Prostitution in a Small North China Town in the 1930s

Linda Grove Sophia University

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Almost all of the studies of prostitution in Republican era China have focused on big cities. Using recently rediscovered field notes from a social survey of the small town of Gaoyang in Hebei province, this article describes the practice of prostitution in the mid-1930s and considers how small-town prostitution differed from that in big cities. The women working in the sex trade in Gaoyang were all “clandestine” or unregistered prostitutes, who had been attracted to the town, which was the center of a major rural weaving district where there was a large number of unattached males who had migrated to the locale to work. Cautionary tales, popular in the local community, described the dangers of prostitution, including the spread of venereal diseases and the loss of job or reputation that resulted from spending too much time and money on the pleasures of the sex trade. County government approaches, including a “don’t ask, don’t look” policy, allowed the practice of prostitution to persist despite its illegal nature.


Almost all of the studies of prostitution in Republican era China have focused on big cities. Using recently rediscovered field notes from a social survey of the small town of Gaoyang in Hebei province, this article describes the practice of prostitution in the mid-1930s and considers how small-town prostitution differed from that in big cities. The women working in the sex trade in Gaoyang were all “clandestine” or unregistered prostitutes, who had been attracted to the town, which was the center of a major rural weaving district where there was a large number of unattached males who had migrated to the locale to work. Cautionary tales, popular in the local community, described the dangers of prostitution, including the spread of venereal diseases and the loss of job or reputation that resulted from spending too much time and money on the pleasures of the sex trade. County government approaches, including a “don’t ask, don’t look” policy, allowed the practice of prostitution to persist despite its illegal nature.


Almost all of the studies of prostitution in Republican era China in English, Chinese and Japanese have focused on prostitution in big cities. Shanghai – China’s first modern city and home to a vibrant media culture – has been the focus of most attention, but we can also find studies of prostitution in Beijing, Tianjin, Guangzhou, Hangzhou, and Kunming.1 While much of the writing about prostitution has centered on China’s largest and most modern cities, the sex trade was much more widely dispersed. By the early twentieth century, the sex trade had spread from the large cities and provincial capitals which had been the centers of a courtesan culture serving elite scholars and wealthy merchants into smaller prefectural cities and towns that were experiencing rapid development as a result of new railroad lines and industrial expansion. This paper uses newly discovered survey materials from the 1930s to sketch a portrait of prostitution in one small commercial town in North China. It addresses such questions as whether prostitutes were active in all small towns, how prostitution in small towns differed from that in big cities, how local residents discussed the “dangerous pleasures” raised in Gail Hershatter’s path-breaking work on Shanghai prostitution, and how different branches of the local state both used and policed the sex trade.

The materials that are the basis for this paper originate in unedited field notes of a team of young researchers who conducted a two-year long survey of social change in a small industrial town from 1935 to 1937.2 The field notes include general descriptions of prostitution in the town, a copy of an official population register, a list of individuals engaged in “illegal activities,” records of interviews with doctors and pharmacists, local stories of the dangers of prostitution, and records of interviews with two young prostitutes.

The research team had just completed field research and begun to write up their results when the war with Japan began in the summer of 1937. Their drafts were lost in the bombing of Nankai University and so we have no way of knowing how they would have constructed an explanation of the practices that will be described in this paper, or what role they would have assigned to the sex trade in their overall picture of social change induced by industrialization. However, by looking at the field notes we can catch glimpses of the young researchers’ basic approach to sexual practices, their attitudes toward the women engaged in prostitution, and their views of the men who were their customers. In their field notes we can also see reflections of a variety of views of the sex trade and those who participated in it. This paper uses the field note records to reconstruct the researchers’ portrait of prostitution in one small North China town and to compare that portrait with what we know from other studies about prostitution in large cities.

Small Town Prostitution: Gaoyang in the Mid-1930s

Not all small towns had prostitutes in the 1930s. Prostitution was a business, and like other businesses it only flourished in settings where there was sufficient demand to allow its practitioners to make a living. In 1930s China prostitution prospered in smaller towns that were important marketing centers or experiencing rapid growth, drawing in migrant workers, and serving as centers for transportation networks and industrial activities. Among the smaller towns for which we have reports on prostitution are Dezhou 德州 in northwestern Shandong and Shijiazhuang 石家莊 in Hebei, both examples of towns that experienced rapid development as a result of the building of railroads,3 Anguo xian 安國縣 in Hebei which was home to North China’s largest medicinal drug market,4 and Gaoyang xian 高陽縣 – the focus of this paper – which grew rapidly as the result of the development of the rural weaving industry. In all of these small towns, prostitution was closely associated with commercial culture: most of the regular customers of prostitutes were merchants or employees of business firms. Members of the security forces including soldiers, police and militia were also regular customers.

Prostitution in Gaoyang was closely linked to the town’s rise as the center of a prosperous rural weaving industry.5 Gaoyang county is located thirty kilometers southeast of Baoding 保定 in the central Hebei plains, equidistant (170 kilometers) from Beijing and Tianjin, and is well known in the literature on economic history as the most successful rural industrial district in North China in the first half of the twentieth century. The modern textile industry in Gaoyang traced its origins to the last decade of the Qing dynasty when local businessmen took advantage of a government technology transfer project that encouraged the use of treadle looms (tielunji 鐵輪機) introduced from Japan to produce fabrics that were imitations of foreign machine-woven goods. By the 1920s rural weavers in Gaoyang and nearby counties, working in their homes or in small workshops, were annually producing several million bolts of cotton and rayon fabrics that were marketed throughout China. The town and nearby villages were home to ten larger and many smaller dyeing and finishing factories; more than one hundred wholesale firms in the town managed textile production and developed sales networks that covered most of China.

The rise of the textile industry brought dramatic changes to the local community, including the in-migration of several thousand workers and merchants from other parts of North China. Although urban textile factories by the 1930s were turning to the use of female labor, men still dominated rural production. All of the employees in the firms and factories that controlled the industry were men, and in the rural households and workshops men had taken over as weavers, a task that until the early twentieth century had been done by women. While women made significant contributions to production doing much of the tedious labor of reeling yarn and setting up looms, they rarely worked outside the household compound and their work was usually unpaid.6

One of the results of the male dominance of the textile industry was a town in which men made up 69% of the population.7 In the surrounding countryside some villages had relatively normal male/female population balances, but in the villages where small weaving and dyeing factories had proliferated an inflow of male migrant labor had produced radically skewed gender balances, with almost two times as many men as women.8 This influx of unattached men who almost always left their wives and families in their hometowns was a major contributing factor to the creation of demand for sex services. Let us then briefly look at the town of Gaoyang in the mid-1930s and the new social world that flourished there.

Gaoyang residents in the 1930s often described their town as a “small Tianjin,” a proud boast that reflected their understanding that their hometown was more like a city, rather than like other rural county seats. The textile industry had served as a mecca for people and for businesses that offered services usually only seen in larger urban centers. By the 1930s, a population of over 11,000 – more than double the population in 1911 when the Qing dynasty fell – crowded the walled-town and the rapidly growing commercial areas outside its four gates, which were home to schools, factories and firms that could not find space within the old walled town. The county government offices occupied space in the northwest quadrant of the town, while the main north-south and east-west streets were lined with the headquarters of yarn and cloth wholesale firms. Crowded around the main crossroads in the town were restaurants that stayed open late into the night and offered meals to businessmen and their customers who gathered there at the end of a busy day. A local power plant supplied electricity to the town, and streetlights provided illumination along the main thoroughfares. There were many large and small shops offering all of the services that those accustomed to urban life might desire: branches of two banks took deposits, advanced loans, and helped with the transfer of funds; several book stores kept local readers supplied with new publications; a newspaper delivery service managed subscriptions to major newspapers; more than ten tailors were available to make clothes and there were an equal number of shoe stores; several shops sold and repaired bicycles; printing shops offered services, mainly printing advertisements for commercial firms; there were more than ten laundries and two public baths, ten traditional Chinese drug stores, and five western drug stores, as well as a large charity hospital on the west side of town that was funded by one of the most successful entrepreneurs. Several bus companies with offices at the edge of town extended regular bus service to Tianjin and Baoding, and the town was linked by both telephone and telegraph to major cities all over the country.

The business world was dominated by the largest yarn and cloth wholesaling firms, many of which had constructed impressive stone and brick headquarters buildings. The largest firms had local staff of twenty or more employees and apprentices, as well as managing nation-wide systems of sales branches that employed up to 100 additional men. All of the firms and factories in Gaoyang were private enterprises, and most were organized according to traditional Chinese partnership customs; all employees were male. The firm or factory operated as a collective unit, providing housing and meals to its employees who lived on the premises. Not all of the entrepreneurs were Gaoyang natives, and if the owner or manager came from another town or county, he most commonly recruited employees and workers from his own hometown.

Each of the large textile firms had a branch office in Tianjin that was responsible for acquiring raw materials (cotton and rayon yarn) and managing the firm’s finances, including the settlement of payments through Tianjin native banks. Employees dispatched to the Tianjin office or to sales branches in other parts of the country always went as single individuals. Many of the accounts of involvement in prostitution start with the dispatch of a trusted employee to the Tianjin branch where, lonely and seeking to make ties with other businessmen, he began to visit urban brothels and became enamored with a beautiful courtesan.

The accounts of prostitution in Gaoyang follow two paths – descriptions of the prostitutes’ activities in Gaoyang and the services they offered, and cautionary tales about the dangers of becoming involved with prostitutes, which almost always focused on men who had been led astray by their involvement with big city prostitutes. As we will see in a later section of this paper, big city prostitutes were expensive, and also depicted as bringing not only the danger of disease, but also the chance of loss of fortune and position. But let us first begin with the local scene, and what the young researchers learned about the “clandestine prostitutes” (anchang 暗娼) active in the town.

Clandestine Prostitutes

All of the women who appear in the materials as individuals working in the sex business in Gaoyang are described as clandestine prostitutes. To understand what that means we need to start with a short description of the history of efforts to control prostitution in early twentieth century China. Although prostitution had been criminalized in 1723 when the Yongzheng 雍正 (r. 1723-35) emperor freed from debased status the special category of households known as yuehu 樂戶, who had previously been legally allowed to engage in enter­tainment businesses including prostitution, now there was no organized system for regulating prostitution, and most of the cases brought to the courts were uncovered when dealing with other crimes.9 Attitudes toward the control of prostitution began to change in the late nineteenth and early twentieth ­centuries when notions about controlling prostitution spread to China from Europe.10 In Europe the original motivation for efforts to control the sex trade was the threat of the spread of venereal disease. In the case of China, ideas about the regulation of prostitution were introduced as part of the late Qing New Policy (xinzheng 新政) initiatives. The earliest regulation programs were part of the policing reforms, established by Yuan Shikai 袁世凱 (1859-1916) in Zhili province (later Hebei). The general measures adopted included a scheme for registering brothels and the women who were attached to them.11 Once registered, the brothels were required to pay a brothel tax (yuejuan 樂捐; in some places huajuan 花 捐), which we might think of as a kind of business tax.

It is important to note that the registration system only recorded the prostitutes attached to brothels, so that all independent operators, including street walkers, were unregistered. These are the women who are referred to as “clandestine prostitutes.” The records on local tax revenues in Gaoyang in the 1930s, list income from many kinds of business taxes (juan 捐), but none from a tax on brothels,12 and all of the prostitutes we encounter in the survey materials are described as anchang. The fact that all of the prostitutes were “clandestine” separated the practice of prostitution in Gaoyang from what would have been found in larger cities, where licensed brothels were part of the regular business scene. In many large cities, including the nearby former Hebei provincial capital of Baoding as well as Tianjin, licensed brothels would be located in a special district, with each establishment putting out signs and lanterns to attract customers.

The research notes tell us that the first prostitute in Gaoyang began working around 1911.13 The pioneer was a woman who set up an establishment under the name Jinfutang 金福堂 near the town’s west gate. It would appear from the account that this first brothel was licensed; however, around 1921 the county government decided to clamp down on legal prostitution, and the proprietor, no longer able to operate in an open fashion, moved to a small settlement of about ten houses outside the southwest corner of the town. It was not long before others joined her there. By the mid-1930s there were fourteen prostitutes working in Gaoyang. Most of them operated out of rented premises located in small settlements outside the city walls, or on narrow back streets within the walled town. Since the trade was not licensed, the establishments did not put up signs or lanterns, and customers who wanted to visit would learn where the prostitutes were located through introductions from friends or by word of mouth.

Only two of the fourteen women serving as prostitutes in the 1930s were Gaoyang natives. Most of the women had begun their careers in the sex trade in larger cities – Tianjin or Baoding – and had come to work in Gaoyang when their age made them less competitive in the large cities where there was a constant stream of young women to replenish the ranks in higher grade brothels. Of the nine women for whom we have a record of age, six were over 35, the oldest listed as 51.

To get a better idea of prostitution in Gaoyang, the young researchers arranged interviews with two of the youngest prostitutes. Their records of the interviews are presented as answers to questions that they had set before hand: family history, personal history, environment and education, reasons for becoming a prostitute, and services offered and business conditions. It is difficult from the field notes to discern the emotional reactions of the interviewers. Liang Xihui 梁錫輝, the leader of the survey team, was a native of Guangzhou who had been a student of Chen Xujing 陳序經 at Lingnan University. He had been active in the YMCA at Lingnan and continued his involvement in Christian activities after moving north, so we might speculate that he shared the views of many Christian activists who were involved in movements to abolish legal prostitution, and to rescue young women who had fallen into the sex trade.14 The only hint of value judgment in the field records, however, can be found in the way the two interviews were classified; they were included in the category of “social disorder” (shehui bingtai 社會病態). As we know from Gail Hershatter’s study of Shanghai in the 1940s, prostitution was commonly perceived and categorized as “urban disorder.”15

While the two young women were very close in age – one 19 and the other 18 – and both were engaged in prostitution as a way to support members of their families, the first interviewee, Lan Ting 蘭亭 comes across as a more traditional young woman, while the second interviewee, Ma Yuejun 馬月君, presents herself as a stylish “modern girl.”

Lan Ting was a native of Renqiu county 任丘縣, which borders Gaoyang. Her family included her parents, an older brother and two younger brothers. Lan Ting had lived in Tianjin with her parents and older brother until she reached the age of 15. Her brother had worked on the railroad serving tea, and her father had sold fruit. The family returned to Renqiu after her brother lost his job; her father then took up farming, but the income from only 10 mu 畝 of land could not support a family of six. When Lan Ting reached the age of 16 she went to live (pindu 姘度) with a local boss (tucaizhu 土財主). When the relationship broke up, her mother took her to the nearby prefectural town of Hejian 河間 to work as a clandestine prostitute. Since she was not able to earn much money, they moved to Gaoyang, attracted by the prosperity of the textile industry. Lan Ting and her mother rented several rooms in a courtyard in a small settlement outside the city walls. They chose this location because in small towns men who visited prostitutes did not want to make a public display of such activity. By choosing a location some distance from the town, it was presumably easier for customers to visit unnoticed.

Lan Ting’s establishment was very simple. There were only two rooms, one had a kang 炕 (raised platform for sitting and sleeping) and several simple chairs. The research team estimated that the value of the furniture and furnishings could not exceed 10 yuan 元 (roughly,.35 US$). Lan Ting dressed in a simple manner, wearing pants and a jacket made out of cotton cloth and simple embroidered shoes of a type that were commonly sold in stores and markets.

When they asked why she had become a prostitute, many reasons were given: her father and brother’s loss of jobs and the small size of the family landholdings, which were not sufficient to feed a family of six. From the conversation, the researchers speculated on other reasons: first, although nothing was said explicitly, they came to believe that her father and brother were both using drugs. Lan Ting was very beautiful, and the researchers believed that had led to her liaison with the local boss. Moreover, her mother was very gregarious and skilled at entertaining guests, and they believed that Lan Ting had learned “bad habits” from her mother. The researchers later heard rumors that the family was 100 yuan in debt and had to pay two yuan in interest per month.

Lan Ting offered various kinds of services: (1) tea guests could stay for two hours. She offered them tea, tobacco and seeds, for which they would pay anywhere from a few jiao 角 (one tenth of a yuan) to one yuan; (2) for guests who stayed the night, prices varied but were in the range of 3+ yuan. Lan Ting’s establishment was outside the city walls, and the city gates closed at 9 p.m. so customers had to come early, or plan to stay for the night.

The researchers estimated that Lan Ting was probably earning about fifty yuan a month. Living costs for the mother and daughter would probably have been around twenty yuan a month, leaving a profit of 20-30 yuan to send to her father and brothers, the younger two of whom were still in school. To put this in context, from other records we know that a section chief (kezhang 科長) in the county government office received a salary of forty yuan a month, a skilled worker in one of the dyeing factories earned somewhere between 10-16 yuan, and a floor supervisor twenty or more yuan a month.16

In this account of the life of Lan Ting there are several unclear points. Was her first relationship with the “local boss” the result of desire, or was she rather pushed into the relationship by her parents as a way of gaining connections and funds for the family? Certainly, the suggestions about her family – a father and older brother who used drugs, a mother who was described as gregarious and good at entertaining guests – raise questions about the family and lead us to wonder if the family had earlier connections with prostitution or other illegal activities. And yet the portrait of Lan Ting that emerges is of a modest young woman, sacrificing herself to support her family. As Margery Wolf has argued with regard to prostitution in 1960s Taiwan, such sacrifice of a daughter’s virtue to support her family was seen, in its own way, as honorable.17

Ma Yuejun, who was 18 at the time of the interview, presents a very different picture. Ma, a Huizu 回族 from a Baoding family, was more fashionable than Lan Ting. She wore stylish qipao 旗袍 (Chinese slim-fitting dress) or satin pants and elaborately embroidered shoes and had bobbed hair and a permanent. Ma was literate, having studied at elementary school before beginning what might be called “formal training” for her profession. Her mother had worked as a prostitute in a Beijing brothel, then as a clandestine prostitute in the Japanese concession in Tianjin before moving to Anguo county in Hebei province. While living with her mother in Anguo, Yuejun had learned how to sing opera tunes, one of the traditional skills for higher-ranking prostitutes. She also told the interviewers that she had learned to ride a bicycle and showed them the bicycle she had brought to Gaoyang. Xu Tao 徐濤, in his study of the bicycle in modern China, has argued that in the early twentieth century bicycles were associated with two groups of women, students and courtesans, and Paola Zamperini has described the appearance in late Qing and early Republican literature of courtesans riding bicycles.18

In Gaoyang Ma and her mother had rented a compound on a back street near the town’s east gate. The compound had four rooms and was furnished with a kang, tables and chairs, a mirror, photos, and other decorative objects that the researchers estimated must have cost at least 100 yuan. Ma provided the sole support for a household of seven members: she lived with her mother, younger sister, a cook and a servant in the four room compound, while her two brothers, who did not want to live in the compound where their sister was engaged in prostitution, had opened a small shop selling sundry goods (zahuo 雜貨) nearby. The sundry shop was not producing profits, so the brothers were also dependent on their sister’s income. Ma offered the same services as Lan Ting, but the prices for services were higher: one yuan for those who came to chat, drink tea and enjoy snacks, and 5-7 yuan for those who wanted to “stay for the night.” The researchers estimated that she was bringing in an income of about 60 yuan a month.

In this account of the life of Ma Yuejun there are several points of interest: first is her birth as the daughter of a prostitute. We are told that her father had died of venereal disease three years before the interview; her father’s former wife had also died, and one of the brothers she was supporting was the son of a concubine. We might speculate that her mother, who had spent some time working as a prostitute, had also been one of her father’s concubines. The timing of Yuejun’s decision to stop her schooling and begin working as a prostitute at the age of 15 coincides with the death of her father, suggesting that her mother decided to return to her former profession after the death of the man who had presumably facilitated her departure from her former life as a pros­titute.

The second point is related to the business side of small town prostitution. Yuejun and her mother had previously worked in Anguo, which was famous all over China for its wholesale market in traditional herbal medicines. During the twice-yearly big drug markets, the town’s normal population of 8,500 ballooned, as thousands of merchants and traders from all over China as well as from Japan and Korea gathered to trade. During the markets, there was a high demand for sexual services and prostitution – both licensed and clandestine flourished in the town. Zheng Hecheng, who conducted a survey in the early 1930s, interviewed the merchant who had won the bid to collect taxes on prostitution: the merchant’s records showed that during the off season, there were between forty and fifty registered prostitutes active in Anguo, with the number swelling to between 130 and 150 during the three-month long market periods.19 Ma Yuejun had gotten her start in this highly competitive market in Anguo, but she and her mother later decided to move to Gaoyang in search of more stable income: while business in Anguo was very good during the twice-yearly drug markets, there were few customers during the other six months of the year. They had hoped that Gaoyang, with its booming textile business, would provide year-round steady income. As we can see from this second point, women engaged in prostitution in smaller towns were mobile, moving from larger cities to small towns, and from one small town to another in search of a location that would bring in steady income. As we will see in the last part of this essay, Ma and her family eventually left Gaoyang one night in the Spring of 1936, leaving behind unpaid debts.

This section has provided a general description of prostitutes and prostitution in Gaoyang in the 1930s. In the next section, we will look at discourses about the dangers of prostitution incorporated in accounts the researchers heard from their informants.

Cautionary Tales: The Risks of Visiting Prostitutes

There are two major themes in the field note records on the risks of visiting prostitutes: infection with venereal disease which was a common concern in early twentieth-century Chinese discourses on prostitution, and a theme more specific to the Gaoyang merchant community, the risk of losing an employer’s trust because of excessive expenditures on prostitutes.

Let us look first at what the records tell us about venereal disease. The records on this come from interviews with western medical doctors and pharmacists. One of the doctors of western medicine reported that venereal disease was already quite common when he came to work in Gaoyang twenty years earlier (mid-teens). Throughout the teens and 1920s the military situation in North China had been unstable, as warlord armies battled for control of the national capital. Gaoyang was located along the major road between Tianjin and Baoding and military forces frequently passed through the region. In China, as in other parts of the world, the infection rate for venereal disease among soldiers was higher than in the general population, and the doctor speculated that soldiers had played a role in spreading venereal disease in the local community.

Pharmacists reported that about one-fifth of their business in the 1930s was for medicines for venereal disease; most of the customers for such medicines were merchants and workers, with infections among employees of the yarn and cloth wholesalers particularly common. Most of the men who purchased drugs for venereal disease reported that they had become infected while on appointments for their companies in Beijing, Tianjin, Baoding or other cities.20 Although Gaoyang doctors knew about the prophylactic benefits of the use of condoms, none of the local pharmacies sold them, although there was a report that one of the bookstores sold condoms on a commission basis. And while we can imagine that doctors in Gaoyang cautioned their patients to stay away from prostitutes in order to avoid the risks of additional infections, both doctors and pharmacists reported that they had many repeat customers. The city of Tianjin, which had almost 3000 licensed prostitutes working in more than 500 brothels, was the city where most Gaoyang men reported they had contracted venereal disease. While many urban centers in China had established “inspection stations” for prostitutes to try to stop the spread of venereal diseases, Tianjin only got around to setting up an inspection and treatment center in early 1937.21

Treatment of venereal disease was relatively expensive. Doctors of western medicine were familiar with the use of “miracle drugs” like Salvarsan and neo-Salvarsan, which had been developed in Germany in the early twentieth century and were marketed under the names 606 and 914. In cases where the doctor suspected that a patient had syphilis, the doctor usually insisted that the patient first get a test at a Baoding hospital to be certain that the patient was infected with syphilis; only then would he undertake treatment with intravenous injections. While intravenous injections were most effective, the cost of 2-3 yuan per injection was quite high, and so many patients chose to use tablets or creams although they were less effective.

While venereal disease was an ever-present risk, popular cautionary tales focused on a different issue: not the risk of infection, but rather the loss of job and reputation. The cautionary tales tell the stories of employees of yarn and cloth wholesalers whose involvement with prostitutes led them to betray the trust of their employers. One story recounted the experience of a Gaoyang native Tian Juting 田鞠庭 who was sent to Tianjin as the manager of the branch of Hui Chang 滙昌, one of the largest wholesale firms. He became enamored of a prostitute in one of the Tianjin brothels and began to use company funds to cover the costs of gifts and visits. By the time the company realized what was going on, he had misused 3000 yuan of company funds. Tian was fired and forced to sell off family property to pay back the company. According to later reports, Tian was unemployed and had begun to use drugs.

Another account featured more complicated interactions between a man named Song 宋 and employees of other Gaoyang firms in Tianjin. Song had started as an apprentice in a wholesale firm, rising to serve as Tianjin branch manager, establishing a reputation for frugality that had earned high praise from the company’s chief manager. When managers of other wholesale firms criticized their Tianjin branch managers for not following Song’s example, some of his companions decided to see if they could entice him into spending money on entertainment. They introduced Song to a young prostitute who pretended to be in love with him and refused to accept payment for his visits. After several months, the young prostitute pressured Song to give her money, and Song took several thousand yuan from company funds to pay her. The next time he went to visit, the prostitute had disappeared, and Song soon lost his job.22

There are several other accounts along this line, one of which ended tragically. An employee named Zhang 張, also a Tianjin branch manager for Hui Chang, fell in love with a prostitute and used company funds to visit her. After some months, Zhang purchased her freedom from the brothel and made her his concubine. When the company learned of Zhang’s deception they recalled him to Gaoyang and fired him, pressuring Zhang’s family to pay off the debt. When Zhang returned to Tianjin to visit his concubine he discovered that she had died of illness. Depressed by the loss of his reputation and his beloved concubine, Zhang took his own life.

These accounts of the fate of men who became so enamored of a prostitute that they forgot their obligations to their employer read like other accounts of lost virtue, including the kinds of stories told about the relationships between young scholars and beautiful courtesans of an earlier era. However, as Hsü Pi-ching argued in her analysis of this genre of late Ming popular fiction, the courtesan was usually presented as honorable and following her true emotions, even if this led to disillusion or disaster.23 In the late Ming stories, the rich merchants and scholars who appear in the accounts as the patrons of courtesans are often presented in a less favorable light. Perhaps because of the importance of the textile trade in Gaoyang, the employees of commercial firms portrayed in these stories come across in a more favorable light; pursuing what they think is true love, they place their personal interests above those of their firm, and in the end, lose everything – both job and personal fulfillment. We can imagine that such stories were passed around among the apprentices and young employees of the wholesale firms, intended as warnings about the dangers of becoming involved with prostitutes.

Sex Trade and the Local State

In spring 1931 a popular restaurant Deweilou 得味樓, located near the main crossroad in the center of town, invited a waitress to join its staff. Business at the restaurant doubled, then tripled, and rival restaurants copied its success. Soon several of the popular restaurants in the center of town had waitresses on their staff. Most of the waitresses came from Baoding and they were invited to join the restaurants with the understanding that they would receive no salary but gain their income from tips.24 Throughout the spring and summer entrepreneurs, employees of the wholesale firms, county government office workers and teachers flocked to the restaurants. This brief flourishing of a new service industry came to a sudden end in 1932 when the County magistrate, Li Daben 李大本, read a letter to the editor from two Gaoyang men published in one of the major Tianjin newspapers, the Yi Shi Bao 益世報.25 The letter claimed that one of the waitresses at Deweilou was offering sexual services. Angered by the report, Li ordered his police chief to inform the restaurant owners that all waitresses must leave Gaoyang within 24 hours.26 The owner of Deweilou kept one of the waitresses as a concubine, another waitress stayed and became a clandestine prostitute, while the others left.

What does this episode tell us about the relationship between government and the sex trade? Why were women engaged in unlicensed prostitution allowed to continue operations, while waitresses, only one of whom was accused of offering sexual services on the side, were driven out of town? Informants told the research team that the Gaoyang county government took a “Don’t look, don’t ask” attitude toward the unlicensed prostitutes.27 Informants reported that there were two reasons for this. First, if the government wanted to strictly control the clandestine prostitutes, they would also have to go after their customers, and they did not want to get involved in the complications that this would bring since there were many local bosses and local bullies as well as members of the security forces among the regular customers of the prostitutes. For example, reports said that the head of the local security forces (baoweituan 保衛團) was a regular customer of Ma Yuejun.

Informants also reported that the government sometimes used the clandestine prostitutes to meet the demands of military forces passing through the county. For example, when the Dongbei 東北 military forces of Wang Shuchang 王樹常 had been temporarily garrisoned in the county, officers demanded that the county police bring licensed prostitutes for their enjoyment. Since there were no licensed prostitutes, the police gathered clandestine prostitutes and took them to the quarters where the officers were staying. As a result of that experience, local government officials felt it was safest to ignore the activities of the clandestine prostitutes since their services might be needed in the future.

We can also surmise that the spatial location and openness of the activities of the waitresses in contrast to the clandestine nature of prostitution may have been a factor. As we have seen, the clandestine prostitutes had carefully avoided drawing attention to their activities, choosing residences in small villages outside the city walls or in back streets within the town. While they did not turn customers away, they also did not advertise with the signs and lanterns that were the usual marks of licensed prostitutes in larger cities. When the waitresses came in, they operated in a different manner. Working in popular restaurants in the center of town, they greeted and served customers in a very public way. Thus, when the magistrate Li Daben saw the complaint in the Yi Shi Bao he wasted no time in resolving the matter by expelling the women from the county. Operating openly in the center of town, exposed to public view and knowledge clearly violated the unspoken rules of the relationship that had been established between the clandestine prostitutes and the local government. Just as an earlier county magistrate had dismissed the head of the county construction department when he had too publicly frequented local clandestine prostitutes, Li Daben decided to banish all waitresses who seemed to threaten the established public order in the town.

While this episode represented an open clash between the county government and those in the sex trade, prostitutes working in Gaoyang faced other forms of harassment on a regular basis. Officially classified as engaging in “illegal” activities there was no way for the women to seek official protection against various forms of harassment or exploitation.28 As a result, the prostitutes often sought some kind of informal protection by establishing personal relations with members of the local security forces. Gaining such protection, however, also involved risks. As the researchers learned from Lan Ting, it was not uncommon for rowdies or marginal members of society or those from the military and security forces to visit and demand services without offering any financial compensation. And as they learned from Ma Yuejun, the regular patronage of a Mr. Ma, head of the county militia, discouraged other customers from visiting and had a bad effect on income, leading her eventually to give up business in Gaoyang.

Small Town Prostitutes in Comparative Perspective

This final section will consider whether the practice of prostitution in small towns differed from that in large cities, and if so how. The comparisons here are drawn with the practice of prostitution in the treaty port city of Tianjin. I have chosen Tianjin for the comparison for three reasons: first, the availability of roughly contemporaneous materials; second, the close commercial relations between Gaoyang and Tianjin; finally, the fact that the research team came from Nankai University in Tianjin and we know from materials in the records that they closely followed developments in that city.

Tianjin had been a major commercial center since the Ming and Qing dynasties. Located at the intersection of the Grand Canal with the Haihe 海河River, it was home to a vibrant commercial community and home base for the Changlu 長盧 salt merchants who controlled the production and distribution of salt in north China. The opening of the treaty port after the second opium war had led to the rapid growth of the city. Tianjin became the major center of international and domestic trade in north China, and by the 1920s also home to a rapidly growing light industrial sector. Commerce and industry brought businessmen from all over China to the city and created a demand for sexual services that was met by licensed brothels as well as unlicensed street walkers. A survey by the Tianjin municipal Social Bureau (Shehuiju 社會局) in 1930 recorded 2,910 prostitutes working in more than 500 brothels, most of which were quite small with a proprietor and a small number of prostitutes.29 The first big difference we note between small town prostitution and that in the big cities was the absence of a brothel district. There was no “brothel district” in Gaoyang; rather the women had their own establishments scattered in the back streets of the town and in small villages just outside the city walls.

A second major difference is related to why and how women entered the sex trade. Accounts of prostitution in the large cities, including Tianjin, note that a majority of the women employed in the sex trade were in some sense not legally “free.”30 The Social Bureau survey of Tianjn prostitutes showed that 64 percent of Tianjin prostitutes had been mortgaged, sold or “rented” to the brothel owner, while just under 30 percent had “chosen”(ziganzhuilou 自甘墜樓) to enter the sex trade. Although there seems little question that the two young women, Lan Ting and Ma Yuejun, who were interviewed by the research team had become prostitutes because of financial pressure on their families, they, with the assistance of their mothers who seem to have acted as managers for their daughters, were operating their own independent businesses. If we follow the terms of the Social Bureau survey, they would both have been categorized as women who had “chosen” to enter the sex trade.

This status as independent operators facilitated mobility among prostitutes operating in small towns. Since the women were not bound by legal contract to the owner of a brothel, they could move in search of a location where the demand for sex services was sufficient to produce steady income. At the same time, the small scale of operations was also evidence of business done on the very edge of survival. While the proprietors of larger brothels in cities like Tianjin or Baoding had sufficient funds to acquire young women by offering their parents – or in some cases brokers – payment in exchange for the women’s services, the small-town prostitutes were barely scraping by, earning only enough to support themselves and their immediate family members. Notes added to the end of the interview records with Lan Ting and Ma Yuejun record that both eventually left Gaoyang.

A third difference between small town prostitutes and those in big cities was age. While the research team interviewed two prostitutes who were still in their teens, they were the youngest on the list of women identified as clandestine prostitutes. In Tianjin, the survey showed that the average age of all of the prostitutes in the city was 23.8, with 87 percent falling in the range of 16-30. As we have seen, the average age of prostitutes working in Gaoyang was much higher. Among the Tianjin prostitutes, those who worked in the highest rank brothels were the youngest, averaging just over 18, while as one moved down the ranks the average age rose. The data from the Tianjin survey confirms the information that the research team gathered – that most of the prostitutes in Gaoyang were women who had moved down the hierarchy as they aged, from big cities like Tianjin, to a smaller intermediate town like Baoding, and finally to working in small towns.

As we have seen, the materials from the Gaoyang survey provide only glimpses of the lives of women engaged in prostitution in one small town. Postscripts to the two interviews provide a hint of their later fates. Ma Yuejun and her family had acquired debts they could not repay, and so they absconded from Gaoyang one night in the spring of 1936, selling their furniture, but taking their clothes and personal belongings. Rumors in the town said that Yuejun had gone to Beijing and become a prostitute there. If that rumor was true, then she had perhaps been able to use her beauty and singing training to move against the normal flow and move from a small town to a big city establishment.

As for Lan Ting, in spring 1936 she moved from the small settlement outside the city walls into the town, hoping that she would find more customers with a location inside the city walls, no longer limited by the closing of the gates each night. The new location was reported to be in a bad neighborhood, an area frequented by drug users. In the summer of 1936 she contracted a venereal disease and went back to her hometown.

We do not know how the two young women fared during the tumultuous years of war and revolution that followed, or how they would have told their own stories. Nor do we know how the young research team would have used these materials to explain the practices of prostitution in their overall portrait of social change in Gaoyang. For now, we are left with these quick glimpses from interviews conducted in the 1935 and 1936 that open the door, only slightly, on the practice of prostitution in one small North China town.


This paper was originally published in Japanese as “Kahoku no aru kotoshi de baishun ni kansuru kenkyū – 1930 nendai wo chūshin ni” 華北のある小都市での売春に関する研究〜 1930年代を中心に,” in Chūgoku no medeia, hyōshō to jendā 中国のメデイア・表象とジェンダー (Tokyo: Kenbun Shuppan, 2016), 168-189. I thank the Japanese publisher for giving permission to me to publish this article in English.

The best-known works in English on Shanghai are Gail Hershatter, Dangerous Pleasures: Prostitution and Modernity in Twentieth-Century Shanghai (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997) and Christian Henriot, Prostitution and Sexuality in Shanghai: A Social History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001). For Tianjin, I have used Jiang Pei 江沛, “Jindai Tianjin changye jigou shulun” 近代天津娼業機構述論, in Zhongguo shehui kexueyuan jindaishi yanjiusuo, ed. 中國社會科學院近代史研究所, ed., Zhonghua Minguoshi yanjiu sanshinian (1972-2002) 中華民國史研究三十年 (1972-2002) (Beijing: Shehui kexue wenxian chubanshe, 2008), vol. 2, 1337-75; on Baoding, Zheng Yafei 鄭亞非, “Jiushehui de Baoding changji” 舊社會的保定娼妓, Baoding wenshi ziliao xuanji 保定文史資料選輯 (1986): 213-19; on Guangzhou, Hangzhou and Kunming, Elizabeth J. Remick, Regulating Prostitution in China: Gender and Local State Building, 1900-1937 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2014); and for reports on prostitution from both large cities and smaller provincial towns, Wenshi jinghua bianjibu 文史精華編輯部, Jindai Zhongguo changji shiliao 近代中國娼妓史料 (Shijiazhuang: Hebei renmin chubanshe, 1997). Shao Yong 邵雍, Zhongguo jindai changji shi 中國近代娼妓史 (Shanghai: Renmin chubanshe, 2005) provides a survey of the both practices and suppression efforts in many parts of China.

Chen Xujing 陳序經, a well-known sociologist who had joined the faculty of the Jingji yanjiu­suo 經濟研究所 at Nankai 南開 University in Tianjin in 1934, directed the research project. Chen was a strong proponent of westernization and industrialization and de­­signed the project to consider social change as a result of industrialization. Chen selected Gaoyang 高陽 county, in Hebei province, as a first case study. The Nankai Institute had recently finished an intensive study of economic change in Gaoyang – a study directed by Wu Zhi 吳知 and published as Xiangcun zhibuye de yige yanjiu 鄉村織布業的一個研究 (Shanghai: Shangwu yinshuguan, 1936). Liang Xihui 梁錫輝, a former student of Chen’s at Lingnan University in Guangzhou, was hired as the leader of the research team, and Liang and several assistants settled in Gaoyang for almost two years, undertaking a comprehensive survey of the Gaoyang community, including both the county town and several villages that were selected as representative of the range of rural villages. At the beginning of the Sino-Japanese War Nankai University was bombed, and Chen Xujing later wrote that all of the research materials and drafts were lost. The original field research records were rediscovered at Nankai University in 2013; this paper uses a small part of that collection. References to materials from this collection are cited as field note records, category and number, following the original organization created by the research team.

On Dezhou and Shijiazhuang see the work by Shao Yong and accounts in Zhongguo jindai changji shi.

Zheng Hecheng 鄭合成, “Anguoxian yaoshi diaocha” (shang, xia) 安國縣藥市調查 (上,下), Shehui kexue zazhi 社會科學雜誌 3.1 (1932): 94-124; and 3.2: 186-233. Zheng takes up prostitution in Anguo as one of the chief forms of entertainment during the twice-yearly drug markets.

The classic Chinese account of the Gaoyang weaving industry in the early 1930s is Wu Zhi’s study cited earlier. For an account of the Gaoyang weaving industry over the long twentieth century, see Linda Grove, A Chinese Economic Revolution: Rural Entrepreneurship in the Twentieth Century (Lanham MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006).

On the gendered nature of work in Gaoyang industry see Linda Grove, “Mechanization and Women’s Work in Early Twentieth Century China,” in Yanagita Setsuko Sensei Koki Kinen Ronshū Henshū Iinkai 柳田節子 先生 古稀記念 論集編集委員会, ed., Yanagita Setsuko Koki kinen Chūgoku no dentō shakai to kazoku 柳田節子古稀記念中国の伝統社会と家族 (Tokyo: Kyūko Shoin, 1993), 95-120.

Gaoyang survey field notes, gongye yingxiang 工業影響 79 (renkou zhiye fenxi 人口職業分析)

Gaoyang survey field notes, zhian 治安 24 (Gaoyangxian qingxiang suocha lülin nannüshu qingce 高陽縣清鄉所查閭鄰男女數清冊)

The most authoritative account of Qing attitudes toward and efforts to control prostitution can be found in Matthew H. Sommer, Sex, Law and Society in Late Imperial China (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000). Chapter 7 of Sommer’s book focuses on the Yongzheng reforms and the criminalization of prostitution.

Efforts to control prostitution are discussed in many of the books on prostitution in Shanghai and other major cities. I have used Elizabeth J. Remick, Regulating Prostitution in China: Gender and Local State Building.

For Tianjin see Jiang Pei,“Jindai Tianjin changye jigou shulun.”

According to a note in the survey materials, the Gaoyang county government at one point proposed licensing prostitutes, but the powerful Chamber of Commerce opposed this, and the system was not established. See Gaoyang survey field notes, gongye yingxiang 工業影響 27 (jishi zhibuye de yingxiang 集市織布業的影響). The information came from Zhang Yifu 張毅夫, a local intellectual, whose family ran a wholesale firm. Zhang worked for the prominent Tianjin newspaper Da Gong Bao 大公報. The note is dated October 1935 but does not say when the Gaoyang county government proposed establishing the tax, although it does state that when the Guomindang government decided to oppose legalizing prostitution this became a moot point.

This general description of prostitution comes from several documents: Gaoyang survey field notes, yiliao weisheng 醫療衛生 12 (dangdi anchang de buchong 當地暗娼的補充), and zhian 治安 26 (Gaoyangxian qingxiang suocha bufa xingwei renmin dengji bu 高陽縣清鄉所查不法行為人民登記簿).

Liang wrote an account of his work in Gaoyang for the alumni magazine of Lingnan University, “Ziwo diaocha Gaoyang shehui yilai” (shang) 自我調查高陽社會以來 (上), Nanfeng 南風 12.2-3 (1936): 38-44; although the title suggests that this was only the first part of the report, later issues of the journal do not include the second half. We can get a sense of Liang’s continuing Christian activities from an article he wrote that appeared in the Guangzhou YMCA magazine Guangzhou qingnian 廣州青年 in May of 1935 reporting on the visit of a British female evangelist in North China.

Gail Hershatter, Dangerous Pleasures, 9.

The workers would also have lived in the factory and received meals.

Margery Wolf, Women and Family in Rural Taiwan (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1972).

Xu Tao 徐濤, Zixingche yu jindai Zhongguo 自行車與近代中國 (Shanghai: Shanghai renmin chubanshe, 2015). Xu, quoting Emily Hahn’s biography of Song Meiling 宋美齡, argues that Song Ailing 宋靄齡, the elder sister of Song Meiling, was the first Chinese woman to be recorded as riding a bicycle. The section in Xu’s book on women and the bicycle (134-146) includes photos of female students with bicycles, as well as woodblock illustrations of courtesans riding bicycles. Paola Zamperini’s “But I Never Learned to Waltz: The ‘Real’ and Imagined Education of a Courtesan in the Late Qing,” Nan Nü: Men, Women and Gender in Early and Imperial China 1.1 (1999):107-44, includes a section on “Babes on Bikes,” that traces the appearance of bicycle-riding courtesans in various fictional works.

Zheng Hecheng, “Anguoxian yaoshi diaocha” part 1, 122. The tax records only included the licensed prostitutes. The tax collector estimated that there were an equal number of unregistered prostitutes who came to the town during the drug markets. While the registered prostitutes provided services to the merchants and brokers, the unregistered, clandestine prostitutes, primarily offered services to the thousands of men who flocked into the town during the drug market as workers who helped to cut drugs, prepare packages for shipping, and provide transport services.

Gaoyang survey field notes, yiliao weisheng 醫療衛生 12 (hualiubing 花柳病). The reports on venereal disease note that ordinary people, i.e. those not involved in the weaving industry, very rarely were infected with the disease.

Da Gong Bao, January 21, 1937 (clipping of the article in the Gaoyang survey field notes, yiliao weisheng 醫療衛生 20).

Gaoyang survey field notes gongye yingxiang 工業影響 67 ( yiwei Songxing shangren de qingnian piaochangshi 一位宋姓商人的青年嫖娼史).

Hsü Pi-Ching, “Courtesans and Scholars in the Writings of Feng Menglong: Transcending Status and Gender,” Nan Nü: Men, Women and Gender in Early and Imperial China, 2.1 (2000): 40-77.

A report in the Tianjin newspaper Yi Shi Bao on January 25, 1931, says that the first waitresses had been invited to Gaoyang a month earlier, and that they had been offered wages of 30 yuan a month, as well as room and board. Although they had succeeded in pulling in many customers, the women decided to leave and other women from Baoding had come to replace them. The report in the field notes may come from a slightly later date, and the later recruits may have worked only for tips.

The report demanding that strong action should be taken against the waitresses appeared in the April 30, 1932 issue of Yi Shi Bao under the headline “Important to deal strictly with waitresses” (nü zhaodai yi qudi 女招待宜取締) with a subheading claiming that the “restaurants had become places to introduce prostitutes” (ge fanzhuang wuyi maiyin jieshaosuo 各飯莊無異賣淫介紹所).

Gaoyang survey field notes (category is missing) ( fanguan yong nü zhaodai de diaocha 飯館用女招待的調查), February 1937.

This explanation is given in Gaoyang survey field notes shehui bingtai 社會病態 6 (anchang diaocha Lan Ting diaocha 暗娼調查 蘭亭調查).

The clandestine prostitutes were all on the list of individuals engaged in “illegal activities” (bufa xingwei 不法行為) compiled in July 1936 as part of the effort to register all of the population. They joined drug users, drug sellers, thieves and robbers, bandits and those engaged in extortion.

The results of the survey, in statistical form, were published in a series of tables in the Social Bureau’s journal Shehui yuekan 社會月刊 in 1931. The tables on age and reasons for becoming prostitutes appeared in the supplement Fukanhao 復刊號 (1931).

Republican era courts were willing, in fact, to enforce the contracts of women who had been sold or mortgaged into prostitution, forcing those who “escaped” from their situation to return to a brothel owner who could demonstrate a legal contract.

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