The Wonderfully Elusive Chinese Novel

Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Mo. Photograph by John Lamberton

‘Pan Jinlian (Golden Lotus) Humiliated for Being Intimate with a Servant,’ illustration from ‘Jin Ping Mei,’ or ‘The Plum in the Golden Vase,’ seventeenth century.

In teaching Chinese-language courses to American students, which I have done about thirty times, perhaps the most anguishing question I get is “Professor Link, what is the Chinese word for ______?” I am always tempted to say the question makes no sense. Anyone who knows two languages moderately well knows that it is rare for words to match up perfectly, and for languages as far apart as Chinese and English, in which even grammatical categories are conceived differently, strict equivalence is not possible. Book is not shu, because shu, like all Chinese nouns, is conceived as an abstraction, more like “bookness,” and to say “a book” you have to say, “one volume of bookness.” Moreover shu, but not book, can mean “writing,” “letter,” or “calligraphy.” On the other hand you can “book a room” in English; you can’t shu one in Chinese.

I tell my students that there are only two kinds of words they can safely regard as equivalents: words for numbers (excepting integers under five, the words for which have too many other uses) and words that are invented expressly for the purpose of serving as equivalents, like xindiantu (heart-electric-chart) for “electrocardiogram.” I tell them their goal in Chinese class should be to set aside English and get started with thinking in Chinese.

This raises the question of what translation is. I’m afraid it is something quite different from what the person on the street takes it to be. It is not code-switching. Let’s take a tiny example, chosen at random, from David Roy’s translation of the immense sixteenth-century Chinese novel Chin P’ing Mei, or The Plum in the Golden Vase, written during the Ming dynasty, the final volume of which has recently appeared. Here the doughty female protagonist, Golden Lotus, is waiting in a garden for her latest lover, who is also her son-in-law. To tease her, the son-in-law hides under a raspberry trellis, then jumps out as she passes by and throws his arms around her:

“Phooey!” the woman exclaimed. “You little short-life! You gave me quite a start by jumping out that way.”

Two other English translations of Chin P’ing Mei, both published in London in 1939, put this line differently. Clement Egerton (assisted by the distinguished modern Chinese novelist Lao She) writes:

“Oh,” she cried, “you young villain, what do you mean by rushing out and frightening me like that?”1

Bernard Miall, retranslating an earlier abridged German rendition by Franz Kuhn, has this:

“You rascal, to startle me so!” she cried, scolding him and laughingly releasing herself.2

A translation into French in 1985 by André Lévy reads:

Lotus-d’Or s’exclama: “Oh, le mauvais garnement! Qu’est-ce que c’est que ces façons de jaillir et vous causer pareille frayeur!”3

None of these translations can be called wrong, or even “more right” than any other. In each case the translator has grasped the original well, but then, in turning to the needs of second-language readers, handles dilemmas differently.

(Wikimedia Commons)
‘Jin Ping Mei,’ illustration from Chinese edition (1617), part 1, chapter 4, Ximen Qing and Golden Lotus.

Is the mischievous lover a short-life, villain, rascal, or garnement? “Short-life” is a literal reflection of the Chinese duanming; “rascal” and “garnement” are attempts to find less literal cultural equivalents. How literal should one be? Egerton’s “villain” trusts the reader to supply irony—fair enough, in this case, but how far should such trusting go? Miall’s “laughingly releasing herself” is not stated in the original, but is certainly implied. Should the translator help out like this, if there is a danger that a reader from another culture might miss something? Lévy’s “Qu’est-ce que c’est que…” captures the lady’s surprise with precision, but it contributes to a sentence that is twice as long as the corresponding Chinese sentence and lacks its balanced rhythm of five-plus-five syllables. Where should the balance lie between matching form and matching sense?

In the end, none of the renditions feels exactly like the original. In that sense they all fail. But failure by that standard is inevitable, because my language students are incorrect to think that exact equivalence is possible. A translator chooses what to sacrifice in favor of what, and the choices are not “correct” or “incorrect,” but value judgments.

The most fundamental dilemma is between how much to pull the reader into the original language, preserving its literal meanings and supplying footnotes to spell out complicated things, and how much to step back, be more “free,” and try, as Kuhn and Miall are most successful at doing, to offer the reader what might be called “comparable experience.” Puns are an extreme and therefore clear example of the problem. Translators from Chinese usually ignore puns. Sometimes they dissect them in footnotes, and scholars appreciate the dissection because scholars are interested in innards. But a scalpel kills a pun, of course; a dead pun is no longer funny, and right there one aspect of “comparable experience” is lost. What is the alternative, though? To try to invent a parallel pun in the second language? Such efforts demand great ingenuity as well as a willingness to take considerable liberty with denotative meaning.

David Roy is aware of these dilemmas. He sometimes tries to give the modern American reader comparable experience—for example, in the above, “phooey!” for the Chinese pei!, which has a derisive flavor and might even have been “jerk!” or “get lost!”—in any case something a bit more colorful than the “oh” that Egerton and Lévy settle for. But on balance Roy comes down much more on the side of reflecting and explaining the word level in the original. He is the scholars’ scholar. He writes more than 4,400 endnotes and advises in his introduction that they are necessary if the novel is to be “properly understood.” Jonathan Spence, in a review in these pages of volume one of Roy’s translation, wrote that the meticulous notes make “even a veteran reader of monographs smile with a kind of quiet disbelief.”4

Remembrance of Ming’s Past

Jonathan D. Spence from New York Review of Books
To many readers in the past, The Plum in the Golden Vase has seemed an inchoate mass of a story. Even if it was clearly “about” a wealthy urban merchant Hsi-men Ch’ing, his six consorts, and numerous other sexual companions, it was also full of...

Spence’s fine essay, which I recommend be read together with this one, appeared two decades ago, at a time when Roy reported that he had already been working on his project for a quarter-century. Today the eighty-year-old Roy can point to a life’s work of enviable concreteness: 3,493 pages, five volumes, and 13.5 pounds, the world’s only translation of “everything,” as he puts it, in a huge and heterogeneous novel that has crucial importance in Chinese literary tradition. Roy was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease just as he was finishing volume five.

Chin P’ing Mei is about the rise and fall of a corrupt merchant named Hsi-men Ch’ing and others in his wealthy household, including his six wives, of whom Golden Lotus is one. Most of the characters accept that deception, bribery, blackmail, profligacy, flamboyant sex, and even murder are normal in life, although it is clear from the narrator’s pervasive irony that the author disapproves of each. A Buddhist frame for the story warns of consequences for karma—the effect on a person’s destiny of bad and good deeds. Readers are invited also to see a political allegory on corruption at the imperial court. The story is set during the reign of Emperor Huizong of Song (1101–1126 CE), but the allegory points clearly to contemporary Ming rulers as well.

The story sprawls. There are more than eight hundred named characters, from high officials and military commanders to peddlers and prostitutes, with actors, tailors, monks and nuns, fortunetellers, acrobats, and many others, even cats and dogs, in between. Roy helps us keep track of everyone in a fifty-six-page “cast of characters.” The narration is varied, too. In Spence’s words, it includes “pretty much every imaginable mood and genre—from sadism to tenderness, from light humor to philosophical musings, from acute social commentary to outrageous satire.” It is also full of puns and word games.5

The author is unknown, and the question of who it might have been has generated extraordinary controversy, which remains unresolved. We do know it was a superbly erudite person because of the many insertions into the text of songs and set phrases drawn from the histories, drama, storytelling, and fiction available at that time. In the original woodblock printing of the text, characters follow one another, without punctuation, no matter their source. Modern printings provide punctuation, but Roy goes further by devising a system of indentation and differing type sizes to set off allusions, poems, and songs. With this editorial help, the translation is actually easier to read than the original.

During the four hundred years since it appeared, Chin P’ing Mei has been known in China as an “obscene book.” Governments have banned it and parents have hidden it from children. One widespread anecdote—a false story, but a true indication of the book’s reputation—is that it originated as a murder weapon: the author applied poison to the corners of the pages and presented it to an enemy, knowing that his foe would need to wet his fingertips with saliva in order to keep turning the pages fast enough. The plan would not have worked, though, because the pornography is by no means so densely packed. Zhang Zhupo, the first significant critic of the novel, wrote in the late seventeenth century that “anyone who says that Chin P’ing Mei is an obscene book has probably only taken the trouble to read the obscene passages.”

Westerners, too, have sometimes become fixated on the pornography, and translators have handled it in different ways. In one passage Golden Lotus, after exhausting Hsi-men Ch’ing’s male member during a ferocious sexual encounter, reapplies her silky fingers but cannot get it to stand up. Hsi-men, in character, says, in Roy’s translation, “It’s all your fault.” Lévy puts this as “C’est par ton initiative.” Egerton says, “Tua culpa est.” (Egerton puts all of the more pornographic passages into Latin, whether from prudery or to encourage British schoolboys in their studies, he does not say.) Kuhn and Miall omit the passage.

Serious scholars agree that it makes no sense to reject the wide-ranging novel as pornography but do not agree about how well crafted it is. It contains odd turns of direction, abrupt shifts of mood, digressions that seem to lead nowhere, and discrepancies that result at least in part from the borrowing of much material from other sources. The controversial question is whether these are flaws or a different kind of careful writing. Is the novel a haphazard pile, casually assembled and often tedious to read?6 Or, as Roy holds, as does Andrew Plaks in a remarkably learned commentary,7 is it a “finely wrought structure” in which “every thread is carefully plotted in advance,” and which bears not only reading but careful rereading?

Plaks shows that apparently whimsical insertions actually can have significant parts in foreshadowing events or offering ironic comment. A knowledgeable Ming reader will know, he writes, that a song’s reference to a faithless brother prefigures the way in which Hsi-men Ch’ing’s close friends will rob his widow blind right after his funeral. The huge novel also has an architecture that he and Roy explain. It consists of a hundred chapters, organized in ten groups of ten, called “decades.” Each decade introduces a theme, then has a “twist,” as Roy calls it, around the seventh chapter of the decade, and a culmination in the ninth. The first five decades of the novel show the rise of Hsi-men Ch’ing and the last five his decline. The first two put the main characters on stage, the middle six say what they do there, and the last two take them off. Plaks notes many finer-grained mirrorings as well. It is in chapter 18, for example, that Golden Lotus and her son-in-law lover (mentioned above) first meet, and in chapter 82, eighteen from the end, that they make love.

It is hard to be sure that the author intended all of the finer patterns that these and other critics have identified. When an ocean of material is provided, there is plenty of room for readers to assemble their own patterns. Still, the evidence for Roy’s claim that Chin P’ing Mei is “the work of a single creative imagination” is very strong, not only because of structural features but because of the consistent moral point of view of the implied author.

Irony pervades the narration. It comes in part from the device of the “simulated storyteller,” a voice that supplies the chapters with wry labels (“P’ing-an Absconds with Jewelry from the Pawnshop; Auntie Hsüeh Cleverly Proposes a Personal Appeal”) and opens each with the phrase “The story goes that…” The cumulative effect is something like “let’s watch, dear reader, as these clowns perform their next act.” There is entertainment in the watching, to be sure, but Roy and Plaks are clearly right to point to an underlying moral seriousness as well.

The author is bemoaning a wholesale departure from the principles of Confucianism. The pleasures that the human beings in Chin P’ing Mei enjoy are primarily sensual—food, drink, and sex; social pleasures are superficial, driven by ostentation and hypocrisy. Power inherent in social position gets people what they want, and they don’t worry about any line between its proper and improper use; cleverness is important for its utility in manipulating one’s way to a goal. Whether it is reached by wit or by might, a victory speaks for itself. Wealth and status—up to and including the imperial court—are no cure for the moral rot the author evokes; they only make it worse.

It is useful to reconsider the sex from this point of view. The author of Chin P’ing Mei condemns promiscuity not because it is an affront to the divine, as it would be in much of the Abrahamic tradition, but because it is a form of abandon or excess, more like gluttony. When the rich and powerful are greedy, picking up concubines the way wealthy Americans pick up vacation homes, they need criticism. Hsi-men Ch’ing says that his “Heaven-splashing wealth and distinction” qualify him even to rape goddesses if he likes. A good person, especially an official who has responsibilities in governance, should be spending his energies in better ways.

Yet the assumption that wealth and power do entitle men to multiple sex partners has lasted throughout Chinese history. The earliest records show kings having several consorts; in late imperial times the keeping of concubines in wealthy households was common; and even today the pattern of successful businessmen keeping “second women”—or third, or fourth—is widespread. Modern taboos now prevent the ladies from living under the same roof, but the assumption that keeping several women is a perk of wealth and power is not much different from earlier times.

If this seems discouraging, it should also be said for China that criticism of the practice, or at least of its excesses, has an equally long tradition. The earliest examples we have of pornography in China are descriptions of behavior in imperial harems. And on today’s Internet, where satire of the powerful is vigorous, sexual misbehavior is second only to illicit wealth as the favorite indictment. So Chin P’ing Mei is in good company. I’m not sure David Roy should feel happy or sad that the novel had something of a resurgence on the Internet in 2013, the year his volume five was published. In February Lian Qingchuan, a prominent journalist, wrote an article called “We Live Today in the World of Chin P’ing Mei.” A flurry of enthusiastic reader comments said things like “I’m glad somebody told me this book was written five hundred years ago! I never would have known!” Others commented that Hsi-men Ch’ing was a mere beginner in sexual aggression compared to his avatars today.

In using the novel as a mirror for society, these Internet commentators recall another way that scholars have studied Chin P’ing Mei. Because the novel was the first in China to describe daily life, as opposed to legends or ideals, social historians have mined it for data. If you study commerce, for example, the sizes of bribes, alms, and gifts are there, as well as prices for rolls of silk, peeled chestnuts, goose gizzards, new beds, old buildings, and much more, as well as the costs of the services of storytellers, go-betweens, carpenters, singing girls, and others. In the 1970s, F.W. Mote, the eminent Ming historian at Princeton, although he judged Chin P’ing Mei “not a success” as a novel, taught a graduate seminar using it as a source for history. One problem with the approach was the distorting effect of the author’s satire. For example, Hsi-men Ch’ing bribes Grand Preceptor Cai Jing, arbiter of the dynasty, often and lavishly—once with a birthday present of two hundred taels of gold, eight gold goblets, twenty pairs of cups made of jade and rhinoceros horn, and more. But when Hsi-men dies and a protégé of the Grand Preceptor comes to offer respects, he brings only paltry gifts, including woolen socks and four dried fish. This is not realism, as C.T. Hsia points out, but satire to make a point.8 Mote, to avoid this kind of problem in his seminar, devised a “principle of inadvertency.” Whenever a detail mattered to the story line, or to the author’s evaluation of something, the students were to set it aside. But the thousands of details offered inadvertently were fair game.

Whether Chin P’ing Mei is taken as broad social canvas, literary innovation, serious ethical criticism, or only spicy entertainment, a question that has haunted its study over the last hundred years is whether it is—indeed whether China has—a “great novel.” I think China would be better off if the question were not asked so much.

In the early twentieth century, when memories of humiliating defeats by foreign powers had stimulated Chinese thinkers to go in search of the secrets of wealth and power, Liang Qichao, a leading reformer, wrote a powerful essay in which he argued that one reason Western countries are strong is that the thinking of their people is unified and vigorous, and a main reason their thinking has been vigorous is that they read vigorous fiction. So, he concluded, China needs good novels. Beginning in the late 1910s, Hu Shi, Lu Xun, and other May Fourth thinkers began looking back at China’s past to see if some good novels might already have been written. A canon was born, listed often as Romance of the Three Kingdoms, The Water Margin, Journey to the West, Chin P’ing Mei, The Scholars, and Dream of the Red Chamber,9 and these writings were compared to major works of European fiction. In the latter twentieth century sympathetic Western Sinologists have supported China’s quest to rediscover its great novels.

There has been progress in that direction. For Chin P’ing Mei, Roy and Plaks, and before them Patrick Hanan, have established the novel’s importance as an innovation. Its unity of conception and elaborate design epitomize “the Ming novel” and set an example for later long fiction in China, most importantly Dream of the Red Chamber. This kind of argument for Chin P’ing Mei resembles the way James Wood argues for Flaubert when he writes that “there really is a time before Flaubert and a time after him,” and “novelists should thank Flaubert the way poets thank spring.”10 The particular strengths that Wood finds in Flaubert are very different from those that Roy and Plaks find in Chin P’ing Mei, but the argument about a historical watershed is similar—until, anyway, Roy and Plaks start acknowledging flaws in Chin P’ing Mei. Wood credits Flaubert with immaculate planning and selection of detail, done as if by an invisible hand; Roy and Plaks see something like that in Chin P’ing Mei, but also find “loose ends,” “glaring internal discrepancies,” and other infelicities.11 When Roy defends Chin P’ing Mei by calling it a “work in progress,” he recalls for me G.K. Chesterton’s insight that “if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” The first airplane didn’t soar, either, but it’s very good that someone got a prototype off the ground.

But why do I feel that China—and Sinologists—would be better off to relax about the idea that “we have great novels, too”? I feel this because I think that setting up literary civilizations as rivals (although I can understand the insecurities that led Liang Qichao and others to do it) only gets in the way of readers enjoying imaginative works. What does it matter if the author of Chin P’ing Mei might be less than Flaubert? Why should anyone have to feel defensive?

Let me put it the other way around. Novels were not the primary language art in imperial China. Measured by volume, xi, translatable as “drama” or “opera,” would be in first place, and measured by beauty, calligraphy or poetry would be. Should we compare poetry across civilizations? If we do, classical Chinese poetry wins easily. The contest is almost unfair, because, as my students of Chinese language eventually come to see, the fundaments of language are different.

Indo-European languages, with their requirements that tense, number, gender, and part of speech be specified, and with the mandatory word inflections that the specifications entail, and with the extra syllables that the inflections add, just can’t achieve the same purity—a sense of terseness and expanse at the same time—that tenseless, numberless, voiceless, uninflected, and uninflectible Chinese characters can achieve. In a contest, one person has a butterfly net and the other a window screen. Emily Dickinson might have come to be known as the greatest poet in world history if she had written in classical Chinese. Should Westerners feel defensive that this was not the case? Far better just to inherit what we all have done, and leave it there.

  1. The Golden Lotus: A Translation, from the Chinese Original, of the Novel Chin P’ing Mei (London: Routledge, 1939), Vol. 4, p. 129.
  2. Chin P’ing Mei: The Adventurous History of Hsi Men and His Six Wives (London: John Lane/The Bodley Head, 1939), p. 638.
  3. Fleur en Fiole d’Or, translated, edited, and annotated by André Lévy (Paris: Gallimard, 1985), Vol. 2, p. 891.
  4. Remembrance of Ming’s Past,” Jonathan Spence, The New York Review, June 23, 1994.
  5. See a full exposition in Katherine Carlitz, The Rhetoric of Chin P’ing Mei (Indiana University Press, 1986).
  6. The eminent critic C.T. Hsia, who died on December 29, 2013, wrote about Chin P’ing Mei’s “obvious structural anarchy” in The Classic Chinese Novel (Columbia University Press, 1968), p. 180.
  7. Andrew H. Plaks, The Four Masterworks of the Ming Novel (Princeton University Press, 1987), p. 132.
  8. Hsia, The Classic Chinese Novel, pp. 175–176.
  9. I use C.T. Hsia’s choice of translation for the titles here, but there are several others.
  10. James Wood, How Fiction Works (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008), p. 39.
  11. Roy, The Plum in the Golden Vase Vol. 1, p. xx; cf. Plaks, The Four Masterworks, p. 70.