"Well, yes, yes, I do enjoy being enslaved by you. There is, there really is enjoyment in the utmost degree of humility and insignificance."
- The Gambler Fyodor Dostoyevsky
China's Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864) was one of the bloodiest conflicts in human history; somewhere between twenty and forty million people lost their lives, in battle, or to starvation and disease. With the exception of World War II, more lives were lost in this conflict than in any conflict in history.
The Taiping rebels fought to spread their own bizarre form of evangelical Christianity throughout China, and to overthrow the Manchus who in 1644 had defeated the Chinese and established the Ch'ing Dynasty. The Taipings were opposed not only by Ch'ing forces but by various western adventurers and professional soldiers who formed their own private armies: men such as America's Frederick Townsend Ward and England's Charles George "Chinese" Gordon.
Among the fiercest and most-feared soldiers of the Taipings were the divisions of beautiful women warriors dressed in gorgeous silks who often fought independently from men. These were known as “the silken armies.”
On June 10, 1862, Thomas Rowley, 24 years old, serving as a lieutenant to Ward, was separated from his men in battle and captured by Taiping women warriors. His memoirs recently surfaced during a sale at a New York auction house. This is his story.
While I hung by my wrists naked and helpless, the night had grown colder and the sky was full of stars, but except for the sounds of the crackling woodfires, and the rhythmic chirping of crickets, the Taiping camp was silent.
Siu Fah ("Pretty Flower") glowered at me while resting her hand on the hilt of her knife. As she had approached, I couldn't help but notice her unusual height and undeniable beauty. Now that she was up close I saw that she had small lustrous eyes, a delicate, almost Caucasian, nose and thin red lips. Following the fashion of the day, she had shaved away a portion of her eyebrows and filled them in with a thin arched line drawn in black paint and charcoal.
In Shanghai, not long before I was captured, a Chinese prostitute had explained to me that because of their shape, such eyebrows were known as "the new moon makes its first appearance," and were considered a sign of beauty. It seemed that during lulls in the fighting, even some of the Taiping women found time to maintain their feminine pulchritude.
At the time I thought it strange that women warriors engaged in vicious battles with Chinese and Manchu soldiers would pay attention to maintaining, even enhancing, their appearance. I was not yet wise enough to realize that they did this not as women who might wish to attract a man in flirtatious romance, but as a tool they might need to employ should they be captured; their femininity was simply one more weapon in their armory that could be used to disarm and overpower men.
In the custom of the Taipings, Pretty Flower had wound a cloth around her head to resemble a turban, but clusters of her jet black hair framed her ears and forehead and were clearly visible in the moonlight, somehow making her even more desirable. But at that moment, as I hung from the tree without a stitch of clothing and completely unable to defend myself, I was not thinking of how beautiful she was, but rather how quickly an angry woman's hand lingering on a knife can summon forth a man's deepest fears of castration. She began speaking sharply to Sweet Little Sister (Tiam Moi) in Hakka and Sweet Little Sister responded in a polite fashion as if trying to appease her "elder sister." But Pretty Flower's burning anger was not to be easily mollified.
She came close to me and stared into my eyes. There was no question she recognized my fear. My life was totally in the hands of these women warriors and I had no doubt that some of them were in favor of doing away with their foreign captive without delay.
Tiam Moi may have found me amusing and worth keeping the way a woman might wish to keep a playful, sometimes naughty, puppy; but Siu Fah took no such delight in my presence. To her I was merely a useless burden who had already been whipped, beaten and broken in spirit and body in front of their female army. I had served their purpose in demonstrating how easily a man could be broken and tamed and how little the Taiping women had to fear from foreign soldiers; even soldiers of Frederick Ward's "Ever Victorious Army." I was certain that in the mind of Siu Fah, keeping me alive any longer made no sense whatsoever.
She mocked me by addressing me as yang hsiung-ti (“foreign brother”) and yang da ren, ("foreign excellency") and then spat into my face. I think now if she had suspected that Sweet Little Sister had been teasing me sexually while rubbing ointment into my flayed skin, she would have employed her knife to transform me into a eunuch in the blink of an eye. But even if she hadn't caught us in the act, foreign advisors and foreign weapons had played a role in causing her husband's death and I could feel the depth of hatred in her. As I saw her face transform from that of a beautiful angel into that of an avenging angel, I braced myself for the pain I knew was coming.
Without warning, she slapped my face. It was not quite as hard as the slap of Golden Lily that had forced me to see stars, but Pretty Flower was just warming up. She slapped me again with the same hand in the same spot, then held my chin in her cupped hand and tilted my head to the precise angle she desired, then slapped me again. This time all of her hatred for the "foreign devils" came through and my cheek felt as if it were on fire. It was difficult to believe the delicate hand of a beautiful woman could cause such pain with just a few slaps.
I heard the voice of Sweet Little Sister rising in anger. I understood little of her Hakka dialect but I knew she felt the indignation of someone who owned a domesticated animal seeing it abused by someone of higher authority. Pretty Flower didn't even bother to answer. She used both of her hands to gently but firmly position my head as a woman might straighten a picture frame on a wall and then slapped me in exactly the same spot. The pain spread as if both cheeks had been slapped. And it was already becoming unbearable.
Siu Fah stared at me with a haughty smile on her beautiful face and asked, t’ung pu t’ung? ("Does it hurt or not?") I thought she might respond to a mixture of Cantonese and Mandarin and I unashamedly begged her to stop: M joi da! Wo chou chou ni! ("Don't hit me again! I beg of you!") But she replied sharply in Hakka, Mok shang! ("Shut up!")
She reached back to slap me again when Sweet Little Sister grabbed her by the wrist. In an instant, Pretty Flower had her knife in her other hand and was turning on Sweet Little Sister. I was absolutely certain she would kill her. Without thinking, I lifted my feet and pushed against her, knocking her off balance and causing her knife thrust to merely graze Sweet Little Sister’s silk tunic.
Sweet Little Sister's temper had boiled over and in the darkness I could see the two Taiping women warriors grapple and fall to the ground, knives flashing in the starlight, streaking above and beside their brilliantly colored silk outfits.
Like many of the Taiping women, Siu Fah and Tiam Moi were Hakkas and the Hakka were known to be physically larger than many other Chinese ethnic groups. They were also tougher, bolder and more daring. They exhibited extreme pride and both the men and women possessed an independent nature. Over the centuries, they had migrated from the north of China but were still looked down upon as “guest people,” outsiders, who were often forced to make a living from the least fertile and most hilly lands of southern China.
Unlike the vast majority of Chinese women, their feet were not bound and they walked and worked side by side with their men. I knew if no one interfered, the two women would fight to the death. Even in that instant I realized my humiliating circumstances: the women were fighting over me not as women who loved the same man; but rather as women who differed over to what degree a degraded, whipped and helpless male slave could be mistreated.
Fortunately, the loud slaps Pretty Flower had delivered to my face had attracted attention, and it seemed only a matter of seconds before dozens of women in various stages of dress and undress began pulling the two combatants apart. And even after they had been separated, it took the efforts of several women to restrain them from going at each other again.
If ever I had had any doubts as to the fiery temper and fighting instinct of Taiping women warriors, the scene immediately dispelled them. Their tumbling and rolling had kept them off balance so that neither appeared to have been injured; but their silk outfits had been severely torn and slashed and the moonlight clearly revealed the whiteness of their breasts as they heaved from exertion and anger.
Some of the inner perimeter guards had arrived and starlight coruscated along the blades of their swords and pikes and spears. Night had swallowed up the mountains in the distance leaving the women in their silk outfits and the outlines of their tents in the background as the only images visible.
Golden Lily stepped forward and while screaming at them, slapped first Siu Fah and then Tiam Moi. As each continued to shout her hatred at the other, she slapped them again. Finally, they stood in sullen silence and listened to the harsh words of Golden Lily.
When she had finished haranguing them both, each murmured something as their breathing slowed to normal. After a short and very tense question and answer session, they were severely scolded by Golden Lily. I gained the impression that much of her wrath was directed toward Siu Fah as she was the older of the two combatants and Golden Lily's senior lieutenant who, supposedly, should have known better.
Finally, the two warriors were released and Pretty Flower immediately turned and walked angrily past me toward her tent. She glared at me as she went by and spat out her words under her breath: Oi ta si nyi ki ("I'll kill you!"). I had no doubt she meant exactly what she said. She had already regarded me as beneath contempt and deserving an excruciatingly painful death, and yet I had dared not merely to oppose her but to kick her with the soles of my feet.
For now at least, Golden Lily had confirmed that I was the property of Sweet Little Sister and if I was to be disciplined in any way only she had the right to carry out my punishment. But I well understood the hatred that Pretty Flower and her faction now harbored for me. Those women warriors who hated all foreigners would simply bide their time and wait for an opportunity to carry out my execution. Or, perhaps, in the heat of battle to “accidentally” unleash an arrow in my direction. After the other women warriors had dispersed, Sweet Little Sister and I stared into one another's eyes. My strong feelings of anxiety over her safety had taken me by surprise and I could feel the beginning of a kind of bond emerging. She had intervened to protect me from unnecessary punishment and I had acted to protect her from Siu Fah's dagger. I knew I would never be more to her than a beast of burden; a foreign male slave to be kept for labor and entertainment, but, as long as I obeyed her every command and submitted to her every whim, she in turn would offer her protection.
She placed her hands on my cheeks where Pretty Flower’s slaps had landed and gently rubbed them. I couldn’t help but glance at her young breasts, both partly visible through her tattered and torn tunic. They were firm and well developed and perfectly in proportion with her body. I could see the emotions that passed through her eyes as she noticed my stare. Surprise, then acceptance and mock annoyance, then pride, and, finally, a devilish desire to tease. She slowly moved her hands down along my neck and chest and then placed them on her breasts. She looked down at her own hands as they rubbed her naked flesh while watching my growing erection. Then, still holding her breasts, she looked up into my eyes to see my reaction. I was breathing heavy again and I begged her in mandarin to let me come. She merely continued to slowly caress her breasts while observing my reactions--a very young woman with very knowing eyes experimenting with her sexual power.
Despite her martial ability and willingness to fight, I thought it impossible that Sweet Little Sister had reached more than 18 or 19 years of age, and I could sense that she took a certain pride in owning me; after all, how many women in China had ever even seen a foreign man let alone owned one. As she looked at me through those beautiful brown eyes, I could see her playful, mischievous nature reassert itself, and I knew that as long as she owned me, she would find much for me to do to amuse her.
She had a way of tilting her head slightly when observing me with the hint of a smile on her pretty lips; as if trying to decide how best to use me. Golden Lily and Pretty Flower were two of the most beautiful women I had ever seen, but they were experienced both as women and as warriors, and were completely confident in their ability to enslave men.
Sweet Little Sister, on the other hand, was coquettish, coy, fun-loving and at times childlike, and these qualities made her even more fascinating to me. She was passing from girlhood into womanhood and I had always felt that a female in those years was in the most delightful and captivating period of her life: the intoxicating mixture of innocence and awareness, lingering uncertainty and growing confidence, adolescence and maturity.
It is the time when a woman first becomes aware of and experiments with her sexual power. For the first time, she begins to recognize and appreciate the raging sexual needs her femininity can induce in men. The almost unbelievable power her curvaceous form, her coy glance, her delicate laugh, her female scent has on a man. After that, a woman might become still more beautiful and confident and desirable but she is never quite so charming again.
And Tiam Moi's nature was too ingenuous and unaffected for deceit or deception: she made no attempt to disguise the fact that owning a once-feared "foreign devil" soldier as a personal plaything gave her great pleasure. She now had her very own "outside barbarian" to test her feminine wiles on; with no danger whatever that I could use superior masculine strength to force myself on her. Without doubt, any attempt to do so would result in worse punishment than I had already suffered. And I never forgot for a moment that despite her youthful charm, Sweet Little Sister was a soldier tested in battle who had most likely seen far more death than I had.
She reached up and began untying my wrists. Once they were free, I felt my legs give way and I dropped to the ground like a stone. Sweet Little Sister stooped beside me and began rubbing my wrists and speaking softly to me as a woman might attempt to comfort an abused pony. Gradually, I felt the feeling return to my wrists and some strength returning to my legs.
Finally, by words and gestures, she positioned me on all fours and then mounted me. She was lighter than Golden Lily and whereas Golden Lily had taken my docility for granted, Sweet Little Sister still delighted in her ability to control me. She tugged at my right ear to indicate the direction she wished to travel in, then left, then right; and, completely naked, I once again began crawling on hands and knees while mounted by a beautiful girl-warrior.
I had the sudden memory of an evening in Shanghai not more than two weeks before when Ward had agreed to join us (his officers) in a night of drinking and debauchery. We had ended up at a Chinese opera, or “sing song” as it’s called in pidgin English, and I watched with amusement as, in the tradition of Chinese opera, an actor lifted up his leg on stage to suggest that he were mounting a horse. I watched him snatch up his make-believe reins and strike his animal on its backside with his make-believe whip. Little did I know then that soon I would be performing as a real horse for Taiping female warriors.
I had hoped I was being ridden to her tent where I would be ordered to lie near her as her slave; but as we reached the campfires she dug the heels of her satin boots into me, slapped me hard on the buttocks and prodded me on. My buttocks were still sore from my severe beating and despite the pain to my knees I quickly picked up the pace before she might find it necessary to slap me there again.
Golden Lily had stressed to her women warriors that a woman subduing a male--even a "distant-coming barbarian"--should be accepted as in the natural order of things, and the women no longer stared at me directly or laughed out loud at my disgraced circumstances. But as we passed some of the tents and the few women still gathered about the campfires, I could hear snatches of girlish giggling at the sight of my degraded condition. They were used to killing Chinese and Manchu soldiers in battle and even to slaughtering defeated soldiers on their knees begging for mercy, but this was the first time some of them had come into contact with a foreign man, let alone witnessed his complete humiliation and nakedness.
Sweet Little Sister rode me to the campfire farthest from the camp then, once beside the fire, pulled back my hair to indicate that I should stop. In the chilly evening air the warmth of the flames felt as wonderful and comforting as a warm bath.
The “pots” at the campfires were of bamboo, one section opened at the top. Whatever food the Taiping women had was placed inside and the top was covered over with bamboo leaves. Over the fire, the outside of the trunk slowly blackened but the bamboo’s interior remained unburnt. The rice had a wonderful aroma of burning wood that made me immediately aware of how hungry I was.
Sweet Little Sister dismounted and picked up a bamboo ladle. She spooned a mixture of rice and bits of vegetables from the pot and held it to my lips. I ate it voraciously. She did this several times, then said in mandarin, gou le, gou le ("enough").
Two young women passing in the darkness yelled out something to Sweet Little Sister. Without replying, she ordered me to stand. As the women moved cautiously closer into the light of the fire I saw that they could not have been older than 14 or 15. I would learn later from Sweet Little Sister that their names were Bright Orchid and Precious Spring and they were members of the Children’s Guard, the same unit to which she herself had once belonged. In the heat of battle, the children carried out some of the most dangerous tasks: holding the standard aloft at the front of the troops and rushing loaded pistols and rifles to the women warriors.
But at the sight of me their nervous laughter could not hide their fear nor their high-pitched voices their surprise. Despite their experience in battle, the two were little more than children, and I was enormously chagrined at being naked and on display in front of them; but I quickly realized they were not staring directly at me but at the ground behind me where my shadow danced beside the flames of the fire. Finally, I understood what they were saying. Many Chinese believed foreign-devils, like other demons, never cast shadows and the teenage warriors were amazed that it was not true.
Sweet Little Sister again mounted me, prodded me with the heels of her boots and rode me a short distance to a copse of trees where their horses were tethered. She spoke something to the woman warrior guard in Hakka and the guard quickly retrieved a thin rope and a Chinese sleeping quilt. Sweet Little Sister dismounted and tied the rope in a slip knot to my neck and then to the branch of a tree. My wrists were tied together before me with a silk cord and my ankles were tied together with a thin but tough strand of bamboo, allowing me to separate my feet to a distance of about two feet.
My presence caused some of the horses to stamp their feet and whinny nervously. The stallion Tiam Moi had been riding when I first saw her snorted and tossed its head, glaring at me with nostrils distended and ears back. Tiam Moi walked to it, held its head in her arms and stroked its face. I could understand just enough of her soothing words to know she was telling it that I was just another horse; a foreign horse that needed to be broken in. The stallion responded to her almost immediately and I wondered if, should I fail to escape, I would one day show the same obedience when my training was completed.
She returned to me and again spoke soothingly as she had to her horse. She placed the quilt around me and then admonished me not to attempt to escape; if I did, I would be beaten again and my hands and feet would be tightly bound each night. She whispered that I should sleep well because I would have much to do the next day. Then she patted my head and walked off.
Apparently following her orders, the guard walked to me and placed an earthernware bowl on the ground, then poured a small quantity of water from her gourd-shaped canteen into it. I lapped and slurped at it and in seconds it was gone. I looked up at her with an expression that was an obvious plea for more. She stooped before my head, so that the rope to the tree passed between her legs, leaned on her three-pronged spear and stared at me for several seconds, as if observing a strange insect in a glass.
It was obvious she enjoyed watching the fearful expression on my face as she lowered her spear parallel to the ground and slowly moved it forward under my body until the tips of the prongs were between my legs. As I felt the tips prod my manhood, I moved back involuntarily which caused the rope to go taut. She moved one step forward, causing me to pull against the rope despite its painful tightness around my neck. With the Taiping guard between me and the tree I was tied to I was powerless to move away. Finally, she pat my head, laughed quietly, rose and disappeared into the darkness.
I lay down on the ground as best I could. The beating the two women had given me made every movement a source of potential pain--which was no doubt what Golden Lily had intended. And my face still ached where Pretty Flower’s hand had slapped it.
I could hear the by now familiar chirping of cicadas and crickets, the faint snapping of wood embers at the campfires and the distant howls of wild animals. At first, sleep was impossible. I was still hungry and, despite the quilt, cold as well. Although the horses had been nervous about my presence, they quickly accepted me as one of their own, which, in a very real sense, I had become. Among the small China ponies were heavy-boned, dun-colored North China horses of enormous strength with large heads, straight necks and small ears. Some had two-tone manes which stood up straight along their backs. There were several stocky, muscular Mongolian horses prized by Chinese for their swiftness and endurance. I would later learn from Sweet Little Sister that many of their mounts had been captured in battle from Manchus and Mongols.
My mind raced with the events of the day. It was difficult to believe that I had until that afternoon been a lieutenant in Frederick Townsend Ward's much-feared Ever Victorious Army. Now I was the plaything and beast of burden in enemy hands--an enemy composed of beautiful but formidable Chinese women warriors; some of whom would tolerate me as their slave-in-training and some of whom were biding their time until they could do away with me.
The beating had exhausted my strength and I soon fell into a deep, fitful, sleep. In my dreams I was once again a proud lieutenant leading men into battle against the Taipings. But the dreams always ended in retreat and defeat, with myself and my men being captured, stripped naked and ridden by Taiping women warriors. In the eyes of my men I could read their pleas to do something but I simply turned away in shame, having lost any will to fight or courage to flee. And, always, pressing my sides, I could feel Sweet Little Sister’s silk-clad legs and hear the melodious softness of her voice and sense her obvious pleasure in riding me as, following her commands, I moved clumsily forward on hands and knees. And, despite my degradation, her girlish femininity stilled any desire in me to escape.
I have always been fascinated by the period in which East first met West in China in any real numbers and the period of the 1850's and 1860's is what interests me in Chinese history. That is why I have written so many projects set in that period, including Hangman's Point, a novel set in Hong Kong and China in 1857, Fragrant Harbour, a Broadway-style musical, also set in Hong Kong in 1857, Dragon Slayer, a filmscript set in Vietnam in 1968 and China in 1857, and now Mistress of the East, an erotic novel set in China in 1862.
I guess the best way to describe Mistress of the East would be to say that it is as if a story of several Chinese Emmanuelles with whips seques into Dr. Zhivago with overtones of Longfellow's Evangeline. It was fun to research and to write and, of course, I had already much of the research completed as I have plenty of material on China set in that period from researching in libraries around the world, as well as public record offices, missionary societies, etc. I also wanted to combine an erotic novel with a genuine love story, one, I hoped, that would be moving to the reader. I'm not certain if there has ever been a genuine love story and erotic story combined. Anyway, that was one of my main goals. In fact, my first title for the book was: A Love Story: The China Memoirs of Thomas Rowley, Esq. It seems to be selling well and I hope people enjoy it. - Dean Barrett, Bangkok, 2005
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