This is the fifth “unofficial” classical Chinese novel. Which was banned. Because sexy times…

Written by:
The Scoffing Scholar of Lanling during the Ming Dynasty (circa. 1600AD)
Translated by David Tod Roy

So when I finished the Four Classical novels, I found out there was actually a fifth “unofficial” classic, called The Plum in the Golden Vase. The reason it’s an unofficial classic is the fact the book was banned (for most of its published history!) for its explicit and poetic depictions of sexual activity. If only they knew what the internet would bring…

The Plum in the Golden Vase starts with some characters from Water Margin, namely Wu Song the tiger killer, his brother, his sister-in-law Pan Jinlin and her soon to be lover Ximen Ching. Because Ximen and Pan start an affair and murder Wu the Elder, Wu Song kills the two (quite brutally I might add), and is subsequently exiled for extra-judicial murder.

In Plum in the Golden Vase, Wu Song still goes about killing people for revenge, but he kills somebody that is totally unrelated to the murder of his brother. He’s exiled just the same, though, leaving Ximen and Pan to their pleasures.

From the outset, this book is written in a similar style and structure to Water Margin, and the length is comparable as well. The tale of the rise of Ximen Ching and his profligate use of his little man, his penchant for women and depravity is certainly entertaining, if not downright hilarious. Of course, it’s only funny because the irony of his lifestyle is that everyone actually hates him.

You also can’t read this book and not comment on the sexy times depicted. Using poetry, puns and innuendo – which I’m sure is far more effective in its original language – the book pokes fun at the rich and powerful at the time, by portraying one of them as a depraved and nasty human being prone to avarice and jealousy.

I must admit that there aren’t many decent ebook versions of it in English though, and the only one I could find was the translation by David Tod Roy. It’s a good translation, the pinyin is probably a bit outdated, but you’ll get used to it. Of course, it’s also filled to the brim with notes and annotations, so much so that when I had finished Part One, my Kindle said that I’d only read 57 per cent of the actual text.

The Plum in the Golden Vase is definitely an entertaining book, in so many ways. It’s funny, extremely over the top and just a little naughty. It is probably the antithesis of A Dream of Red Mansions, which deals largely with the same subject matter. But reading it doesn’t feel like walking through a literary desert. It feels like you’re at IMAX, watching with 3D glasses.

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