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:

No sooner have they embarked on “dipping the red candle upside down,”

Than they suddenly switch to “punting the boat by night.”

Rifling its fragrance, “the butterfly nibbles at the calyx of the flower.”

But Mr. Roy leaves nothing to chance, and a guide to further reading is given for each of the three phrases in quotes above. Perhaps the pinnacle of exegesis in this genre is the gravely playful note to the novelist’s statement that the same loving couple excite each other by having P’an Chin-lien “toying with the flute” of Hsi-men Ch’ing. Mr. Roy’s note to this phrase informs us that “the instrument in question is a fipple flute, like a flageolet or recorder, rather than a transverse flute.” But at the same time it is worth pointing out that the translation of erotic terms has all the same pitfalls and challenges as translation of any other kinds of terms, and every translator has to make a fresh decision over tone and taste with every one.

To take just one other example, in the passage with which this review began, Li P’ing-erh is unimpressed by her physician-husband’s use of “Yunnanese ticklers” in his love-play. The Chinese text in fact says that what the doctor bought and used was a Ching-tung jen-shih, which literally translates as “device (or experience) from [the region of] Ching-tung.” “Ching-tung” is a common alternative name for the southwestern Chinese province of Yunnan, but whether to explain that or not, and if so how eruditely, is a question of style as well as of precision. Thus Egerton and Lao She made the decision to translate the phrase as “some interesting pictures” making it clear that these were perceived as a means of “stimulating love.” André Lévy chooses the phrase “such kinds of devices as ‘The Lover from Yunnan”’ (“des instruments du genre de l”Amant du Yunnan’ “). 2 David Roy’s choice of “Yunnanese tickler” is clearly as accurate as these, but is both more playful and more witty—its only disadvantage being that its built-in contemporaneity deriving from today’s drugstore sales of decorative condoms may itself, in twenty years time, need an elaborate referential notation system all of its own.

Just as the original Ming novelist does in his text, so does Mr. Roy, in his introduction and his copious notes, keep us uncertain of his mood and motivations. For instance, he cleverly tells us, at the end of his lengthy analysis of the novel, that the introduction we have just been reading is itself a “pastiche of passages” from his own writings, “interspersed with quotations from many sources.” In other words, it matches the technique of the novel’s own composition.


But it is time to remind ourselves that The Plum in the Golden Vase is not just about sex, whether the numerous descriptions of sexual acts throughout the novel be viewed as titillating, harshly realistic, or, in Mr. Roy’s words, intended “to express in the most powerful metaphor available to him the author’s contempt for the sort of persons who indulge in them.” The novel is a sprawling panorama of life and times in urban China, allegedly set safely in the Sung dynasty, but transparently contemporary to the author’s late sixteenth-century world, as scores of internal references demonstrate. The eight hundred or so men, women, and children who appear in the book cover a breath-taking variety of human types, and encompass pretty much every imaginable mood and genre—from sadism to tenderness, from light humor to philosophical musings, from acute social commentary to outrageous satire.

The intended tone of the Ming dynasty author of the novel is, indeed, one of its greatest mysteries, and has been so since the draft sections began to circulate in 1596 (the first reference to a completed draft is by a scholar in 1606). As Mr. Roy points out in his introduction, “In roughly chronological order, it has been interpreted as a roman à clef, a work of pornography, a Buddhist morality play, an exercise in naturalism, or a novel of manners.” As one might expect, since none of the critics making these assessments was a frivolous person, the novel has aspects of all the above in its structure, as well as many others.

But how to find a true parallel is a difficult task. Rather confusingly to this reader, Mr. Roy spends more than two pages of his introduction drawing analogies between The Plum in the Golden Vase and Charles Dickens’s Bleak House. He does this by taking a recent introduction to Bleak House by J. Hillis Miller, and substituting the Chinese title for the English one throughout, concluding that this shows the “uncanny extent” to which the techniques of the two novels echo each other. I was inspired by this comment to reread Bleak House after a hiatus of over forty years, but though this exercise reintroduced me to a masterpiece, and gave me many hours of pleasure, the two novels are so inconceivably different in every way that I find little profit in pursuing the search for this particular parallel further.

Closer to the mark are Mr. Roy’s suggestions that The Plum in the Golden Vase because of its staggering erudition and the richness of its allusions can be fruitfully compared with Ulysses or Lolita. This seems to me both shrewd and interesting, and a week spent reading alternate chapters of all three novels would be a fascinating experience. But I think the initially suggestive resemblances would ultimately fade away under the pressure of the specifics of each story. (Mr. Roy also invokes M. M. Bakhtin’s The Dialogic Imagination here, a terrain into which I cannot follow him.)

The Plum in the Golden Vase is such a rich book that people inevitably have read it, and will continue to do so, in different ways. Here I would like to reflect on two of the many aspects of this novel that seem to provide a rich vein of inquiry: the problem of the author’s point of view, and the ways in which the novel does or does not illuminate our knowledge of Chinese society.

In his introduction, Mr. Roy gives an imposing series of reasons for his belief that the unknown author of The Plum in the Golden Vase was an acute and scholarly moralist who deplored the manners of his day, and took as his moral model the Chinese third century BC moralist and philosopher Hsuntzu. One clue to this, Mr. Roy believes, is that the pseudonymous author of the novel’s first preface (who may or may not be the author himself) said that the book was written by “The Scoffing Scholar of Lan-ling.” Lan-ling is the name of a town in Shantung province in northeast China, and some scholars have rather prosaically observed that this might well mean that the author was born in Lan-ling, or lived there. Mr. Roy does not find this convincing. Though a quick look through some Chinese dictionaries showed this reader that “Lan-ling” was a term applied as a shorthand reference in various contexts, including martial activities, popular songs, the brothel quarters of former Chinese capitals, and even the wearing of stern masks by male protagonists of effeminate appearance who felt the need to increase their authority—any of which, by some stretch of the imagination, could be construed as a theme within the book—Mr. Roy is right that the phrase was most often applied to the philosopher Hsun-tzu, who was famous for his activities and the works he wrote while he was serving as an official in Lan-ling. (Though one could also put this another way, and say that if one wanted an informal way of referring to Hsun-tzu and his works, then “Lan-ling” was the one most commonly used by Chinese scholars in the past.)

Summarizing the various other arguments that Mr. Roy uses to support his view, we can quote his conclusion: that the author of The Plum in the Golden Vase invoked Hsun-tzu because the philosopher “scoffed contemptuously at the amoral status-seekers of his day, and…was motivated by his hatred of what they stood for to write the book that has made him, along with Confucius (551–479 BC) and Mencius (c. 372–c. 289 BC), one of the three most important figures in the history of orthodox Confucianism.” Mr. Roy adds:

Hsün-tzu is most famous for his enunciation of the doctrine that, although everyone has the capacity for goodness, human nature is basically evil and, if allowed to find expression without the conscious molding and restraint of ritual, is certain to lead the individual disastrously astray. That the implied author of the Chin P’ing Mei endorses this view should be apparent to even the most superficial reader, but he also makes it quite explicit by quoting in four different places in his novel, including the first chapter, a line that reads “In this world the heart of man alone remains vile.”

There are two complementary ways of approaching this position of Mr. Roy’s. Is the doctrine quoted above in fact the essence of what Hsun-tzu says? And is it in fact obvious that such views constitute the novel’s “point of view,” whether one be a “superficial” reader or not?

Hsun-tzu’s works have, until recently, not received much attention from scholarly translators. Those not familiar with the Classical Chinese used in philosophical discourse have had to rely on two partial English versions—one by Homer Dubs and one by Burton Watson. 3 Though the latter is an unusually fine translator from classical Chinese, his edition contains only ten of Hsun-tzu’s surviving thirty-two chapter oeuvre. By one of the nice conjunctions that sometimes occur in scholarship, John Knoblock of the University of Miami is now completing the publication of the first truly comprehensive analysis and translation of Hsun-tzu’s work, in three volumes with Stanford University Press. In the sophistication of its argument, the thoroughness of its annotation, and the grandeur of its publication details—for example, Chinese characters in the text for every important name and philosophical term being discussed—it is a match for the Princeton Press edition of The Plum in the Golden Vase.

Though I cannot claim enough knowledge to deal with all of the complexities of Mr. Knoblock’s work, I would emphasize here how impressively he shows us the enormous range of Hsun-tzu’s field of enquiry, and the subtlety of his philosophical arguments. These range over the whole field of what we might call “values” and can certainly not be easily subsumed under the rubric that “human nature is evil.” The twenty-third chapter of Hsun-tzu, which is the one most often invoked by Mr. Roy, does indeed say that human nature is evil. But the meanings of such a phrase are many-faceted, and I suspect that Hsun-tzu might well have seen the use made of him by Mr. Roy as taking a part as the whole. As Mr. Knoblock writes, the Chinese word e, which we translate as “evil,” has different weight and associations from those we are used to in talking about evil in our own culture. In the first place, e not only contains the added root meaning of “hatred,” it also has clear phonetic links to the family of Chinese words that connote fear, surprise, laughter, or disgust. Secondly:

The term e “evil” does not carry the sinister and baleful overtones of the English word. Nor does the statement that man’s nature is evil suggest that man is inherently depraved and incapable of good. That man’s nature is evil causes Xunzi [i.e., Hsun-tzu] no difficulty in believing that he can be reformed by education and the effects of acculturation. Similarly, the belief that man’s nature is good inspires in Mencius no conviction that at birth man is a “noble savage” who is ravaged by the destructive effects of society and civilization.4

As Hsun-tzu himself then answers the logical question about the origins of the desire to reform or do good:

Someone may ask: “If man’s nature is evil, how then are ritual principles and moral duty created?” The reply is that as a general rule ritual principles and moral duty are born of the acquired nature of the sage and are not the product of anything inherent in man’s inborn nature.

The obvious analogies here, Hsun-tzu explains, are those with the potter and the wood-carver, whose skillful creations come from their “acquired nature,” not their “inherent” or “inborn” nature. As to the related problem of how then people can be drawn to want the good, Hsun-tzu ascribes it to our inborn wish to attain that which we lack:

As a general rule, the fact that men desire to do good is the product of the fact that their nature is evil. Those with very little think longingly about having much, the ugly about being beautiful, those in cramped quarters about spacious surroundings, the poor about wealth, the base about eminence—indeed whatever a man lacks within himself he is sure to desire from without.

Whether Ming scholars might nevertheless have had a streamlined view of Hsun-tzu, as it were, which coincides with Mr. Roy’s definitions, is a knotty question I cannot resolve. But it should at least be raised.

The third volume of Knoblock’s translation also contains a complete and annotated translation of Hsun-tzu’s twenty-fifth chapter, a difficult text that was absent from the earlier published translations of Dubs and Watson. This chapter is composed entirely of songs or lyrics, what Mr. Knoblock calls “Working Songs.” Mr. Roy links the fact that Hsun-tzu composed these lyrics in a form “borrowed from the popular literature of his day,” (i.e., the third century BC) to his own interpretive quest in these words:

I submit that the author of the Chin P’ing Mei, who certainly shared Hsün-tzu’s despair over the disorder of his day, and who seems to have agreed with his diagnosis of its causes, may also have seen an affinity between Hsün-tzu’s use of a popular literary form to epitomize his ideas and his own choice of the long vernacular novel, a popular literary form of his own day, as a vehicle for his critique of late Ming society.

Mr. Knoblock’s new translation lets us evaluate this proposed link with care. He sees the songs as falling naturally into five main groupings: section one being “a scholar’s lament on the evil of his age,” sections two and three being concerned with good government and the sage kings, section four with “the inability of loyal ministers to influence their lords and so keep them from imminent destruction,” and section five with the need for clear laws and strict penalties. Though there is no way one can prove these songs did not have some influence on the structure of The Plum in the Golden Vase, Knoblock certainly shows that some of the songs do not at all represent what we have conventionally believed Hsun-tzu’s views to be. Thus the mystery of influence is deepended both here and in chapter 26, on Hsun-tzu’s “Rhyme-Prose Poems” (or “Fu”), which are composed of coded riddles, at least one of which refers to Hsun-tzu’s refusal to be reinstated as the magistrate of Lan-ling. From the vantage point of the late Ming, one could read these in many ways.

Even if we concede that Mr. Roy is right that the “human nature is evil” aspect of Hsun-tzu is central to Hsun-tzu’s own work, is it central to the novel? Again, I can only say that I am not at all sure. There is a great deal of awfulness in The Plum in the Golden Vase: cruelty, greed, sexual abuse, violence, deceit, dishonesty. But many of the characters seem to me to have a kind of innate innocence, or at least a guilelessness, that hints at redemption. And certainly the role of the forces of education or moral suasion, which are central to Hsun-tzu’s philosophical arguments, cannot really be deduced from the novel since they are so conspicuous by their absence. Even the few celebrated “upright officials” can be suborned, threatened, or influenced. Hsi-men Ch’ing himself is certainly one of the nastiest characters in fiction; he is vengeful, cowardly, philistine, selfish, unscrupulous, and both constantly yet indiscriminately in rut. But it is not easy to see him in Hsun-tzu’s terms, as someone whose life is colored by his lack of education or moral suasion. He is a first-class son-of-a-bitch, whichever way you shake him, and his infidelities and cruelties are random. He is uninstructable. His only instincts are for survival and self-gratification.

But the character who plays the role of the novel’s moral paragon, Wu Sung, is really little better. We are told that Wu Sung’s goal is to avenge his brother—earlier murdered by one of the many women who become Hsi-men Ch’ing’s bed-fellows—but the way he does this, and the disaster he causes by his uncontrollable temper (which constantly edges into sadism) give morality a bad name. He is an astonishing character, but hardly an exemplar of anything, except to prove that extremism, even in the name of moral purism, is still a vice. As for Hsi-men Ch’ing’s many women, who give the book its title—which is a pun on the names of three of the most prominent women characters—they are strong, weak, loving, or vengeful by turns, capable of grace or generosity just as they are capable of vindictiveness. On the whole, they are adaptable and shrewd—one might say they have to be, to survive at all, and their lust can be sad, or joyful, or businesslike, or all three at once.

One could certainly argue that the most heinous characters in the anonymous novelist’s eyes seem to be the go-betweens and the various spongers, whether male or female, who stay on the sidelines while they egg on their patrons, masters or mistresses, to feats of sexual or financial recklessness. Whether as panders or con artists, they do a great deal of damage by setting in motion events they cannot control. They exploit their roles by crossing the boundaries that separate the other characters, slipping their small cash rewards into their sleeves as they go, evading responsibility by their insignificance; if the law ever does catch up with them, they tell any old story that will clear themselves and implicate others. If such people were to be placed anywhere in Hsun-tzu’s moral universe it would surely be among those in the Fifth Book, entitled “Contra Physiognomy,” for the go-betweens are above all those who are ignorant of Hsun-tzu’s statement that “the proper way of Man lies in nothing other than his ability to draw boundaries,” and “of such boundaries, none is more important than that between social classes.” Or again, they can be found in a passage from Hsun-tzu Book 10: “Poverty is a misfortune, and contention a calamity. No means are as good to remedy misfortunes and eradicate calamities as causing class divisions to be clearly defined when giving form to society.”5


A very different kind of question to ask about The Plum in the Golden Vase is whether the novel can teach us much about late Ming social life. The obvious answer would seem to be yes. Among the huge cast of characters are those from a breath-taking variety of occupations: Hsi-men Ch’ing himself introduces us to the worlds of both wholesale pharmacy management and pawn-broking; the unfortunate husband of Li P’ing-erh is a physician; among the others we find tavern owners, nuns, soldiers, actors, tailors, costume-jewelers, seamstresses, abortionists, prostitutes, building contractors, fortunetellers, acrobats, silversmiths, fences of stolen goods (to name just a few), along with scores of peddlers, thugs, singing girls, pages, priests, and petty bureaucrats. There are grand descriptive sections on various games: rope-skipping, football, “pitch-pot,” dominoes. Prices are given for a host of objects and services: new beds, the whole range of food and drink from snacks to banquets, real estate, human beings, clothes, jewels. The descriptions of clothes and their colors, cut, fabrics, and accoutrements, are meticulous and omnipresent, even down to such details as when or where Hsi-men Ch’ing wears his “eye-shades” or “eye-masks” on outings, or the color of the beauty patch on one of his paramour’s cheeks (turquoise). In short, what we have is a whirling view of an acquisitive, energetic, self-conscious society, where prices are everybody’s business, and style goes a long way toward defining the person.

By another pleasing scholarly coincidence, we can now place the novel’s vision of consumerism in a context of contemporary Ming scholars’ assessments of taste and class in their time, thanks to a recent stimulating and erudite study by Craig Clunas, deputy curator of the East Asian collections at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.6 Mr. Clunas offers a thorough analysis of the comparative values of luxury objects in this period, along with informed reflections on the way that cultural productions became “commodities” in late Ming society, and the various distinctions that contemporaries tried to make within apparently self-defining categories. When was something “old,” for example, seen as also something morally valuable, when as “antique,” when “merely old,” when decrepit; when or how did people try to re-create—or forge—ancient things, and what did people pay for such objects or forgeries, and how did they display or hoard them?

Clunas sensibly argues that the accounts of consumer display within the novel Chin P’ing Mei (i.e., The Plum in the Golden Vase) are largely useful as comments on the lack of taste of those represented, rather than being accurate indicators of cash “value”; examples of these are often subtle, however, and might elude many readers of the novel. Thus one set of paintings bought by Hsi-men Ch’ing is, indeed, famous and hence genuinely “valuable.” But by hanging the paintings facing each other on the four walls of his study, he is violating one of the central tenets of Ming aesthetic theory on the placement of paintings, by which the paintings should be kept stored away and seen only in sequence.

Hsi-men Ch’ing’s “study,” Clunas notes elsewhere in his book, is “literally a full house of the trappings of high culture; the landscapes by famous hands…the antique bronze incense burners, the black lacquered gu qin zither, and the shelves piled high with literary works and the tools of literary creation.” Thus even though Hsi-men Ch’ing is presented as functionally illiterate despite his pretensions and his vast wealth—other characters in the novel always do his writing for him—“he is still a participant in the same set of aesthetic values as the most deeply cultured, creative and innovative writer or poet.”

Another recent study, this one by Klaas Ruitenbeek, the curator of Chinese and Japanese art at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, opens up a new kind of perspective on the endless building projects that Hsi-men Ch’ing engages in during the novel, as he is confronted by the constant need to house and to entertain his consorts and companions. By presenting the viewpoint of the practitioners of carpentry in the Ming dynasty, Mr. Ruitenbeek shows that their world was filled by superstitions and jealousies which were constant accompaniments to their dazzling technical proficiency.7 By integrating studies of Ming carpentry and construction with the plot of the novel, one might conceivably discover new kinds of rhetorical structures among the apparently “real” buildings that house the characters. Thus almost certainly, we may conclude, the economic and social “data” in The Plum in the Golden Vase are a mixture of parody and precision that it may never be possible to disentangle.

There is, ultimately, no way to summarize concisely either the plot or the content of this astonishing novel, and no way to encapsulate all its variety and levels under any rubric whatsoever. Such a task—to revert to Mr. Roy’s introduction—would be far easier for Bleak House, Ulysses, or Lolita. This is not in any way to say it is a “better” or more entertaining book than those, but it does suggest the company in which it moves. One could give scores of examples to reinforce this sense of the richness of the mixture, and David Roy’s powers as a translator, but perhaps few would be better than a passage in chapter 8 of the novel. In this chapter, Hsi-men Ch’ing makes passionate love to his future consort and present paramour P’an Chin-lien while Buddhist monks are preparing the rituals to honor her recently deceased husband—whom she in fact has murdered, with Hsi-men Ch’ing’s help. A monk, washing his hands outside the woman’s room, hears the sound of their love-making, and tells his fellow monks. As the monks pass this news from mouth to mouth while performing their liturgy, “imperceptibly they began to reenact the imagined scene: miming it with their hands, and dancing it with their feet.” While the monks complete this ribald parody of their devotions, Hsi-men Ch’ing and P’an Chin-lien end their love-making, get dressed, and watch the funeral ceremony in progress outside their screened window.

They, in turn, are watched by the monks, “shaven-pated rascals,” who “with their cold eyes perceived the silhouettes of the man and the woman standing shoulder to shoulder inside the screen.” This, I think, is as close as we can come to catch the unknown novelist’s intent: to take a cold-eyed look at the foibles and excesses of his time, unblurred by sentiment, unaroused by the passions that he allows to sweep others away, aware always that those who mock society’s basic values will themselves be mocked, and that however close to our lovers we may fancy ourselves to be, we remain “silhouettes” to the rest of the world, shoulder to shoulder behind our various screens.

  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).

  2. 2

    Egerton translated (1939 and 1972), Vol. 1, p. 265; Levy translated, Vol. 1, p. 376.

  3. 3

    The Works of Hsun tze, translated by Homer H. Dubs (Arthur Probsthain, 1928); Hsun Tzu, Basic Writings, translated by Burton Watson (Columbia University Press, 1963).

  4. 4

    This and the following two quotations are from Knoblock, Xunzi, Vol. 3, pp. 139, 153, and 154–155.

  5. 5

    See Knoblock, Xunzi, Vol. 1, p. 206 and Vol. 2, p. 121.

  6. 6

    Craig Clunas, Superfluous Things: Material Culture and Social Status in Early Modern China (University of Illinois Press, 1993). The working lives of Chinese painters—as opposed to their stereotyped self-images—are admirably explored in another recent book. James Cahill’s The Painter’s Practice: How Artists Lived and Worked in Traditional China (Columbia University Press, 1994).

  7. 7

    Klaas Ruitenbeek, Carpentry and Building in Late Imperial China: A Study of the Fifteenth-Century Carpenter’s Manual ‘Lu Ban Jing’ (E.J. Brill, 1993).