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  • Jul 29, 2014
  • Updated: 1:42am
My Take
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 November, 2013, 4:49am
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 November, 2013, 7:25am

Porn classic finds worthy translator

BIO

Alex Lo is a senior writer at the South China Morning Post. He writes editorials and the daily “My Take” column on page 2. He also edits the weekly science and technology page in Sunday Morning Post.
 

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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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.
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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.
 
 
 
 
 

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