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 daily life.

The unknown author of Lotus seems to have been a man of little education who borrowed wholesale from the contemporary stock of tales, songs, jokes, and scenes from plays; while Ts’ao Hsueh-ch’in was an erudite gentleman whose Dream reflects a lifelong absorption in the attempt to recapture his own and his family’s past. More to the point, Dream of the Red Chamber is a study, sometimes allegorical, always profound, of love; in The Golden Lotus, love is a rare experience which seldom has much to do with the sexual activities of the protagonists.

The Golden Lotus is a historical novel in the sense that its ostensible setting is the early part of the twelfth century, the years of the collapse of Northern Sung rule. In fact, the germ of the novel is an episode in the story-cycle Men of the Marshes (Shui-hu Chuan, translated by Pearl Buck as All Men Are Brothers), whose heroes are the bandit-rebels of that era. But though the villains of The Golden Lotus include the chief minister Ts’ai Ching and other long-buried historical figures, the real targets are specific abuses of the late Ming period. That was the time when a merchant-money-lender like Hsi-mên Ch’ing, the man whose adventures we follow in the novel, could buy a magistracy, bribe his superiors, expropriate his neighbor, or engineer the judicial murder of his rival, all with impunity. And if Hsi-mên is a product of his age, so too is his “closest friend,” the worthless sycophant Ying Po-chüeh, who within a few days of Hsi-mên’s death is making plans to sell off his widow.

Making money and using it for the climb up the social ladder provide the background to the novel. In the foreground stand a group of memorable women, among them Golden Lotus, fifth of Hsi-mên’s six wives. Moon Lady, his first wife, reigns with pathetic dignity over her dissolute household, moves us close to tears as she prays for the birth of a son, commands our respect as she makes the transition from long-suffering wife to dedicated widow. Wives two and four (there is no satisfactory English equivalent for ch’ieh, “secondary wife”: “concubine” gives little sense of the formality and permanence of the status) are from lower social levels and occupy less of Hsi-mên’s or the reader’s attention. Wife number three, Tower of Jade, is a pleasant woman strangely capable of friendship with the vixenish Golden Lotus: when the latter is driven out, on Hsi-mên’s death, by the unforgiving Moon Lady, Tower of Jade gives her clothes in an unusual and moving act of kindness.


By the time of the novel’s opening Hsi-mên has already tired of his first four ladies. The action concerns his acquisition of numbers five and six, Golden Lotus herself and Lady of the Vase. The latter is the sweetest and gentlest of his women, and the only one to die before him. When she lies dead in his arms, Hsi-mên cries, “Heaven wills my death. You have been in this house three years and not a single day’s real pleasure have you had. It is all my fault.” Moon Lady has been fond of Lady of the Vase, and has shown her all the tolerance of the traditional “virtuous wife.” But at this point she can’t help herself. Her response is a fine touch that reveals all the underlying agony of her situation: “Cry if you will, but put her down. You must not cry face to face with her like that. If the foul air from her mouth comes to you it will make you ill. And what do you mean by saying that she never had a single happy day? If she did not, who did? We ourselves cannot decide how long we shall live. We shall all have to go the same way.”

Golden Lotus is at the center of the novel. Sexually irresistible to Hsi-mên Ch’ing, she is also insatiably greedy and unscrupulous. Whether she is luring her husband into new kinds of depravity, or sadistically taking out her frustrations on her pitiful maid Chrysanthemum, or training her cat to attack the sickly son Lady of the Vase has just borne, Golden Lotus every second is Vénus entière à sa proie attachée, a superb creation. The homespun language, the wasteful narration with its interminable details of guest lists and present-giving and its clumsiness in moving people around, the loose ends and the lavatory jokes, all these irritations fail to obscure the brilliance of the characterizations, particularly of Lotus herself.

Other Chinese novels not far removed in time from The Golden Lotus—Hsing-shih yin-yuan chuan (“Eye-opening Marriages”) or Jou p’u-t’uan (“The Prayer Mat of Flesh” or perhaps “The Human Hassock”)—offer graphic sexual activity on a variety of levels, from low and rather pointless naturalism to elegant pornography. But The Golden Lotus is something different. The ambiguity of its moralizing cannot disguise its seriousness and its moral passion.

It is true that the author obviously enjoyed some of his bedroom scenes. But not much of the great amount of sexual activity in the book is actually pleasurable. Taoist concepts and techniques of sexual hygiene called for conservation of male energy, with the woman acting not as partner but as either victim or vampire. Popular Buddhist doctrines of cause and effect made fully explicit the perils of lust. Hsi-mên’s quest for ever greater sexual gratification, more surely than his quest for wealth and rank, dooms him to self-destruction. Moon Lady, the beautiful and admirable lady who is his proper wife, never appears in an explicit act of love-making until a gruesome Grand Guignol eleventh hour when she misguidedly attempts to relieve with her own body her husband’s state of permanent sexual excitement. This occurs in chapter seventy-nine after the vampirish ministrations of the revolting Porphyry, and of course Golden Lotus as well, have heavily contributed to Hsi-mên’s exhaustion.

A casual and trivial passage which may yet be a key to the meaning of this extraordinary book occurs at the close of the previous chapter. Two ladies of quality and exquisite charm leave Hsi-mên’s house after a visit with Moon Lady. Hsi-mên stands in the shadows to watch them leave. He lusts after both, but they are beyond his reach. At this moment a servant’s wife passes, and he crudely takes her. It is a sordid little adventure, almost his last. But at this point we come closest to pity for this Baron Hulot of Ming China.


This Issue

January 24, 1974