Review of The Golden Lotus Volume 1: Jin Ping Mei by Lanling Xiaoxiao Sheng

ISBN 0804841705 (ISBN13: 9780804841702)

Lanling Xiaoxiao Sheng was the author of one of the 5 Great Chinese novels. This is his contribution to immortal letters.

There are many English versions of Jin Ping Mei. The five volume edition, which is more than 2000 pages in length, suffers from hundreds of pages of notes. If you are interested in all the minutiae of Ming Era Chinese aristocracy – like what four hundred different varieties of flowers symbolized, that is the version for you. I chose the 2 volume version by Clement Egerton, weighing in at over 1300 pages. I really don’t need more detail than this translation has. It is already about on the level of Virginia Woolf. Elevating the prose even more with detail and poetic imagery would slow me down. The translator mentioned that he left out a great number of poems. That being said, the extra poems are almost incomprehensible without contextual explanations, from what I’ve read. The insertion of poetry did not add very much in volume one, where it appears, but you can tell the author was going for some lewd puns. Good for him. The other notable fact is that this translation is based off the one from centuries earlier, where the dirty parts had been rendered into Latin. This humorous obscurantism only created more work for the gutter-minded readers. Honestly, who would pick up this book nowadays, unless they had a particular interest in Chinese literature? That was my thought. There are far more sensual and erotic things to read than this out there, and far easier to come by. You should cast aside all your assumptions and read this near-masterpiece as a superb example of storytelling – of proof that Chinese literature was far more developed than the European equivalent before 1600.

Overall, this was an engrossing read, if a little repetitive. It speaks a lot to the same class dysfunctions you will find in Story of the Stone. But the relationships here are all interesting and meaningful. The treatment of servants is very brutal. Ximen is the foremost figure of the novel, and his abuse of the women surrounding him is telling. For centuries this was condemned and printed in secret throughout China, like all those “dirty” French novels were throughout Europe. The difference here is that by today’s standards, this is almost PG-13. There are a few mentions of sex and anatomy, but this work is characterized far more by its psychological portrayals, its world of corrupt bureaucracy and obsession with money. That it is still thought-provoking today shows that it is a wise and timeless tale, with some love and spice, a little conflict here and there, and a lot of atmosphere. It is a luxurious read for the serious culturally minded reader. I look forward to continuing this intricate, lengthy study of Ming decadence with volume 2.

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