WE LIVE IN A TIME of globalization, and a time of a cosmopolitan, global literature. So it is genuinely bizarre that the first complete English translation of the Chin Ping Mei, one of the world’s great novels, if not simply the greatest, was released only last month.
David Tod Roy, after more 20 years of work, completed the fifth volume of his translation of the Chin Ping Mei, entitled The Plum in the Golden Vase. It’s a masterpiece an epic scholarly achievement. There have been other translations but all of them with significant problems. The Golden Lotus by Clement Egerton, published in 1939, was a heavily expurgated version, putting the dirty bits into Latin for the sake of the censors, and the 1947 Bernard Miall edition was translated from German. Due, at least in part, to these poor translations, the novel has remained relatively concealed from Western audiences. But the biggest barrier to entry is probably the book’s sheer size. The Roy translation is well over 3,000 pages long, if you include the index and notes. So the arrival of a full translation of the Chin Ping Mei is a bit of good news-bad news situation: There’s a masterpiece out there finally, but it might take you a year to read it.
Taking a year is at least worth thinking about. The working legend of its creation is that the author, Lanling Xiaoxiao Sheng, the Scoffing Scholar of Lanling, wrote it to revenge the murder of his father, sending the manuscript to the murderer with poison rubbed into the corners. The victim couldn’t put the book down and died after finishing it in a single sitting.
The legend fits the book neatly: the Chin Ping Mei is a mean-spirited page-turner, built for cruel speed. The plot concerns Hsi-men Ch’ing, a corrupt merchant in a rural district who, through a series of sexual and political intrigues, develops and indulges stranger and stranger tastes until he dies of “sexual excess” at the age of 33. The book is most famous for being pornographic, and the word most often attached to it is notorious. But the sex, while it is what makes the book original, is by no means the most interesting part of the novel, at least to a contemporary reader. The Chin Ping Mei’s true subject is everything. It inhabits the local whorehouse as intimately as dinners with Imperial officials and is wonderfully fleshly in many ways, not just the erotic. The author is just as good writing about a man warming his hands at a brazier as he is at extreme sexual acts.
The sexual is enfolded into domestic and even Imperial politics in a fascinating way. Here is a typical sex scene:
She pumped it in and out of her mouth unceasingly, until white saliva overflowed from her lips, and rouge stains appeared on the stem of his organ.
Just as he was about to ejaculate, the woman questioned Hsi-men Ch’ing, saying, “Ying the Second has sent invitations inviting us to his place on the twenty-eighth. Are we going to go, or not?”
This is the Chin Ping Mei’s gift to the literature of the world. It shows, better than any other novel, the integration of sex into the quotidian. Erotica tends to focus exclusively on one dimension of the human experience. But the thing about sex is that it happens in ordinary life; just like the scene above, sex happens while working out the family schedule. The Hollywood summary of Chin Ping Mei might well be Jane Austen meets hardcore pornography.
Like all the great works of humanistic realism, the Chin Ping Mei relishes its own contradictions. The pornography of the book is contained within a moralistic structure of hubris and nemesis, revenge and restitution. The various women in the protagonist’s life fit a nearly allegorical structure while driving forward a rapaciously suspense-driven story. It’s also a study of the simple mechanics of corruption. How do you buy off a salt official? A very precise description is provided. The world of the Chin Ping Mei is beautiful and dark, cheap and exalted, righteous and profane, gorgeous and lurid and stinking and glorious.
It’s also often just plain funny. The death of Hsi-Men Ch’ing takes days — the author plays it for maximum effect — and then the hours before his death are a hustle of preparations. Just before he goes, he recites to his family the list of everybody who owes him money and all of the necessary matters of the business. It goes on for pages. Then he dies and it turns out they don’t have a coffin. The dead man wanted nothing more than to prepare the immediate future after his death but he forgot even his own burial. Like all great realist fiction, it contains that crude but immensely powerful shock of recognition: isn’t life just like that?
Certainly there are not more than five such novels in existence. When the first volume of The Plum in the Golden Vase came out in 1994 the Roy translation was received with rapturous applause. Over the following 19 years, the novel has become more topical by the year. In that time, erotic fiction has come to inhabit a position of near-total dominance in the publishing industry, basically paying for all the rest of fiction, and the rise of China has made everybody who reads the newspapers familiar with figures of corruption in Imperial — excuse me, Communist Party — circles.
I’ve been reading about Hsi-Men Ch’ing for years. His name has been Zhang Shugang and Jiang Jiemin and Bo Xilai. Just today it was revealed that one of the major causes of the condo boom in Beijing is the need to house so many mistresses — a fact that could have come straight from the Chin Ping Mei. The book is 400 years old, but its moment is right now.
Stephen Marche is a novelist and a columnist with Esquire magazine.