Jin Ping Mei: A Chinese classic

During these past couple of months, my reading time was occupied by a Chinese classic novel called Jin Ping Mei. You’ve never heard of it? Understandable. It’s not as famous as Journey to the West or Dream of the Red Chamber, and I think there is only one reason for that and it’s not its literary quality, but the simple fact that, unlike any other Chinese classic, in Jin Ping Mei there are very explicit sex scenes, and lots of them (also illustrations!). Because the book was considered scandalous and pornographic, it was banned for a long time, although many educated people managed to get their hands on it. Its author and exact date of publication are unknown, but the manuscript was already circulating by the end of the 16th century.

Gradnma Wang keeping watch while Pan Jinlian and Ximen Qing get into it.

I had heard about Jin Ping Mei during my college years and for some reason I had imagined it was a short novel. Imagine my surprise when I found it in my local library and it was 1200 pages! And then later on I realized that was just book 1, and book 2 was another 1600!

Jin Ping Mei is presented as a spin-off from Water Margin (which I read last year!). Pan Jinlian (the “Jin” in Jin Ping Mei, which refers to three of the female characters) is a minor character in Water Margin and here she’s one of the protagonists. The story is set in the Song Dinasty (12th century) and revolves around Ximen Qing, a rich, powerful and lustful merchant who has six wives and concubines, one of them Pan Jinlian. The relationships between the wives and the servants, and the social climb of Ximen Qing and his relations with government officials and other powerful men fill those 2800 total pages.

Doing business at one of Ximen Qing’s shops, because he needed a lot of money to keep so many women.

I have to say I found it absolutely fascinating. Although it’s quite long, I couldn’t get my eyes off it (and not only because of the racy scenes, haha). There’s only one part at the beginning of the second book that I found boring. Also, and this feeling might be in part due to the fantastic Spanish translation (done by one of my college professors, the amazing Alicia Relinque Eleta), the novel sounds so modern, not only in its words but also in the way the characters act. I saw so many attitudes that are still preserved in today’s China! For example, the fact that business and deals are closed during dinners and need to have copious amounts of alcohol (something that I personally hate!) seems to have a too long history that has surely affected the life expectancy of generations of Chinese men. With regards to the openness about sex, it definitely feels more modern than present day China, haha. Also, monks and nuns tend to be presented as scammers, which is something that I’ve heard too from some people.

Pan Jinlian is a character that became the archetype of female villain in Chinese culture. She’s sometimes described as a femme fatale, but I’d say “total bitch” would be more adequate. She’s absolutely despicable, selfish, and mean, and she lies all the time to get other people in trouble and achieve her objectives. In the end she dies from a horrible and cruel death, and well deserved. Ximen Qing, the male protagonist, uses his money to buy influences and power, and when he gets an official position, he seems to think that there is nothing wrong with corruption. In fact, many of the officials that appear in the novel are corrupt, and the whole story is a critique of the corruption of its time. Ximen Qing seems also to be unable to keep it in his pants for more than half an hour, and goes around screwing anyone who tickles his fancy, be it prostitutes, servants (male and female), or the wives of the men that work for him. In the end, he gets physically sick because of having too much sex (probably some STD) and has a very ridiculous death. Yep, in this novel, most people who do bad things end up dead, as a punishment for their crimes.

“Well, well, what do you have there, dear?”.

I think I might have talked too much about the sexy aspects, but they’re really not the only reason to read Jin Ping Mei, which I found to be a great portrait of an era and a social class. If you can get your hands on it, and have the patience to stay with a story for 2800 pages, I’d say go for it! I hope the English translation is at least half as good as the Spanish, which as I said is superb (I knew that professor was cool, but now she’s my idol!).

All images taken from Wikimedia Commons.