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Remembrance of Ming’s Past

The Plum in the Golden Vase: or, Chin P’ing Mei Vol. I, The Gathering

by an unknown author, translated by David Tod Roy
Princeton University Press, civ + 610 pp., $39.95

Xunzi: A Translation and Study of the Complete Works

by John Knoblock
Stanford University Press, Volume III, 480 pp., $125.00 the set


Let’s start with a domestic tiff, Ming dynasty style:

Two months or so had now passed since Li P’ing-erh brought Chiang Chu-shan across her threshold in wedlock. Initially, out of his desire to please her, Chiang Chu-shan had concocted various aphrodisiacs. He had even bought some “Yunnanese ticklers,” “ladies’ delights,” and the like in front of the city gate, in the hope of arousing her passion. What he failed to realize, however, was that the woman had already experienced every kind of:

Violent storm and sudden downpour,

at the hands of Hsi-men Ch’ing, so that his inexperienced efforts often left her unsatisfied. Little by little she began to despise him, until the day finally came when she smashed the sexual implements to smithereens with a stone and threw them all away.

You’re just like a shrimp or an eel,” she railed at him, “with no real strength in your loins. What’s the point of your buying all this junk to titillate your old lady with? I thought I was getting a real hunk of meat, but it turns out you’re:

Good enough to look at, but not fit to eat.

You’re about as much use as a ‘pewter spearhead’ or a ‘dead turtle’!”

Li P’ing-erh cursed her husband till he looked as though:

His head had been sprayed with dog’s blood,

and drove him out to sleep in the shop up front, though it was the third watch in the middle of the night.

The passage is from chapter 19 of The Plum in the Golden Vase (Chin P’ing Mei), a novel written pseudonymously in China during the 1590s by a still unidentified author. The passage quoted is as suitable a point as any to enter into this novel, since it contains, in a short compass, a number of the features that have made this book both admired and vilified for four centuries in China.

First, the passage gives free rein to the derisive fury of a woman, turning on its head the conventional stereotype of women in China as being meek and maltreated. Furthermore, it is the woman, Li P’ing-erh, who has brought her husband Chiang “across her threshold in wedlock.” She is, in other words, an independent property owner, making her own life decisions. As the ensuing comments make abundantly or shockingly clear, according to your point of view, she is also a woman with considerable sexual experience. In this particular exchange, Chiang, though a society doctor of considerable repute—hence his easy access to aphrodisiacs—is not allowed to say a word in his own defense, nor does he appear to have the faintest ability to prevent himself being driven out of the nuptial bedroom “to sleep in the shop up front.”

The “shop” is in fact an expensive and well-stocked pharmacy, which Chiang has established mainly with his wife’s money. An in-joke here is that by opening up an expensive pharmacy he is in effect competing with Hsi-men Ch’ing, the man named in the passage as the former sexual gratifier of his wife’s affections, who is also the owner of a large and successful pharmacy. The passage makes another social and economic point: sophisticated sexual devices to increase the couple’s pleasures, such as the “Yunnanese ticklers,” are not only sold by prescription pharmacies; they are sold openly, and to all who seek them, “in front of the city gate.”

The passage also serves well enough to show the splendid energy with which David Tod Roy, professor of Chinese literature at the University of Chicago, has translated this vast and remarkable novel. As Mr. Roy explains in his introduction, this volume covers the first twenty chapters of the original novel and is the first of five projected volumes in which he will translate the entire work of one hundred chapters. His policy as a translator has been to “translate everything—even puns,” and to include all traditional “formulaic” material, with which the original novel is filled, such as proverbs, stock couplets, and descriptive parallel prose. The task is daunting, not only because the novel is long—2,923 pages in the original Chinese wood-block edition which Mr. Roy uses as his base text—but because the author was a scholar of enormous erudition as well as a fiction writer of extraordinary skill.

The “cast of characters” with which Mr. Roy follows his introduction fills a mind-boggling fifty-five pages. At a rough count, I found the list to contain 1,110 names. Deducting the cross-references (sometimes multiple) to the same character (who following the vagaries of Chinese nomenclature often has different names at different points in the book), and disallowing the four references to the variant names of one of the lead-character’s cats, I figure this still leaves us with over eight hundred different people—often with substantial roles in the plot—to populate the book.

Mr. Roy’s translation, when completed, will be the first one rendering the whole novel into English. A large portion of it was translated into English under the title “Golden Lotus” some sixty years ago by the British scholar Clement Egerton who, in the early stages of his labors, had the able literary and linguistic assistance of the young Lao She. Later, Lao She was to become one of China’s best known modern writers, as the author of Rickshaw Boy, Cat Country, and Tea House, before being beaten to death by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. In the 1920s, Lao She was living in London and eking out his income by teaching Chinese at London University. The Egerton/Lao She version was in four volumes, and in the first edition of 1939 the most pungent of the sexually explicit passages—of which there are a good many—were coyly translated into Latin, with the predictable result that oversexed youngsters of reasonable education skipped through the novel at some speed looking for the Latin bits.

This reticence was corrected in a reissue of the Egerton/Lao She version in 1972 when the Latin sections were rendered into English for our allegedly more enlightened age. The French scholar André Lévy published an almost complete French version in 1,471 finely printed pages with Gallimard in 1985, a grand achievement, though without the detailed notes that Mr. Roy has provided.1

To many readers in the past, The Plum in the Golden Vase has seemed an inchoate mass of a story. Even if it was clearly “about” a wealthy urban merchant Hsi-men Ch’ing, his six consorts, and numerous other sexual companions, it was also full of sudden jumps of mood and direction, unexplained and lengthy borrowings from earlier works of fiction, especially the famous Outlaws of the Marsh (Shui-hu Chuan), and obscure digressions that didn’t seem to advance the story at all. Mr. Roy is determined to end such vagueness. His long years of work on the novel have taught him that it has, in fact, “an intricate fictional structure” that it is “surprisingly modern in its design.” Chapters one to twenty serve to set the scene by introducing one by one the members of Hsi-men Ch’ing’s household and community. The central sixty chapters of the novel provide the “main action,” with the first thirty of the sixty dealing with Hsi-men Ch’ing’s “rapid rise in socio-economic status,” and the second thirty tracing “the seeds of self-destruction,” with the switch between the two occurring “at exactly the midpoint of the novel.” Chapters eighty to a hundred show the disintegration of the household.

But there is much more to it than that. In Mr. Roy’s view, one that has been refined by his repeated readings of every phrase and word in the novel,

The novel can also be seen to be built out of ten-chapter units that reveal a characteristic internal structure of their own. Each unit tends to develop a particular narrative or thematic line through the early chapters, to be interrupted by the introduction of a significant twist or new development, usually in the seventh chapter, and to culminate in a climax in the ninth chapter. These repetitive configurations, recurring at ten-chapter intervals, have the effect of producing a subliminal wavelike pattern that underlies and reinforces the overall structure as outlined above.

This involved, meticulous, and sexually charged structure arches over an allegorical structure of parallel complexity, in which Hsi-men Ch’ing stands not only for the feckless Sung dynasty ruler in whose reign the novel is ostensibly set, but also for the equally incompetent monarchs who ruled over the anonymous author’s late Ming world; while the six consorts are both the counterparts of the “six evil ministers” who served that same Sung dynasty ruler, and have an “emblematic correspondence” with the “six senses” as defined by contemporary popular Buddhism.

It is doubtless only by reading the entire novel several times that future readers will be able to test these structural hypotheses, but in the meantime Mr. Roy has made a major contribution to our overall understanding of the novel by so structuring every single page of his translation that the numerous levels of the narration are clearly differentiated. To achieve this, he and Princeton University Press must have consumed agonizing hours with typesetters to achieve their invaluable results. It is hard to show here, in the format of this review, the way Mr. Roy sets off by indenting, without quotation marks, but slightly deeper than the rest of the text, all jingles, archaic references, folk sayings, passages of parallel prose, or other decorative embellishments to the plot with which the original novel is crammed. Because of this device, we are able to read the English in a multi-layered way, which even those with the most advanced skills in Chinese would find hard to do with the original.

In addition, Mr. Roy has annotated the text with a precision, thoroughness, and passion for detail that makes even a veteran reader of monographs smile with a kind of quiet disbelief. It is as if he has carried the textual glosser’s art to a new pitch, one which combines the quarter century he tells us he has worked on the novel with the labors of the centuries of Chinese commentators and exegetes who came before him—all of whom he seems to have read—and the dedicated researches and doctorates of his own accomplished students at the University of Chicago (whose contributions are fully acknowledged).

For those who love the history of language, there is a world of explanation buried in the voluminous notes, with such modest introductory lines as “Variants of this expression occur in…,” “These two lines are derived from a couplet in a poem by…,” “The ultimate source of this saying is…,” “This literary conceit first appears in…,” “This conventional couplet occurs….” Almost every line of casual verse, every pun, every economic, social, and erotic reference, is given its explanation. Some readers may feel they can intuit the meaning of lines such as the following, which describe Hsi-men Ch’ing’s preliminary sporting with his newfound love P’an Chin-lien:

  1. 1

    The Golden Lotus, A Translation, from the Chinese Original of the Novel Chin P’ing Mei, translated by Clement Egerton, 4 volumes (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1939 and new edition, with same title, 1972). Fleur en Fiole d’Or (Jin Ping Mei Cihua), translated by Andre Levy, 2 volumes (Paris: Gallimard, 1985).

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