• Sun
  • Oct 26, 2014
  • Updated: 1:05am
My Take
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 November, 2013, 4:49am
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 November, 2013, 7:25am

Porn classic finds worthy translator

Great news for deviants everywhere, um sorry, I mean literature lovers. One of the greatest scholarly achievements in Chinese literature has been completed - by an American.

David Tod Roy, the eminent octogenarian scholar, has finally finished his definitive five-volume translation of Jin Ping Mei, better known as The Plum in the Golden Vase or The Golden Lotus. This Herculean labour of love took him almost half a century. It's not just a translation. At almost 3,000 pages with 4,400-plus endnotes, it is also a companion study.

The single greatest pornographic novel of China, it has been described variously as "Jane Austen meets hardcore porn" or, as American-Chinese author Amy Tan puts it, "a book of manners for the debauched". It makes Fifty Shades of Grey a dull book for coffee tables. But scholars say the book is not just porn. Supposedly if you read the whole thing, you will know everything about daily life, customs, food, clothing, medicine, entertainment - in short, the mores and manners during the Ming dynasty, including the acceptable amounts and kinds of favours that could be gained by bribing court mandarins.

Yeah, yeah, sure but we all know why people read the book. In a profile of Roy, The New York Times helpfully informs Western readers - Chinese schoolboys know all about it - that they can find all the naughty bits that made the book (in)famous and target of censors down the centuries in the all-important chapter 27, which contains techniques so intriguing that Tan has depicted a particularly degrading one in her new novel, The Valley of Amazement.

I don't have Roy's edition but a well-worn translation I have gives a pretty good flavour. It seems all the none-too-subtle sexual references to plants, fruits and animals are in place: the heart of a flower, golden prunes, the mouth of a frog, a golden dragon, blossoming melons, and splitting a snail. (Don't ask). All the actions were between the drunken playboy villain Qing Ximen and his fabulously flexible concubine Pan Jinlian while another concubine Chun Mei looked on in the courtyard. At the end of it, the mattress was torn and a stool broken. I am dying to have Roy's translation to compare the scholarly terminology, intertextuality and narratology.

Share

For unlimited access to:

SCMP.com SCMP Tablet Edition SCMP Mobile Edition 10-year news archive
 
 

 

6

This article is now closed to comments

singleline
Not only is the literature a classic, so is its commentary.
I haven’t read the book myself but my colleague once told me the part about pxxxing ...
The book was written in the late Ming dynasty (around 1600). Prosperous economic periods usually produced these kinds of books.
Scholars are still arguing about who the true author was.
In the good old days Chinese tea was usually served together with a lot of eatable stuffs inside, like fruits. Nowadays, there're only tea leaves left , thanks to the beggar-turned first emperor of the Ming dynasty who advocated frugality. To me this is retrogression. Habit died hard, so, many different types of tea were still mentioned in the book.
Those who want to make a fortune (not guaranteed!) may consider serving those kinds of tea to the Chinese customers worldwide.
johnyuan
AL continuously since his first column appeared and later got his My Take in SCMP has performed superbly. His liberal arts education training truly benefits himself and society. In a town of a provincial and still much colonial culture, it takes courage to break all the mores and norms. How refreshing and surprising to read of his My Take today. So my thanks to AL.
rpasea
I wonder why it took 50 years.....
likingming
I wonder whether the translation could be of any help for the westerners.
Anyway, chinese language and culture is about fuzzy (只可意會 不能言傳)
And english and culture is about precision !
ngsw
Translations trash the elegant **** literature to sex stories. The readers should be informed that stories can be translated, but literature can’t. (The **** is p -o -r -n. Does it need to be cencored?)
johnyuan
The translation in proper perspective is one small step to literature but one giant step in furthering the understanding of Chinese culture by an American so far. In our fluid world, language is no longer a barrier. Even a prohibited literature is being translated albeit of a half-century labor of love. From the English I can see hell will break loose that the Golden Vase Plum would ready to be read in one’s own language in no time. The Chinese soft power is finally at its climax in a flat world through the help of an American.
.
I propose the next Nobel Peace Prize be adorned to David Toy Rod who succeeded the dream of the rebellious generation of more than half-century ago – make love and not war.
 
 
 
 
 

Login

SCMP.com Account

or