China has a rich history of erotic literature and painting. China's most famous examples of erotic literature — "Rouputuan" (“The Carnal Prayer Mat”) and “Jin Ping Mei” ("The Golden Lotus") — were written in the 14th century during the Ming Dynasty. “The Plum in the Golden Vase,” another infamously pornographic story, is about the rise and fall of a corrupt merchant, written by an anonymous author in the late 16th century.

“Jin Ping Mei” (also spelled Jin Pin Mei) is a 3,000 page novel that includes the sexual exploits of a horny young merchant, Ximen (Hs-men pronounced semen), and his mistress, Golden Lotus. Because some of the descriptions are very explicit, the story has been banned since the Ming Period. In one passage, for example, Ximen tosses a plum into Golden Lotus's vagina, moves it around until she has an orgasm, and then eats the plum. In the Mao era, the Communist government edited out sexy parts of “Jin Ping Mei” but unedited versions were available if you had connections.

Tristan Shaw wrote in the Los Angeles Review of Books: “For over 400 years, the Ming-era novel Jin Ping Mei – known in English as The Golden Lotus – has been celebrated by some readers as a literary masterpiece, while others condemn it as a salacious influence. Chronicling the life of a decadent merchant named Ximen Qing in the Song dynasty, the book’s notoriety comes from its graphic descriptions of sex, covering everything from adultery to sado-masochism. As Ximen rises up the social hierarchy, his lust for power and sex becomes increasingly depraved. Over the course of the story, he takes six wives and numerous concubines and servants, before eventually dying during the passionate raptures of sex from an overdose of aphrodisiacs. [Source: Tristan Shaw, Los Angeles Review of Books, China Channel, September 13, 2019]

Lu Qianwen wrote in the Global Times: “Although its sexual nature has prevented a complete edition of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) erotic novel The Golden Lotus from being published in its entirety in the Chinese mainland, whenever people talk about the most important books in the history of Chinese literature its name is sure to come up. Jin Ping Mei, as is the case with other famous novels, has been written and re-written by many authors, so that many different versions exist. It might be pointed out that many novels were printed in Huizhou, the commercial centre of the time. [Source: Lu Qianwen, Global Times, September 21, 2014]

Golden Lotus was an unhappy housewife before she became Ximen's lover. "Her hair was black as a raven's plumage; her eyebrows mobile as the kingfisher and as curved as the new moon. Her almond eyes were clear and cool, and her cherry lips most inviting...Her face had the delicate roundness of a silver flower, and her fingers as slender as the tender shoots of a young onion. Her waist was as narrow as a willow, and her white belly yielding and plump. Her feet were small and tapering; her breasts soft and luscious. One other thing there was, black-fringed, grasping, dainty and fresh, but the name I may not tell...it had all the fragrance and tenderness of fresh-made pastry, the softness and appearance of a new-made pie."

Websites and Sources: Modern Chinese Literature and Culture (MCLC) mclc.osu.edu; Classics: Chinese Text Project ; Side by Side Translations zhongwen.com; Poetry: Li Bai Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Classic Novels: Journey to the West site vbtutor.net ; English Translation PDF File chine-informations.com ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Chinese Culture: China Culture.org chinaculture.org ; China Culture Online chinesecultureonline.com ;Chinatown Connection chinatownconnection.com ; Transnational China Culture Project ruf.rice.edu
Books: “Chinese Literature: A Very Short Introduction“ by Sabina Knight (Oxford University Press, 2012) ; “The Culture and Civilization”, a massive multi-volume series on Chinese culture (Yale University Press); “Anthology of Chinese Literature from the Earliest Times to the Fourteenth Century” edited by Cyril Birch; Hawai’i Reader in Traditional Chinese Culture,” translated by Stephen West, edited by Victor H. Mair, Nancy S. Steinhardt, and Paul R. Goldin (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2005)]. Sex USA Today piece usatoday.com ; Sex Incidents in China zonaeuropa.com ; Sex Industry guardian.co.uk ; Chinese sex toy maker lacyshaki.en ; Books: “Sexual Life of Ancient China”, written by Robert van Gulik in the 1920s; “The Illustrated Handbook of Chinese Sex History” by Professor Liu Dalin and “Sex China Studies in Sexology in Chinese Culture” by Fang-ju Juan, The Sexology Research Institute of China is at People's University in Beijing. Sex History and Literature Ancient Sex Culture China.org ; Chinese Sex Literature yellowbridge.com ; Sex in Ancient China Book Review dannyreviews.com Prostitution in China : Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Shanghaiist blog shanghaiist.com ; Homosexuality in China History of Gay life in China fordham.edu/halsall

Is Jin Ping Mei Pornographic?

Tristan Shaw wrote in the Los Angeles Review of Books: “For the novel’s frank treatment of sex, some of its critics have considered the novel nothing more than pornography. Since the Qing dynasty, Jin Ping Mei has been repeatedly banned and bowdlerized, with even its first English translator taking care to put the dirtiest parts into Latin. Despite its reputation, it’s unfair to dismiss the book as pointless porn. At over 3,000 pages, it’s a colossal portrait of everyday life in its Song-era setting, recording even the most mundane details of its hundreds of characters. (By one count, in fact, the sex scenes barely make up 3 percent of the novel.) What’s more, the moral of Jin Ping Mei is a criticism of Ximen Qing’s behavior, with some defenders reading it as an allegory for the excesses of the Ming elites of the day. [Source: Tristan Shaw, Los Angeles Review of Books, China Channel, September 13, 2019]

Jennifer Schuessler wrote in the New York Times, Sex “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. [Source: Jennifer Schuessler, New York Times, November 18, 2013]

“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.”

Juicy Passages from the Jin Ping Mei


One night after Ximen returned home drunk, Golden Lotus "played delicately with his weapon, but it was as limp as cotton wool and had not the slightest spirit. She tossed about on the bed, consumed with passionate desire, almost beside herself. She squeezed his prick, moved it up and down, put down her head and sucked. It was in vain. This made her wild beyond description."

Later she gave him three pills with a strong aphrodisiac that kept his penis erect while he was asleep. When she climbed on top of him "her body seemed to melt away with delight...she moved up and down about 200 times. At first it was difficult because it was dry but soon the love juices flowed and moistened her cunt. Ximen let her do everything she wished, but he himself was perfectly inert. She could bear it no longer...She twisted herself towards his penis which was completely inside her cunt, only his two balls staying outside."

"She stroked his penis with her hand, and it was wonderfully good. The juices flowed and in a short time she had used up five napkins. Even then Ximen kept on, although the tip of his penis was swollen and hotter than a live coal. It was so tight that he asked the woman to take off the ribbon, but his penis remained stiff and he told her to suck. She bent over and with her red lips moved the head on his prick to and fro, and sucked."

"Suddenly white semen poured out, like living silver, which she took in her mouth and could not swallow fast enough. At first it was just semen, soon it became blood which flowed without stopping. Ximen had fainted and his limbs were stiff and outstretched...Golden Lotus was frightened. She hastily gave him some red dates. Blood followed semen, and the blood was followed by freezing air. Golden Lotus was terrified. She threw her arms around him and cried, 'darling, how do you feel?'...Readers, there is a limit to our energy, but none to our desires. A man who sets no bounds to his passion cannot live more than a short time..."

Who Wrote Jin Ping Mei

Tristan Shaw wrote in the Los Angeles Review of Books: It’s probably due to the book’s sexual themes that its author never claimed public credit for his work. Even though Jin Ping Mei is the most infamous novel in Chinese literature, nobody actually knows who wrote it. The author is only known as Lanling Xiaoxiao Sheng, a pseudonym translated as “The Scoffing Scholar of Lanling”. Lanling is a township in Shandong province, and some academic sleuths have taken the pseudonym as a clue to the author’s identity. With this in mind, using evidence from the text – including its vocabulary and literary references – scholars have come up with a number of candidates for the authorship of Jin Ping Mei. [Source: Tristan Shaw, Los Angeles Review of Books, China Channel, September 13, 2019]

“Traditionally, the scoffing scholar has been presumed to be an aristocrat or famous writer from the late Ming dynasty. Legend has it that the scholar’s novel, with its portrayals of corruption and vice, was meant to be a form of revenge against an enemy government official. While there’s no clear consensus about when Jin Ping Mei was written, the usual estimates are during the reign of the Jiajing Emperor (1521-1567) or the reign of the Wanli Emperor (1572-1620). At any rate, a reference to the book’s unfinished manuscript can be found from 1595, and the earliest recorded complete edition was printed in 1618.

“One of the most commonly named suspects is Li Kaixian (1502-1568), an official and playwright from Shandong. Aside from his birthplace, another connection between Li and Jin Ping Mei is the novel’s extensive quoting from his play Baojianji, written in the 1530s. A later (and more eccentric) culprit is the influential painter Xu Wei (1521-1593). Xu – who attempted suicide nine times and even killed one of his wives – also wrote poetry, prose and plays. The sinologist Arthur Waley saw similarities between Xu’s poetry and the novel’s poems, but never looked too deep into this theory.

“The first person to ever translate the entirety of Jin Ping Mei into English, University of Chicago professor David Tod Roy, also has a compelling theory of his own. In a 1986 article entitled The Case for T’ang Hsien-Tsu’s Authorship of the Jin Ping Mei’, Roy singled out legendary playwright Tang Xianzu (1550-1616) as the likely author of the novel. Although Tang was from Linchuan, in Jiangxi province, Roy believed “The Scoffing Scholar of Lanling” was an allusion to Xunzi, an ancient philosopher Tang admired. Studying references in the novel, Roy found that Tang quoted in his work from some of the same poems and texts mentioned in Jin Ping Mei.

“Granted, some of these quoted texts were popular during the Ming dynasty, but another strong point in Roy’s theory is the connection between Tang and many of the people known to have read Jin Ping Mei before it was published. Roy lists seventeen names connected to the novel’s manuscript, all of whom either counted Tang as a friend, or were familiar with him. From December 1594 until March 1595, Tang had stayed in Beijing. Around the same time and place, Tang’s friend Dong Qichang is known to have received the earliest mentioned copy of Jin Ping Mei, which at that time was unfinished. Considering that Tang died in 1616, two years before the first printing of the complete Jin Ping Mei, it’s possible he only wanted the book published posthumously.

“In more recent years, professor Xu Yongming of Zhejiang University has advanced the case for a more obscure figure still. In his 2011 paper ‘A New Candidate for Authorship of the Jin Ping Mei: Bai Yue (1499-1551)’, Xu suggests that writer and official Bai Yue might have been Jin Ping Mei’s author. Bai was born in Wujin, Jiangsu, an area during the Liang Dynasty that once had a town named Lanling. While scholars have traditionally assumed that the Lanling in Lanling Xiaoxiao Sheng refers to the township in Shandong, Xu proposes that the correct location was Jiangsu’s Lanling. Even though the novel is set in a fictional town in Shandong, and uses words from the Shandong dialect, Xu attributes this to the fact that Bai’s father once held a position in the province, making it likely that a young Bai lived with him for a time, picking up local vocabulary.

“Another important clue might be Bai’s relationship with the politician Xu Jie (1512-1578). The Ming writer Shen Defu once reported that in 1606 he discovered a man named Liu Chengxi had a complete edition of Jin Ping Mei, and that – for reasons not elaborated – Liu’s copy was imagined to have come from Xu Jie. Xu Jie wrote an obituary for Bai Yue, indicating that the men must have been close. If Xu Jie really did possess a finished manuscript before Liu Chengxi, Xu Yongming argues, then the book must have been written during the Jiajing period, too early for Tang Xianzu to be the author.

“Given that researchers have only the author’s pseudonym and Jin Ping Mei itself to work with, the scholarship to come out of the search for Lanling Xiaoxiao Sheng has been impressive. We will probably never be able to put a face to the author’s false name, but all of the research has not been in vain. As Xu Yongming notes in his article on the subject, “even if the search for the true author of Jin Ping Mei is ultimately fruitless, the investigation is sure to uncover new knowledge about late-Ming literature, history, and of course the novel itself.”

Relatively New Translation of Jin Ping Mei

Jennifer Schuessler wrote in the New York Times, “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.” 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. “But I found it fascinating in other ways as well.” [Source: Jennifer Schuessler, New York Times, November 18, 2013 ]

“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.” The novelist Stephen Marche, writing 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.” The range and precision of Mr. Roy’s 4,400-plus endnotes 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.”

Translating Jin Ping Mei

Jennifer Schuessler wrote in the New York Times, “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. [Source: Jennifer Schuessler, New York Times, November 18, 2013 ]

“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.”

Literary and Historical Value of Jin Ping Mei

Jennifer Schuessler wrote in the New York Times, “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. [Source: Jennifer Schuessler, New York Times, November 18, 2013 ]

“It’s an extraordinarily detailed description of a morally derelict and corrupt society,” Mr. Roy said. It 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.

“Scholars credit Mr. Roy 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.”

Ge Fei’s study of Jin Ping Mei

Lu Qianwen wrote in the Global Times: “The significance of Jin Ping Mei is underscored by the various books aimed at analyzing and interpreting the novel’s story and symbology. In fact, so many critical works examining the novel have appeared in recent years that academics have come up with the term “Golden-ology” to group these studies together, much in the same way the study of another important literature classic, Dream of Red Mansions, is referred to as “Red-ology.” [Source: Lu Qianwen, Global Times, September 21, 2014]

The famous writer Ge Fei, winner of the 2014 Lu Xun Literature Prize, is the newest book to tackle Jin Ping Mei. His book on the subject, Hidden Egret, published in August 2014, “has ignited considerable enthusiasm among readers for the broad vision Ge uses when approaching the study of the classic novel.

“Placing the sexual depictions portrayed in the book against the global background of the 16th century, a time when different philosophies and thought were emerging in different corners of the world, Ge examines the book from multiple viewpoints, to include economic, religious, ethical and philosophical perspectives, in order to show that Lotus is far from a simple work of erotica, and in fact has no less literary value than Dream.

Jin Ping Mei Compared to Dreams of Red Mansions

Lu Qianwen wrote in the Global Times: “Having read Lotus repeatedly over the past 20 years, the results of Ge’s two decades of research are all contained within his new book. Here Ge reveals that he actually began approaching this “forbidden” book in the 1990s, after being irritated by an article by a famous literature critic who claimed that Lotus was much better than Dream. [Source: Lu Qianwen, Global Times, September 21, 2014]

“A long time fan of the latter work, Ge wasn’t willing to take this opinion sitting down. However, now after years of research, Ge believes that both books are works of great literature value, and that in fact, in some areas, Lotus is the more pioneering work. In a sense, this opinion corresponds with the long popular view that Dream was actually influenced by the earlier Ming novel.

“Written 200 years earlier than Dream, according to Ge, one of the biggest sources of Lotus‘ value lies in its depictions of society at the time. Ge takes special note of the novel’s naturalistic writing style in his notes. Differing from other literature classics likeWater Margin or Dream, this naturalistic style makes it very possible that the novel is highly reflective of Ming society, hence offering later generations the perfect literary window to look into this historic time period. The fact that later literature works failed to inherit this type of naturalistic writing style is also one reason Lotus is so treasured by researchers today.

Characters and Moral Relativism of Jin Ping Mei

Lu Qianwen wrote in the Global Times: “On equal footing to the notoriety of the sex scenes in the book are the infamous reputations of its characters. It truly seems that there is no single ethical or righteous person throughout the novel. It seems no one is ethical or righteous in the novel. The two most representative figures, Ximen Qing and Pan Jinlian, are morally corrupted adulterers. However, under Ge’s magnifying glass it becomes more difficult to judge these characters. Despite that many readers have traditionally seen these people as utterly evil, according to Ge the book is not that cut and dry. [Source: Lu Qianwen, Global Times, September 21, 2014]

“Take the depiction of Pan Jinlian, China’s quintessential adulteress. Over the years, experts in “Golden-ology” have taken a much more neutral stance towards this figure, pointing out that she isn’t just some promiscuous and frivolous woman. While admitting that many of Pan’s actions are unethical in nature, they also point out that she is a very smart and frank character under the pen of Lotus‘ anonymous writer, and that each time she appears the language instantly comes alive.

“In an interview Ge once explained that Pan is actually a very complicated character, and that the author of Lotus poured a lot of his or her own thoughts and feelings into this character. The complexity of these figures is directly connected to the author’s values and philosophy about life and the world. Unlike many previous studies about Lotus, Ge isn’t obsessed with finding out the real identity of the author behind this great work, instead, he looks at this question from a larger perspective, looking at the time and cultural in which the author lived, and seeks to answer from where the relativism that penetrates the whole novel originated.

Comparing Jin Ping Mei with Marquis de Sade

Lu Qianwen wrote in the Global Times: “Ge’s deep interpretative study of the book, has convinced many readers of Lotus‘ importance. Looking at the book as one of many written towards the end and after the 16th century, Ge discovered that the novel has much in common with the works of French philosopher and writer Marquis de Sade (1740-1814), an author widely known for his erotic novels. [Source: Lu Qianwen, Global Times, September 21, 2014]

“Living during the troubled period of the French Revolution, according to Ge, the French writer created his characters based on an anti-morale philosophy. In many ways his characters share many similarities to Lotus‘ Ximen Qing, the merchant who murders Pan Jilian’s husband and takes her as one of his wives. Noticing the similarities between characters from different works, Ge takes a closer look at the emerging philosophical and religious examinations about moral relativism in China and the West during and after the 17th century.

“Citing important Western philosophical works by philosophers such as Nietzsche, Ge believes the great changes (such as the French Revolution) and philosophy of the West during the 18th century were based on the discovery of the Nature, which gave rise to anti-Christianity, anti-morality and anti-rational thought.

“A similar situation can be seen a few hundred years earlier in China, when the philosophy of one of China’s great philosophers, Wang Yangming (1472-1529), was changing people’s thoughts and ideas during the Ming Dynasty. An emphasis on “human nature” was an important part of Wang’s philosophy. And this, according to Ge, is the root behind the philosophy embodied in Lotus, which explicitly shows every possible side of human nature, to include humanity’s uglier side. This, Ge points out, is another reason why Lotus is such an important work for today’s society. Although culture and society has changed over the years, the basic nature of human beings has not.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2021

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