The Plum in the Golden Vase or, Chin P’ing Mei: Volume Three: The Aphrodisiac
Every year, I read a book from “The Plum in the Golden Vase”, translated by David Tod Roy. On Sunday afternoon, I finished “Volume Three: The Aphrodisiac“.
(As a side note, I’m looking on Amazon right now, and they only have the fourth volume in hardcover, and no listing for volume five. Apparently David Tod Roy died before he had the chance to finish the series, and this means I’m going to have to switch translators. I feel some literary trauma coming on…)
So why’s it titled that?
I think I’ve mentioned this before, but the story is about Hsi-men Ch’ing, an upwardly mobile, wealthy, not-entirely-nice, frequently drunk, bribe-taking, bribe-giving, sex addict. His story actually starts out at the end of the first book of this particular version of “Outlaws of the Marsh” (which I know, because I’m also reading that, and I just finished the first book the other day…), a tale written 200 years prior. Do you know what this means? It means that “Plum” was actually a fanfic. …And a dirty one. A very, very dirty one. (And, like all good fanfics, it also happens to include some yaoi. Awesome.)
Anyway, this book felt a little random and scattered, but it’s not exactly easy to read, and I’m totally aware I’m missing stuff. I’ve never wanted to take a class solely devoted to a book quite like I’ve wanted to for this: if they teach this story somewhere, then I want in on it! There are poems and songs up the yin-yang, and I bet they’re all there for a reason; unfortunately, I’m not all that great with poetry, and I’m terribly impatient, so I wound up just skipping over it all and reading the footnotes in hopes of clues (which sometimes, but not always, worked). Also, there are so many characters in this thing that I’m totally certain I was missing massive plot points. …Luckily, though, by the end, I was starting to feel like I was getting a somewhat reasonable grip on everything that had slid away from me. Also, chapters 53-57 aren’t original, and they create for an interesting intermission: you don’t realize how brilliant the proper writing is until you get the cold splash of water that is the mundane clunkiness of these oddly concocted sections.
So where was I? Oh! Right!
What’s this thing about, anyway?
Well! It’s about Hsi-men Ch’ing and his second wife, his fistful of concubines, his mistress, his courtesans, and that one guy he nails for a chapter or two. Oh, and some other stuff: like how he’s really corrupt, and how everybody around him is corrupt, and how he drinks and eats a lot. There’s a lot going on in this thing. That’s probably why it’s so bloody long.
The first chunk of this particular volume was obnoxiously dull. Maybe something was going on that I missed, but it seemed like all they were doing was eating, then drinking, then eating, then drinking. I swear, if I don’t ever see the word “repast” for the rest of my life, it’ll be too soon.
But then there’s a murder, so that helps.
Also, there’s a priest who sells him a magical aphrodisiac. The priest looks like genitalia. And, if you don’t catch on to this – I didn’t because I’m not observant – the translator dryly points it out in the footnotes. …Once you pick up on it, though, the whole scene is fantastically hysterical and worth a reread.
So the priest sells the sex addict an incredibly potent version of Viagra… And the sex addict promptly goes about nailing everything in sight. And, hey, there are pictures. Raunchy pictures. Raunchy pictures of Hsi-men Ch’ing whipping his little Hsi-men out and showing people. You get to see it. It’s right there. He starts putting it into everything.
Further, one of his concubines, P’an Chin-lien, becomes increasingly cranky throughout the course of the book. (And she’s not one to cross: With Hsi-men Ch’ing’s help, she’d rather nastily poisoned the crap out of her former husband until he kinda exploded and stuff.) You see, Li P’ing-erh, one of the other concubines, has managed to have a son… And as soon as that happened, she got all of their husband’s attention. Like, all of it. So Chin-lien starts to get jealous. Wicked, crazy, seething sorts of jealous. By the end of the volume, she’s cursing, and yelling, and she even beats a dog… And that’s not even close to the worst of it.
Oh, and did I mention she’s slowly working on having an affair with Hsi-men’s son-in-law?
Yah. “Volume Three: The Aphrodisiac” might’ve been clunky and slow at points, but overall, it had some brilliant stuff, and now I’m antsy as all get out for the next book in the series. I wanna see what P’an Chin-lien does next, because things between her and Li P’ing-erh are bound to explode at any minute. …And Hsi-men Ch’ing just threw Chin-lien’s cat against the wall, so I’m sure that once he snaps and tries to crack down on his women, it’ll get even more interesting.
Point is: I love this story.