Sai Jinhua had a rough start to life and a cold and lonely end, but in the middle, she may have saved thousands of lives.
1. She Was Born In A Time Of Great Upheaval
In the latter years of the 19th century, China was experiencing tremendous, even violent change. The Qing Dynasty, with the last of the Imperial rulers, was in its death throes and there was rebellion and revolt both within and without the country. Amid this maelstrom, a little girl was born.
Sai Jinhua’s life would mirror the ups and downs of the world she was born into. The downs, unfortunately, would outnumber the ups.
2. She Was No Stranger To Pain
Born in the county of Xiuning, Jinhua knew grief and loss at an early age. Not much is known about her birth mother, except to say that she passed on in Jinhua’s formative years. Her father remarried, but then he too passed when Jinhua was only thirteen years old. She was a beautiful young girl who had lost both parents. But even more misfortune lay just around the corner.
3. Her Stepmother Hated Her
With the passing of her father, Sai Jinhua came under the dubious care of her stepmother. Whether jealous of the pretty little girl's looks, or the love her father had showered on her, sources say that the stepmother detested Jinhua and made no bones about mistreating her. Unfortunately, the nightmare was only just beginning.
4. She Was Startlingly Beautiful
As Jinhua grew up, her startling beauty began to draw significant attention, both good and bad. She was smart and artistically gifted but she was also terribly vulnerable. Without her father around to protect her, she was in danger of falling into the wrong hands.
5. She Was Abducted
At the tender age of thirteen, Jinhua became a professional courtesan. Some sources claim that she was abducted from her home and sold into service, while others say that her family sold her due to financial struggles. Either way, Sai Jinhua now tread a very dangerous path—and fate had a painful plan in store for her.
6. She Had Her Feet Bound
At the time, small, even doll-like feet, were the measure of great beauty. To that end, many young courtesans had their feet manually broken and then bound to prevent them from growing to their natural size. The process was intensely painful and left women, like Jinhua, unable to walk normally for the rest of their lives.
It was the first terrible signpost that her body was no longer just hers.
7. She Worked On A Flower Boat
Sai Jinhua became one of a number of Courtesans who worked on a Flower Boat; essentially a floating "house of ill repute". Her life was now spent dancing and entertaining men who paid handsomely for her company. She had a roof over her head and she was fed and clothed, but she had no real agency in her life. Still, Jinhua knew when to seize a golden opportunity.
8. She Charmed An Important Man
Two years into her servitude aboard the Flower Boat, Sai Jinhua met Hong Jun—a powerful Chinese government official. Jinhua's loveliness captivated Jun, and the two of them soon struck up an intimate relationship. Although almost thirty years her senior, Jun was smitten with the charming young courtesan. Soon he would want her all to himself.
9. She Had A Hefty Price Paid For Her Freedom
One year later, in 1888, the love-struck Jun, took Jinhua off of the Flower Boat and made her his concubine. To purchase her freedom, Jun paid one thousand taels of silver, a hefty sum. To sweeten the deal, Jinhua’s owner threw in the horse that she liked to ride. She was now free…sort of.
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10. She Entered The LIfe Of A Concubine
In her new position of concubine, Jinhua was virtually married to Jun. Although, it is important to note that she was not given the status of an actual wife. Still, she was expected to be his consort and to bear his children. Sai Jinhua’s world had suddenly become much larger than the four walls and roof of the Flower Boat.
It would soon get much bigger, taking her to another continent.
11. She Visited Europe
When Jun was sent to Europe on diplomatic duties, he took Jinhua with him. Traveling to Russia, France, Austro-Hungary and Germany, she was given opportunities that very few Chinese women of that time could even dream of. And she was smart enough to take advantage of them.
Before long she was fluent in English, French, and German and was charming the medals off of some very powerful people.
12. She Knew How To Work A Room
Jinhua found herself socializing with some of the most important people of that era, including: Chancellor Otto Von Bismark, German Emperor Wilhelm II, and Empress Victoria (Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter).
No wallflower, the charming Jinhua was very much at home in this social sphere, her training as a courtesan providing her with the ability to read people quickly. But there was one thing she couldn’t accomplish.
13. She Dressed As A Man
As charming as she was, Jinhua’s husband Jun, whether from guilt, jealousy or pressure from his real wife, did not allow Jinhua to attend many of the parties and functions he went to. And, because of her painful, bound feet, she could not dance at all.
However, she was bold enough to satisfy her insatiable thirst for knowledge by sometimes wearing men's clothing. She made some amazing discoveries along the way.
14. She Had A Fortuitous Meeting
For two years, Jinhua lived in St Petersburg, Paris, Vienna, London and Berlin, rubbing elbows with the elite of society and soaking up European culture. During this time she made the acquaintance of German Field Marshal Alfred Von Waldersee.
It’s uncertain whether her relationship with Waldersee was anything more than platonic but regardless, he was clearly under her spell and would remember her at a critical time in the future.
15. She Gave Birth To Her Only Child
When their two-year, European tour was finished, Jun brought Jinhua back to live with him in Beijing. Shortly thereafter, at only eighteen years old, Sai Jinhua gave birth to their baby daughter, Deguan. The couple were delighted by this new arrival. However, their joy would be short-lived.
16. She Lost Her First Husband
A few short years later, in 1893, Jinhua’s husband, Hong Jun, passed. A devastated Sai Jinhua and her three-year-old daughter, walked behind the coffin on the journey to Jun’s final resting place. As strong as their love was, Jinhua was still only his concubine, not his wife…and no provision had been made for either her or her daughter.
Destitute once more, Sai Jinhua came up with a quick plan.
17. She Returned To What She Knew Best
With limited marketable skills, Jinhua survived by doing what she had always done; she returned to the life of a courtesan. Her years traveling abroad, however, had given her experience, culture, and refinement that very few other female "companions" could offer. She was no longer the naive little girl on the Flower Boat and very soon would become a bit of a sensation.
18. She Opened Her Own "High End" House
In 1893, Sai Jinhua opened her own establishment. Trading on the name and reputation of her late husband Hong Jun, she soon became a celebrity. Many men wanted to spend time with the beautiful, intelligent woman who spoke many foreign languages and told fascinating stories of her travels amongst the wealthy and powerful elite of Europe.
In short order, the wealthy and powerful elite of China were her clientele.
19. She Went Into Show Business
A few years later, Jinhua’s celebrity had reached the point where she was able to move her business to Beijing. Here she took things up a notch by employing a number of girls to offer much more than just "company". Her "Jinhua Ban" (Golden Flower Troupe) performed bits of theatre, sang and danced for the rich and powerful clients now flocking to her house.
Just when she thought her luck had changed for the better, however, it curdled completely.
20. She Was In The Middle Of A Rebellion
In 1900, huge numbers of Chinese joined forces with the anti-imperialist, anti-Christian, and anti-foreign influence movement known as The Boxer Rebellion. The violent, often murderous, attacks on foreigners, Christians and missionaries, turned the country upside down and, coincidentally, put a serious damper on Sai Jinhua’s business.
She was in danger of becoming destitute yet again.
21. Outside Forces Tried To Control Her
When the Boxer forces came perilously close to exterminating the Christians and Foreign Nationals living in China, the Eight-Nation Alliance—comprised of Britain, USA, France, Japan, Austro-Hungary, Russia, Italy, and Germany—helped restore order. Sai Jinhua and her struggling business suddenly found themselves under the strict authority of the German Army.
22. She Was Nothing If Not Flexible
Fending for herself since she was a little girl, Jinhua had a knack for survival and going with the flow. Sources say when a group of drunken German soldiers broke into her place of business, she skillfully turned a potentially bad situation into an opportunity by speaking to them in their own language.
The soldiers were astonished that an asian woman could speak German. But that was just the tip of the iceberg.
23. She Had A Trick Up Her Sleeve
Sai Jinhua was a smart woman and, as mentioned, a survivor. Among her belongings she had a number of pieces of memorabilia from her glamorous days hobnobbing in Europe—photographs of herself alongside German celebrities.
Jinhua flashed the photos to the surprised German soldiers thinking it would buy her some good will. In fact, it bought her a lot more than that.
24. She Was Made An Offer She Couldn’t Refuse
The next morning, a vehicle pulled up outside Jinhua’s house, and soldiers invited her back to the German Army headquarters. Allegedly, this is where she reconnected with her old friend, Alfred Von Waldersee. Time had passed, and so much had changed.
Jinhua ran her own business and Waldersee had been promoted to Chief of Staff. It was a fateful meeting—and Jinhua certainly used her history with Waldersee to her advantage.
25. She Had A Mysterious Relationship
As a courtesan, Sai Jinhua understood that discretion was the most valuable tool a woman in her business could wield. And so, the nature of her relationship with the much older Waldersee was never fully disclosed. Were they intimate lovers or was it purely platonic? And although Jinhua swore their relationship was only platonic, one scandalous story begs to differ.
26. She May Have Gotten Caught
It’s interesting to note that, regarding Jinhua’s relationship with Waldersee, the Chinese poet Fan Zengxiang, wrote a number of poems about the two. In one of the stories, Zengxiang describes a scene in which the two lovers were witnessed running out of the palace of the Empress Dowager after a fire started...without any clothes on.
27. She Witnessed Enormous Brutality
In their efforts to quell the Boxer Rebellion, the armies of the Eight-Nation Alliance used a particularly heavy and oftentimes indiscriminate hand. Jinhua saw huge numbers of innocent citizens, who had no hand in the actions of the Boxers, being arrested, punished and even executed.
She also watched in horror as these same armies looted and destroyed rare cultural artifacts. She knew what she had to do.
28. She Interceded
Sai Jinhua was horrified by what she was witnessing around her. Amazingly she took it upon herself to intercede with Waldersee on behalf of the citizens of Beijing. Perhaps during a bedside moment of intimacy, she convinced him to treat them with less severity, even to show mercy at times. Her reward came from a very important person.
29. The Dowager Empress Thanked Her
At the end of the rebellion, the Dowager Empress Cixi returned to Beijing. Word of Sai Jinhua’s efforts to save her people from the brutality of the occupying forces had reached her and she wished to say thank you. She presented the courtesan with a number of gifts and even offered her a job at the palace, receiving guests.
Jinhua, afraid of losing her freedom once again, declined. In later years, she may have regretted this decision.
30. She Became A Name Dropper Once More
Jinhua re-established a new house along Shaanxi Lane in Beijing. Here, she once more capitalized on her connections, using her relationship with Waldersee to draw important and powerful clients to her business. She was a smart business woman and within a short time was once more doing very well. But bad luck, unfortunately, had a way of catching up with Sai Jinhua.
31. She Was The Madame Of The House
By this time, Sai Jinhua had moved into the role of management. She may have found this transition a difficult one however. We can only guess at her managerial style, but one incident in particular leads us to believe that perhaps Sai Jinhua was a difficult woman to work for.
32. She Had A Dark Reputation
In 1905, Fengling, a courtesan working for Jinhua, took her own life. To make things worse, Jinhua had somehow become implicated in the girl's demise. It was rumored that Jinhua, a purportedly abusive Madame, had actually tormented the girl and eventually driven her to take her own life. Sai Jinhua didn’t get off scot-free, however, not in the slightest.
33. She Ended Up Behind Bars
In short order, Jinhua ended up behind bars. Desperate, to clear her name or at the very least be released, she spent virtually all of her savings in legal fees. Eventually the charge was reduced and Sai Jinhua was let out after serving a short sentence. She was free but now with a record and without a penny to her name. And sadly, there was more bad news ahead.
34. She Was Banished From Beijing
As though a stint in an uncomfortable prison cell and the loss of her life's savings weren’t enough punishment, part of Sai Jinhua’s release agreement was that she be banished from Beijing. She had to leave the city, her friends and her business connections behind, and move back to her hometown. Then, incredibly, hard on the heels of that, came some of the worst news of her young life.
35. She Tried Again
Sai Jinhua was just finally recovering from her arrest, trial, and banishment when her only daughter, Deguan, the child she had had with the late Hong Jun, passed. Deguan was only eighteen years old, the same age Sai Jinhua had been when she gave birth to her. Jinhua was now, truly, alone.
But again, ever the survivor, she saw one, last glimmer of hope.
36. She Married For A Second Time
In 1908, the same year that her daughter passed, Jinhua received a marriage proposal from Huang, a railroad inspector. Jinhua, who was still struggling greatly, readily agreed to become his concubine. Whether she loved him or not is not known, but he was a hand up when she most needed one.
Jinhua may have thought her troubles were over for a time. She would be wrong.
37. She Was Widowed For A Second Time
Sai Jinhua may have thought she had finally found some kind of peace, security, even love in her marriage. But it seemed fate had other plans for the aging courtesan. At the start of the Republican Era, Huang passed on, leaving Jinhua, once more, widowed and alone. But this wasn't necessarily the end of the road.
38. She Returned To Her Old Life
Little is known about the next few years for Sai Jinhua. At almost forty years of age it is unlikely that she would be in much demand as a courtesan, and so she no doubt made a meager living managing some younger girls. She must’ve still possessed a great deal of her old charm however as eventually she caught the eye of another suitor.
39. She Was Married For The Third Time
Wei Sijiong was a well-to-do member of the Chinese National Assembly and former head of the Jiangxi Province Bureau of Civil Affairs. In the aging, but cultured Jinhua, he found something he desired—and in 1918, he asked her to become his concubine. Once more, Jinhua accepted, with the hope that finally her life would be easy. Her assent, however, heralded a big change.
40. She Changed Her Name
After marrying Sijiong, Sai Jinhua adopted the "art name" of Weizhao Lingfei, which used a combination of her family name with that of her new husband. It was a way for her to display her affection for him. The two were very happy and it seemed that, late in her life, true love had finally come to Jinhua. And with that love came a bonus.
41. She Had A Homecoming
Shortly after their marriage in 1918, the couple moved from Shanghai to Beijing. Jinhua must have been delighted to be back in her old city where many of her friends and business connections still lived. Life seemed good and Jinhua was experiencing the longest stretch of happiness and security that she had ever had.
Perhaps, given her history, she should’ve known that it wouldn’t last.
42. She Lost Her Third And Final Husband
Sai Jinhua must have cried out at the fates when, a scant three years into their marriage, Wei Sijiong also passed. And once again, the same scenario was played out for the unlucky concubine. Sijiong’s wife and family kicked Jinhua out of the house, completely cutting her off from any financial help whatsoever.
She was back at square one. But she no longer had luck on her side.
43. She Developed A Terrifying Habit
Sai Jinhua turned once again to her original line of work to make ends meet. But at fifty years of age, she could barely make enough to pay her rent. Perhaps to dull the pain of a difficult life filled with hardship and loss, she began to take opium.
Spending her days in a languid haze, she paid for the habit by pawning what few valuables she had left from her life as a high-end courtesan. It was the beginning of a steep decline.
44. She Lived In Destitution
Gone now were the days of hobnobbing with emperors and empresses in villas and castles. Jinhua rented (when she could pay) a few threadbare rooms in a tiny shack. She lived in one part of the shack and her unpaid maid and the maid’s brother lived in the other. She seldom had any visitors.
But even then, near the end of her days, Jinhua would have one final moment in the spotlight.
45. She Was A Celebrity Once Again
In the 1930s, Japan invaded China. The angry nation was looking for someone to take a stand against its oppressors. A newspaper published the story of the tiny courtesan who had won the favour of the German Chief Of Staff after the Boxer Rebellion and saved the lives of many thousands of her countrymen.
Overnight, Sai Jinhua became a national heroine. Her once empty porch was now crowded with journalists, but even this couldn’t save her.
46. She Relied On Her Reputation
For the next few years, Sai Jinhua had no source of income other than whatever newspapers, journalists, and the just plain curious would pay her for her time. She happily related tales of intrigue and wonder from her storied life, living from hand-out to hand-out. Near the end she was unable to even pay her rent.
At one point she urged her maid, whom she was unable to pay, to leave and find better opportunities, but the loyal friend would not leave her. Still, a darker fate lay ahead.
47. Her End Was Tragic
In 1936, only a short time before the premiere of a play that had been written about her intriguing life, Sai Jinhua passed. She passed in the middle of one of the coldest winters Beijing had ever experienced and it is likely that she suffered from exposure. Her body was found by her maid the one morning. Sai Jinhua’s adventures and tribulations were finally over.
48. She Lives On In Stories To This Day
Sai Jinhua’s fame and the story of her remarkable life live on in modern plays, poems and films. The pretty courtesan who rose above hardship, loss, and penury to eventually charm some of the most powerful men and women of her era, is indeed a story for the ages.
At the time of her demise, Jinhua’s fame was such that Qi Baishi, an acclaimed calligrapher, was commissioned to engrave her headstone.