Porn classic finds worthy translator | South China Morning Post
  • Sat
  • Jan 31, 2015
  • Updated: 9:46am
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.

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