The Plum in the Golden Vase or, Chin P’ing Mei is another of the Six Classic Chinese novels. It was written in the 16th century, that is about two hundred years before The Scholars and is considerably longer – the English translation spans five volumes of about 800-1,000 pages each, and while there is a lot of editorial material in each volume, I’d estimate it comes to at least 3,000 pages total. “Lanling Xiaoxiao Sheng” apparently means “The Scoffing Scholar of Lanling” and is an obvious pseudonym; the author remains unknown to this day, although the editor of my edition (on which later more) has a theory about who may have written the novel. I even have a theory of my own, as it happens (on which more later).
The novel takes place over several years and centers around the fate of merchant Hsi-men Ch’ing and his extensive household (a wife, several concubines – the number varies throughout the narrative – and a host of servants), his rise, his glory days and eventual downfall and dissolution of his estate. It is probably most famous (or possibly notorious, depending on your preferences) for its explicit eroticism, to the point where it even has been called pornographic. So let’s get that out of the way first: everyone who is going to read Chin P’ing Mei for its titillation factor is going to be severely disappointed. Yes, sex does play a very important part here and is openly thematized throughout, and yes, there are some really, really detailed sex scenes – but those are few and far between. I could probably count them on the fingers of my hand, and stretched out over 3,000 pages that is not much at all. (I did, however, learn more than I ever thought I would about the variety of sex toys in ancient China.)
The Plum in the Golden Vase also has some of the loveliest euphemisms for the sexual act that I’ve come across; the one occurring most frequently is “game of cloud and rain” but probably my favourite is “game of breeze and moonlight.” Of course, I have no way of knowing whether those images are original to this novel or whether they were commonly used clichés in 16th century China when the novel was written. And that turns this novel into quite the challenge for a non-scholar.
Because a 21st century reader who has never moved much beyond European culture is utterly unable to put anything here into any kind of context, there is nothing I could relate this novel to which made reading it an often very frustrating experience. This was not so much an issue with The Scholars – that novel is far more accessible and can be enjoyed in a fairly straightforward manner even if one is mostly clueless about China. The Plum in the Golden Vase, on the other hand, is significantly more erudite and sophisticated and it just needs to be placed into a context to be fully appreciated. Thankfully, my edition came richly annotated, and I would strongly advise against trying to tackle this in an edition without explanatory notes.
In fact, just getting into this book was somewhat exasperating: first there is a lengthy preface by the editor, followed by an even lengthier cast of characters. As the novel starts, it doesn’t, but we get a preface, followed by another preface, a set of poems and yet another set of poems. Once past all this, the – obviously rather naïve – reader thinks that the novel is finally going to start – and it again does not really, but instead presents yet another poem and a lengthy exegesis of it. Then, at last, we finally get to the novel proper – except, that is isn’t really this novel, i.e. The Plum in the Golden Vase, that we’re reading: its basic plot is spun out of an episode from another of the Classic Chinese Novels, Outlaws of the Marshes, and the beginning of the later novel was apparently lifted to a large part pretty much verbatim from the earlier one.
Eventually however, things get going and we get to meet Hsi-men Ch’ing, the novel’s protagonist. He, we very soon find out, is a man utterly without scruples and with no recognisable conscience – he places his own pleasure above everything, cheating on his wives and concubines, then lying to cover it up, cheating his business partners every time he can get away with it, bribing officials for his own advantage and letting himself be bribed after he has become an official himself. Pretty much the only good thing to be said about him is that he is generous towards his friends and allies (but even then, one is never quite sure whether he is not doing it to make them favourably inclined towards him, with an eye towards possible later profit) – friends and allies who are just as unprincipled and dissolute as he is. In fact, almost every single character showing up in The Plum in the Golden Vase is thoroughly corrupt; they lie, steal, cheat and some even resort to murder if it serves to further their interest or increase their pleasure.
This also puts the rampant, even brutal misogyny of the novel into perspective: if almost every woman is painted as scheming and devious, they are not different from the men. And if they have to be even more ruthless than men to achieve their aims, it is because their starting position is by far worse – while, for example, male servants enter and leave service freely, female ones are bought and sold on a whim, as are wives and concubines – in the world of Chin P’ing Mei, once any female, whatever her original social status, moves in a with a man, she effectively becomes his property and turns into little more (or, in the case of servants, not more) than a slave. The novel’s misogyny then, originates with the society described rather than with the author describing it. And even as it shows its female characters in such a bad light, The Plum in the Golden Vase also gives a lot (and I do mean a lot – at least half the novel seems to take place exclusively among women, and it would easily pass the Bechdel test a hundred times over) of space to the sphere of women and the female experience, more than in any novel of the period I have read – so much in fact, that I’m strongly suspecting that the author must have been female herself. Of course, I never read a Chinese novel of that period before, so I may be imposing Western cultural standards here, but I think it is unlikely. Even so, of course, this is pure speculation on my part and untainted by any form of competence or actual knowledge, therefore it is most likely nothing but a fiction. But as it is a fiction I like and as it fits my reading experience of The Plum in the Golden Vase, I’m still going to stick with it, but please do take it with a pound of salt.
And talking about reading experience: the Chin P’ing Mei offers something quite unique in that regard, a layering of its narrative and an interweaving of those layers into a very complex dynamics which I don’t think I have ever encountered before in another book. On the ground level, so to speak, there is the narration of the basic plot, recounting the story of Hsi-men Ch’ing, his friends and business relations, his concubines and love affairs but also of the many, many intrigues inside of his household, the concubines vying for his attention or plotting against a rival, and the way all of this is mirrored among the servants. While The Scholars presented readers with a big picture on which was painted a broad canvas of Chinese society, the author of The Plum in the Golden Vase goes the opposite way: she focuses her narrative on a single household, but uses that to represent society at large. Editor and translator David Roy Tod argues that Hsi-men Ch’ing is meant to represent the Emperor and his household the court and the general decay of morals, which seems very convincing to me. What is most striking about this base narrative, however, is its utterly deadpan delivery: No matter how crass the corruption or how excessive the debauchery, the tone of the novel on this level remains detached and serene as if the unhindered pursuit of greed and lust, the cheating and the backstabbing were the most normal things in the world.
But there is a second level to the novel, and this is where things start to get really interesting. Because on top of that first level the author has placed a second one, one that was not written by herself but only compiled and which consists of references to and quotations from other sources: proverbs, poetry, stories, lyrics of popular songs, in short a whole plethora of different texts are woven into the fabric of the novel. All of which are not only meticulously identified by David Tod Roy, but he also had the brilliant idea to make those parts immediately identifiable even for ignorant Western readers by indenting them (for prose) or giving them a smaller font size (for poetry and song lyrics). This makes the layered structure of Chin P’ing Mei visible at a glance and to some degree substitutes for the easy recognition of the sources quoted which educated readers in 16th century China must have had. And this dense network of references and allusions keeps up a running commentary on events throughout and gives the novel its moral foundation. The relationship of this commentary to the events it comments on are not always simple either, but comes basically in three variants: first, we get the direct pronouncement of how the novel’s characters and their actions fall short of moral standards; second, we get irony and sarcasm, the quote praising some ideal or positive trait which the characters blatantly did not follow (i.e., Hsi-men Ch’ing cheats a business partner, which is followed by a proverb lauding honesty). And thirdly, we get the cases where something like a song lyrics is quoted apparently in extenso, but with one small bit left out; and when the omitted bit is restored it regularly turns out that the quoted passage means quite the contrary of what it appeared to say, usually condemning what it first seemed to praise. This latter textual strategy in particular is very, very clever, and subtly handled by the author – and of course goes completely over the head of every reader who is not deeply familiar with ancient Chinese literature (and proverbs, and song lyrics, and religious text, and quite a lot more).
And this is where I need to say a few words about the translator and editor of this English version of Chin P’ing Mei, David Tod Roy. I do not think it exaggerated to say that Roy (who sadly passed away earlier this year) dedicated his life to this novel: he spent twenty years teaching it, and then another thirty years translating and editing it. Thirty years may seem a lot, even for a novel of several thousand pages, but what I have written above maybe has given you a small impression of the huge task Roy was facing with this. A very small impression, because you really need to experience it yourself to get a feeling for just how much work must have gone into this: Roy identifies almost every single reference or allusion in this massive work (there are a few instances where he was not able to trace something, but they are even rarer than the pornographic scenes), in the vast majority citing a multitude of instances where they are likely derived from. There are explanatory notes, too – maybe not as much as I wanted, or only pointing the reader to where more information is available, but then this is emphatically a scholarly edition of the novel, which means that it is not designed for reading comfort. There also is an index at the end of each volume (again, something which will most likely be more useful to scholars) and an index of characters at their beginning – which I scoffed at it in the first volume, was grateful for in the second and found utterly indispensable in the remaining volumes. To call the work Roy has done here impressive would be a gross understatement, it is a monument to what dedicated scholarship is capable of.
David Tod Roy’s insanely detailed footnotes do their best to close the gap between the average Western reader’s ignorance and the vast amount of erudition required to fully understand what is happening both on and underneath the surface narrative of The Plum in the Golden Vase. It is pretty much a losing battle of course, at least in the case of non-scholarly readers like me, but it remains an awe-inducing effort. And without Roy’s work, Chin P’ing Mei would be if not unreadable then completely inaccessible for most contemporary Western readers. Literally so, in fact – it is probably just possible to get through the whole novel without ever referring to the notes but whatever you will have read then, it won’t have been Chin P’ing Mei. In addition, this also produces the unexpected – and almost certainly unintended – side effect of putting another layer of meta-narrative on top of the two I mentioned before as inherent in the Chinese text, this one telling of one man’s enthusiasm for, even obsession with the novel. David Tod Roy, in editing Chin P’ing Mei has become co-author of The Plum in the Golden Vase It makes one think of Pale Fire (with Roy as something like an inverted Kinbote, whose commentary, even as it proliferates beyond measure, always remains in the service of the text rather than overwriting with its own story), and in the light of this Roy’s repeated name dropping of Nabokov in his introduction to the novel takes on an entirely new significance.
In conclusion, then: This is by no means an easy to read novel, it is not even necessarily an enjoyable one. Not will Western readers have to struggle with comprehending the cultural background it is set in, it also can be very repetitive and in parts even tedious – the middle part of volume four in particular seemed to me to drag on interminably, with party following feast following party where nothing happens but people eating, drinking and having songs sung to them. At the same time, however, The Plum in the Golden Vase is one of the most fascinating novels I have ever read, particularly in the utterly unique way it treats and incorporates pre-existent texts and uses them to illuminate its own story. Not something I’d recommend for everyone, but without doubt worthwhile for readers with an adventurous spirit.