China


The oldsters never like the new music. This is a quotation from 乐记 Yuèjì (Record of Music), from the Warring States period, at least 2300 years ago.

The marquis Wén ask the sage Zǐxià why the old music puts him to sleep, while the new music does not.

子夏对曰:“今夫古乐,进旅退旅,和正以广。
Zǐxià duì yuē: “Jīn fū gǔ yuè, jìn lǚ tuì lǚ, hé zhèng yǐ guǎng.
Zǐxià back say / now EXCL ancient music / advance troop retreat troop / harmonious correct with wide
Zǐxià replied, “Now, in the ancient music, movements were in sync; there was harmony, correctness, and amplitude.

弦匏笙簧,会守拊鼓,始奏以文,复乱以武,治乱以相,讯疾以雅。
Xián páo shēng huáng, huì shǒu fǔ gǔ, shǐ zòu yǐ wén, fù luàn yǐ wǔ, zhì luàn yǐ xiāng, xùn jí yǐ yǎ.
string gourd pipe reed / can observe tap drum / begin play with culture / again disorder with martial / rule disorder with picture / examine quick with elegance
The strings, percussion, and pipes all follow the beat of the drum; they all begin in harmony, play their parts with martial vigor, master disorder with togetherness, play rapidly with elegance.

君子于是语,于是道古,修身及家,平均天下。
Jūnzǐ yú shì yǔ, yú shì dào gǔ, xiū shēn jí jiā, píng jūn tiānxià.
gentleman at this say / at this way ancient / repair body and family / level all heaven-under
In this the gentleman speaks and follows the ancient ways; mends body and family; the whole nation is pacified.

此古乐之发也。
Cǐ gǔ yuè zhī fā yě.
this ancient music SUB pattern PT
This is how ancient music was.

今夫新乐,进俯退俯,奸声以滥,溺而不止;
Jīn fū xīn yuè, jìn fǔ tuì fǔ, jiān shēng yǐ làn, nì ér bùzhǐ;
now EXCL new music / enter face.down retreat face.down / evil sound with excess / drown and not stop
Now in the new music, movements are dispirited; the sound is evil and excessive; it is like perpetually drowning.

及优侏儒,糅杂子女,不知父子。
Jí yōu zhūrú, róu zá zǐ nǚ, bù zhī fù zǐ.
with artist dwarf scholar / blend mix son woman / not know father son
There are dwarf artists, men and women mixed together, of unknown family.

乐终不可以语,不可以道古。
Yuè zhōng bù kě yǐ yǔ, bù kě yǐ dào gǔ.
music end not can with speak / not can with way ancient
Such music is not to be spoken of, and does not follow the ancient ways.

此新乐之发也。
Cǐ xīn yuè zhī fā yě.
this new music SUB pattern PT
This is how today’s music is.

今君之所问者乐也,所好者音也!
Jīn jūn zhī suǒ wèn zhě yuè yě, suǒ hào zhě yīn yě!
now noble SUB PASS ask NOM music PT / PASS good NOM sound PT
Now, what you ask about is music, but what you like is just sound.

夫乐者,与音相近而不同。”
Fū yuè zhě, yǔ yīn xiāng jìn ér bù tóng
EXCL music NOM / and sound each.other near and not alike
Music and sound are similar, but they are not the same!

The sage goes on to offer this useful advice: “The airs of Zheng go to a wild excess, and debauch the mind; those of Song tell of slothful indulgence and women, and drown the mind; those of Wei are vehement and rapid, and perplex the mind; and those of Qi are violent and depraved, and make the mind arrogant. The airs of those four states all stimulate libidinous desire, and are injurious to virtue;–they should therefore not be used at sacrifices.”

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I think I have a book written. If you’ve followed this blog carefully, you’ll probably say, “Heh, I bet it’s about League of Legends.” No, my fine friend, it’s about China.

Handy reference map

The book is still tentatively titled China for Conlangers, mostly because “conworlders” is more unweildly. You don’t have to do conworlding at all to read it, of course.  It’s a short but comprehensive intro to both China and Chinese:

  • A history of China from ancient times
  • Sections on medicine, architecture, cooking, technology, architecture, and clothing
  • An overview of Chinese poetry, philosophy, and literature
  • Grammatical sketches of Mandarin and Old Chinese
  • How the writing system works
  • A chapter on how to create fantasy or sf civilizations based on or influenced by China

For conlangers and conworlders, China is an amazing but forbidding resource.  It’s a ticket out of the Standard Medieval Kingdom, and away from standard conlang tropes too.  And for Westerners in general, to say nothing of Western gnolls, I think we ought to know more about what is, historically and perhaps in the future, the dominant civilization on our planet.

It’s required a lot of research, and it would be pleasant to spend another couple of years on that. However, that might not improve the book that much.

I think I’m at the point where I need readers.  If you’re interested, write to me. The language section is not quite as baked as the rest of it, so I won’t send that out unless you really want to see it.  If you know a lot about China already, do tell me; readers who can correct mistakes or suggest additional info are valuable. But so are readers who know very little about the subject, as they are the best judges of whether the book teaches them anything.

Edit: I have a bunch of readers now.  Thanks to all who responded!  I may need more readers for the second draft; watch this blog!

(I also have a book in progress on Quechua, but that won’t be ready till some time next year.)

Over at Mefi, there’s a nice post on Faye Wong, showcasing a number of videos, some with English subtitles.  The poster was nice enough to mention my page, because of the Mefi connection and, probably, because most of the other Faye sites of that vintage have link-rotted away.

faye-chex

I took the opportunity to update it to Unicode, add more pics, and translate a couple more songs.

I wanted to see how different it would be in this modern world of today.  Answer: very.  What I did back in 1996 was to write out the Chinese text by hand, look it up word by word, puzzle out a translation, and then show it to a Chinese co-worker for help. Today I started by using an IME to enter the text right into the document– for the second new song I realized I could just Google the Chinese lyrics.  In any case I used Google Translate to get a rough draft, then looked up individual words as Google is usually comically wrong with Chinese.  I actually do know the basics of Mandarin grammar now, though I’m still pretty terrible at it.

I found my old folder of Faye stuff, one of many folders full of Information On Stuff that I accumulated back in the pre-Internet era.  (My Dad was the same, I discover.  Once, going through his desk, I found a file on my website: he had printed out some of my pages.  Probably it felt more real when it was down on paper.  Of course, given the scourge of link rot, maybe he had the right idea.)

More book overflow. I already have a poem by 杜甫 Dù Fǔ in the book, but I like this one too. It’s a perfect example of the cinematic technique of Chinese poetry: a montage of images, quickly piled up without comment, without viewpoint. As Wai-lim Yip says, translation into English often ruins the effect, simply because it imposes times and pronouns. Reading the glosses alone will help communicate the extreme brevity of poetic Classical Chinese, and the number of additions needed to make it readable in English. (Old Chinese had its own particles and pronouns, which we see in prose; the poem below manages to avoid all but one, ‘not’.)

夜宴左氏庄
Yè yàn Zuǒ shì zhuāng
night banquet (name) honorific manor
“An evening banquet at Mr. Zuǒ’s house”

风林纤月落
fēng lín xiān yuè luò
wind forest slender moon fall
Wind in the woods. A crescent moon sets

衣露净琴张
yī lù jìng qín zhāng
cloth dew untouched guqin lay.out
Cloth wet with dew; lute laid out unused

暗水流花径
àn shuǐ liú huā jìng
dark water flow flower path
Dark water flows among flowered paths

春星带草堂
chūn xīng dài cǎo táng
spring star gird thatch house
Spring stars surround the thatched house

检书烧烛短
jiǎn shū shāo zhú duǎn
examine book burn candle short
Examining books— candles burn short.

看剑引杯长
kàn jiàn yǐn bēi cháng
see sword hold cup long
Look at swords. Always holding cups.

诗罢闻吴咏
shī bà wén wú yǒng
poem finish hear Wú sing.songs
Poems finished. Hearing songs of Wú.

扁舟意不忘
biǎn zhōu yì bù wàng
flat boat idea not forget
A flat boat— don’t forget that idea.

Here’s Yip’s translation:

Windblown forest: the slender moon has fallen.
Cloth dew-dabbled, the lute stands there untouched.
Dark water flows among flower-paths.
Spring stars belt the thatched house.
We leaf over books, to find candles short-burnt.
We show off swords: drink cups and cups of wine.
Poems done: hear the accent of Wu:
Go a-boating is the idea never to forget.

An irreverent aside: “General Tso’s chicken” refers to a 19C Chinese general named Zuǒ Zōngtáng. His surname 左 happens to be the same as the gentleman Dù Fǔ was visiting.

The 吴 Wú region is the Yangtze delta, now the site of Shànghǎi, and still the focus of a non-Mandarin dialect. (The city didn’t exist in Dù Fǔ’s time.) Dù Fǔ wasn’t from there, but perhaps Zuǒ was. Yip says the final line is a reference to the Warring States (-5C) minister Fàn Lǐ, who helped his state Yuè defeat the state of Wú (for which the region is named). Afterward he gave up his post to live on a fishing boat. The imperial Chinese scholar longed to find an official post— but there was always a counter-ideal of living in seclusion, far away from the capital, occasionally nerding out with a fellow scholar, as described in the poem.

The line “Dark water flows among flowered paths” could be a description of the ideal Chinese garden, which was supposed to be a Dàoist evocation of wild nature— twisted paths, interesting rocks, little waterways.  (The water is dark because it’s night, of course.)  Houses, by contrast, were rectilinear, following a severe Confucian aesthetic.

If you like this poem, and musings on translating Chinese, I recommend Yip’s book Chinese Poetry: An anthology of major modes and genres.  It’s a very fast read for an English speaker, if you only read the English translations. 🙂 I like Yip’s approach to translation, which prefers to stretch and fragment the English in an attempt to convey the openness and fluidity of the original.  (The sound and rhyme are lost, alas— he doesn’t give transliterations.)  He obviously loves Táng poems the best, and most of the book is from that period.

While we’re on the book, one amusing bit is some Confucian commentary on the 诗经 Shījīng (Classic of Poetry), a collection of songs from the -11C to the -7C. Confucius loved these songs and is said to have edited the collection. He claimed that they were all edifying and moral.  However, many of the songs were simply popular love songs.  For instance, this one, as translated by Yip:

In the wilds, a dead doe. White reeds to wrap it.
A girl, spring-touched: A fine man to seduce her.
In the woods, bushes. In the wilds, a dead deer.
White reeds in bundles. A girl like jade.
Slowly. Take it easy.
Don’t feel my sash! Don’t make the dog bark!

And (only part of) the traditional commentary:

“The Dead Doe” shows abhorrence of the failure to observe the rites. The kingdom was in a state of great disorder (at the end of the Yin dynasty). Ruffianism prevailed and manners became demoralized. When the civilizing influence of King Wén made itself felt although the period was still one of disorder; yet the absence of rites was deplored.

…Cheng is of the opinion that the second month of spring was the recognized time for the completion of marriages. The girl thinks of the time when, in accordance with the rites, it will be permissible for her to unite with the boy. It was necessary for the boy first of all to send an intermediary to ask for her hand.

Owing to its whiteness and its strength, jade is symbolic of the girl’s virtue.

(In fact jade was a common metaphor for a girl’s color. It’s often used that way in Golden Lotus. We think of jade as green, but the most highly prized jade in China was white.)

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

glotus2
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.

I got Vol. 2 of Golden Lotus, but before disappearing into that I finished up 彷徨 Fǎnghuáng (Wandering), a set of short stories by 鲁迅 Lǔ Xùn. Lǔ, who died in 1936, is considered one of China’s greatest modern writers. He was sympathetic to Marxism but never a CCP member. After reading the book I’m not surprised; an enthusiastic ideology was not his sort of thing.

lu-xunBefore getting to Wandering let’s look at one of his best-known stories:
阿Q正传 “Ā Q Zhèngzhuàn (The True Story of Ah Q)”. You can read it in English here.

You may have noticed the Q in the Chinese title. In his pseudo-scholarly introduction, Lǔ explains that his protagonist was named Guì (pronounced quei), but he could never learn if this was the character 桂 ‘cassia’ or 贵 ‘nobility’, so he used Q instead. (Lǔ actually uses this technique several times in Wandering— e.g. naming towns by giving their first letter in the Roman alphabet— and even mentions that some readers complained about it.)

“Ah Q” is a strange story. The title character is a handyman, someone who does odd jobs; he has no home but a temple lets him sleep in a back room. He’s depicted as a complete loser, ignorant and ugly, bigoted and sexist, and yet possessed of exceptional self-esteem. He thinks he’s a powerful and witty fellow, better than even the local nobles, and though his daily life is a series of losses and humiliations, he manages to turn them into victories in his mind. He comes to a tragicomic end— put to death for someone else’s crime during the turmoil of the 1911 revolution.  Contemplating death, his chief preoccupations are the difficult task of drawing a circle to represent his name (the Chinese equivalent of an illiterate’s X), and the even greater one of singing a mocking song as he’s paraded around town. He can’t think of anything.

The story makes more sense if it’s understood as an acerbic portrait of China itself. Ah Q’s combination of backwardness and arrogance, startling in a mere human, works as a despairing picture of the Chinese as a whole in its time (the story was written in 1921). Curiously the story was well received— presumably everyone took it as a savage, recognizable depiction of someone else.

The stories in Wandering, all written in the mid-1920s, are not as satirical (or funny); on the whole they’re somber and sad. Most of them deal with young people attempting, without notable success, to make their way forward in a changing, depressing situation. Many of the characters, like Lǔ, are writers or teachers— though they are never depicted as being good at either profession. Some are ruined by public complaints, others by their own incompetence. A few of the stories don’t seem to go anywhere, but that’s Modern Leetrachoor for you. There are probably closer comparisons, but he most reminds me of Dorothy Parker’s short stories.  (Not her comic pieces, which are a different animal entirely.  When she wrote short stories her predominant mode was pathos.)

The wittiest is “A Happy Family”, about a writer who’s trying to produce an article for a wholesome family magazine— an article about a happy family— that is, one entirely unlike the ones in the book. He’s completely unable to do it— he can imagine a happy couple but it has no connection to his life. Also mostly comic is “Soap”, where a man sends his son to look up a word the “foreign devils” had called him, and also buys a bar of foreign soap for his wife.

A number of the stories could be called feminist fables— influenced by Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, name-checked here. One, “Regret for the Past”, is the story of a marriage that goes bad once the author loses his job; the narrator devolves from optimistic devoted husband into a depressed failure who drives his wife away. Fun stuff. There’s a flash of the Ah Q wit in “The Divorce”, about a woman who wants to cause as much trouble as possible when getting a divorce. She pleads her case eloquently, but becomes terrified when the judge whispers something to a servant— she is afraid that something terrible is about to happen, and quickly accepts the offered settlement. It turns out the judge was just calling for a pinch of snuff. “The New Year Sacrifice” is another story of a woman whose only escape from patriarchal roles is getting sick and dying.

Should you run out and read it? Hard to say. It’s a fascinating evocation of Lǔ’s epoch– the quiet couple of decades between the Revolution and the Japanese invasion. What comes across most clearly is that people had grand aspirations but no real clue on how to achieve them, either nationally or personally. It’s hard to do your part in modernizing China when it’s a struggle just to get or keep a job.

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.

The Golden Lotus Cvr V1.indd
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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