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…

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