十幾年前，陳巨擘先生主持巨流出版公司，曾引進許多原版書，當然包括普林斯頓大學出版社的這本“The Plum in the Golden Vase,” Translated by David Tod Roy 。當時可能只出版前2本。我是代理商，當時也忙著出版自己的書，所以沒好好讀它. 幾年之後，我知道臺灣大學圖書館有此書.....
My life: David Tod Roy美漢學家芮效衛辭世 用30年翻譯《金瓶梅》
The emeritus professor of Chinese literature tells Rong Xiaoqing there is much more to Chin P'ing Mei, the ancient book he devoted decades to translating, than pornographyhttp://www.scmp.com/magazines/post-magazine/article/1457852/my-life-david-tod-roy
美國漢學家芮效衛（David Tod Roy）於5月30日在芝加哥去世，享年83歲。芮效衛是芝加哥大學榮譽退休教授，他曾經用30年時間將《金瓶梅》譯成英文出版。
芮效衛1933年在南京出生，其父芮陶庵(Andrew Tod Roy) 是美國長老會在中國的傳教士。他的弟弟芮效儉(J.Stapleton Roy) 也在南京出生。芮效儉九十年代曾任美國駐華大使。
【金瓶梅詞話】北京: 人民文學出版社 2000 上下 (有注解) 約同時---美國某大學出版社有詳細的英譯本
美國漢學家芮效衛（David Tod Roy）於5月30日在芝加哥去世，享年83歲。芮效衛是芝加哥大學榮譽退休教授，他曾經用30年時間將《金瓶梅》譯成英文出版。
芮效衛1933年在南京出生，其父芮陶庵(Andrew Tod Roy) 是美國長老會在中國的傳教士。他的弟弟芮效儉(J.Stapleton Roy) 也在南京出生。芮效儉九十年代曾任美國駐華大使。
1950年，16歲的美國傳教士之子芮效衛(David Tod Roy)踏進了中國南京的一個舊書店，找一本色情書。
「作為一個十幾歲的少年，有機會讀一些色情的東西讓我感到非常激動，」日前，芮效衛在電話中回憶說，「但我發現，這本書的其他一些方面也很有趣。」現年80歲的芮效衛是芝加哥大學(University of Chicago)中國文學榮休教授。
追隨芮效衛的讀者們也有同樣感受。芮效衛花費了將近40年的時間將 完這部足本《金瓶梅》翻成了英文，這項工作最近剛剛完結，普林斯頓大學出版社(Princeton University Press)出版了第五冊，也就是最後一冊——《死亡》(The Dissolution)。
Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Mo. Photograph by John Lamberton
小說家斯蒂芬·馬爾什(Stephen Marche)上個月在《洛杉磯書評》(The Los Angeles Review of Books)發表文章，稱讚芮效衛巧妙地呈現了一部內容豐富的明代風俗百科全書式小說，他總結道，譯本具有好萊塢式的風格，就像「簡·奧斯汀(Jane Austen)與赤裸裸色情描寫的結合」。芮效衛的博學多識也讓做學術的同事們肅然起敬，他似乎對所有文學典故和文化細節都作了注釋。
同樣，普通讀者也需要一定的執着才能讀完五冊圖書，因為該書的篇幅 （將近3000頁）堪比普魯斯特(Proustian)的作品，人物陣容（有800多個人物）堪比德米爾(DeMille)的電影，還有類似《尤利西斯》 (Ulysses)的平凡細節描寫，更別說芮效衛添加的4400個尾注，這些尾注的範圍與準確度可與納博科夫(Nabokov)筆下那些痴迷考據的學者一 比高下。
「這不僅僅是一個譯本，還是一本參考書，」匹茲堡大學(University of Pittsburgh)的訪問學者張義宏說。「這為中國文學及文化打開了一扇窗。」張義宏正在將芮效衛的一些注釋翻成中文，以此作為博士論文的一部分，他在北京外國語大學攻讀博士。
「教到這裡的時候，我的學生都目瞪口呆，雖然他們早就知道這部小說 內容不雅，」俄亥俄州立大學(Ohio State University)的中國文學教授夏頌(Patricia Sieber)說。「性虐待、把各種不同尋常的東西當做性玩具、濫用春藥、各種令人髮指的性交，這本書里應有盡有。」
小說中的性描寫也對一些現代作品產生了啟發作用。譚恩美(Amy Tan)的新小說《驚奇谷》(The Valley of Amazement)描述了這樣一個場景：在20世紀初的上海，一名上了年紀的高級妓女被人要求再現《金瓶梅》當中一個格外下流的性愛場面。
芮效衛表示，他的翻譯工作始於20世紀70年代。當時，克萊門特· 埃傑頓(Clement Egerton)1939年的英文譯本出了一個修訂本，把譯成拉丁語的淫穢內容轉譯成了英語。但是，芮效衛說，這個版本仍然省略了許多出自中國古詩和散文 的引文，比原文少了很多韻味。
即將完成最後一冊的時候，芮效衛被確診患了盧·格里克病(Lou Gehrig\'s disease)，所以也排除了任何出精簡版的可能性。他的芝加哥同事余國藩(Anthony Yu)在翻譯另一部明代長篇經典小說《西遊記》時曾採用這種做法。余國藩的譯本備受讚揚。
學者們認為，芮效衛（他的弟弟芮效儉[J. Stapleton Roy]是美國1991年至1995年的駐華大使）拯救了《金瓶梅》在西方的名譽。西方原來認為這本書不過是一本富於異國情調的色情小說，有了他的譯本，人們可以更多地從政治角度來閱讀這部作品了。
【金瓶梅詞話】北京: 人民文學出版社 2000 上下 (有注解) 約同時---美國某大學出版社有詳細的英譯本
An Old Chinese Novel Is Racy Reading Still
November 21, 2013
When David Tod Roy entered a used-book shop in the Chinese city of Nanjing in 1950, he was a 16-year-old American missionary kid looking for a dirty book.
His quarry was an unexpurgated copy of “The Plum in the Golden Vase,” an infamously pornographic tale of the rise and fall of a corrupt merchant, written by an anonymous author in the late 16th century.
Mr. Roy had previously encountered only an incomplete English translation, which switched decorously into Latin when things got too raunchy. But there it was — an old Chinese edition of the whole thing — amid other morally and politically suspect items discarded by nervous owners after Mao Zedong’s takeover the previous year.
“As a teenage boy, I was excited by the prospect of reading something pornographic,” Mr. Roy, now 80 and an emeritus professor of Chinese literature at the University of Chicago, recalled recently by telephone. “But I found it fascinating in other ways as well.”
So have readers who have followed Mr. Roy’s nearly 40-year effort to bring the complete text into English, which has just reached its conclusion with the publication by Princeton University Press of the fifth and final volume, “The Dissolution.”
A 17th-century illustration for the Ming dynasty novel “The Plum in the Golden Vase,” newly translated, in five volumes with more than 4,400 endnotes, by David Tod Roy.
Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Mo. Photograph by John Lamberton
The novelist Stephen Marche, writing last month in The Los Angeles Review of Books, praised Mr. Roy’s masterly rendering of a richly encyclopedic novel of Ming dynasty manners, which Mr. Marche summed up, Hollywood-pitch style, as “Jane Austen meets hard-core pornography.” And Mr. Roy’s scholarly colleagues are no less awe-struck at his erudition, which seemingly leaves no literary allusion or cultural detail unannotated.
“He is someone who believes it’s his obligation to know absolutely everything about this book, even things that are only mentioned passingly,” said Wei Shang, a professor of Chinese literature at Columbia University. “It takes a certain kind of stubbornness to complete this kind of project.”
It also may take a certain stubbornness on the part of ordinary readers to make it all the way through this five-volume work, given its Proustian length (nearly 3,000 pages), DeMille-worthy cast (more than 800 named characters) and “Ulysses”-like level of quotidian detail — to say nothing of Mr. Roy’s 4,400-plus endnotes, whose range and precision would give one of Nabokov’s obsessive fictional scholars a run for his money.
They touch on subjects ranging from the novel’s often obscure literary references and suggested further reading on “the use of impatiens blossoms and garlic juice to dye women’s fingernails” to obscure Ming-era slang whose meaning, Mr. Roy notes with pride, had long eluded even native Chinese-speaking scholars.
“It’s not just a translation, it’s also a reference book,” said Yihong Zhang, a visiting scholar at the University of Pittsburgh who is translating some of Mr. Roy’s notes into Chinese as part of his doctoral dissertation at Beijing Foreign Studies University. “It opens a window onto Chinese literature and culture.”
And then there is the sex, which has fed fascination with the book, even though few people could actually read it. In Mao’s China, access to the unexpurgated edition was restricted to government high officials (who were urged to study its depiction of imperial corruption) and select academics. Today, complete versions remain hard to find in China, though it is easily downloadable on Chinese Internet sites.
The level of raunch remains startling even to some Western literary scholars — particularly the infamous Chapter 27, in which the merchant, named Ximen Qing, puts his most depraved concubine to particularly prolonged and imaginative use.
“When I taught it, my students were flabbergasted, even though they knew about the novel’s reputation,” said Patricia Sieber, a professor of Chinese literature at Ohio State University. “S-and-M, the use of unusual objects as sex toys, excessive use of aphrodisiacs, sex under all kinds of nefarious circumstances — you name it, it’s all there.”
The novel’s sex has also inspired some modern reconsiderations. Amy Tan’s new novel, “The Valley of Amazement,” features a scene in which an aging courtesan in early-20th-century Shanghai is asked to re-enact a particularly degrading sex scene from this classic.
“I can’t say any of the characters are likable,” Ms. Tan said of the older novel. “But it’s a literary masterpiece.”
But the “Chin P’ing Mei,” as the novel is known in Chinese, is about far more than just sex, scholars hasten to add. It was the first long Chinese narrative to focus not on mythical heroes or military adventures, but on ordinary people and everyday life, chronicled down to the minutest details of food, clothing, household customs, medicine, games and funeral rites, with exact prices given for just about everything, including the favor of bribe-hungry officials up and down the hierarchy.
“It’s an extraordinarily detailed description of a morally derelict and corrupt society,” Mr. Roy said.
Mr. Roy dates the beginning of his work on the translation to the 1970s. By then, a revision of Clement Egerton’s 1939 English translation had put the Latinized dirty bits into English. But that edition still omitted the many quotations from earlier Chinese poetry and prose, along with, Mr. Roy said, much of the authentic flavor.
So he began copying every line borrowed from earlier Chinese literature onto notecards, which eventually numbered in the thousands, and reading every literary work known to have circulated in the late 16th century, to identify the allusions.
The first volume appeared in 1993 to rave reviews; the next came a long eight years later. Some colleagues urged him to go faster and scale back the notes. At one point, a Chinese website even reported that he had died amid his labors.
Just as Mr. Roy was completing the final volume, he received a diagnosis of Lou Gehrig’s disease, which ruled out any prospect of preparing a condensed edition, as his Chicago colleague Anthony Yu did with his acclaimed translation of “Journey to the West,” another marathon-length Ming classic.
“I miss having something to concentrate on,” Mr. Roy said. “But unfortunately, I’m suffering from virtually constant fatigue.”
Scholars credit Mr. Roy (whose brother, J. Stapleton Roy, was United States ambassador to China from 1991 to 1995) with rescuing “The Plum in the Golden Vase” from its reputation in the West as merely exotic pornography and opening the door to a more political reading of the book.
It’s one that already comes easily to commentators in China, where the novel is seen as holding up a mirror to the tales of political and social corruption that fill newspapers now.
“You can find people like Ximen Qing easily today,” said Mr. Zhang in Pittsburgh. “Not just in China, but everywhere.”
【金瓶梅詞話】一書，明代萬曆年間蘭陵笑笑生所著，另有一說是王世貞所著，迄無明確定論。這是一本描述明末社會人情世態的小說，對於人物生活、對話及家庭 瑣事的描述可謂淋漓盡致，在文學及社會學的研究上有其可觀的價值，李漁將其與三國演義、西遊記、水滸傳合稱「四大奇書」。書中也有許多對於性的描寫，因此 屢遭禁燬，後世許多印本都將其中與性有關的內容予以刪除，俗稱「潔本」。台灣也一度禁止金瓶梅的出版，在開放書禁後，才允許出版金瓶梅的原本。
民國六十七年四月，聯經出版事業公司景印萬曆丁巳年版【金瓶梅詞話】。萬曆丁巳年刊印的【金瓶梅詞話】，是現存最早的版本，共十卷，每卷十回，原書目前收 藏在台北故宮博物院。這部書是民國二十一年在山西省發現，為北平圖書館購藏。民國二十二年，北平古佚小說刊行會據以縮印一百部行世，這部縮印本還納入另一 部崇禎版的木刻插圖二百幅，彙裝成一冊，不過這部縮印本流傳並不廣，傅斯年先生珍藏其中一部。
大概就是這個原因，所以後來在市面上又出現另外一種版本，沒有出版社的名稱，其版式與聯經景印版幾乎一樣，在「出版說明」中也說是依據傅斯年先生藏本並比 對故宮珍藏萬曆本整理後景印。二者差別在於聯經版線裝二十冊，每一冊都有包角，在每一頁右下角處印有「聯經出版事業公司景印版」字樣，第一冊首頁右下方有 傅斯年先生「孟真」朱印一方；而後來出現的版本，雖然一樣是線裝，只裝訂成十冊，而且沒有包角，每一頁右下角處僅有「景印版」三個字，而且「孟真」朱印變 墨印，因為沒有出現出版社的名字，一般人不知道是哪個出版社所印製。
In teaching Chinese-language courses to American students, which I have done about thirty times, perhaps the most anguishing question I get is “Professor Link, what is the Chinese word for ______?” I am always tempted to say the question makes no sense. Anyone who knows two languages moderately well knows that it is rare for words to match up perfectly, and for languages as far apart as Chinese and English, in which even grammatical categories are conceived differently, strict equivalence is not possible. Book is not shu, because shu, like all Chinese nouns, is conceived as an abstraction, more like “bookness,” and to say “a book” you have to say, “one volume of bookness.” Moreover shu, but not book, can mean “writing,” “letter,” or “calligraphy.” On the other hand you can “book a room” in English; you can’t shu one in Chinese.
I tell my students that there are only two kinds of words they can safely regard as equivalents: words for numbers (excepting integers under five, the words for which have too many other uses) and words that are invented expressly for the purpose of serving as equivalents, like xindiantu (heart-electric-chart) for “electrocardiogram.” I tell them their goal in Chinese class should be to set aside English and get started with thinking in Chinese.
This raises the question of what translation is. I’m afraid it is something quite different from what the person on the street takes it to be. It is not code-switching. Let’s take a tiny example, chosen at random, from David Roy’s translation of the immense sixteenth-century Chinese novel Chin P’ing Mei, or The Plum in the Golden Vase, written during the Ming dynasty, the final volume of which has recently appeared. Here the doughty female protagonist, Golden Lotus, is waiting in a garden for her latest lover, who is also her son-in-law. To tease her, the son-in-law hides under a raspberry trellis, then jumps out as she passes by and throws his arms around her:
“Phooey!” the woman exclaimed. “You little short-life! You gave me quite a start by jumping out that way.”
Two other English translations of Chin P’ing Mei, both published in London in 1939, put this line differently. Clement Egerton (assisted by the distinguished modern Chinese novelist Lao She) writes:
“Oh,” she cried, “you young villain, what do you mean by rushing out and frightening me like that?”1
Bernard Miall, retranslating an earlier abridged German rendition by Franz Kuhn, has this:
“You rascal, to startle me so!” she cried, scolding him and laughingly releasing herself.2
A translation into French in 1985 by André Lévy reads:
Lotus-d’Or s’exclama: “Oh, le mauvais garnement! Qu’est-ce que c’est que ces façons de jaillir et vous causer pareille frayeur!”3
None of these translations can be called wrong, or even “more right” than any other. In each case the translator has grasped the original well, but then, in turning to the needs of second-language readers, handles dilemmas differently.
Is the mischievous lover a short-life, villain, rascal, or garnement? “Short-life” is a literal reflection of the Chinese duanming; “rascal” and “garnement” are attempts to find less literal cultural equivalents. How literal should one be? Egerton’s “villain” trusts the reader to supply irony—fair enough, in this case, but how far should such trusting go? Miall’s “laughingly releasing herself” is not stated in the original, but is certainly implied. Should the translator help out like this, if there is a danger that a reader from another culture might miss something? Lévy’s “Qu’est-ce que c’est que…” captures the lady’s surprise with precision, but it contributes to a sentence that is twice as long as the corresponding Chinese sentence and lacks its balanced rhythm of five-plus-five syllables. Where should the balance lie between matching form and matching sense?
In the end, none of the renditions feels exactly like the original. In that sense they all fail. But failure by that standard is inevitable, because my language students are incorrect to think that exact equivalence is possible. A translator chooses what to sacrifice in favor of what, and the choices are not “correct” or “incorrect,” but value judgments.
The most fundamental dilemma is between how much to pull the reader into the original language, preserving its literal meanings and supplying footnotes to spell out complicated things, and how much to step back, be more “free,” and try, as Kuhn and Miall are most successful at doing, to offer the reader what might be called “comparable experience.” Puns are an extreme and therefore clear example of the problem. Translators from Chinese usually ignore puns. Sometimes they dissect them in footnotes, and scholars appreciate the dissection because scholars are interested in innards. But a scalpel kills a pun, of course; a dead pun is no longer funny, and right there one aspect of “comparable experience” is lost. What is the alternative, though? To try to invent a parallel pun in the second language? Such efforts demand great ingenuity as well as a willingness to take considerable liberty with denotative meaning.
David Roy is aware of these dilemmas. He sometimes tries to give the modern American reader comparable experience—for example, in the above, “phooey!” for the Chinese pei!, which has a derisive flavor and might even have been “jerk!” or “get lost!”—in any case something a bit more colorful than the “oh” that Egerton and Lévy settle for. But on balance Roy comes down much more on the side of reflecting and explaining the word level in the original. He is the scholars’ scholar. He writes more than 4,400 endnotes and advises in his introduction that they are necessary if the novel is to be “properly understood.” Jonathan Spence, in a review in these pages of volume one of Roy’s translation, wrote that the meticulous notes make “even a veteran reader of monographs smile with a kind of quiet disbelief.”4
Spence’s fine essay, which I recommend be read together with this one, appeared two decades ago, at a time when Roy reported that he had already been working on his project for a quarter-century. Today the eighty-year-old Roy can point to a life’s work of enviable concreteness: 3,493 pages, five volumes, and 13.5 pounds, the world’s only translation of “everything,” as he puts it, in a huge and heterogeneous novel that has crucial importance in Chinese literary tradition. Roy was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease just as he was finishing volume five.
Chin P’ing Mei is about the rise and fall of a corrupt merchant named Hsi-men Ch’ing and others in his wealthy household, including his six wives, of whom Golden Lotus is one. Most of the characters accept that deception, bribery, blackmail, profligacy, flamboyant sex, and even murder are normal in life, although it is clear from the narrator’s pervasive irony that the author disapproves of each. A Buddhist frame for the story warns of consequences for karma—the effect on a person’s destiny of bad and good deeds. Readers are invited also to see a political allegory on corruption at the imperial court. The story is set during the reign of Emperor Huizong of Song (1101–1126 CE), but the allegory points clearly to contemporary Ming rulers as well.
The story sprawls. There are more than eight hundred named characters, from high officials and military commanders to peddlers and prostitutes, with actors, tailors, monks and nuns, fortunetellers, acrobats, and many others, even cats and dogs, in between. Roy helps us keep track of everyone in a fifty-six-page “cast of characters.” The narration is varied, too. In Spence’s words, it includes “pretty much every imaginable mood and genre—from sadism to tenderness, from light humor to philosophical musings, from acute social commentary to outrageous satire.” It is also full of puns and word games.5
The author is unknown, and the question of who it might have been has generated extraordinary controversy, which remains unresolved. We do know it was a superbly erudite person because of the many insertions into the text of songs and set phrases drawn from the histories, drama, storytelling, and fiction available at that time. In the original woodblock printing of the text, characters follow one another, without punctuation, no matter their source. Modern printings provide punctuation, but Roy goes further by devising a system of indentation and differing type sizes to set off allusions, poems, and songs. With this editorial help, the translation is actually easier to read than the original.
During the four hundred years since it appeared, Chin P’ing Mei has been known in China as an “obscene book.” Governments have banned it and parents have hidden it from children. One widespread anecdote—a false story, but a true indication of the book’s reputation—is that it originated as a murder weapon: the author applied poison to the corners of the pages and presented it to an enemy, knowing that his foe would need to wet his fingertips with saliva in order to keep turning the pages fast enough. The plan would not have worked, though, because the pornography is by no means so densely packed. Zhang Zhupo, the first significant critic of the novel, wrote in the late seventeenth century that “anyone who says that Chin P’ing Mei is an obscene book has probably only taken the trouble to read the obscene passages.”
Westerners, too, have sometimes become fixated on the pornography, and translators have handled it in different ways. In one passage Golden Lotus, after exhausting Hsi-men Ch’ing’s male member during a ferocious sexual encounter, reapplies her silky fingers but cannot get it to stand up. Hsi-men, in character, says, in Roy’s translation, “It’s all your fault.” Lévy puts this as “C’est par ton initiative.” Egerton says, “Tua culpa est.” (Egerton puts all of the more pornographic passages into Latin, whether from prudery or to encourage British schoolboys in their studies, he does not say.) Kuhn and Miall omit the passage.
Serious scholars agree that it makes no sense to reject the wide-ranging novel as pornography but do not agree about how well crafted it is. It contains odd turns of direction, abrupt shifts of mood, digressions that seem to lead nowhere, and discrepancies that result at least in part from the borrowing of much material from other sources. The controversial question is whether these are flaws or a different kind of careful writing. Is the novel a haphazard pile, casually assembled and often tedious to read?6 Or, as Roy holds, as does Andrew Plaks in a remarkably learned commentary,7 is it a “finely wrought structure” in which “every thread is carefully plotted in advance,” and which bears not only reading but careful rereading?
Plaks shows that apparently whimsical insertions actually can have significant parts in foreshadowing events or offering ironic comment. A knowledgeable Ming reader will know, he writes, that a song’s reference to a faithless brother prefigures the way in which Hsi-men Ch’ing’s close friends will rob his widow blind right after his funeral. The huge novel also has an architecture that he and Roy explain. It consists of a hundred chapters, organized in ten groups of ten, called “decades.” Each decade introduces a theme, then has a “twist,” as Roy calls it, around the seventh chapter of the decade, and a culmination in the ninth. The first five decades of the novel show the rise of Hsi-men Ch’ing and the last five his decline. The first two put the main characters on stage, the middle six say what they do there, and the last two take them off. Plaks notes many finer-grained mirrorings as well. It is in chapter 18, for example, that Golden Lotus and her son-in-law lover (mentioned above) first meet, and in chapter 82, eighteen from the end, that they make love.
It is hard to be sure that the author intended all of the finer patterns that these and other critics have identified. When an ocean of material is provided, there is plenty of room for readers to assemble their own patterns. Still, the evidence for Roy’s claim that Chin P’ing Mei is “the work of a single creative imagination” is very strong, not only because of structural features but because of the consistent moral point of view of the implied author.
Irony pervades the narration. It comes in part from the device of the “simulated storyteller,” a voice that supplies the chapters with wry labels (“P’ing-an Absconds with Jewelry from the Pawnshop; Auntie Hsüeh Cleverly Proposes a Personal Appeal”) and opens each with the phrase “The story goes that…” The cumulative effect is something like “let’s watch, dear reader, as these clowns perform their next act.” There is entertainment in the watching, to be sure, but Roy and Plaks are clearly right to point to an underlying moral seriousness as well.
The author is bemoaning a wholesale departure from the principles of Confucianism. The pleasures that the human beings in Chin P’ing Mei enjoy are primarily sensual—food, drink, and sex; social pleasures are superficial, driven by ostentation and hypocrisy. Power inherent in social position gets people what they want, and they don’t worry about any line between its proper and improper use; cleverness is important for its utility in manipulating one’s way to a goal. Whether it is reached by wit or by might, a victory speaks for itself. Wealth and status—up to and including the imperial court—are no cure for the moral rot the author evokes; they only make it worse.
It is useful to reconsider the sex from this point of view. The author of Chin P’ing Meicondemns promiscuity not because it is an affront to the divine, as it would be in much of the Abrahamic tradition, but because it is a form of abandon or excess, more like gluttony. When the rich and powerful are greedy, picking up concubines the way wealthy Americans pick up vacation homes, they need criticism. Hsi-men Ch’ing says that his “Heaven-splashing wealth and distinction” qualify him even to rape goddesses if he likes. A good person, especially an official who has responsibilities in governance, should be spending his energies in better ways.
Yet the assumption that wealth and power do entitle men to multiple sex partners has lasted throughout Chinese history. The earliest records show kings having several consorts; in late imperial times the keeping of concubines in wealthy households was common; and even today the pattern of successful businessmen keeping “second women”—or third, or fourth—is widespread. Modern taboos now prevent the ladies from living under the same roof, but the assumption that keeping several women is a perk of wealth and power is not much different from earlier times.
If this seems discouraging, it should also be said for China that criticism of the practice, or at least of its excesses, has an equally long tradition. The earliest examples we have of pornography in China are descriptions of behavior in imperial harems. And on today’s Internet, where satire of the powerful is vigorous, sexual misbehavior is second only to illicit wealth as the favorite indictment. So Chin P’ing Mei is in good company. I’m not sure David Roy should feel happy or sad that the novel had something of a resurgence on the Internet in 2013, the year his volume five was published. In February Lian Qingchuan, a prominent journalist, wrote an article called “We Live Today in the World of Chin P’ing Mei.” A flurry of enthusiastic reader comments said things like “I’m glad somebody told me this book was written five hundred years ago! I never would have known!” Others commented that Hsi-men Ch’ing was a mere beginner in sexual aggression compared to his avatars today.
In using the novel as a mirror for society, these Internet commentators recall another way that scholars have studied Chin P’ing Mei. Because the novel was the first in China to describe daily life, as opposed to legends or ideals, social historians have mined it for data. If you study commerce, for example, the sizes of bribes, alms, and gifts are there, as well as prices for rolls of silk, peeled chestnuts, goose gizzards, new beds, old buildings, and much more, as well as the costs of the services of storytellers, go-betweens, carpenters, singing girls, and others. In the 1970s, F.W. Mote, the eminent Ming historian at Princeton, although he judged Chin P’ing Mei “not a success” as a novel, taught a graduate seminar using it as a source for history. One problem with the approach was the distorting effect of the author’s satire. For example, Hsi-men Ch’ing bribes Grand Preceptor Cai Jing, arbiter of the dynasty, often and lavishly—once with a birthday present of two hundred taels of gold, eight gold goblets, twenty pairs of cups made of jade and rhinoceros horn, and more. But when Hsi-men dies and a protégé of the Grand Preceptor comes to offer respects, he brings only paltry gifts, including woolen socks and four dried fish. This is not realism, as C.T. Hsia points out, but satire to make a point.8 Mote, to avoid this kind of problem in his seminar, devised a “principle of inadvertency.” Whenever a detail mattered to the story line, or to the author’s evaluation of something, the students were to set it aside. But the thousands of details offered inadvertently were fair game.
Whether Chin P’ing Mei is taken as broad social canvas, literary innovation, serious ethical criticism, or only spicy entertainment, a question that has haunted its study over the last hundred years is whether it is—indeed whether China has—a “great novel.” I think China would be better off if the question were not asked so much.
In the early twentieth century, when memories of humiliating defeats by foreign powers had stimulated Chinese thinkers to go in search of the secrets of wealth and power, Liang Qichao, a leading reformer, wrote a powerful essay in which he argued that one reason Western countries are strong is that the thinking of their people is unified and vigorous, and a main reason their thinking has been vigorous is that they read vigorous fiction. So, he concluded, China needs good novels. Beginning in the late 1910s, Hu Shi, Lu Xun, and other May Fourth thinkers began looking back at China’s past to see if some good novels might already have been written. A canon was born, listed often asRomance of the Three Kingdoms, The Water Margin, Journey to the West, Chin P’ing Mei, The Scholars, and Dream of the Red Chamber,9 and these writings were compared to major works of European fiction. In the latter twentieth century sympathetic Western Sinologists have supported China’s quest to rediscover its great novels.
There has been progress in that direction. For Chin P’ing Mei, Roy and Plaks, and before them Patrick Hanan, have established the novel’s importance as an innovation. Its unity of conception and elaborate design epitomize “the Ming novel” and set an example for later long fiction in China, most importantly Dream of the Red Chamber. This kind of argument for Chin P’ing Mei resembles the way James Wood argues for Flaubert when he writes that “there really is a time before Flaubert and a time after him,” and “novelists should thank Flaubert the way poets thank spring.”10 The particular strengths that Wood finds in Flaubert are very different from those that Roy and Plaks find inChin P’ing Mei, but the argument about a historical watershed is similar—until, anyway, Roy and Plaks start acknowledging flaws in Chin P’ing Mei. Wood credits Flaubert with immaculate planning and selection of detail, done as if by an invisible hand; Roy and Plaks see something like that in Chin P’ing Mei, but also find “loose ends,” “glaring internal discrepancies,” and other infelicities.11 When Roy defends Chin P’ing Mei by calling it a “work in progress,” he recalls for me G.K. Chesterton’s insight that “if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” The first airplane didn’t soar, either, but it’s very good that someone got a prototype off the ground.
But why do I feel that China—and Sinologists—would be better off to relax about the idea that “we have great novels, too”? I feel this because I think that setting up literary civilizations as rivals (although I can understand the insecurities that led Liang Qichao and others to do it) only gets in the way of readers enjoying imaginative works. What does it matter if the author of Chin P’ing Mei might be less than Flaubert? Why should anyone have to feel defensive?
Let me put it the other way around. Novels were not the primary language art in imperial China. Measured by volume, xi, translatable as “drama” or “opera,” would be in first place, and measured by beauty, calligraphy or poetry would be. Should we compare poetry across civilizations? If we do, classical Chinese poetry wins easily. The contest is almost unfair, because, as my students of Chinese language eventually come to see, the fundaments of language are different.
Indo-European languages, with their requirements that tense, number, gender, and part of speech be specified, and with the mandatory word inflections that the specifications entail, and with the extra syllables that the inflections add, just can’t achieve the same purity—a sense of terseness and expanse at the same time—that tenseless, numberless, voiceless, uninflected, and uninflectible Chinese characters can achieve. In a contest, one person has a butterfly net and the other a window screen. Emily Dickinson might have come to be known as the greatest poet in world history if she had written in classical Chinese. Should Westerners feel defensive that this was not the case? Far better just to inherit what we all have done, and leave it there.