Reflections on a braised pig's head: food and vernacular storytelling in jin ping mei.

Author:Llang, Yan
Position::Critical essay
 
FREE EXCERPT

Jin Ping Mei (The Plum in the Golden Vase, hereafter JPM) is a sixteenth-century vernacular novel that explores the everyday life of a parvenu merchant Ximen Qing surrounded by women, servants, and sycophants in a provincial town of northern China,1 The novel was published in the later period of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) under the penname of Lanling xiaoxiaosheng (The Scoffing Scholar from Lanling). There have been numerous conjectures on the real identity of the author, but none of them has been widely accepted. The novel covers a groundbreaking subject for the vernacular novel of its time--the domestic life of the semi-literate women of the affluent merchant class--and the novel is notorious in Chinese literary history for its detailed depiction of Ximen Qing's sex life with his wife, concubines, maids, and many other women of different social classes. The unprecedented subject matter and the scale and depth of its literary presentation demand effective methods for disclosing the inner worlds of the female characters, especially their unspeakable and unspoken thoughts when competing with other women for men's favors. This paper looks at how descriptions of food and dining are used in the novel for the portrayal of female characters' inner worlds, a portrayal that was gr, oundbreaking and innovative in a literary genre that had previously been dominated by a public and male-dominated mode of storytelling.

The principal argument of this essay is that food is effectively employed in JPM as a nar--ratological device to reveal the female characters' inner thoughts that are difficult to voice by the novelist in other ways. Drawing upon previous studies of the novel, I put particular emphasis on the issue of gender. An episode of a New Year's dining party held by Ximen Qing's three concubines in chapter 23 of the novel is analyzed in detail to illustrate the nar--ratological effectiveness of food in the presentation of the female characters' psychology and sensibility, and the power dynamics between them. To demonstrate the historical and literary significance of such use of food, I further contextualize it in the development of the Chinese vernacular novel. fin Ping Mei represents a literary breakthrough with its use of vernacular prose and external details of everyday life to depict female characters' inner feelings and hidden thoughts.

This essay consists of three main sections and some concluding remarks. In the first section I give an overview of the presentations of food in JPM and the different approaches by which they have been studied, in order to highlight the distinctive analytical approach of this paper. The second section provides a close reading of the dining party episode in chapter 23 and an analysis of how food is employed as a narrative trope for character portrayal and plot development in the power dynamics of the Ximen household. In the third section, the use of food in the New Year's party episode is placed in the context of the development of the Chinese vernacular novel as an emerging literary genre and the evolution of vernacular prose as a language for literature in the Ming dynasty. In my concluding remarks, I return to the earliest extant Ming comments on JPM from a time when it was circulating in manuscript among a small group of literati. These comments help to elucidate the literary innovations and narratological ingenuity of JPM displayed in the dining party episode of chapter 23.

BACKGROUND TO THE JIN PING MEI NARRATIVE

AND THE ROLE OF FOOD IN THE NOVEL

The main story of JPM revolves around the life of its protagonist, Ximen Qing. At the beginning of the novel, Ximen Qing is a young, good-looking, virile, and imperious merchant in Qinghe of Shandong Province, a town with lively commercial activities in northern China. His parents died early, and, having no siblings, he is the sole master of the household. Ximen Qing is tyrannical to his wife and concubines at home and an open-handed and dissolute customer in the pleasure district. But at the same time he also knows how to aggressively expand his businesses, make money out of shady deals, and enhance his social status through bribery and currying favors with high officials in the capital. In chapter 70, he is appointed a judicial commissioner of Shandong Province, presiding over the local judicial system. After Ximen Qing's sudden death from over-indulgence in sex in chapter 79, the wealth and businesses that he had accumulated quickly evaporate, accompanied by the scattering of his concubines and the betrayals of his former servants and sycophants. The novel ends with a Buddhist comment on karma and retribution as Ximen Qing's posthumous son takes vows to join a Buddhist temple.

Accompanying (and sometimes connected to) Ximen Qing's pursuit of wealth and social prominence is his unquenchable desire for women and sex. In the Ximen household there are one primary wife and five concubines. In the narrative, a concubine is often referred to as a numbered wife or lady, with the number one reserved for the primary wife (da niang). For example, the fourth concubine Pan Jinlian is addressed as the fifth wife or the fifth lady (wu niang ). Two of the concubines, the third wife Meng Yulou and the sixth wife Li Fing'er ", were rich widows before marrying Ximen Qing and brought with them a considerable dowry. The three other concubines came from humbler backgrounds. The second wife, Li Jiao'er used to be a prostitute. The fourth wife, Sun Xue'e was the maid of Ximen's former primary wife, who died before the novel begins. The fifth wife, Pan Jinlian, used to be the wife of a street peddler whom she murdered in order to marry Ximen. The wives and their interpersonal power dynamics will be discussed in detail in section two of this paper. Ximen Qing is a frequenter of local brothels and often engages in sexual relationships with the wives of men from various social backgrounds, from servants and shop clerks to government officials. The detailed and numerous descriptions of Ximen's sexual adventures inside and outside his household have established JPM as the best-known "dirty book" (yin shu) in Chinese literature.

However, the narrative of JPM covers a much larger scope of late imperial Chinese life than its erotic reputation warrants. Focusing on the everyday activities of Ximen Qing and the women in his life, the novel provides an unprecedentedly detailed portrayal of the domestic and social life of a non-elite household in a commercially vibrant but morally corrupt provincial town in late Ming China.2 The narrative of JPM attracts and challenges literary critics with its naturalistic, encyclopedic, yet fragmentary presentation of the details of everyday life. To an almost obsessive degree, the narrative dwells on the endless pleasure-seeking activities, celebrations, business transactions, affairs, schemes, bickering, and fights that take place every day in the lives of Ximen Qing, his friends and cronies, his wives, and the maids and servants.

The novel's fixation on everyday details results in a loose narrative structure. Many critics have attempted to rationalize this apparent choice of details over structure by seeking explanations in Chinese cultural traditions and, more specifically, in popular and print culture of the late Ming dynasty. For example, Katherine Carlitz (The Rhetoric of Chin ping mei [Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1986]) stresses JPM's ties to the major themes of Chinese intellectual and cultural history and focuses on how the novel borrows from drama, popular songs, poetry, fiction, history, and religious texts of earlier times. Wei Shang discusses JPM's textual borrowing from late Ming popular publications, including daily-life encyclopedias, etiquette handbooks, jest books, and how-to guides, and he concludes that the narrative of JPM "illuminates the ideas, energies, desires, and attitudes that pervade the popular encyclopedias of the time."3 Peter Rushton (The Jin Ping Mei and the Nonlinear Dimensions of the Traditional Chinese Novel [Lewiston, NY.: Edwin Mellon Press, 19941) explains the pluralistic vision and philosophical contradictions in the narrative of JPM with the cosmology of the Chinese people and the religious syncretism in late imperial China. He even borrows from the organismic philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead and the chaos theory of modern theoretical physics to characterize the pluralism in the narrative of JPM. These studies that sift through the material culture, literary traditions, and philosophy of late Ming China to understand the novel's narrative language contribute significantly to our understanding of JPM's rhetoric. Yet food, an important component of everyday life for the characters in the novel, has not received much attention in these studies.

However, there are studies about the food in JPM that take more various and non-literary approaches. Set primarily in Ximen Qing's affluent household, the novel includes abundant and detailed descriptions of food and dining, covering a full range of diet and culinary styles.

Recipes and culinary books have been written based on this nove1.4 Frederick W. Mote ends his treatment of the food history of the Yuan and Ming dynasties with a five-page description of chapter 27 in JPM.(5) In his opinion, the novel "undoubtedly depicts the experience of sensuality in the fullest detail of any traditional Chinese work," and food is explicitly employed as a counterpart and supplement to sex in its narrative. 6 Isaac Yue examines the sexual subjugation of women and the objectification of the female body in JPM through an analysis of the association and parallelism between the female body and food in the language of the nove1.7 Food in JPM is also studied in connection with the material and commercial culture of the late Ming dynasty. This latter approach, epitomized in the cataloguing and analysis of food, drinks, banquets, and food...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP