Remember The Golden Lotus Vol. 1? I just read the sequel. It’s called Volume 2.

For 50 chapters and 640 pages, the author had built up a portrait of Ximen Qing, rich man of the fictional city of Qinghe, and his five wives— lovingly detailing his family life, his meals and entertainments, his rising career, his business dealings, and his occasional mockeries of justice. In volume 2 all of that is slowly and methodically shot to hell.

Actually for half the book, Ximen continues his rise.  There’s an intimation of disaster in chapter 59, when Ximen’s son dies— after being given a fright by a cat attacking him.  (Wife #4 Pan Jinlian is blamed for having trained the cat to attack him… in revenge Ximen dashes the cat’s brains out.)  His mother Li Ping’er sickens and dies, and there’s an elaborate description of her funeral.  But then Ximen takes a trip to the capital, Kāifēng, and is rewarded by a promotion to full magistrate. He moves in ever more influential circles and seems richer than ever.  There’s a big fight between Pan Jinlian and the Great Lady, i.e. his first and chief wife, Wu Yueniang, but it’s smoothed over.

But then, rather suddenly, things go south. Back in chapter 49, Ximen had been given powerful aphrodisiacs by a monk from India. He was told to use them sparingly. But Pan Jinlian, wanting to make love to him when he was already spent, gives him three pills at once.  He succeeds in her immediate purpose, but too much so: his ejaculation turns into “an unceasing flow of blood.” Doctors are sent for; everyone runs all around, but his fate is sealed.  In ten pages he’s dead, and yet we have 21 chapters to go.  These the author spends in sending the remaining characters through the meat grinder.

Ximen’s end is almost comically apt: he’s been dissolute with women, so he succumbs to an illness that chiefly attacks his penis. I wonder if this is intended to be syphilis, which is out of period for the Sòng of Ximen’s time, but appropriate for the Míng author. Or of course it could be a different venereal disease, or an invented one. Or we could blame the immediate cause of the illness: that dangerous aphrodisiac. Physicians and alchemists often used concoctions of antimony, which was believed to be linked to immortality— and in premodern times antimony was often confused with arsenic. So both professions regularly poisoned their clients (and themselves).

The author is as hard on their characters as any Iain Banks novel:

  • 2nd wife Li Jiao’er: goes back to the bawdy house
  • 4th wife Sun Xue’e: elopes with robber servant; servant caught and imprisoned; Xue’e sold to a vindictive enemy, then to a brothel; briefly rescued, only to have her husband killed; hangs herself
  • 5th wife Pan Jinlian: brutally murdered
  • 6th wife Li Ping’er: died of heartbreak after son’s death, as mentioned above
  • Son in law Chen Jingji: kicked out after dallying with Pan Jinlian; defrauds the family; reduced to begging and sodomy; later joins Chunmei’s household; plots against a servant, who murders him
  • Daughter Ximen Dajie: lives unhappily with Chen Jingji, who favors a new wife over her; hangs herself
  • Servant Chunmei: briefly rises to a high position by marrying a general, who however is killed resisting the Jurchen invasion; carries on with one of his relatives (as well as Jingji); dies young of a wasting sickness

Though everyone gets some page time, the central figure of the book is Pan Jinlian— exquisitely pretty, intelligent, literate, charming, and decidedly evil.  She murders her first husband back in chapter 5 to be with Ximen Qing. She is always seeking to raise her position, beats her servants, quarrels with everyone, hates Ximen’s son, trains her Evil Attack Cat, cheats on Ximen with his own son-in-law, and administers that fatal dose of aphrodisiac. She’s finally driven out of the house, and offered for sale for 100 taels.  Chen Jingji (her lover) wants to buy her, and goes to Kāifēng to get the money. But another finds her first, with cash in hand. He turns out to be the brother of her murdered husband, and he extracts a confession out of her, then murders her.  He goes off to join the bandits— the heroes of The Water Margin. His story would have been familiar to Míng readers— he fights alongside the bandits, defeats a band of rebels, and retires as a Buddhist monk.

The only characters who are spared terrible fates are the two virtuous wives.  Wu Yueniang— though she has a temper— is depicted as a kindly, level-headed woman, devoted to Buddhism. She bears a son to Ximen posthumously, but in the chaos of the Jurchen invasion she gives him up as an acolyte to a Buddhist monk. By modern standards she treats her own daughter badly— she forces her to go live with Chen Jingji, who’s already been revealed to be a womanizer and ne’er-do-well. But having married, she was part of Chen’s family— to the contemporary reader, she was their problem now.

Wife #3, Meng Yulou, is perhaps the nicest character in the book.  She is Pan Jinlian’s best friend in the house, but she gets along with everyone and never causes trouble.   When a magistrate catches a glimpse of her on a rare outing and falls in love with her, she takes the opportunity to remarry.  She is happy with her new husband and outwits a scheme of Chen Jingji to cause her trouble— though she does have to go with her new husband into exile.  Still, the last page of the book assures her that she lived long and happily.

The other surprising winner is the servant Daian, who has appeared throughout the book from a young age, trailing behind Ximen Qing, accompanying him on his escapades. When he grows up he takes up with one of the servants— but by this time Wu Yueniang takes a pragmatic approach and simply marries the two to each other.  And when her son becomes a monk, she adopts Daian and makes him her heir.

Whew! Sorry for all the names and bursts of plot, but if you haven’t gathered, the pace of the story quickens in this volume.  Instead of languid days of lovemaking punctuated by fine meals, singing girls, and the exchange of gifts, this volume is a rush of events. It goes fast, and racks up an impressive body count. Here and there are bits of moralizing, but for the most part the author lets the events speak for themselves.

What does it amount to? On the surface, a tale of a dissolute man and woman (that would be Ximen Qing and Pan Jinlian) who get exactly what they deserve.  But where the story was brief and lurid in Water Margin, here it’s drawn out, quotidianized, deepened.  Ximen is no hero, but he’s also not a great villain.  He starts out as an idle rich man, but once he has an office he seems devoted enough to his work. He’s genuinely distraught over the death of his son and his sixth wife. He seems good at keeping his businesses in the black.  He’s generous with his friends. Given the breakup of his household after his death, he was certainly the glue holding it together.  Though the book is certainly a criticism of the corruption of a late Imperial Chinese dynasty, it’s more in the style of Trollope than Dickens.

As for Pan Jinlian, she certainly has a bad character; at the same time she seems to have a capacity for friendship and love.  There is of course no defense for her murder of her first husband (nor for Ximen’s help in it), but 85 chapters later, her own murder is still shocking and pathetic.   Her murderer, Wu Song— a righter of wrongs in Water Margin— here seems no more than a brutal killer.

Like Raise the Red Lantern, the institution the book most demolishes is polygamy. Ximen’s six wives are all elite women, raised far above most people in their society, dressed in rich silks with ornaments of gold, silver, jade, and pearl, eating rich foods, with their own servants to lord it over. They are not mistreated by Ximen, and can speak their mind to him.  Yet, obviously, the very fact that there half a dozen of them (to say nothing of Ximen’s mistresses) makes them inherently inferior, and is an incitement to jealousy and loneliness.  There are references to their lovely little feet— i.e., to feet horribly disfigured by foot-binding. And to make it worse, the social convention is that they are required to be in the house— in the inner rooms of the house— all day, almost every day of the year, with no Internet access. It had to be horribly dull. Perhaps that’s why wife #2, Li Jiao’er, preferred to go back to being a singing girl once Ximen died.

Modern readers may also blanch at the book’s language— the women are always being called, and call each other, strumpets, slaves, and whores. (Men can be called dogs, slaves, and turtles, rarely anything more biting.)

At the same time, I’m still amazed at the woman-centeredness of the book. Contrast Three Kingdoms or Journey to the West, where women barely exist. This is a book where the chief male character leaves for the office— and the narrative camera stays in his house and follows what his wives and servants are doing. Pan Jinlian’s servant Chunmei does earn her 1/3 representation in the name of the book (Jīn Píng Méi) here; when she leaves the house she marries a rich official.  But her husband barely appears onstage; the story focuses on her new life.  I wonder when a similarly female-centered book first appeared in the West.

One curious bit: though there are some virtuous monks, the author normally presents them as licentious, greedy, and fraudulent.  This is almost exactly as we see them in Chaucer— not too distant in time, but 5000 miles away and with the monks belonging to a different religion.

The last chapters show the fall of the Northern Sòng dynasty: Kāifēng is conquered by the Jurchens, the emperor and his father are sent off in exile to Manchuria, and a prince escapes below the Yangtze to hold southern China as the Southern Sòng. It occupies only a few pages, but the momentousness of these events would not be lost on Chinese readers, and would color the entire narrative.  It’s like tales of the European high life set in 1913, just before everything was destroyed by the World War. The book also references the actual corrupt ministers of the late Northern Sòng.

So, should you read it?  Yes, certainly! You can read a bunch of volumes on Chinese history and even everyday life— as I’ve been doing— but Golden Lotus really makes them come alive. By the end you feel you know exactly how an elite household was run and what it would be like to spend the day inside it.  There are a few spots where, maybe, the author includes one too many parties.  But as we’ve seen in recent years, comparing two-hour movies to 60-episode TV series, length allows situations and characters to be explored with leisure and depth.  If you simply read about Pan Jinlian’s murder, it would be a cheap horror story. Built up over two long volumes, it becomes an epic story touching on a multitude of emotions.

Though there are occasional references to characters’ thoughts and dreams, their nature is mostly revealed by an accumulation of actions and dialog. Though undoubtedly translation softens and distorts the effect, it’s apparent that the author was an excellent mimic.  From bandits to imperial counselors, from singing girls to marriage brokers to Buddhist clerics, everyone speaks in a distinctive, convincing way.  An example of the authors technique is Ximen’s friend Ying Bojue, also known as Beggar Ying.  He shows up once a chapter or so, generally making jokes and teasing his friend, occasionally offering advice or an investment opportunity.  Though of minimal importance to the plot, he’s highly memorable.

And again, if you’ve heard about the book as an erotic novel, it absolutely isn’t. It’s a novel of manners which— exactly like modern Western novels— is frank about sexuality. Besides, the author tends to move to flowery language, and even poetry, in describing sex, and that may not translate well. For instance, Pan Jinlian’s “fragrant blossom” is described as having “all the fragrance and tenderness of fresh-made pastry”, which… well, Proust had his madeleines, but they apparently weren’t as powerful as Chinese pastries.