The story is set in the culturally complex background of Yuan dynasty (14th c.) China, although it was published in 1657. The prefatory chapter provides a motivation for the story, which reminds one of the old marketing joke:
— Ah! Now that I have your attention, let me tell you about this excellent snake oil.
Li Yu writes at the outset:
How low contemporary morals have sunk! But if you write a moral tract exhorting people to virtue, [you] will you get no one to buy it
According to Amitabha Mukerjee (2010), Yu’s strategy is to captivate readers with erotic material and then wait for some moment of absorbing interest before suddenly dropping in an admonitory remark or two to make them grow fearful and sigh, “Since sexual pleasure can be so delightful, surely we ought to reserve our pleasure-making bodies for long-term enjoyment instead of turning into ghosts beneath the peony blossoms [idiom for becoming victims of amorous excess].”
Dates and Authorship
The story is thus framed in a moral fable. But the descriptions of sex, where they occur are extremely detailed, and the author is also liberal with his advice on the merits of this way of doing it vis-a-vis somme other way. The descriptions of courtship, the scholar’s life, the constant allusions to other scholars, poetry, temples and prayer, make it very different from a traditional erotica text. These cultural references were completely alien to me and the transparent translation, which preserves the semantics of the Chinese names, was very pleasurable indeed. The book’s was repeatedly banned and the most reliable manuscript was recently found in Japan (where it has been popular since a 1705 translation). Indeed even its authorship was in some doubt until this ms was discovered, clarifying it’s provenance and dating it to 1657 (from Encyclopedia of Erotic Literature).
The book is well known in China, but it is, of course, little read, since it is banned.
Storyline: Search for the most beautiful woman
The story centers on the sexual adventures of Vesperus [Weiyangsheng], an aspiring Zen disciple at a monastery. His dream in life is to marry the most beautiful woman in the world, and though the master abbot, Lone Peak, warns him against it – any woman he is with will soon cease to be beatiful enough – but Vesperus will not be dissuaded.
He goes to the matchmakers and after many trials one of them comes up with Jade Scent [Yuxiang], an unrivaled beauty and the daughter of a reculsive scholar “Iron door” [Tieshan daoren] who never opens his door to visitors, and is especially careful about the daughter. Vesperus visits performs a prayer after which he grasps a cross-piece (stick) and lets it write out some Chinese characters. It turns out to be two poems, predicting her beauty but urging him that if he is careful to let in no flies, no smut will alight on his jade. Eventually he manages to get married to her, but the condition is that he must be a live-in son-in-law. This he agrees to.
However, Jade Scent, herself of a scholarly bent, turns out to be lacking in passion.
Interestingly, at this point, Li Yu has Vesperus show Jade Scent an album of thirty-six erotic pictures by the scholar Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322), titled “Pictures from the Han palace”, which is presented as a collector’s item of considerable value. It contains explicit sexual pictures of men and women, and is used by him as a manual to introduce her to the pleasures of sex. (see quotations below).
Possibly, such albums of art could not have existed in any other part of the world, owing to the lack of paper. Paintings were largely murals, but such detailed figurative art that could be enjoyed in privacy were less available. However, this has never limited the possibilities of erotic art, as in the temple walls at Khajuraho and Konarak. Indeed, I wonder how many medieval couples in India would have learned a thing or two from studying these sculptures. Or, for that matter, what of the sculptors who conceived such notions, where were their sources? It is of course very likely that some of the early Indian works were known in China, given the extent of interaction in the 7th c. onwards.
Knave: the master-thief
While Vesperus’ conjugal life is going fine, his father-in-law, Iron Door, has a constant litany of grievances about his lack of intellectual achievement. Tiring of this (and possibly of Jade Scent as well), he eventually leaves for further studies and eventually comes to meet the Knave of Kunlun [Sai-Kunlun], who is a thief and has seen all sorts of beautiful women in the bedchambers of night.
“Aphrodisiacs can only give you endurance,” said the Knave, “they cannot increase your size or firmness. If a man with a large endowment uses one, he’ll be like a gifted student taking a ginseng tonic at examination time; in the examination hall, his mental powers will naturally be enhanced, and he will be able to express himself well. But if a student with a very small endowment uses he’ll be no better off than some empty-headed candidate who couldn’t produce a line even if he swallowed pounds of the tonic. What is the point of his sitting in an examination cell for three days and nights, if all he wants to do is to hold out regardless of results? Moreover, most aphrodisiacs are a swindle.” 96
In this analogy you feel the breath of tension regarding examination writing in China three hundred years back (at least among the scholarly class). This tension still permeates society in all cultures of deprivation. Li Yu (or some later commentator?) also remarks on this analogy in his Critique at the end of the chapter.
At other points, one is reminded of tales from the Indian tradition, such as the situation where Shamkara when challenged by Madana Mishra’s wife, faces questions on matters erotic. He then takes a year and lives as a King, enjoying his harem and learning all about carnality. He then returns to defeat the lady in debate. Similar tales of the love life of the sages are also recounted as part of the story:
Who knows, perhaps Lu Nanzi, who shut his door against an importunate widow, and Liuxia Hui, who kept his self-control with a girl on his knee, may have shared these very thoughts of his, thoughts that may have made them the leading paragons of all time. (105-106)
While the erotic references are extremely direct indeed (see quotations below), there is a philosophical layer in which it is enveloped; there is also additional matter at the end of every section, asking questions of a deeper nature.
In the end, one of the lovers cuckolded by Vesperus, Honest Quan [Quan Laoshi] decides to take revenge and seduces Jade Scent, eventually selling her into a brothel. Eventually, Vesperus comes to her as a client and she commits suicide. This event turns Vesperus around, and he returns to Lone Peak. Eventually he gets himself castrated and takes his monastic vows (castration is far more common and socially systematized in China than anywhere else – see The Dragon Empress: Life and Times of Tz’u-hsi, Empress Dowager of China
Novels of the 16th c.
In the period that this novel was written, the prose narrative was also gaining momentum in other parts of the world. Don Quixote, written half a century earlier, also deals with a period of moral decay in society, and the Chinese scholar-hero is rather in the tradition of elite warrior; his skills included martial elements, as well as the art of social interaction and etiquette. The subjects in a Confucian examination system included archery and horsemanship, as well as calligraphy, poetry, and music. Hanan uses the word “page” to describe Vesperus’ two acolytes (with whom also he has occasional sex, p.210).
The sophistication in the plot reflect an earlier Chinese experience with the prose narrative; in novels such as the Romance of the Three Kingdoms (14th c.), and the Journey to the West (16th c.) (which I felt, adopts some of the stories of Hanumana from the Ramayana). Looking beyond the erotic fragments, if we look at the narrative process, the introductory chapter, the critique’s at the end of each chapter, as well as the frequent incursions into the story of direct author-to-reader interjections and advice, reminds one of an epic style, much like the medieval Indian poetry tradition of signing the poet’s names in the last lines, along with a small moral. On the whole, I felt that despite the overall moral tone, all the characters, Vesperus, as well as his many liaisons are rather well sketched out, a human mixture of greed and virtue, and though the storyline builds up rather finely to the withering decay and ultimate moral redemption. The metaphors and asides provide excellent insights into human character (as does Cervantes), and both authors manage to inject a good deal of humour while addressing social issues. Both Vesperus and Don Quixote are driven by a desire for glory, but first they must experience a degree of humiliation.
At the very least, reading this excellent novel made me question claims whether Don Quixote was indeed the first modern novel
Li Yu, (Li Yü) 1611-1680, considered a master of comedy in Chinese literature, was a novelist, playwright, and essayist in the seventeenth century.
Born into a literary family in Zhejiang in the last decades of the Ming dynasty, Li obtained a modest post in the civil service in 1635 but the political instability of the times prevented him from having a stable career and he was often on the move. In 1657 he moved to Nanjing, where he lived for twenty years, establishing the famous Mustard Seed Bookstore, and writing prolifically for a general audience. Playwright, essayist, critic, fiction writer (and garden designer), he is noted particularly for his comic genius. Although always short of money, he was well-connected and lived in considerable luxury, keeping his own troupe of female actors. His writing is mostly concerned with the breaking of social taboos, especially those related to sex and with promoting the ‘art of living’.
Excerpts and Notes: Chinese erotica
[Jade Scent is initially repulsed by the paintings of sex. But then she begins to look at them a little.]
She’s beginning to show a little interest, thought Vesperus. I was planning to start at once, but this is the first time her desires have been aroused and her appetite is still quite undeveloped. If I give her a taste of it now, she’ll be like a starving man at the sight of food–she’ll bolt it down without savoring it and so miss the true rapture; I think I’ll tantalize her a little before mounting the stage.
Pulling up an easy chair, he sat down and drew her into his lap, then opened the album and showed it to her picture by picture. This album differed from others in that the first page of each leaf contained the erotic picture and the second page a comment on it. The first part of the comment explained the activity depicted, while the rest praised the artist’s skill. All the comments were in the hand of famous writers.
* Picture Number One. The ”’Releasing the Butterfly in Search of Fragrance”’ position. The woman sits on the Lake Tai rock with her legs apart while the man sends his jade whisk into her vagina and moves it from side to side seeking the heart of the flower. At the moment depicted, the pair are just beginning and have not reached the rapturous stage, so their eyes are wide open and their expressions not much different from normal.
* Picture Number Two. The Letting the Bee Make Honey position. The woman is lying on her back on the brocade quilt, bracing herself on the bed with her hands and raising her legs aloft to meet the jade whisk and let the man know the location of the heart of the flower so that he will not thrust at random. At the moment depicted, the woman’s expression is almost ravenous, while the man seems so nervous that the observer feels anxiety on his behalf. Supreme art at its most mischievous.
* Picture Number Three. The ”’Lost Bird Returns to the Wood position”’. The woman leans back on the embroidered couch with her legs in the air, grasping the man’s thighs and driving them directly downward. She appears to have entered the state of rapture and is afraid of losing her way. The couple are just at the moment of greatest exertion and show extraordinary vitality. This scene has the marvelous quality of “flying brush and dancing ink.”
* Picture Number Four. The ”’Starving Horse Races to the Trough position”’. The woman lies flat on the couch with her arms wrapped around the man as if to restrict his movements. While he supports her legs on his shoulders, the whole of the jade whisk enters the vagina, leaving not a trace behind. At the moment depicted, they are on the point of spending; they are about to shut their eyes and swallow each other’s tongues, and their expressions are identical. Supreme art indeed.
* Picture Number Five. The ”’Two Dragons Who Fight Till They Drop position”’. The woman’s head rests beside the pillow and her hands droop in defeat, as soft as cotton floss. The man’s head rests beside her neck, and his whole body droops too, also as soft as cotton floss. She has spent, and her soul is about to depart on dreams of the future. This is a state of calm after furious activity. Only her feet, which have not been lowered but still rest on the man’s shoulders, convey any trace of vitality. Otherwise, he and she would resemble a pair of corpses, which leads the observer to understand their rapture and think of lovers entombed together. 47-49
At different points, the book refers to earlier erotica, such as Chi pozi zhuan [Biography of a Foolish Woman], Ruyi Jun zhuan [The Lord of Perfect Satisfaction], and the Xiuta yeshi [An Unofficial History of the Embroidered Couch].
The descriptions of different positions and approaches in the Chinese tradition seem rather large… For example, The Dragon Empress (p.29) lists these further positions, as being commonly known in Chinese erotica around the 14th c.:
— ‘The Dragon Turns’ (missionary position);
— ‘The White Tiger Leaps’ (woman taken from behind);
— ‘The Fish Interlock their scales’ (woman on top);
— ‘The Fish Eye to Eye’ (lying alongside each other);
— ‘Approaching the fragrant Banboo; (both standing);
— ‘The Jade Girl Playing the Flute’ (fellatio);
— ‘Twin Dragons Teasing the Phoenix’ (one woman taken by two men simultaneously);
— ‘The Rabbit Nibbles the Hair’,
— ‘The Cicada Clings’,
— ‘The monkey wrestles’,
— ‘The Seagull Hovers’,
— ‘The Butterflies Somersault’,
— ‘The Blue Phoenixes Dance in Pairs’,
— ‘The rooster Descends on the Ring’
[As in Lao Tzu, much of Chinese pedagogy was concerned with warfare. The book repeats this metaphoric vein. Note also the instructive interjections of the author.]
Here the story continues after Jade Scent has perused the pictures:
He then inserted his jade whisk into her vagina before removing the clothes from the upper body. Why did he not start at the top and work his way down instead of taking off her trousers first, you ask. You must realize that V was an experienced lover. Had he taken her top off first, despite all her agitation, she would still have felt shy and indulged in all kinds of coy pretense. He chose instead to seize the key position first and let the rest of the territory fall into his hands later. — 50
“Dear heart, I know you are about to spend, but this chair is rather awkward. Let’s finish up on the bed.” … He locked his arms securely around her waist and picked her up with her tongue still in his mouth and his jade whisk still in her vagina. Then, thrusting as he went, doing a Looking at the Flowers from Horseback routine, he walked her to the bed and deposited her across it. [As she is coming,] Vesperus knew that her essence had come and he set the jade whisk against her flower’s heart and with her legs trailing in the air, kneaded it with all his might until he ejaculated together with her. — 52
“Gradually a vulva came to resemble some kitchen utensil and aroused about as much feeling in me.” – The Knave to Vesperus
Body a pearly white
Head a crimson glow.
Around the base thin grasses in dense profusion rise.
In length all of two-inches
In weight a good quarter-ounce.
… easy to confuse with at Tatar girl’s pipe stem.
Bent like a bow when all is done, suggesting a very plump dried shrimp.
[Knave’s poem when he first inspects Vesperus’ penis. His endowment is “less than a third the size of other people’s”, he bursts out laughing.] — p. 98
When I saw you looking about everywhere for women, I assumed you had a mighty instrument on you, something that would strike fear into the hearts of all who set eyes on it. That is why I hesitated to ask you to show it to me. — p. 99
“Talent and looks,” said the Knave, “are sweeteners for the medicine of seduction. Like ginger and dates, their flavor helps get the medicine inside, but once it’s in there, the medicine alone has to cure the disease; the ginger and dates are of no further use.” — p. 100
[Eventually he finds an adept who can enlarge a penis by grafting on a dog’s penis (it must be cut off while in heat, and while it is so big that the female vagina has to be cut to extract it) onto the man’s penis using “miracle dressing”. But there is a 90% chance it may not work.]
Before I go under the knife, I ought to take this chance to find a woman and have a bout or two with her. It would act like a dose of rhubarb and purge all the emotional congestion from my system. — p. 120
from the moment she had gotten into bed, her feet had been up and her vagina open, waiting for his penis. I never suspected she was such a wanton, thought Vesperus. But since she is, I won’t need my gentler techniques. I shall have to start off with a show of strength.Raising himself a foot or more above her vagina, he thrust out his penis and attacked. She began squealing like a pig.”Oh, no! Be gentle, please!” — p. 145
Vesperus parted the labia with his hands and began to work his way slowly inside. But time went by and no more than an inch of the glans had penetrated.”The gentler I am”, he said,”the harder it is to enter. I’ll need to be a bit more vigorous, I’m afraid. You’ll just have to put up with a little pain before you start enjoying yourself.”He attacked once more, which only set her squealing again. “Don’t! Don’t! Use some spit at least!” “Spit is for virgins only; that’s an inviolable rule. We’ll just have to do it dry.” He attacked again. 145
He thrust and counterthrust in pitched battle, then insisted on withdrawing from the palace and driving into the lair itself. For the first dozen or two strokes the inside was slippery, but after fifty strokes it turned sticky. Cloud could bear the discomfort no longer and asked, “When I sleep with my husband, I find that things get easier as we go along. Why is it harder now than at the beginning?” — p. 184
Embracing both girls, Vesperus popped his tongue first into Lucky Pearl’s mouth and let her suck it and then into Lucky Jade’s and let her do the same. Then he brought all three mouths together to form the character pin, after which he took both tongues into his own mouth and sucked them. [The Chinese character pǐn 品 has three mouths (rectangles); it has several senses related to “quality /rank”, and can mean a tasty sample.]
Placing his penis between her thighs, he gave her vulva such a massaging that the inside began to itch abominably and fluid naturally ran out, after which he felt like a heavily laden boat floated off a sand bar.– p. 213
With that he began a series of earthshaking thrusts. Although Pearl’s vagina was deep, the heart of the flower was extremely shallow, and he needed to penetrate only an inch or two before touching and teasing it, so that every thrust hit the mark. After several hundred thrusts she was in a desperate state and kept crying out, “Dearest, I’m not just half dead, I’m completely dead! Have mercy!” — p. 232
Vesperus would get the three sisters to lie side by side, while he himself rolled here and there from body to body, never touching the bed, but making love wherever he fancied as he worked his way from one side to the other. Luckily none of the women possessed a great deal of sexual stamina, and after thrusts ranging in number from one hundred to two hundred, they would want to spend. When the woman in the middle had spent, he would move to the one on the left, and when she had spent, he would turn to her neighbour on the right. — p. 239
Vesperus placed the head of his penis against the heart of the flower and waited while she finished her orgasm, then resumed thrusting. — p. 255
“It takes between one and two thousand strokes to get me to spend, and even then you have to put in a great deal of extra effort.” — p. 255
[an example of the well-sketched courtship rituals. Quan has joined the Iron Door household as a manservant, intent on seducing Jade Scent. He lets her overhear him making love to his new wife. p.209-11: ]
On previous nights he had blown out the lamp before going to bed, but on this occasion, as if he knew someone was watching and wanted to show off his effects, he neither blew out the lamp nor let down the screen. Before entering Ruyi, he told her to fondle his penis, which was over eight inches long and too big to be grasped. By this time her well-reamed vagina was no longer too tight, and Quan extended all of his powers. The number of his thrusts compared well with what Jade Scent had read of in her books, for he refused to stop until he had given several thousand, by which time Ruyi had graduated from acute discomfort to the most acute pleasure. In fact the fluid that resulted from her observing exceeded that of the sexual act itself, and not only were her trousers wet, even the top part of her stockings was damp.
Henceforth Jade Scent was obsessed with Quan. He, for his part, changed his tune the moment he entered the household, dropping his prudish ways completely. Whenever he met Jade Scent, he stole glance after glance at her. If she smiled, he smiled too, and if she looked sad, he responded with a sad look of his own.
One day she was taking a bath in her room, when he passed by and happened to cough. She realized who it was and, hoping to arouse his desires by getting him to look at her, called out, “I’m taking a bath in here! Whoever that is outside, don’t come in!”
Quan knew she meant it in the sense of there’s no money here. Not wishing to disappoint her, he moistened a tiny patch on the paper window and observed her from above.
Jade Scent saw there was someone outside the window and knew it must be Quan. Previously she had had her back to the window, but now she turned around until her breasts and vulva faced it directly, offering them for his inspection. Lest the most important part of all be half hidden underwater, she lay back and spread her legs, giving him a full frontal view. Then, after lying like that for a while, she sat up, cradled her vulva in both hands, looked at it, and heaved a deep sigh, as if to say she was longing for a chance to put it to use.
At this sight Quan’s desires flared up until they could no longer be held in check. Moreover, he knew that her desire was at its height and that she felt bitterly frustrated. If he did not accept the invitation to her party, he would be blamed, and conversely, if he did accept it, he would never be turned away. He pushed the door open, burst in, and kneeling down in front of her, pleaded, “your slave deserves to die!” Then, scrambling to his feet, he took her in his arms.
Jade Scent pretended to be shocked. “How dare you take such liberties!”
[when they meet at night, he realizes she is too tight and the pain was too much. p. 212]
He raised his penis and rubbed it on both sides of the vulva. Afraid not only to enter the inner room but even to ascend the hall [a reference to Confucius’ Analects], he thrust away between her thighs. Why do you suppose he did this? He was employing the method known as Clearing Away the Rocks to Get the Spring Flowing. The best lubricant in the world is vaginal fluid… Spit, although acceptable is simply no match. The water from another spring is never as good as one’s own. – p.213
This book is a classic that is sexy, witty, fast-paced and fun to read even if you don’t like “classics.” It also has interesting philosophical aspects that raise it above the level of simply an entertaining read. Some of these philosophical points are raised in the “Critique” sections that come at the end of every chapter (probably written by a friend of Li Yu’s).
The novel’s main character is Vesperus, an extremely talented scholar who has two ambitions in life: “to be the most brilliant poet in the world” and “to marry the most beautiful girl in the world” (p. 24). Vesperus is warned by the Buddhist monk Lone Peak that this second quest will lead him to numerous wicked acts. Because he wants only the most beautiful woman, he will never be satisfied with any woman he marries, and will even commit adultery with other married women if they seem more beautiful to him. And because of the law of karmic retribution, Vesperus will be punished, either in this life or the next, for his evil deeds. Vesperus scoffs at this admonition, so Lone Peak advises, “gain your enlightenment on the carnal prayer mat; then you’ll discover the truth” (p. 30).
What makes this novel so philosophically interesting is that we’re never sure quite what perspective the novel takes on all this. At a surface level, the novel is a straightforward moral tale. In an introductory chapter, Li Yu tells us that he wants to teach people that a moderate amount of sex within marriage is good, but that excessive sex or sex outside of marriage is dangerous. He claims that his explicit sexual descriptions “are all designed to lure people into reading on until they reach the denouement, at which point they will understand the meaning of retribution and take heed” (p. 11). And, indeed, the life of Vesperus does follow a path that suggests such a message.
However, there is much in the text that is potentially subversive. For example, Vesperus learns, to his surprise, that he is very poorly endowed compared to most men. Li Yu describes this as an opportunity for him to curb his inappropriate lust, comparing him to two Confucian sages noted for their sexual restraint: “Who knows, perhaps Lu Nanzi, who shut his door against an importunate widow, and Liuxia Hui, who kept his self-control with a girl on his knee, may have shared these very thoughts of his, thoughts that may have made them the leading paragons of all time” (pp. 105-106). Chinese thinkers were sophisticated enough to realize that virtue requires appropriate motivation, and that fear of sexual inadequacy is not a virtuous motivation for sexual restraint.
In addition, Li Yu advises us, “Clearly it is wrong to study the bedroom art, for once learned, it tends to corrupt our thinking” (p. 117). But this novel itself is, in part, a treatise on “the bedroom art.” There are learned disquisitions on the proper use of pillows in positioning a woman’s body (p. 151 ff.), on the advantages of plumper women over skinnier ones in bed (p. 253 ff.), and on the importance of women taking an active role during intercourse, as by “Lowering the Yin to Join the Yang” (i.e., female superior position — p. 280 ff.).
The novel also makes extensive plays on the Confucian classics in ways that sometimes suggest subversive irreverence. Many of these references are to the ancient Confucian Mengzi (also known as Mencius). In fact, Li Yu explicitly compares himself to Mencius (pp. 9-11), who avoided taking an overly puritanical tone with a ruler fond of sex, in order to more successfully direct him toward benevolent government. (See Philip J. Ivanhoe and Bryan W. Van Norden, eds. Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy, reprint [Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2003], p. 120.) The learned translator, Patrick Hanan, catches many such references, but I suspect that he misses a few. For instance, Vesperus’s wife reads some erotic novels, and notices that the men in the stories are described as being much better endowed than her husband. She is not sure what to make of this, since she has never been with another man. She concludes, “Better to have no books at all then to believe everything you read” (p. 207). Hanan puts this in quotation marks, so he recognizes that it is a quotation from something. In fact, it is probably from Mencius 7B3, in which he comments on the Book of History. Drawing this parallel hints that the Confucian classic, the Book of History, is on a level ethically and intellectually with popular erotica (such as The Carnal Prayer Mat itself).
But a simple subversive reading seems inadequate too. The eventual downfall of Vesperus and those whom he entangles in his web is artfully complex, but it does not seem contrived or implausible. In a truly great novel, the author does not try to force the characters to illustrate any particular moral. He creates them and lets them do what they must do, given who they are and the situations they are in. Great novels are ethically complex because life is ethically complex. The Carnal Prayer Mat achieves this kind of greatness, but for that reason it defies easy ethical summation.