Jin Ping Mei, profound understanding of life
Jin Ping Mei 金瓶梅 was first published in Suzhou in 1610, by an unknown author. The book takes its name from the three central female characters: Pan Jinlian 潘金蓮 (Golden Lotus); Li Ping’er 李瓶兒 (Little Vase), a concubine of Ximen Qing (Hsimen Ching the central character); and Pang Chunmei 龐春梅 (Spring plum blossoms), a maid who rose to power in Ximen's family.
Each of the three words in the title is supposed to symbolise a condition in life that men lust after: wealth (jin 金), social status (ping 瓶) and unlimited sex (mei 梅). Status comes because of one's power and station in society.
Among the Chinese, Jin Ping Mei (or Chin Ping Mei) is considered to be pornographic because of the frequent depictions of sexual intercourse. It is therefore read surreptitiously by almost every male, educated and not-so-educated.
Most scholars today agree it is one of the Four Incredible Masterpieces 四大奇書 of China. The preeminent 20th-Century author Lu Xun (Lu Hsun), in his lecture notes on Chinese literature, says:
“The writer shows the most profound understanding of the life of his time. His descriptions are clear, yet subtle, penetrating yet highly sensitive, and for the sake of contrast, he sometimes portrays two quite different aspects of life. His writing holds such a variety of human interest that no novel of that period could surpass it. This was why it was attributed to Wang Shih-chen.
“It is not true to say that Chin Ping Mei deals only with the profligates and loose women of urban society, for Hsimen comes of a wealthy family and his friends include nobles, influential men and scholars. Hence this presentation of such a family is in effect a condemnation of the whole ruling class, not simply a story disparing low society...”
(Chapter 19, pg22, Brief History of Chinese Fiction, Foreign Language Press, Peking, 1976, from Lu Xun’s lecture notes when he was teaching a course in Chinese literature at Beijing University, 1920-1924, translated by Yang Hsien-yi and his wife Gladys)
A complete English translation of Jin Ping Mei in five volumes is finally available from Professor David Roy, who translated the last line on May 30, 2012, after a labour of 30 years.
The story contains detailed descriptions of sexual objects and copulation techniques that would be considered kinky today, as well as a large number of bawdy jokes and social commentaries.
The language is tight and the narrative episodic. It is difficult to get out once you dived into the story. Worse, you want to come back again and again to re-visit the many escapades that the main character Ximen Qing 西門慶, got himself into, in his quest for illicit relations with attractive women. Reading the novel will bring to mind the many other Ximen Qings or sex predators that one encounters in the working world.
The novel describes Ximen Qing as a wealthy merchant:
“He had six wives, yet they were not enough to satisfy his lust. He fucked slave girls and wet nurses in the household, and also prostitutes, relying more and more on aphrodisiacs. Finally, he collapsed and died at age 33, having worn himself out from sexual excess. Hsi-men Ching’s wealth and power amounted to nothing in the end but death and destruction.”
Many years ago, in my job reviewing Chinese art and literature, I was given an art book edition of Jin Ping Mei, published in Hong Kong, to review. There are 100 beautiful drawings, one for each of the 100 chapters. I’ve reproduced some for the reader's delectation, including the front cover (picture above).