural Studies Society Conference 2019
Abbreviated titleIACS 2019
CityDumaguete City
Internet address


  • sexiam
  • sexuality
  • objectification
  • post-feminist
  • Irony


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