Jin Ping Mei is basically a 17th century porn novel. Rumour has it it was written as a murder weapon, a drop of poison was put on each corner of the page and then it was made as racy as possible so that the person reading it would quickly turn the pages and die. It is also the story of one man's rise to power, his lust and increase in wealth and women and degradation till finally things catch up with him and it all goes horribly wrong. This book was the continuing story of those that survived the first book (one of Hsi Men's wives and her son) and the next reincarnation of his other wives where they were punished for their previous lusts.
The biggest problem with the book was that it was written by a total misogynist (much more so than the original). Instead of punishing His Men, the main character/villain of the story who murdered and seduced everyone, he was hailed as a hero and it was the women who were treated to dreadful degradation and punishment for their (mostly unwilling) participation in the previous book. Instead of a long rise and then a fall, here the characters were already fallen, as a poor widow Moon Lady was repeatedly robed and had to flee, other characters had brief periods of happiness but it went down hill quickly, and so there was no real arc to the plot no building of suspense or interest.
One good example of the author's views about women can be summed up in the first paragraph of the twenty-third chapter
"Experience has invariably proved that it is unwise to allow young women to indulge in worldly pleasures and to show their faces in public. Such liberty encourages them to behave in a manner which not only gives rise to malicious gossip but leads to unpleasant consequences even disaster. It is far better to deny them any liberty and keep them contained to the women's apartments" (295).
While this attitude is common within the moralistic writings of the period, it is unusual to see it written out so blatantly in a novel. Novel's, particularly at the end of the Ming dynasty, praise romance, and the strength of women, their abilities, rather than their inabilities. A large portion of this book concerns Buddhist nuns and monks, and to me it seemed to have been written by a lay Buddhist who was writing a moralistic text. (I guess the cultural equivalent would be if a very Christian author wrote a sequel to the Marquis de Sade or Dangerous Liaisons). There was very little sex in this book, and what there was was done with little description or inventiveness (this may be the fault of the translation, but as the same people worked on Jin Ping Mei I doubt this explanation). The characters who were interested in sex had little depth and motivation, and they all realised the errors of their ways and turned to Buddhism.
The depiction of religion in this book was one of the most fascinating things about it. One of my favourite parts was talking about the unscrupulous nun who had a cult of maidens following her who practiced all kinds of magic, divination and exorcism. It was interesting to see the staunch male Buddhist
condemning such active women's unorthodox religious groups. Belittling them for their dishonesty and sexuality, while at the same time talking in enough detail about such groups to understand their strengths and appeal (277).
The other very interesting thing about the book was that it was set at the fall of the Ming and so there were repeated invasions by Manchu forces that added a feeling or terror and uncertainty. It's the only novel I've read that has been set during this period and that made it very interesting to see people's reaction and how the turmoil affected every-one's lives from high families to the beggars.
This book is a far cry from Jin Ping Mei, it's author is by far the most misogynist Chinese classical author I've read, the plot is disjointed and there are far too many characters. But it was still very interesting to read, not so much from an entertainment point of view but the historian in me found it fascinating....Continua