In this disappointing courtesan novel, a 98-year-old Chinese emigre woman in present-day San Francisco reviews her youth in early 20th-century China, where she was a ming ji, or ""prestigious prostitute."" Falsely accused of rape and murder, Xiang Xiang's father is executed, and her mother retreats into a Buddhist nunnery. Xiang Xiang, alone and friendless at 13, is tricked into entering the Peach Blossom Pavilion, where she is given the ""art name"" of Bao Lan, or ""Precious Orchid."" Her extraordinary beauty and gifts in painting, writing poems and performing music, and in the bedchamber, make her a prize. After some improbable adventures (including a liaison with a female transvestite and a love affair with a Taoist monk), Xiang Xiang eventually makes her peace with what fate has made of her-just as the Japanese invade China. While Xiang Xiang's forthright perceptiveness, grace and smarts are intriguing, Yip's English language debut vacillates between melodrama and fictionalized sociological study. That split personality is reflected in the clunky prose, which never does its lead justice.