Commentary Magazine


The Plum in the Golden Vase, translated by David Tod Roy

The Bad Earth

The Plum in the Golden Vase, or Chin P’ing Mei. Vol. I: The Gathering.
by David Tod Roy.
Princeton University Press. 610 pp. $39.50.

In China, where the written word has had great authority and inherited classics have had a powerful cultural role, there is a two-part literary canon, each defined by the language in which it is written. One is the literary language of China, and the other the vernacular.

Although very closely related, the literary and vernacular languages are nonetheless distinct. Literary or classical Chinese was used for the writing of history, philosophy, and other learned matters, and for keeping official records; though the language was not spoken, its ideographs were also used through the ages to record ordinary speech.

Today, however, it is the vernacular which is used for all writing. But even before the 20th century, Chinese writers had produced a vast literature in “plain speech,” for the vernacular was itself a literary language used for narrative and drama. Strictly speaking, such writings were déclassé, even though they were most often composed by and for what we would call a cultural elite. But many also became classics in their own right, enormously popular and thoroughly beloved across the generations.

The Plum in the Golden Vase, a racy narrative masterpiece of the late 16th century—a novel, for all intents and purposes—is such a work. Its anonymous author remains unknown to this day, but clearly he was a man of sophistication, erudition, and creative genius. His story runs to 100 chapters—thousands of pages in the original—and the translation undertaken by David Tod Roy of the University of Chicago, who began work on it over twenty years ago, will eventually fill five hefty tomes.

Even in the twenty chapters that comprise Roy’s first volume, one sees why the job of rendering a book at once subtly intricate and blatantly graphic should have become the labor of decades. But what Roy has already accomplished is enough to establish his translation as definitive; no one in the foreseeable future will even attempt to supplant it. By the time Roy is finished, he will rank with James Legge, Herbert Giles, and Arthur Waley among the great presenters in English of the Chinese canon.

One of the challenges of this novel has to do with its reliance on a variety of literary forms; it is filled with songs, poems, and snatches of drama. Then, too, in its references to history and politics, it betrays a near-encyclopedic command of almost every aspect of Chinese history and culture over the two millennia prior to its completion. Though writing a work of “popular” fiction, the author obviously assumed that at least some of his readers would be well-educated. What they knew, Roy recreates for us in his notes, where he has traced the origins of seemingly every reference and device in the book. Many of these might have been recognizable to an educated Chinese of the late 16th century (though somehow one doubts even this), but they would certainly escape comprehension by even a knowledgeable non-Chinese reader.

Roy’s mastery reflects not only his own vast learning and prodigious personal energy but is also the culmination of an enterprise in which many people have participated across many years. Early in this century, Chinese reformers began to call for the rejection of the “dead” classical language. They claimed it embodied worn-out ideas, and that its style and conventions were, in any event, simply too difficult for ordinary people to master. In urging the adoption of plain speech as the sole medium of written expression, these modern-minded Chinese also elevated the academic standing of traditional vernacular literature; they urged that it be studied, not least so that a new literature adhering to the highest standards of the vernacular form would be able to reach and impress the millions who had already demonstrated their enthusiasm for the older exemplars of the genre.

Meanwhile, the West was also becoming more familiar with Chinese vernacular literature through some widely noticed, though partial, translations. In what is now the third generation of this revival, Roy and a number of his contemporaries have added another element, namely, the rediscovery of centuries-old Chinese literary criticism. This has proved an important foundation for a great deal of scholarly work over the past two decades, especially that of Andrew Plaks, our country’s outstanding China literary historian and critic.

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Roy’s translation, a capstone to these efforts, does more than showcase the literary merits of an old Chinese book; it also sketches the moral topography of another culture. His reading of The Plum in the Golden Vase, which follows a traditional one, calls our attention to the didactic elements embedded in the novel’s dazzling literary displays.

Ostensibly, this novel tells the story of the fate of one man and his household. The central figure is a rich dealer in Chinese materia medica, well-connected in local society, tied in somewhat to the capital, and head of a domestic establishment of several wives, many concubines, and numerous relatives and servants. He is also a man of voracious sexual appetite; the descriptions of his activities in this realm are what have given the novel its scandalous reputation.

But what begins as social comedy, the better to lure us into a seemingly endless narrative, soon enough transforms itself into a grotesquery. The protagonist’s innocuous carousing and whoring give way to less playful dissipation and perversion, even to incest. Ever in search of new thrills, he eventually succumbs in an ugly way to his compulsions, and his household thereafter disintegrates.

For the modern reader, this book offers a fascinating catalogue of the material artifacts of old Chinese life, describing in illuminating detail the architecture, festivals, court cases, food, clothing, furnishings—and even the sex aids—of a bygone age, in settings that range from the local whorehouse to the imperial court. But it is also, among other things, a sustained reflection on the evanescence of material well-being, a pungent satire on manners and morals, and a pointed critique of the values of its time and place.

By means of the principal narrative, and through a welter of asides and digressions, the author of The Plum in the Golden Vase leads us to an understanding of what ails this particular dysfunctional household. It is that the traditional relationships, the ones laid down in ancient times, have become woefully out of joint. Even the most elemental relations—between husband and wife, between father and child—have decomposed. Nor can the inevitable consequences be confined within the walls of the household. Instead, our attention is directed to a parallel decomposition, extending to the chambers of the local magistrate and the court of the Emperor himself.

In short, we are in the hands here of a rather stern moralist, one who is deeply conscious of the political, social, and, ultimately, spiritual decay of his own time (though by convention the book is set centuries prior), and who brings into play every literary device at his command—and he has many—in order to confront his readers with the rot he describes.

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Not surprisingly, considering the novel’s extraordinary breadth, Western readers have likened The Plum in the Golden Vase to the work of writers as disparate as Dickens, Joyce, and Nabokov. Yet care is required in drawing such correspondences—just as care is required in drawing analogies between the decay in that time and the decay in our own. As a good Confucian, our novelist decries the arbitrary and corrupt exercise of power. But he does not find any remedy for tyranny in private pursuits. It is hard to imagine, in particular, that he would regard the free-fire capitalism of the contemporary Chinese metropolis, or the American one for that matter, as an edifying alternative.

Still, there are enduring lessons to be drawn from this book, and the way that it has come to appear in a full English translation. When David Roy began his project a quarter-century ago, it was accepted as a matter of course that the task of understanding an exotic and complex culture like China’s required unremitting labor and endless patience. The literary sensibility and careful scholarship exemplified by Roy hark back to that time. They are as different as can be imagined from the “multiculturalism” of today, in which political pandering competes with intellectual inanition for hegemony over the scholarly world. In contemplating both The Plum in the Golden Vase and Roy’s tremendous achievement in translating it, our own cultural disorientation and civic decline are brought into unexpectedly sharp perspective.

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