Old Version

The Plum in the Golden Vase

More Than Sex

A sexually explicit classic novel, and the story of its long path towards possible publication, reveals the shifting attitudes toward taboo subjects

By NewsChina Updated Feb.1

Pages of the 1957 “official-only” edition of The Plum in the Golden Vase / Photo by IC

Though not included in China’s four great classical novels (Journey to the West, Dream of the Red Chamber, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and Water Margin), The Plum in the Golden Vase (Chin P’ing Mei), a novel which tells the rise and fall of a corrupt merchant in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), is famous in China due to its outrageously pornographic descriptions. The book tells the tale of businessman Ximen Qing having sex with 14 women (the “Chin,” “P’ing,” and “Mei” that make up the title are actually the names of the novel’s three main female characters). The erotic accounts are so bold that even Western literature scholars found it “startling,” as one review in the New York Times put it after the final volume of the novel was translated into English by American sinologist David Tod Roy in 2013.  

Despite the novel’s sordid reputation, the explicit passages make up only around 20,000 words, a small fraction of the novel’s 800,000-word length. Experts have said that people’s excessive focus on the sex in the novel has sidelined its realism and led people to equate the novel with obscenity. 

“The Plum in the Golden Vase is actually a milestone in the history of Chinese novels,” Zhou Xuanlong, deputy editor-in-chief of the State-owned People’s Literature Publishing House (PLPH), told NewsChina. “Unlike previous novels that focused on heroes and legendary figures, the novel details the life of ordinary people in different social circles and their tragic endings in the corrupt society of the time,” he added.  

His views were shared by its translator, David Tod Roy, who told the New York Times that he had not been aware that the novel was “fascinating in other ways” beyond the explicit sections until he read it. “It’s an extraordinarily detailed description of a morally derelict and corrupt society,” he told the paper.  

For decades Chinese literature experts and scholars tried hard to have The Plum in the Golden Vase republished to allow more people to enjoy and study it. Due to China’s Confucian-influenced culture in which open discussion of sex is taboo, the novel, though existing in editions of varying controversiality, still remains controlled on the Chinese mainland, especially the complete version.  

Top Officials’ Top Shelf 

The Plum in the Golden Vase was strictly prohibited even in dynastic China. When it was written, the Ming Dynasty forbade anyone from publishing the novel and sellers would be severely punished. The Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) further tightened the control on literature, stating that anyone who published, sold or read the novel would be flogged.  
The ban continued beyond the Qing and into the Kuomintang-ruled Republic of China and then into the People’s Republic of China until Chairman Mao Zedong effectively rehabilitated it. “Except for the parts that humiliate women, the novel is a worthy reference for provincial officials,” Mao reportedly said in a meeting in 1957. According to Chinese historical records, Mao was the first person to define The Plum in the Golden Vase as “condemnation fiction” which detailed various contradictions in Ming society, especially between the ruling and ruled classes.  

Mao’s remarks were interpreted as an order to lift the ban on the controversial novel, and the PLPH began work on an edition for officials’ eyes only.  

The Plum in the Golden Vase has three extant editions: the “Cihua edition” with poems and verses and the “pictorial version” containing over 200 woodblock illustrations, both passed down from the Ming Dynasty, and the later “edition with the comments of Zhang Zhupo [a Qing Dynasty novel theorist].” In the Republican era, the “Cihua edition” was held by the Peiping Library of which bibliophile Ma Lian published 104 copies, sending them to a group of renowned writers and scholars. The original edition was later transported to Taiwan after Chiang Kai-shek was defeated by Mao. Luckily, the copies were left on the mainland.  

PLPH’s 1957 edition for officials was based on these copies. According to the government order, the publishing house printed 1,000 volumes of the edition, which retained the novel’s complete text, including all the explicit descriptions. In the publishing note it states “Only for reference by classic novel researchers.” 

According to Qin Shunxin, an editor at the PLPH at the time, the book was only made available to officials with a rank higher than deputy provincial Party Secretary and to renowned literature professors in prestigious universities or institutes. All of the buyers were registered and numbered. Du Weimo, another editor at the PLPH, told our reporter that ordinary editors like him were allowed neither to read nor buy it.  

Yet, under the pressure of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) that followed, during which all sexually related matters were viewed as “poisonous weeds” of capitalism, several officials who had bought the “official-only” edition returned the book. The book would not be available to buy again until after the Cultural Revolution ended. In the 1980s, the PLPH for the first time applied to reprint the “official-only” edition and allowed its editors to buy it, with the official price of the book, however, rocketing from the original 40 yuan (equivalent to US$16 in 1957), to 2,000 yuan (the equivalent of to up to US$1,000 in the 1980s), around 70-100 times the average wage at the time.
By 2013, the “official-only” edition had been reprinted twice with the price rising to 3,000 yuan each, US$480 at the time. Supply fell short of demand, despite the government restricting purchasing eligibility to those who held a title above assistant professor and ordering the employer of any buyer to issue a guarantee pledging that the buyer would only use the book for academic study and would never resell it abroad. 

Left: the cover of the edition annotated by Dai Hongsen; Middle: the cover of the edition annotated by Zhang Zhupo; Right: the cover of the unexpurgated Cihua edition

Dirty Words 

China’s period of reform and opening-up that began at the end of 1978 has helped Chinese society to become increasingly open, creating an atmosphere in which the PLPH planned to publish an abridged edition of The Plum in the Golden Vase to target a larger group of readers. The edition was finished in 1980 and was based on the 1957 “official-only” edition, but with 19,161 explicit Chinese characters expunged. 

“The description of sex was a negative product of the vogue of licentiousness in the late Ming Dynasty, which will sully ordinary people and harm minors. So, we deleted the offending words. However, we kept some of the sexual words which were closely related to the bullies in the novel and were helpful to uncover the declining morality and corruption of society at the time,” explained Dai Hongsen, the editor of the abridged edition, in his editing notes. 

The new edition was not approved for publication until 1984 and even then the government limited the print run to 10,000. Meanwhile, no readers were allowed to buy the book before they showed a permit issued by their work units or organizations. Even now, the edition remains banned from being reprinted without government permission.  
In 1985, the first year that the edition came out, the police found some book stalls were illegally selling the book and detained several suspects who worked in distribution at the PLPH, such as drivers, that had allegedly leaked copies of the edition.  

Despite government controls, in academics’ eyes, The Plum in the Golden Vase is much more than a piece of pornography. Wang Rumei, former deputy director of China Society for The Plum in the Golden Vase, told NewsChina that The Plum in the Golden Vase, as China’s first long-form novel written by a novelist (rather than an author recounting a legend, as is the case with the other classics,) is highly valuable for the study of Chinese classic literature, especially the edition that contains the 100,000-word commentary by literary critic Zhang Zhupo.  

When attending a lecture on the history of Chinese literary criticism in 1980, Wang had the idea of publishing The Plum in the Golden Vase with Zhang’s comments. With the help of his teacher, Wang accessed a copy of The Plum in the Golden Vase with Zhang Zhupo’s comments in the library of East China Normal University and spent three months copying out all of Zhang’s comments – the library did not allow any reader to take the book out.  

Unfortunately, no publishing house at the time dared to help publish an edition with Zhang Zhupo’s comments, believing government censorship made it an impossible mission, until Wang met with Ren Duxing, director of the literature office of the Shandong-based Qilu Press. “Publishing The Plum in the Golden Vase with Zhang Zhupo’s comments is more significant than publishing dozens of low-quality novels from the Ming and Qing Dynasties,” Ren told Wang. 

In 1986, Qilu Press applied to the then State Press Bureau (closed in January 1987) to publish an edition of The Plum in the Golden Vase with Zhang Zhupo’s comments, claiming that the edition would greatly promote the study of the history of Chinese literary criticism and the development of Chinese classic novels. The application was approved one month later, but the bureau asked Qilu Press to limit the number of volumes to 10,000 and help restrict buyer eligibility.  

The editing was finished in October 1986 and was based on a copy of Zhang Zhupo’s edition held by the library of Jilin University, though with 10,385 explicit Chinese characters deleted. 

“We did not have clear criteria on which parts to delete. I used the 1985 abridged edition for reference when doing the deletion, but found that edition had deleted many passages of high literary value,” Wang told NewsChina. “Our edition was looser. We only deleted the explicit sexual descriptions, and kept those which revealed the sexual culture and tradition of the Ming Dynasty, such as burning a woman’s skin with incense while making love, or the descriptions of several sex toys which have not been preserved in modern times,” he added.  

Yet, many readers were still aggrieved by the omissions. A reader who possessed a complete edition of the novel once sent a copy of all the deleted explicit descriptions to Wang to show his protest.  

The Plum in the Golden Vase has been adapted into many softcore porn movies

A Risky Branch 

“Publishing and studying The Plum in the Golden Vase is risky. It is a very special branch and you might go wrong if you are not careful enough,” Wang told NewsChina, revealing that in the early 1980s, a publishing house in Shaanxi Province was punished for publishing a comic strip of The Plum in the Golden Vase without permission, and someone in Sichuan Province was penalized for illegally reprinting a Cihua edition of the novel obtained from Hong Kong. 

In 1988, soldier-writer Han Yingshan rewrote a shortened edition of The Plum in the Golden Vase and printed a first run of 300,000 volumes. His book was soon banned, however, triggering protests from academics. “I support cracking down on pornographic books, but we have to clearly define what pornography is,” Cong Weixi, then editor-in-chief of the China Writers’ Publishing House which published Han’s book, reportedly wrote to the State Administration of Press. “It is narrow-minded that we, a country with 1.08 billion people, banned the [classic novel] of The Plum in the Golden Vase … and it is even morbid that we regard Han’s book, a rewritten The Plum in the Golden Vase with sexual description deleted, harmful,” he added.  

An editor of the PLPH who did not wish to reveal his name told NewsChina that the department held a meeting to discuss Han’s book and finally decided to uphold the ban of the book but not to keep pressuring the author.  

It seemed that people’s protests did nothing to ease the sensitivity around the classic novel whose label as “pornography” was proving hard to remove. In the 1980s, as the four great Chinese classic novels were all adapted into TV series or movies, applications from several provinces to film The Plum in the Golden Vase were all refused. In the 1990s, Chinese director Chen Jialin managed to get a permit to film the novel, but as he was about to shoot, a notice suddenly arrived, ordering him to stop the movie and return the permit.  

The academics, however, kept petitioning to reprint the unabridged editions of the novel. In 1988, both Peking University and the Qilu Press received approval to publish an unexpurgated Cihua edition of the novel, with the printing under strict supervision of the police, so strict that a Taiwanese paper mocked the situation as being as tight as the printing of the gaokao papers (China’s annual national college entrance exam).  

Although the buyers were once again restricted to those who held a title above deputy professor, the 8,000 copies of the edition reportedly sold out within three months. When Qilu Press applied for a reprint, the State Administration of Press (then a new department after the former State Press Bureau was disbanded) refused, claiming that 8,000 volumes were enough for academic study and it would harm minors and young people if the edition were leaked among the public.  

A Mirror of Today 

The academics did not give up. In 1995, Chinese Qing dynasty historian Bu Jian and linguist Bai Weiguo received permission to make a new abridged Cihua edition with detailed annotation about the unfamiliar terms and old slang found in The Plum in the Golden Vase, which was believed to be of great use to help readers understand the content and themes of the novel.  

Roy did the same thing. He added over 4,400 endnotes to the translation he did of a copy he picked up in a second hand bookstore in Nanjing in 1950, which even Chinese scholars praised as a “reference book.” Zhang Yihong, a visiting scholar at the University of Pittsburgh told the New York Times that Roy’s translation “opens a window onto Chinese literature and culture.” 

In 2002, Bu Jian and Bai Weiguo applied to make a new annotated edition of the novel based on the Cihua edition. This time, they decided to restore the formerly deleted words. “The sexual description is also a part of the novel, and the deletion will make the novel less readable and its academic study harder,” explained Bu.  

The application was approved in 2004, and in 2015, the government permitted an increase of the run from 1,000 to 3,000 copies. Although it still ordered that buyer eligibility be restricted to selected experts and academics, Bu and Bai believed that the government approving an uncensored edition of the novel with detailed annotations was progress.  

All these measure seem somewhat futile today. Chinese people today have easy access to the complete text of The Plum in the Golden Vase which can be downloaded from the Internet. Many readers have begun to rethink the novel, both its explicit passages and its other sections.  

Some academics have publicly claimed that the descriptions of sex in the novel show an inherent resistance against sexual repression in the Ming, and indicates people’s hidden cry for sexual liberation, almost 300 years earlier than in Western countries.  

Others spoke highly of the novel’s criticism of a corrupt society, especially the collusion between the businessmen and the bribe-hungry officials, with very similar reports appearing in today’s media.  

At a sociology forum held in Jiangxi Province in June 2015, Chen Dongyou, then deputy provincial propaganda minister and also a historian, encouraged the audience to read The Plum in the Golden Vase to get a whole picture of the economy and social situation of the time. Given his official background, some critics even labeled his remarks a “re-blooming plum,” the “plum” referring to the novel. 

At the forum, Chen emphasized that the novel’s main character, Ximen Qing, who seduces all sorts of women, multiplies his assets in seven years by business acumen and corruption and secures himself a place in officialdom, but finally dies of excessive sex, was of great realistic significance in today’s society.  

His words were echoed by domestic and foreign critics alike, as Zhang Yihong told the New York Times, “You can find people like Ximen Qing easily today. Not just in China, but everywhere.”