I’m only half done with The Golden Lotus, but the library doesn’t have Volume 2 and I have a lot to say about it already, so let’s get started.

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As you will have guessed, I’m referring to 金瓶梅 (Jīn Píng Méi), by an anonymous author of the last century of Míng rule (i.e., around 1600).

The book has a reputation for being dirty– the cover features a quote from Pearl Buck about it being “the greatest novel of physical love which China has produced”– but let’s clear that up right away: as pornography, even as erotica, it sucks. That’s because there’s very little sex in the book, by weight. Enough to shock a Victorian, but these days even right-wing politicians moonlighting as fiction writers would be far dirtier.

Rather, it’s a novel of manners. It’s a detailed examination of the rise and fall of a single household, that of 西門慶 Ximen Qing.  (His rare two-character family name Xīmén means ‘west gate’; his given name Qìng means ‘celebration’.)  Ximen is a rich merchant, a dealer in medicine in the fictional city of Qinghe. Through his connections in the capital, Kāifēng, he obtains an official position, bypassing the civil service examinations.  Though he is mostly a pleasant fellow, he is highly dissolute, spending most of his time on pleasure, drinking, and women; he ignores his medicine business, and when it comes to his official position he’s completely corrupt.

What’s most unusual about the novel is that it focuses not on Ximen but on his wives. He accumulates seven of them (one dies before the book starts), and sleeps with the maidservants and a few other random people as well.  Though there are sections that focus on court politics, or cases that come before him at the city offices, the bulk of the book happens in his house and among the women.

The book is named for three of them: Pan Jinlian (金蓮 Golden Lotus), Li Ping’er (Little Vase), and Pang Chunmei (Spring Plum).  The title can be read “Gold Vase Plum”. Jinlian is the fieriest of Ximen’s wives; she starts out as another man’s wife, in fact. She has an affair with Ximen and poisons her husband in order to marry Ximen (becoming wife #5).  She’s jealous and easily angered, and does her best to cause trouble in the household; at the same time she knows when not to go too far, and usually gets along well with the other wives. Ping’er is wife #6, but quickly rises in position by the simple expedient of having a son, Ximen’s first. (Chunmei is a maid of Jinlian, and doesn’t really do anything in Volume 1 to justify her placement in the title.)

The introduction names at least three scholars the book has been attributed to, but no one seems to have mentioned the obvious idea that it was written by a woman. If Lady Murasaki could do it, so could a Chinese elite woman. It would explain the realistic psychology and interactions among the women, and the fact that they are fully conscious of Ximen’s faults. Would a male writer be quite so interested in what the wives do all day when Ximen is out, or how they interact with their maids, or how not to frighten a baby, or whether or not Ximen’s lovemaking pleased them or not?

Imperial China was a highly hierarchical and patriarchal society, and yet none of the wives could be described as subservient. All of them speak quite freely to Ximen, and they lord it over the servants and pass out money much as he does. (Of course, if he’s mad at someone he strips them down and whips them– but his wives can do the same to their servants.)

The Western book Golden Lotus most reminds me of is Choderlos de Laclos’ Les liaisons dangereuses, which you may know from the 1988 Glenn Close / John Malkovich film. Many of the characters are pretty vile, and though much of the time they just enjoy themselves, they frequently remind you (by whipping a servant or driving a woman to suicide or subverting justice with a bribe) that they’re fundamentally immoral and deserve whatever happens to them in Volume 2.

However, Laclos is first-person and explicitly inverts the usual moral point of view; Lotus is more a matter of taking a long, delicious look at depravity before tearing everything down. The author set the book in the last years of the Northern Sòng dynasty (just before the Jurchens overran the entire north of China), and the corruption he depicts is an obvious comment on the corruption and misrule of the late Míng.

Like all the great Chinese novels, it’s sprawling, though the focus on Ximen’s household gives it an easy-to-comprehend center. You learn a lot about the everyday mores of Imperial Chinese society: the elaborate formulas of politeness; the emphasis on luxurious objets d’art and delicacies of food; the drinking games; the occasional and very eclectic spirituality; the cost of a meal or a slave; the fact that your sleeves functioned as pockets or even briefcases. The baby is over-coddled– it’s considered a terrible thing if he’s frightened by a cat, or if his hands get cold.

One thing that fascinates me is the culture of gift giving. Ximen is always giving gifts– whether it’s a tael of silver to a singing girl, or five taels as traveling expenses for a servant going to the capital, or five hundred taels plus silks, vases, and scrolls as a bribe to a major official. The women get gifts from him and give them to each other. If an official comes by, both parties exchange gifts. If a servant from another household comes by, or a musician is engaged, they’re given food and drink once their business is done. If you become an official, you had better give a party, and if you don’t have money you’ll have to borrow it. Large gifts have to be refused once or twice before being accepted, and generally require a counter-gift.

A tael, by the way, was a little over an ounce; the Chinese term was actually 两 liǎng. It weighed about 37.5 grams, thus about 7 British shillings. Adam Smith reports that the wages of a London laborer in his time (1776) was 1.5 shillings a day. So a tip of one tael was quite generous. (Indeed, the characters give the most menial workers much less– one or more qián, which was 1/10 of a tael.)

Again, where the book does talk about sex, it’s mostly a quick ellipsis, sometimes expanded into randy poems (which the translator has not managed to turn into anything erotic). But when it’s frank, it’s frank, and as the introduction notes, it includes things that verge into fetish territory, such as cock rings and a little light bondage. Ximen is also shown, though not in much detail, as enjoying a young male servant. Curiously, for all the women present, there’s no mention of lesbianism.

Another curiosity: the book turns out to be an elaborate reworking of an episode from one of the other classic Míng novels– Shuǐ hǔ zhuàn (The Water Margin), the story of a large group of heroic outlaws. In one episode, Wu Song becomes famous for killing a tiger with his bare hands. He goes to visit his brother, an ugly man married to the beautiful Pan Jinlian. As in Lotus, Pan is in love with a dissolute rich man, Ximen Qing, and murders her husband, Wu’s brother. In Water Margin Wu kills both of them; in Lotus only one of them. But he’s exiled in chapter 10 and doesn’t get his revenge till Volume 2.

More later, when I can score a copy…

Edit: And here’s my thoughts on volume 2.

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