It took me over three months to finish reading this 1,332-page Chinese classic novel. There are apparently several popular versions that are based on abridged imprints published under the Chongzhen reign (1627 – 1644). The version I read is one based on the 1617 unabridged imprint published during the Wanli reign (1573 – 1620). This version has a preface written by 欣欣子, who claimed to be a friend of the author’s, and who stated therein the author’s motive for writing the novel. He also confirmed that the author was from the Lanling County of Shandong Province, which explains why the novel was written in the Lanling vernacular. (The direct translation of the author’s pen name is “The Scoffing Scholar of Lanling”.)
The story is a spin-off of one of the sub-stories in Water Margin (one of the four great Chinese classic novels) about Pan Jinlian who murders her husband when her adultery with wealthy merchant Ximen Qing is discovered, and who is subsequently killed by her husband’s brother, the tiger-slayer Wu Song. Outside of this particular episode, Jin Ping Mei has an entirely different plot and cast of characters. It is about the libertine life of middle-class merchant Ximen Qing and his concubine Pan Jinlian, and how their vices lead to self-destruction.
As for the title name, each character represents the given name of one of the three female protagonists: “Jin” is “Pan Jinlian” (a concubine of Ximen Qing’s); Ping is “Li Ping’er” (another of his concubines); Mei is “Pang Chunmei” (a housemaid who rises in status).
On a deeper level, the character “Jin” is a symbol for money, “Ping” is a symbol for alcohol and “Mei” symbolizes sex.
The major difficulty in reading this classic is the vernacular. It takes a little getting used to. The story is set in Northern Song dynasty (960 – 1127), but the contents reflect the decadent and corrupt gentry lifestyle of the Ming Dynasty.
The novel’s greatest strength lies in the detailed description of day-to-day living of people in the middle-class as well as those in lower classes, from food, to clothes, to etiquette, to traditional customs. It is true there are also graphic descriptions of sex, which was the reason why the novel was officially banned most of the time. It is also true that the novel is much more than about sex. The whole novel is premised on a “karma” theme: that retribution will be exacted on those who embrace lust, greed and doing harm to others.
In my view, this novel should be categorized as realism fiction. A society that tries to ban such a novel is a hypocritical society.
I’m giving this classic 3.5 stars, rounded up.