Jin Ping Mei, an anonymous work of the late sixteenth century first published circa 1618, is the earliest major Chinese changpian xiaoshuo, or "novel," that depicts everyday life in all its corporeal plenitude.(1) Noted for lively descriptions and colorful characters, it consists almost entirely of borrowed materials, from fragments of other novels to popular songs. As both a mimesis of Chinese life and an intertextual construction, the novel has been frequently misunderstood. "Its generous inclusion of songs and jokes, of mundane and Buddhist tales, constantly mars the naturalistic texture of its narrative," making the unfounded assumption that "naturalism," writes one scholar, a Western category, was ever a conscious factor in the production of the Chinese novel.(2)
Recently, however, scholars have approached the novel in the context of Chinese literary history. Most prominently, Andrew Plaks has delved into various seventeenth-century Chinese commentaries to inform his own interpretation of the work as a brilliant example of the "literati novel."(3) But Plaks's reading also reveals a certain Western critical bias in its insistence on unity or interpretive closure in the Jin Ping Mei. To counter this bias I will focus on the reading of seventeenth-century commentator Zhang Zhupo (1670-98), who argues that only an interactive, creative reader will recognize the Jin Ping Mei as a superior work of literature; others will be "deceived" by the author and risk kistaking it for pornography or, perhaps worse, political allegory. Reading is a process within an open-ended work, not the apprehension of a fixed meaning in a sealed-off text: the authorial control behind the mimetic dimension of the novel yields to the voices of its borrowed texts, including ultimately the "text" of each reader's interpretation. Zhang's commentary concretizes his voice without excluding new ones.
The unity of a work and the author's intention are the central problems for reader-response criticism. Who controls the text, author or reader, is an unresolved dilemma. However, in Mikhail Bakhtin's dialogic potential, which problematizes the expected textual unity, we find, if not a resolution, then a continuum from authorial control to reader response: the very tension between author and reader defines the novel. Bakhtin's genre categories, by including the role of different readers over the historical unfolding of a work, contribute to a better understanding of how the Chinese xiaoshuo develops into something recognizably akin to the Western novel. Commentary played a central role in forming that genre, roughly in the century between the appearance of the first great novels and their acceptance as legitimate literature. Zhang's commentary freezes a moment in that process, providing a forum to expand Bakhtin's concepts within a narrative tradition where full authorial control, or unity, was never a primary goal.
In the introduction to his translation of the Jin Ping Mei, David Roy cites Bakhtin and writes: "Whether or not the above-mentioned antinomies in the [Jin Ping Mei] are ultimately susceptible of resolution, I believe that the author of the novel hoped that his readers would attempt to resolve them, and that this endeavor would result in an enhanced, rather than a diminished, appreciation of his artistry. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is precisely in the struggle to reconcile these antinomies that the meaning of the work resides" (xlv). Though reader interaction is crucial to meaning formation in the text, Roy's centering of the author and the author's intentions closes off the historical process in which successive readers reconcile the antinomies in the novel. Zhang implies that each reader may find new resolutions to antinomies the author may have unintentionally included in the work. In Bakhtinian terms, the author has abdicated "surplus" knowledge in favor of future readers, creating a polyphony of reading. As commentator, Zhang risks closing the text to future resolutions of antinomies he may have overlooked, yet he resists a totalizing interpretation and encourages future readers outright to reach their own conclusions - with notable limitations.
Any juxtaposition of "Western" theory with "Eastern" texts leads to a crucial question concerning the formal difference of literary criticism. Like most Chinese literary "theory," Zhang's insights are inscribed on the work in question, printed as prefaces, prechapter comments, interlinear comments, and marginalia. Bakhtin, on the other hand, writes the usual "Western" essays on various topics, citing particular works to illustrate wider points. Though the concepts of reading revealed in their works share important similarities, the power of Zhang's commentary and Bakhtin's narrative theory to illuminate each other stems largely from their formal idiosyncrasies. Bakhtin's abstract terms clarify Zhang's examples, and Zhang's extreme particularity exemplifies Bakhtin's intersubjective vision of the novel.
With a caution against reading our own biases into works alien in time, place, or language, Bakhtin also warns against confining a work to its own moment of production. Interpretation requires both subjectivity and objectivity: "A meaning only reveals its depths once it has encountered and come into contact with another, foreign meaning: they engage in a kind of dialogue, which surmounts the closedness and one-sidedness of these particular meanings, these cultures."(4) Zhang Zhupo's commentary has two advantages. As a compatriot of the Jin Ping Mei's unknown author, probably of similar class and education, Zhang offers an insider's "subjective" view. But since he lived a century later, after the Jin Ping Mei had earned notoriety and admiration, he also expresses the outsider's "objective" hindsight. For Bakhtin, great novels grow in meaning over time in ways unforeseen by the author, owing to the vitality of linguistic elements and the "potential" inherent in every genre. Zhang, too, sees his commentary as a revelation of hidden "depths" of meaning in the novel, overlooked in the century since its writing. Taking our turn, we find hidden depths in Zhang's sometimes offhand and oft-dismissed commentary, which elucidates a seventeenth-century Chinese work that fascinates partly because it often seems so "modern."(5)
Pornography and the Author
Almost certainly written by a literatus, the Jin Ping Mei circulated in various manuscripts among a coterie of friends, including famous scholars, before its first publication. In 1606 the writer Shen Defu (1578-1642), who greatly admired its style, described how he fended off a friend's suggestion that he publish a partial manuscript copy in his possession: "Although eventually someone was bound to publish the book, once published it would circulate from person to person and from household to household, corrupting men's minds. And if one day Yama [the king of hell] were to tax me with setting off this catastrophe, what excuse should I be able to offer?"(6)
About twelve years later, the novel was indeed published. Widely perceived as pornographic, owing to the graphic depiction of the characters' sexual exploits, it became (as a result?) ever more popular, with at least fourteen editions in the seventeenth century alone, encompassing three distinct versions. The last version is Zhang's 1695 commentary edition, which became the standard recension until recently. The history of attempts to censor the novel is vague, and in the turbulent latter years of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) little official attention was paid to the relatively new literary form. However, it seems that after a 1687 edict and a 1725 clause in the legal code of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), both condemning obscene fiction, later editions of the Jin Ping Mei were marked with a 1695 imprint, presumably to deflect suspicion that the law had been ignored.(7) In any case, the Manchu founders of the Qing were far more concerned with curbing anti-Manchu literature than with improving public morals.
The plot is a greatly expanded retelling of a key chapter from the earlier novel Shuihu Zhuan, or the Water Margin,(8) in which the outlaw Wu Song avenges his brother who has been killed by his errant wife Lotus (Pan Jinlian) and her lover, the wealthy and corrupt Ximen Qing. The Jin Ping Mei, set in the last years of the Northern Song dynasty (960-1126),(9) describes the expansion of Ximen's power, his acquisition of six wives and concubines, including Lotus, along with numerous servants and courtesans, his eventual death from sexual exhaustion, the disintegration of his household, the bloody vengeance visited upon Lotus by her brother-in-law, and, eventually, the conquest of North China by the Tartars and the end of Ximen's line as his only surviving son becomes a Buddhist monk. A patchwork of borrowed materials - from the Water Margin chapter to vernacular short stories, court edicts, poems, and popular songs - becomes reconfigured within the account of Ximen Qing's fortunes.(10) The story takes place in a populous North China trading center, and the various inhabitants - courtesans, magistrates, scholars, pedants, matchmakers, nuns, priests, actors - speak in their own jargons. The hodgepodge of genres and voices comes together more or less cohesively and resonates strongly with Bakhtin's definition of novelistic discourse as the orchestration of heteroglossia.
Zhang Zhupo argues persuasively that the orchestration itself - in his vision a layer of rhetorical and compositional interweaving - is the locus of "hidden meaning" in the Jin Ping Mei. He expresses all of Shen Defu's admiration for the author's skill but none of the fear of Yama's punishment for propagating a "corrupt" work. Nevertheless, as a Confucian literatus with incumbent moral obligations, Zhang undertakes to reconcile the novel's sublime form with its debased content. He begins by attributing high motives to the author: "How is it that the book Jin Ping Mei came into existence? It is said, this [book came about when someone who was] a virtuous man, ambitious scholar, filial son and dutiful younger brother did not succeed in his own time. Above, he could …