The life of a male prostitute, a jinan, in the Floating World of the Beautiful Way in ancient China in the waning years of the Chu dynasty, 200 BC, was a sensual but cruel, often foreshortened, bitter-sweet existence. The term “clouds and rain” was one that was used to denote sexual orgasm. This story weaves a complex, romantic, but also tragic tale of the lives of young male prostitutes, those known as “bitten peaches” once they had been initiated into sex with another man in a male brothel, the Cut Sleeve Nanleshijia, at the moment when men of the West came into contact with the Central Kingdom of China. “Clouds and Rain” strives to capture the essence of the deliciously euphemistic Oriental world of men making love to other men in China’s ancient past set against the advent of contact with the West and the more forceful and forthright of Western adventurers.
Despite the cultural differences clashing together in the meeting of East and West here, the theme of the story is that all men have needs and are capable of love.
The zhaoguzhe patiently tried to explain, which began to make Xiu worry. He didn’t usually sustain his teasing this long—or back it up with an expensive costuming. Such reasonableness was not in keeping with the zhaoguzhe’s nature. “Panicked for delaying tactics, the emissary to the monster vessel from the Lord of Shi saw the eyes of the Kueilo’s Ch’uanchu, ship’s captain, light up at the offer of a respite of clouds and rain at the Cut Sleeve Nanleshijia. When the Kueilo captain said he wanted a virgin and was not interested in a bitten peach—a used jinan—the emissary, knowing of the bidding war on you and Bolin for the spring seed sowing ceremony, spoke of the purity and ripeness of you two. The Kueilo captain was said to have become so interested that the interest showed on his body and the emissary was half afraid he himself would be seeded on the spot.”
Still Xiu did not believe the zhaoguzhe. Still he thought this was some sort of conditioning joke he was enduring. That it was all part of the ritual. What did the outer world have to do with their small pleasure house high on the cliffs over the bend in the Yangtze River?
But later that afternoon, as Xiu reclined on pillows on the veranda of the Vermilion Pavilion overlooking the sea, trying his best not to transfer any of the enticement powder to the red brocade of his ceremonial robes, he began to believe. He could not believe what he was seeing at first. A giant sea bird slowly appeared from around the eastern point of rocks and glided toward the harbor of the town of Nantung, guided in by a red barge of the Lord of Shi that Xiu recognized from the lord’s earlier visits to the Cut Sleeve Nanleshijia. A towering, black-wood vessel driven by billowing clouds of white gossamer.
Xiu shuddered at the thoughts of the visits to the nanleshijia by the Lord of Shi, and of the screams of his jinan brothers behind closed doors during his visits, and of some of them being so ruined they had no longer been able to serve the house. The zhaoguzhe had always tried to hide the jinan in training who would be most profitable for the house when their bite of the peach came, but he wasn’t always able to fool the lord.
Bolin was by Xiu’s side, in robes of darkest sapphire blue. He shrank from the sight of the giant, floating bird and began to breathe heavily. But Xiu, the more adventuresome of the two, was mesmerized by the sight. And aroused. Xiu had always been scolded for his fantasies and attraction to danger, but these were the same traits that had won him the premier position here, at the pinnacle of empowerment for a jinan. There was no more luxurious life or power over powerful men than the life of a clouds and rain master.
As Bolin’s nervousness grew with the far-off vision of inhumanly large figures in strange, black, close-fitting clothing roping down into the Cut Sleeve Nanleshijia launch that had been sent out to their vessel to fetch them, Xiu’s interest and curiosity grew.
He now had to believe that the zhaoguzhe had not been teasing him.
For what seemed to be hours but was only a short time, the two could hear the Kueilo being ceremoniously welcomed in the reception rooms below them. They heard the wheedling, smooth tones of the zhaoguzhe, covered by a raucous cacophony of hard, guttural sounds from the Kueilo. It was obvious that neither understood the other, but as the voices of the foreign ghosts grew louder and their speech slurred, Xiu and Bolin understood that the zhaoguzhe had managed to place them under the spell of the house’s special wine, spiced to loosen nerves and cares and enervate the yang chu.
And then two of them were there in the entrance to the Vermilion Pavilion, one on each side of the zhaoguzhe, and with a semicircle of slack-jawed and murmuring tunic-clad house servants behind them.
They were both monstrous. The taller of the two, quite evidently the Chu’anchu—leader—was a Hungmao—a red-haired devil. Xiu had read of such in the classics, but these two were monsters from beyond the pale.