Chinese Porn

Here’s a title that might raise the odd eyebrow—although the single eyebrow elevation is beyond the reach of most people, and there are in fact websites that provide instruction in that area.

I first went to China almost twenty years ago, a time when Mao suits, little red books, and bicycles were very much in evidence, and I remember switching on the TV and watching the adverts in fascination.

Long ads mean cheap rates, and in the Middle Kingdom ads were endless—certainly not the case nowadays in the China of Huai Dan, one of the characters in Atmos Fear.

A product to resolve constipation was advertised with lurid gastroenteric cartoons, fading to a happy Chinaman emerging from the toilet with a broad grin. The ad was almost as long as the bowel movement.

In those days, almost all toilets were in terrible condition, so just the exit from pungence would be a happy ending. For me, it usually meant the end of apnea, the blissful return to oxygen. In those days, Chinese public restrooms, whether in a restaurant or a university, needed no signage—olfact was more than sufficient.

Back in the nineties, men’s trousers in China had no fly. As a result, the only way for the physiologically challenged comrade to extract his willy and hold forth was to undo the belt and lower the trousers. It was therefore not unusual to go through the door and be confronted with a row of bare bottoms.

Interesting, but it pales (sorry) in comparison to the arrangements on the expressway from Qingdao to Rongsheng City, in the northeast province of Shandong. The gentlemen’s public facilities there consisted of a brick wall and an inner concrete ledge, running across the room. No stalls were available. Between the wall and the ledge was a ditch that conveyed both liquid and solid products outward into the planetary biogeochemical cycle.

When you walked in, some men faced the wall, buttockal area proudly prominent, engaged in a number one. Interspersed, others faced you, perched on the ledge, deeply concentrated on a number two, their trousers flapping about their ankles.

Rest assured it was a tricky business, more so for those teetering on the ledge, their faces grim with contracted equilibrium, than for those happily displaying their gluteal globes to the wandering westerner.

Around that time, an American complained vehemently to our hotel manager that his bathroom smelt of tobacco after the chambermaids left, only to discover when the problem was solved the whole room smelt of sewage. Cigarette smoke was in fact the most effective deodorant the maids could muster.

What you never saw on TV was even the slightest hint of sex. No ladies in any state of disrobement, not even a kiss. Any interplay between man and woman was typically accompanied by dancing reminiscent of the Victorian era, and death by violins.

Lost in memories of the Portuguese revolution, I half-expected a stalwart peasant to emerge at any moment from the background hills, armed with hammer and sickle, his gaze aimed at the far horizon of the Marxist dream.

There is a different China, of course, represented by the massage parlors that abound in hotels, usually adjacent to the karaoke bar, or lurking in the basement. But apart from that netherworld, any evidence of sex is not visible, in any kind of media—and there’s no such thing as adult pay tv.

So I was intrigued, on my way back through London last month, to read about a Chinese pornographic masterpiece, an anonymous volume from the XVIth century, written by a man from Shandong who called himself the Scoffing Scholar of Lanling. This was penned at a time when the Portuguese were reaping the benefits of The India Road, and setting up trading posts in Macao, Malacca, Mumbai, and other far-flung spots.

This volume, or actually a set of five volumes, was translated by David Tod Roy, a scholar of things Chinese, and is a monumental work of one thousand pages in the original—but if the first translated volume is anything to go by, the end product will be closer to three thousand five hundred pages. Apparently Chin P’ing Mei, the Plum in the Golden Vase, was considered so obscene that the earlier English translations were interspersed with Latin for the more graphic sections.

The Plum in the Golden Vase, or Chin P'ing Mei, in a version from the time of emperor Wanli, in the late 1500's.

The Plum in the Golden Vase, or Chin P’ing Mei, in a version from the time of emperor Wanli, in the late 1500’s.

Roy, who is a professor emeritus at Princeton, and the brother of a former U.S. ambassador to China, devoted his energies to produce a scholar’s edition of the Chin P’ing Mei.

I’ve been reading the first volume, and I find it fascinating.

So far, one quarter of the way into the book, it’s about as pornographic as either of my books, which is to say not at all. That doesn’t mean it has no sex scenes, but there’s nothing distasteful in the context or placement.

The preparations for Hsi-men Ch’ing’s affair with the young wife of Wu the elder, a wheat cake street vendor, are established by a matchmaker, Dame Wang. She stipulates five conditions for the man to succeed, the first three of which are:

No. 1: He must have the looks of P’an Yueh
No. 2: He must have the member of a donkey
No.3: He must have the wealth of Teng T’ung

On the second count, Hsi-men Ch’ing informs the matchmaker that:

…in my younger days I frequented the streets and alleys of the licensed quarter and reared a ‘turtle’ of prodigious size.

I confess ‘turtle’ is a new one on me. One of the houses in the book is located on Stinkwater Lane, which very aptly is just off Hogmarket street. Points are often illustrated with a short poem, prefaced by the words there is a poem that testifies to this.

Pornography this is not. It is however an extremely well-written, and even more unusually, well-translated, account of Chinese society during the Ming dynasty.

The Plum in the Golden Vase reflects the common practices of rich men with consorts and concubines, the structure of society, including the desperate poverty and suffering of most, and the endemic corruption, illustrated by the bribery of the coroner to attest to the natural death of Wu the Elder, poisoned by his young wife—the venom of choice was arsenic, just as for the Perfect Prince.

Wine is forever being consumed in this book, and given the author is from Shandong, a province which is not for the faint-hearted, I wonder if the tipple of choice is maotai, the evil sorghum distillate that I often consumed at Chinese banquets.

Shandong now produces some pretty good hong putau jiu, or red wine (red grape alcohol), particularly in the Yantai area, but the French only taught that art to the Chinese well after this book was written. If maotai was being consumed, then several of the cast travel through the Chin P’ing Mei in a state of permanent intoxication.

Emperor Wanli. In the last period of his reign, he would refuse to receive his ministers for years at a time.

Emperor Wanli. In the last period of his reign, he would refuse to receive his ministers for years at a time.

While the Portuguese were busy opening up Asia to the West, Emperor Wanli, linked to the decline of the Ming dynasty,  was entertaining himself with his two wives and fifteen concubines. Although the emperor’s era name means ‘ten thousand calendars’, he probably had his hands full.

The Chin P’ing Mei provides wonderful images of this period—it’s an easy, fun way to learn about Zhong Guo, the Middle Kingdom.

I’m still waiting for the raunchy scenes to materialize, I’m worried about my choice of Christmas gifts until I swipe that last page—perhaps like Atmos Fear you’ll need to get near the end before any really explicit sex.

Volume one of the Plum in the Golden Vase is called The Gathering. It’s published by Princeton University Press, an imprint not known for its pornographic titles. The analog version is out of print, but I’ve gone digital.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

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