Ming Minx

The Golden Lotus

translated by Colonel Clement Egerton
Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1,572, 4 vols. pp., $35.00

The Golden Lotus, written in the late sixteenth century, is one of the great novels of premodern China. The reader who takes up this translation expecting to be charmed for a few hours by the tranquil grace of the Old China, or by long gone courtly amours in the manner of the Japanese Tale of Genji, is in for a shattering experience. The Golden Lotus is about human depravity. It explores the seamy underside of the gorgeous brocade robe, the meanness and corruption of Chinese society during the late Ming period.

We owe a great debt to Colonel Clement Egerton, formerly of the British Army, who published in 1939 his four-volume translation, the fruit of fifteen years of work. The collaboration of the eminent Sinologist Walter Simon and of the celebrated novelist Lao She (pseudonym of the “C.C. Shu” to whom the translation is dedicated) eliminated the danger of major errors. A number of minor ones remain, but in general the translation is serviceable and fluent.

There are several versions of the novel. The one Egerton used is somewhat later than the “lyrical tale” Chin P’ing Mei tz’u-hua and edits out many of the poems from this earlier edition. Egerton omits still more, but gives the complete prose text with a fair sprinkling of the more attractive verse passages. For the numerous explicit bedroom scenes, which caused the book’s proscription in China almost since its first appearance, Egerton used Latin, no doubt on the principle that priests and schoolmasters would be immune to unwholesome influence. In this reissue the Latin is replaced by plain honest English: only a couple of lines in chapter forty-two have been overlooked, so that for a brief second we are back to the old sursum deorsum. The ironic consequence of Routledge’s new edition is that The Golden Lotus is now available to the English or American common reader in a way that it never has been and may never be to the Chinese. (In one of the more amusingly bowdlerized Chinese versions, the hero’s little game with his mistress late in chapter twenty-seven is transformed into the hanging of a pair of cherries over her ear.)

Among the long, elaborate Chinese novels of manners, only the Dream of the Red Chamber overshadows The Golden Lotus. The two books are as unlike as can be imagined. The Golden Lotus is the product of Ming decadence, composed around the last quarter of the sixteenth century, when court eunuchs assumed arbitrary powers, offices and titles were sold for cash, and a censor’s protest against injustice was likely to cost his head. Red Chamber comes from the mid-eighteenth century, when the super-orthodox Manchus were at the height of their power and China was honestly if harshly governed. Lotus’s milieu is the brash merchant class, cutthroat adventurers buying and bullying their way into vulgar luxury and status; the great family of the Red Chamber is not only fabulously rich but immensely cultivated, its taste evident in every detail of…

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