Showing posts with label Manchu. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Manchu. Show all posts

Tuesday 11 April 2023

Jin Ping Mei rides again

When, years ago, I studied Chinese at Leeds University, there was a set of volumes that resided only in the stacks downstairs in the Brotherton Library. It was the famous erotic novel, Jin Ping Mei (JPM), also known as The Plum in the Golden Vase, or The Golden Lotus. I have no idea whether it was in translation or in the original Chinese as I never ventured down there to find out. But about fifteen years ago, I was in Hong Kong airport and picked up the complete 1939 Clement Edgerton (and Lao She) translation which, though old, had just been reissued. I read it and enjoyed it enormously. 

For anyone wanting to know more about JPM, there is an extensive Wikipedia entry, which helpfully summarises the story as ‘ostensibly set during the years 1111–1127 … it centers on Ximen Qing (西門慶), a corrupt social climber and lustful merchant who is wealthy enough to marry six wives and concubines…. After Pan Jinlian secretly murders her husband, Ximen Qing takes her as one of his wives. The story follows the domestic sexual struggles of the women within his household as they clamor for prestige and influence amidst the gradual decline of the Ximen clan.’

So much, briefly, by way of background. However, I am not reviewing JPM itself in this post, but a fascinating and detailed collection of essays about the novel, delightfully called JPM – A Wild Horse in Chinese Literature. This is an impressive work of scholarship, with more than thirty contributors from all over the world. The essays shed a fascinating light on Chinese culture and society in the period in which the novel is set and in which it was written the early seventeenth century. It looks at its travels in translation into the rest of the world, and the processes and challenges of that translation.

JPM is noted (notorious?) for its graphically-described sexual episodes, even though its defenders point out they account for only a tiny proportion of the total text, around 20,000 Chinese characters (汉字). One of the most interesting essays in Wild Horse traces its treatment in China post-1949. Marja Kaikkonen (Chapter 13), writes: ‘The literary histories of the PRC left out any mention of JPM, nor was the book presented in literature classes at universities…. In the early PRC, no one dared to publish JPM until Mao Zedong had encouraged it. Mao’s comments on JPM are cherished even today: who else would have dared to do it? At a 1957 meeting with high-level cadres, Mao is quoted as having said: “JPM can be used for reference, but the episodes where women are humiliated are bad. Province Party secretaries can have a look at it.”’ By the 1980s, ‘People of the rank of senior editors and above were allowed to buy the book,’ though the extortionate price must have limited its circulation. Although unexpurgated versions are now available in the PRC, Kaikkonen concludes: ‘Whatever those reasons may be, Jin Ping Mei remains as sensitive as a thorn in the flesh.’ This is borne out by Wu Gan’s comment in Chapter 24 of Wild Horse, that JPM ‘…inevitably had some naturalist depictions of sex (some of which are essential for characterization). Such depictions, which take up fewer than 20,000 Chinese characters, can be considered a minor flaw of the novel.’ [my emphasis] 

The same moral sensitivities have faced translators and their publishers: Clement Edgerton translated all the erotic descriptions not into English but into Latin. Confining access to the novel to Province Party secretaries (in China) or those who can read Latin (in the UK) seems to follow the same logic: writing which endangers social morals must only be available to males, and only as long as they are of the educated ruling class. (I can’t help being reminded of the words of the judge at the obscenity trial of DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover: ‘Is it a book you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?’) 

Wild Horse also includes essays on the sexual vocabulary used in Chinese, the puns and innuendo, and ways of analysing the occurrence of selected words by using corpus linguistics tools. As for the translation process, Keith MacMahon, in Chapter 14, writes: ‘Problems of translation are also a matter of the lack of equivalent words and images, or the mismatch between them. It is safe to say that the repertoire of the language of sex in late Ming China is richer than that of the contemporary English-speaking world, whose lexicon tends to either scientific terminology… or else profanity.’ On the subject of which, Lintao Qi, in Chapter 15, writes amusingly about how JPM has on occasion been adapted/abridged and re-written as pure erotica in English, the exact opposite approach to that of bowdlerisation.

There are essays about the translators of JPM into other languages. The first translation was into Manchu ‘…. in the course of [the Qing dynasty’s] assiduous efforts to adapt to Chinese culture’ (Martin Gimm, Chapter 20), only a century after it first appeared in Chinese. But who knew that the first German translation, completed in 1869 by Hans Conon von der Gabelentz, was from the Manchu not the Chinese? Or that the first part of the German translation by the Kibat brothers (both of whom taught themselves Chinese) fell victim to Hitler’s book-burning and had to be done again, in secrecy. 

On a completely different aspect of the novel, Lucie Olivová, a Czech translator, looks atThe Architecture of Ximen Qing’s Residence’ in Chapter 23. Translating the most basic terminology, like the word for ‘home’, she says, poses a challenge: ‘In the Czech tradition, house (dům) means a single building, large or small. In sharp contrast, the traditional Chinese house (siheyuan 四合院) is made up of several courtyards arranged along a central axis, with small single buildings surrounding one or more square and oblong courts (Olivová 2008: 82–85). In other words, the traditional house is a compound composed according to given rules that Europeans are usually not familiar with. It would therefore be misleading to use the word dům.’ And that is before she addresses the many different garden features for which we have no equivalent: ‘…lou , ge , xuan , ting , juanpeng 卷棚, etc.’ I know from my own experience as a translator that visualizing a scene and understanding the geography in a novel can be a huge challenge. Whether it is the loess plateau, with its particular geographical features, in Jia Pingwa’s novels and stories, or the ancestral home at number 8, Xi Shu Yuan Street in Nanchang that Rao Pingru visited as a child and describes in his memoirs, Our Story.  It is tantalising when you know that the author has a perfectly clear image in their head, if only they could transmit it to you. But for Olivová and other translators, the author has been dead for centuries. Compounding the difficulties is that fact that: ‘the information that can be extracted from the novel is meagre, fragmentary, and scattered across the text.’ 

In English, the Egerton/Lao She translation has withstood the test of time: it has been republished with the Wade-Giles transliterations replaced with pinyin and the Latin passages translated into English, as The Golden Lotus: Jin Ping Mei (Tuttle Classics), with an introduction by Robert E. Hegel. That was the one I picked up in the airport. There is also now a new and highly-praised translation by David Tod Roy, entitled The Plum in the Golden Vase, in five volumes, (Princeton University Press, 1993-2013), a complete and annotated translation of the 1610 edition of JPM. For anyone making a foray into either of these versions, I recommend Wild Horse as a companion. It will enrich your reading and may even make you smile.