In this episode, I talk about a plum that’s been banned in China. What kind of plum? The kind that’s in a golden vase! If you know what I’m talking about, you’re probably already secretly smirking along. If not, it’s about time that you find out!
说说《金瓶梅》的名字。字面上看，《金瓶梅》是由三位女主的名字所形成的。潘金莲的金，李瓶儿的瓶，庞春梅的梅 — 《金瓶梅》。这是浅层次的，还有更深层次的寓意。
Hi everyone, it’s Kaycee.
In China’s literary world, there is something called the Four Masterpieces. “Water Margin”, “Romance of the Three Kingdoms”, “Journey to the West” and “Dream of the Red Chamber”. It’s hard to say which book is better, they’re all of such high calibre and artistic importance that it’s generally agreed these are the four classic literature pieces. The intricacies of the text have produced concepts, stories and characters that have gone on to shape the views and values of the Chinese society at large.
What’s interesting is that the Four Masterpieces isn’t a formalised group of classics, no person of authority said right, these are the four masterpieces, only these four, nothing else. No, it’s something that formed over time.
The first person to coin the term “the Four Literary Wonders” is a literary critic called Wang Shizhen (王世贞), of the Ming dynasty. I’ll just drop a note here to say that when I’m saying the Chinese names, I’m putting their surnames first followed by their given name.
For him, the four masterpieces are:
- 史记, the “Records of the Grand Historian”, which is a monumental history of ancient China and the world. It was finished at around 94 BC and the work covers the world as it was known to the Chinese at the time, over a period of 2,500 years.
- 庄子 “Zhuangzi”, which is an ancient Chinese text from the late Warring States period (476–221 BC), it contains stories and anecdotes that exemplify the carefree nature of the ideal Taoist sage and is considered one of the two foundational texts of Taoism.
- 水浒传，“Water Margin”, which is a 14th-century Chinese novel. The story, set in the Song dynasty, tells of how a group of 108 outlaws gather together to form a sizable army before they are eventually granted amnesty by the government and sent on campaigns to resist foreign invaders and suppress rebel forces. Sounds a bit like the Suicide Squad.
- 西廂記，“Romance of the Western Chamber”, written sometime between 1295 and 1307. The story is set in the Tang dynasty and is the story of a young couple consummating their love without parental approval. I’ve not read yet but it gives me a Romeo and Juliet vibe.
So that’s his list. Then, a Chinese historian, novelist, and poet of the late Ming Dynasty called Feng Menglong (冯梦龙) came along and said, actually, the four masterpieces should be: 《水浒传》 （“Water Margin”）, 《三国演义》 （“Romance of the Three Kingdoms”）, 《西游记》（“Journey to the West”） and 《金瓶梅》 （“The Plum in the Golden Vase”）. Over time, more and more people agreed with Feng Menglong because Wang Shizhen’s list contained a non-fiction history book, a book of philosophical essays, a fictional novel and a play, in that order. These are books from different genres so how can you put them in a single category? Feng Menglong’s list of four books, however, are all of the same category, they’re all fictional novels, so it made much more sense.
Now, some people may have smirked at the “The Plum in the Golden Vase”, not because of the funny name but because for a very long time, the book was banned in China due to its sexually explicit content. During the Qing dynasty, any book that had any sexually explicit elements were collected and destroyed. Even now, I think the versions of “The Plum in the Golden Vase” found in book shops in China are redacted versions. I haven’t been able to verify this for myself but if anyone can verify this, please let me know.
The Chinese version of the book can be found easily on the internet and there are English translated versions available as well if people wanted to have a read. The best English version I hear is the one translated by David Tod Roy in 1993. I haven’t read the English version so I can’t comment on how good it actually is but if anyone has read it, please let me know your comments.
Anyway, let’s have a look at the book itself. “The Plum in the Golden Vase” was published in 1617 or thereabouts. It was written by someone under the pseudonym of Lan Ling Xiao Xiao Sheng, which literally translates to something like “the scoffing scholar of Lanling”. To this day we don’t know the true identity of the author.
The Plum in the Golden Vase, I think this might have been the world’s first successfully published fan fiction because the story is derived from a scene in Water Margin, specifically when Wu Song killed his sister in law.
“The Plum in the Golden Vase” centers on a character called Ximen Qing (西門慶), a corrupt social climber and lustful merchant who is wealthy enough to marry six wives and concubines. Through events that happen to Ximen Qing and his family, we get a line of sight into the corruption that went on in the 17th century.
The name of the book itself derives from the three female lead characters, taking a character from each of their names. I won’t go into it in detail because when you translate their names into English in a literal way, it’s very hard to take the book seriously. What is a perfectly fine name, when you translate it into English, it become a bit non-sensical and a bit weird so I’ll just leave it as that. I can however go into the analysis of the name of the book.
So, as you can imagine, the name of the book can give rise to various interpretations. Literally, the name 《金瓶梅》means plum in a golden vase, I understood it to be plum flowers in a golden vase, like taking a twig from the plum tree with blossoming flowers still on it and sticking it in a golden vase. It looks visually pleasing but let’s take a closer look. A golden vase is likely to be made of metal or I guess it could have been glass as well, so golden vase, expensive, dead metal or whatever kind of gold metal it is and then you have the plum tree which is a living thing that’s quite common in China. The language of the plum flower is of peace, happiness, success, longevity and good fortune. If you break off a twig from a plum tree, or any tree, what happens? It wilts and dies. So if you have plum flowers in a golden vase, then it’s bound to wilt, which means we are bound to lose these good virtues symbolised by the plum flower. What a tragedy.
There’s another layer of meaning in the name where you can only truly feel once you’ve read the book. Ximen Qing is someone who likes his alcohol and women. The golden vase can be interpreted as a container for alcohol, plum flowers is of a light pink colour and symbolises sexuality. If it’s just the plum flower in the golden vase, you get a sense of emptiness and despair, which foreshadows what’s going to happen in the story.
So why is “The Plum in the Golden Vase” considered one of the Four Masterpieces? It broke the traditional way of how fictional novels were written in a number of ways.
Before this book was published, fictional books were generally only about heroes or of the fantasy genre, fairies and the like. This book is set in the every day life of China about human nature, it’s a much more realistic and more relatable story.
The darkness of human nature that it unveils is another breakthrough, it’s one of the first books in China, if not the first, to depict the dark side of human nature. It uses a Chinese literature technique called “白描” which translates to “white drawing”, which helps the author to maximise sarcasm and satire. This “white drawing” technique means a way of writing that’s just plain Chinese, without any other meanings or techniques at play. I guess it’s putting sub-text to the forefront. This method then went on to heavily influence satirical texts to come.
The characters in “The Plum in the Golden Vase” are also complex characters as opposed to the simpler, 2 dimensional characters often seen literature pieces beforehand. The characters often embody both good and evil, beauty and ugliness, full of contradictions and complexities, which was a major breakthrough in Chinese literature.
The language of the book also went against the grains and used vernacular Chinese as opposed to imperial Chinese that was the standard approach at the time. This helped to bring out the atmosphere of the scenes much more and really allowed the characters on the page to come alive. The book has often been described as a “milestone” in Chinese fiction for its character development, particularly its complex treatment of female figures.
Now, the story does contain a surprising number of descriptions of sexual objects and coital techniques that would be considered fetish today, as well as a large amount of sexual jokes and euphemisms. Some critics have argued that the highly sexual descriptions are essential, and have exerted what has been termed as a “liberating” influence on other Chinese novels that deal with sexuality, most notably the Dream of the Red Chamber.
So the book has broken the traditional mould in a number of ways and, really, revolutionised fictional writing in China. It’s unfortunate that the author was too ahead of his time. China at that time, especially the Qing dynasty, was unable to accept the level of sexual detail nor the level of corruption that went on in the upper echelon of society at the time, leading the book to be banned for a very long time.
I think Princeton University Press summed it up perfectly, the novel is “a landmark in the development of the narrative art form—not only from a specifically Chinese perspective but in a world-historical context…noted for its surprisingly modern technique” and with only a few exceptions “there is no earlier work of prose fiction of equal sophistication in world literature.”
So that’s that, the forbidden plum of China, The controversial “Plum in the Golden Vase”. I hope you enjoyed this week’s episode, see you next week.