The legend of the Beijing courtesan Sai Jinhua

Sai Jinhua, a courtesan in the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), was a sensation.
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Sai Jinhua is widely believed to have helped protect the country.

Sai Jinhua, a courtesan in the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), was a sensation. 

She toured Europe and socialized with celebrities as the wife of a Chinese minister. 

She is said to have been fluent in German, English and French. She often went out dressed as a man and considered men her brothers. She married three times, but returned to prostitution after each husband’s death.  

She saved many lives after the Eight-Power Allied Forces took the capital Beijing. 

Nobody knows for sure Sai’s original name and family. It is said that she was sold to a brothel in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province at 14, and took the name of Fu Caiyun (colorful cloud). 

The smart and pretty girl quickly gain great popularity and met a man who changed her life. 

Hong Jun, the top scholar at the time, was deeply attracted by the girl. He took her as his second concubine in 1887, and changed her name into Hong Mengluan. 

When Hong was appointed as the Chinese ambassador to Russia, Germany, Austro-Hungary, Sai accompanied him. 

After Hong died in 1893, Sai opened her own high-end brothel in Shanghai. Trading on his name, Sai and her brothel became a sensation. 

It is said her clients included celebrities like diplomat and politician Li Hongzhang. 

In 1898, Sai moved to Tianjin and later Beijing. She changed her name as “Sai Jinhua” (excellent golden flower), and named her girls “Jinhua Ban” (golden flower team). Officials and royals were clients. 

Sai would have been queen of prostitutes in Beijing if not for the Boxer Rebellion.

Triggered by the Boxer Rebellion, the Eight-Power Allied Forces invaded Beijing in 1990. After killing, looting and burning, the eight powers divided the capital. Sai’s brothel was under German administration. 

It is said that when a group of German soldiers visited the brothel, they were surprised a Chinese prostitute spoke fluent German. 

Probably because of her fluent German and social skills, Sai developed a good relationship with German commander Alfred Graf Von Waldersee. 

She helped buy food for the German troops and hooked up Chinese prostitutes with German officers. 

During her relationship with Waldersee, she persuaded him to spare innocent Beijing residents. 

Her story of saving the people and the nation was widely spread.

At 28, Sai was invited to the unveiling ceremony of a memorial archway where she met famous Chinese scholar Gu Hongming. Gu told her that she performed meritorious service for the nation, for which god would bless her. 

Yet, god didn’t.

The only reward Sai got was temporary good business after her good deeds. She was prisoned after a girl of the Golden Flower Team committed suicide, unwilling to be a prostitute. 

Although she later tried to start her business all over again in Shanghai and Beijing, her best days were gone.

Sai married Cao Ruizhong, the general inspector of the Shanghai-Nanjing Railway, when she was in Shanghai. After Cao died, Sai moved to Beijing with Wei Sili, a high-ranking official in the Kuomintang government in Nanjing. But he also died soon.

Sai, losing her looks, could only live in a slum with her nanny.

But as she was living a quiet life, Sai was pushed into the spotlight again in the early 1930s when the whole nation was angry about the government’s non-resistance policy against the Japanese invasion.

Her story was published in various papers, and her shack was visited from time to time. The legendary woman passed away peacefully before a play of her life premiered in 1936. 

There have been doubts about whether a prostitute could have had such big influence on the German commander, as the story is recorded in non official documents.

Yet, in the 1980s, scholars did find details in a German soldier’s diary that Waldersee and Sai were in close contact at the time. 

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