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Classic Chinese Novels 101: The Classic Erotic Novel, Plum in the Golden Vase


For centuries, the literati of China wrote in Literary Chinese, crafted rigidly-structured essays, delighted in allusive poetry—and looked down on fiction as a lesser form of writing. Despite this, the stories and characters of China’s traditional novels have long influenced popular culture, and they are still readily apparent in both modern Chinese and East Asian culture.

This 101 series will serve as a basic introduction to China’s Four Great Classical Novels, as well as the entertainingly divergent (and often banned) Ming classic, Plum in the Golden Vase. In addition to discussing the development of Chinese long-form vernacular fiction, these articles will seek to present different critical interpretations of each novel, as well as highlight the insights that they offer into Chinese culture. As this series is designed for those without knowledge of Chinese or just beginning their studies of the language, Chinese names will be given in English, Chinese pinyin, and characters for the first appearance, and all subsequent references will use the English.

Classical Chinese Novels 101 is divided into six chapters:

5. Classical Chinese Novels 101: The Classic Erotic Novel, The Plum in the Golden Vase

6. Classical Chinese Novels 101: Dream of the Red Chamber

Plum in the Golden Vase: Complexity in China's Erotic Novel

In the history of classic Chinese novels, concepts of authorship and the creation of a story have been distinct from Western ideas of individual creative writing. Adding to the layers of uncertainty created by long traditions of story cycles where generations of people adapt, elaborate on, and retell familiar stories, the question of traditional Chinese authorship is further complicated by fiction’s lowly position in the estimation of the literate Chinese, which led to many writers adopting pseudonyms to publish fiction. Considering this tradition in China’s oldest novels, it is no surprise that the true identity of the author of Plum in the Golden Vase (金瓶梅, Jin Ping Mei, or Chin P’ing Mei) is unknown; its author adopted a pen name, but one without even the pretence of reality, as “Lanling Xiaoxiaosheng” translates into “The Laughing Scholar of Lanling” (Lee, 2010).

Plum in the Golden Vase, written in the late 16th century, was banned in China for about three centuries as pornography (Hsia, 1968; Plaks, 2015). However, even with its unbridled eroticism, Plum in the Golden Vase is considered important in Chinese literature as the first “true” novel of China, one whose material was the result of one author’s writing and imagination, and not the culmination of a long evolutionary cycle of popular stories and various editions (Hsia, 1968). Its focus on, and representation of, the daily lives and struggles of a relatively normal family is a significant shift from earlier novels, which depicted illustrious, quasi-mythological characters set in important historical periods. Plum in the Golden Vase, in contrast, centers on regular people leading (if at times debauched) lives, and though set in the 12th century Song dynasty, its representation of daily life in 16th century Ming China is highly detailed. It offers a glimpse into the food, clothes, wine, leisure activities, and even funeral rites of the Ming while weaving a tale about the sexual politics within a domestic household (Lee, 2010).

Pan Jinlian acquires a powerful aphrodisiac from a magician.

Despite the evolution in narrative storytelling that Plum in the Golden Vase represents, even this novel still has its ties to more traditional and popular tales. Plum in the Golden Vase begins with a brief retelling of Wu Song fighting a tiger, a scene from the earlier novel Water Margin, and then shifts to focus on Wu Song’s brother and his new wife, Pan Jinlian. In Water Margin, Pan Jinlian has an affair with Ximen Qing and together they murder Pan Jinlian’s husband, then bribe officials to hide the evidence. Wu Song returns to town, discovers the truth, and kills them both in one of the best-known scenes of Water Margin.

The Plum in the Golden Vase narrative alters this story: Wu Song’s return is delayed, and Pan Jinlian becomes one of Ximen Qing’s concubines. In a hundred chapters, the author tells the tale of Ximen Qing’s political rise and fall, along with the domestic politics among his six wives. After marrying Pan Jinlian as his fifth wife, Ximen Qing brings a sixth into the house: Li Ping’er. Pan Jinlian and Li Ping’er are two of the women alluded to in the novel’s title, the Jin (Golden) and Ping (Vase). Pang Chunmei, Pan Jinlian’s loyal maid who eventually becomes a sexual participant in the relationship between Pan Jinlian and Ximen Qing, is the third woman: Mei (Plum). This title, Jin Ping Mei, has various interpretations, ranging from the spiritual (that the three women embody different aspects of humanity) to the sexual (the title can be read as an erotic pun) (Christensen, 2012).

Pan Jinlian humiliated for being intimate with a servant.

In addition to Water Margin, the author of Plum in the Golden Vase also uses a wide variety of other Ming-era materials in his story. Patrick Hanan, a sinologist whose work on vernacular short stories is well known, details the popular songs, dramas, erotic pieces, short stories, and other sources that appear in Plum in the Golden Vase (Plaks, 2015; Lee, 2010; Hsia, 1968). As many scholars, from 17th century Zhang Zhupo to modern sinologists like Andrew Plaks and David T. Roy, argue, the author weaves these sources into a tale about the rise and fall of the Ximen household that underscores a certain moral message. C. T. Hsia, in contrast, sees the incorporation of these different sources as a defect that detracts from the more original narrative and considers the last twenty chapters of the novel to be a “crazy quilt of adapted stories” (Hsia, 1968: 157). He comments that, with regards to using popular songs, “the author often takes considerable pains to devise situations where the use of such songs is appropriate” (Hsia, 1968:157). In his reading, the novel reaches its moral message by demonstrating how Pan Jinlian’s and other characters’ selfish fixations on their own pleasure lead to the excess and horror of their existences. The most spectacular example of this is how Ximen Qing’s death of an overdose of aphrodisiacs, caused by Pan Jinlian’s insistent sexual needs, leads to Jinlian’s own death after the loss of Ximen Qing’s money and protection (Hsia, 1968).

Ximen Qing requests a memorial service after the death of his sixth wife, Li Ping'er.

Andrew Plaks’ interpretation focuses a great deal of attention on the structure of Plum in the Golden Vase in his book, The Four Masterworks of the Ming (2015:73-75): he identifies a 10-chapter rhythm within the 100-chapter novel. In the first 10 chapters, the author retells the story of Pan Jinlian and her affair with Ximen Qing, the poisoning of her husband, and then her new marriage to her lover, which happens in chapter 9. The second 10 chapters tell the story of Ximen Qing and Li Ping’er, the deaths of her successive husbands, and her entry into Qing’s house in chapter 19. In chapters 20-29, tensions and rivalries begin to rise in the house, with Li Ping’er proving to be the favorite of Ximen Qing and bearing him a son in chapter 29. Qing also gains a high ministerial post in chapter 30, which begins a set of 10 chapters focused on the misbehavior of Ximen Qing, his servants, and the sycophants who surround him and culminate in chapter 39, in which Wu Yueniang, the first wife in the house, reminds Qing that he never made the sacrifice to the Temple of the Jade Emperor that he promised on the birth of Ping’er’s son; she links his negligence to the baby’s ill health, and Qing goes to the temple. The following 10 chapters, 40 to 49, re-center on the dangerous rivalry between Pan Jinlian and Li Ping’er, and Jinlian’s dislike of Ping’er’s son. In chapter 49, just at the midpoint of the novel, a monk arrives and gives Ximen Qing a special aphrodisiac. Chapters 50-59 deepen the cruelty in the household, ending with Pan Jinlian scheming to hasten the death of Ping’er’s son. In 60-69, Ping’er dies of grief and Ximen Qing begins dalliances with new women, which continues through chapters 70-79. In chapter 79, the famous climax of the novel, Ximen Qing dies of sexual excess after Pan Jinlian gives him too much of the aphrodisiac received in chapter 49. The final 20 chapters follow the decline of the Ximen household, including Pan Jinlian’s gruesome death at the hands of Wu Song, Pang Chunmei’s rise to power through her marriage, and her own death of sexual excess.

In Plaks’ interpretation of the novel, this structure is indicative of the author’s careful organization in the novel, which includes mirrored events, parallel characters (such as Pan Jinlian and Li Ping’er, and Pan Jinlian and Pang Chunmei), revealing puns on characters' names, as well as the ironic juxtaposition of popular songs paired with seemingly compatible scenes, such as songs which emphasize cold imagery matched with scenes featuring ostensibly warm relationships. Plaks sees these techniques as a challenge to readers to unveil the didactic meaning of the book, which he interprets as relating to popular Ming-era beliefs about the relationship between the proper cultivation of the mind and order or disorder in both domestic life and wider spheres (Plaks, 2015).

Jingji, Ximen Qing's son-in-law, flirts with Pan Jinlian.

David T. Roy, the translator and scholar who published a translation of Plum in the Golden Vase in five volumes over the course of two decades, also underscores the focus on a particular vision of morality present in the novel. In his commentary on the prologue of the novel, Roy addresses what he sees are the central themes of the novel: the focus on the passions of average people, which can drive them to gruesome ends, and the danger of this lack of moral responsibility in people of power. He outlines how Ximen Qing, a character set in the Song dynasty, is meant to represent the emperor of the author’s day. His six wives can relate to the six evil ministers blamed for the fall of the Northern Song dynasty, or the Six Ministries of the government (Roy, 1993: Appendix I). However, rather than being direct analogies, the story and relationships in Plum in the Golden Vase are meant to show how political and domestic virtues and vices can intertwine or illuminate each other, and to demonstrate the Confucian teaching of Xunzi on man’s inherent evilness, which requires self-cultivation to combat (Roy, 1993: Appendix I).

The different and complex interpretations of Plum in the Golden Vase demonstrate Zhang Zhupo’s comments: “The [Jin Ping Mei] should not be read in a desultory fashion. If you read it that way, you will read only the obscene passages” (Zhang, in Roy, 1977:120). While centuries of readers may have covertly appreciated the erotic content in Plum in the Golden Vase, the novel has also enjoyed a great deal of critical attention, particularly in modern times. Its complexity and originality have earned this singular novel a unique place in the history of China’s traditional literature.

Bibliographical References

Christensen, T. (2012). 1616: The World In Motion. Counterpoint.

Hsia, C. T. (1968). The Classic Chinese Novel: A Critical Introduction = Zhongguo gudian xiaoshuo. New York Columbia Univ. Pr. Lee, W. (2010). Full-Length Vernacular Fiction. In V. H. Mair (Ed.), The Columbia History of Chinese Literature. Columbia University Press. Plaks, A. H. (2015). The Four Masterworks of the Ming Novel: Ssu ta ch’i-shu. Princeton University Press. Roy, D. T. (1977). Chang Chu-po’s Commentary on the Chin P’ing Mei. In A. Plaks (Ed.), Chinese Narrative: Critical and Theoretical Essays (pp. 115–123). Princeton University Press. Wang, S., & Roy, D. T. (1993). The Plum in the Golden Vase or, Chin P’ing Mei / Vol. 1, The Gathering. Princeton University Press, Cop.

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1 Comment

Minn Yap
Minn Yap
Jul 20, 2022

Excellent writing and clearly explained. Looking forward to the next article!

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Mary Behan

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