The Plum in the Golden Vase or Chin P’ing Mei. Vol I: The Gathering 
translated by David Tod Roy.
Princeton, 610 pp., £24.95, December 1993, 0 691 06932 8
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From the outset, ambiguity enfolds The Plum in the Golden Vase, David Tod Roy’s translation of the first volume of the monumental 16th-century Chinese novel Chin P’ing Mei. The title, as he explains in his Introduction, is a ‘multiple pun’ composed of one ideogram each from the names of the three principal female protagonists. It translates literally as Gold Vase Plum. It also ‘puns with three near homophones that might be rendered as the Glamour of Entering the Vagina’. Racy the book certainly is. How one ought to respond to its raciness, however – specifically, to the sexual conquests of its insatiable hero, Hsi-men Ch’ing – remains, like so much else within its pages, open to question.

Roy’s Introduction lucidly identifies and situates his text. The Chin P’ing Mei consists of an anonymous manuscript of 100 chapters, of which this volume, subtitled ‘The Gathering’, represents the initial 20. Roy’s will be the first complete, annotated edition in English. Four companion volumes, presumably of similarly mammoth proportions, will follow, chronicling in their entirety the exhaustive rise and fall of Hsi-Men Ch’ing, who dies of ‘sexual excess’ at the age of 33. The story is set in the Northern Sung Dynasty, four centuries before its date of composition, a gap which has naturally fostered fervent scholarly speculation about which historical parallels, in this tale of corruption and dissipation, were aimed at contemporary conditions. At the end of Volume One, Hsi-Men Ch’ing’s material fortunes, derived from a pharmaceutical business in a provincial town, are consistently rising, and within his household – which comprises numerous attractive wives and an assortment of compliant female servants and hangers-on – his authority goes all but unquestioned.

This first volume makes no firm pledge about when the other four might follow. Given the breadth of the undertaking (the various editorial adjuncts to Volume One – Introduction, appendices, notes and so forth – extend to more than three hundred pages), we’re in for a long wait before this vast mansion of a novel is re-erected, board by board, in English. Until then, readers are required to take on faith a number of Roy’s judgments, including the notion that the book possesses a ‘finely wrought structure’, contributing to the ‘achievement of a unified overall effect’. Roy means squarely to challenge the influential views of C.T. Hsia’s The Classic Chinese Novel, which deplores the book’s ‘low culture’ and ‘structural anarchy’.

For the lay reader, the non-specialist who comes to the novel simply because it’s a landmark (Roy notes that, with the possible exceptions of Don Quixote and The Tale of Genji, ‘there is no earlier work of prose fiction of equal sophistication in world literature’), the task of weighing the competing claims of ‘finely wrought structure’ and ‘structural anarchy’ seems daunting. Indeed, the forming of any judgment about the book seems daunting. Its erudition is intimidatingly immense. Roy, a professor of Chinese Literature at the University of Chicago, has been teaching the Chin P’ing Mei for a quarter of a century. Footnotes lie thick as raindrops on every page of text – a steady, drumming shower of learning which eventually leaves the lay reader feeling deluged. The notes allude to, among other things, forensic medicine in 13th-century China, fashions in headgear during the Chia-ching reign, and the intricacies of 16th-century Chinese dominoes.

But if the book inspired in this particular lay reader a cloudy urge to suspend judgments, it highlighted as few books ever have this wider issue of the specialist versus the general reader. The Chin P’ing Mei is a surpassingly allusive book. Not only its narrator but most of its characters are forever quoting: they share an impulse to recite proverbs, poems, songs. For the specialist, conversant with most of the sources, what this presumably means is that the text will be full of familiar echoes and dissonant transpositions. What it means for the lay reader is that even the barest stretch of exposition or the plainest patch of dialogue is likely to be bound up in notes and annotations. For either sort of reader, then, the text will provide a tiered experience; but for each the overlay, the accompanying voices to the primary text, will differ markedly.

I can’t imagine there are many novels whose readership will fall so cleanly into two camps. This is not usually the case with translations of world classics into English. In recent years, for instance, we’ve seen new editions of Proust, of Mann, of Dostoevsky. These are authors whose books might be expected to draw not only the specialist and the lay reader but all sorts of readers who inhabit a literary middle ground: the businesswoman who once worked a stretch in Paris and thinks she might brush up her French by contrasting Proust’s original with the new In Search of Lost Time; the veterinarian with a German wife who is working his way through dual texts of Mann; the son or daughter of Russian émigrés who seeks to uphold an ancestral compact by studying Dostoevsky. Yet the number of Anglophones out there who are not professional Sinologists but who possess the expertise to evaluate the translation of a large, allusive 16th-century Chinese novel is minuscule. David Tod Roy’s The Plum in the Golden Vase is, perforce, directed at a pair of polarised audiences.

In any literary field or genre, it is one of the hard-won privileges of the specialist to disdain the judgments of the general reader. And yet, this is happily a disdain tempered by the inescapable realisation that most of us, in an age of literary scholarship of ever-increasing complexity, are inevitably generalists most of the time. Our individual specialties can extend only so far. In addition, there is the recognition that a book’s greatest claims depend ultimately on the humble loyalty of the general reader. When Roy compares his text to Don Quixote or Genji, he implicitly raises the issue of mass appeal, for these are two masterworks embraced around the globe, commonly by readers who couldn’t begin to negotiate them in the original. Cervantes and Lady Murasaki have the gift of universality. What, then, does the Chin P’ing Mei have to offer the general reader?

In its first volume, anyway, the book achieves one of the primary goals of satire, creating characters of sufficient vexatiousness that the reader hungers steadily for a come-uppance. Hsi-Men Ch’ing’s pursuit of sexual pleasure, which extends to betraying and cheating and even murdering his rivals, presents a spectacle of chilly fascination. He leaves you wanting to shake your head two ways simultaneously: up and down (Life is like that ...) and side to side (Somebody stop that man ...).

Substantial pleasure, too, is provided by the opportunity to immerse yourself in the quotidian of a vanished and, for most readers, exotic world. Although Hsi-Men Ch’ing’s existence could hardly be called workaday, revolving as it does almost exclusively around the eating of ‘delicacies’, the drinking of wine and the seducing of women, at the peripheries of the tale stands a dense social world of servants, rice-cake sellers, couriers, procuresses, bureaucrats, jailers, tailors. One catches the rhythms of a complex, stratified milieu.

Less substantial – at least to judge from this initial volume – are the pleasures of that ‘finely wrought structure’ which Roy heralds in his Introduction. He compares the novel to Lolita and Ulysses, books that require ‘repeated close readings’, but this is a comparison seemingly as misleading as it is helpful. Both Joyce’s and Nabokov’s novels presuppose a world of intense modern literary scholarship; they are indivisibly linked to the exegeses they inspire. But despite Roy’s adroit outlining of the grand architecture of the Chin P’ing Mei, the novel at the local level, in the unravelling of its plot, is so full of false starts and loose ends, so seemingly impulsive and happenstantial in its veerings, as to belie any painstaking design. I should have thought a more apt comparison might have been to Byron’s Don Juan, and not merely because both works chronicle the adventures of an irresistible roué. Scholars have found ingenious patternings in Don Juan, too, but I would have thought that the poem’s overriding charm lies in its sense of heedless and headlong motion.

There’s something also a little troubling in Roy’s translation at its most low-down and demotic – when it turns to slang, vulgarism, vituperation. This is naturally perilous ground for translators; lofty thoughts generally survive translation better than the pungent language of the street. But artful as Roy’s constructions are (‘To suggest something of this exotic flavour, I have used the German word for whipped cream and punned “in cider” for “inside her”’), there’s something stilted and askew about diction that blends outmoded phrases like ‘dingdong dame’ and ‘ignorant nincompoop’ and ‘slobber-pussed jailbirds’ with the prissiness of his ‘dander was up as a result of her needling, and he was already inebriated by the time he returned home’ and the bare obscenity of ‘cocksucking monkey’ or ‘talking through your cunt’. This is a language which, cumulatively, no one speaks or has ever spoken – an argot seemingly developed for some costume romance sprung from the imagination of Mel Brooks or Monty Python.

As I await the appearance of the next four volumes, the question foremost in my mind is whether a satire thronged with so many unappealing characters must, over so expansive a length, grow wearisome. Roy identifies the book’s spiritual godfather as Hsun-tzu, the Confucian philosopher of the third century BC who believed humanity to be, in Roy’s words, ‘basically evil’. He acknowledges that his position is ‘controversial’, but there is no gain-saying that the community revealed in the Chin P’ing Mei is almost unrelentingly unpleasant: treacherous, cruel, selfish and, above all, greedy. This is a world where monks are ridiculed as randy and hypocritical, magistrates as devious and venal, women as cynical and purchasable.

As such, it provides an astringent antidote to those gentle envisionings of medieval China lingering in the minds of those of us whose images are largely drawn from watercolours and silk-bordered scroll-paintings. The China of such artists, with their mist-clad mountains and feathery pines and antic tigers and lacy waterfalls, has no place in this novel. In the Chin P’ing Mei those waterfalls have been replaced by a shimmering flow of coins – payments endlessly issuing forth in bribes, extortions, subornations, prostitutions. One doesn’t know, quite, whether to feel relieved or disappointed that the painters’ landscapes of natural enchantment feel as distant from the world of Hsi-Men Ch’ing’s provincial town as from the hard, glittering cities of our own.

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