Julie Curates China appears every Wednesday in Hoje Macau
The Fifth Novel:
Feminism? Satire? Or simply porn?
金瓶梅, Jin Ping Mei, or The Plum in the Golden Vase (also translated as The Golden Lotus) is a Chinese naturalistic novel composed in vernacular Chinese (Wu dialect) during the late Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644). It is written by 蘭陵笑笑生, “The Scoffing Scholar of Lanling”, a pseudonym, and his identity is otherwise unknown. Earliest versions of the novel exist only in handwritten scripts; the first block-printed book was released only in 1610.The present complete version comprises one hundred chapters, amounting to over a thousand pages.
Jin Ping Mei is considered to be the fifth classical novel, after the Four Great Classical Novels including King Monkey Travels to the West, Three Kingdoms, Shui Hu (Water Margin), Dream of The Red Chamber. Its graphically explicit depiction of sexuality has garnered the novel a level of notoriety in China akin to Fanny Hill in the English literature. For the past four centuries since it was born, it has been banned in China, even though it has been replicated and passed around underground ever since.
Unlike the four classical novels, Jin Ping Mei has remained an enigma due to its elusive literary character, which leaves space for unorthodox interpretations.
For example, the detailed sex scenes can be read as description of the living conditions of ancient Chinese women. Jin Ping Mei’s story centres around Ximen Qing, a social climber and lustful merchant whose wealth allows him a consort of wives and concubines. His sexual activities bring three types of women on stage: 1. Sex for love’s sake (Li Ping’er, Han Aijie). 2. Sex for sex’s sake (Madame Lin). 3. Sex for money’s sake (many names). Pan Jinlian, the novel’s heroine combines these three types. Pan enjoys sex and believes in love, and she doesn’t mind to fool around a little in order to improve her life’s outlook. Pan Jinlian is indeed a complex character, which is perhaps why the author held a negative attitude towards her. From today’s perspective, Pan Jinlian may be a feminist avant-la-lettre. If it was the author’s intention to exemplify the social landscape of the Ming Dynasty, it had a moralistic tone quite comparable with the Dutch painter from the same historical period Jan Steen, whose many canvases are in fact moral tales of the dangers of lacking restraint. The idea of a women’s liberation movement didn’t occur to him in 17th century urban China, instead the author rather opted to open fire on other social issues such as hypocrisy and corruption running rampant through the Chinese society. This makes even more sense considering the author’s choice of his pseudonym, 蘭陵笑笑生, “The Scoffing Scholar of Lanling”. As a social novel, Jin Ping Mei contains satire both quirkily revealing and eloquently hilarious but never far away from a rich realism that inspires the sense of irony.
The Beijing Dance Theatre’s recent ballet adaptation clearly attempted to take ancient Chinese erotica to a high-brow level. Presenting the controversial book to audiences from a sexually repressive culture with frequent nude figures on stage can be the hardest nut to crack. The ballet version Jin Ping Mei was banned by the authority soon after its premiere. However, director Wang Yuanyuan seems to have nailed the sensual and sexy quality readers searched and found in an ancient forbidden book.
Jin Ping Mei adapted for ballet took centre stage in China a few years ago