Ding Naifei

Obscene Things:
Sexual Politics in Jin Ping Mei

Durham: Duke University Press, 2002,
333 pp., ISBN: 0-8223-2916-6 paper.

reviewed by Louise Edwards

Ding Naifei has written a highly original study of one of China's most important novels. An anonymous pornographic novel, Jin Ping Mei first circulated in China around 1600. It narrates in intricate detail the rise and fall of an urban merchant, Ximen Qing, his household and family. The novel is a rich historical source for scholars seeking knowledge on the intricacies of daily life in Ming China, as well as providing a ripping good yarn of deceit, ambition, revenge, and jealousy. It is replete with copious pornographic sexual interludes that ultimately warn of the dangers of women's sexuality and of excessive uncontrolled sexual activity. Jin Ping Mei has loomed large in the Chinese psyche for centuries and literary critiques of its significance are legion. Yet, until the publication of Ding's Obscene Things, women scholars of the novel have remained largely silent.

Accordingly, Ding's study of this complex novel commences with an examination of her status as a female researcher of an 'obscene book'. She explains that over the centuries, 'legitimate' study of this book has been the preserve of the male/intellectual in an assertion of his sex and class status. Other readers—women or non-intellectual class men—would not, it was argued, be able to read the novel with sufficient wisdom and 'self-control'. The sex/class attributes of the reader determined whether the book would be pornography or a classic. Ding's volume provides the reader with both a feminist reading of the novel but also a serious study of how the novel has been read. In a deft and thorough analysis of the novel and its reading contexts, Ding's central thesis emerges: 'That obscenity in the text and generations of readings has more to do with a misogynist morality that is shared in varying and different degrees by the text and readers alike. Neither authorial intention nor textual essence imparts its obscenity to the text. Rather, the latter is the joint product of complicit textual and reading processes' (p. 45). Misogyny is the thread that has held the readers and the novel together over centuries.

In her chapter titled 'Jin-ology', Ding outlines the main trends in academic readings of the novel from its inception through to the current period—on the PRC and in Taiwan and Hong Kong as well as outside of Greater China. This important overview of the study of the novel is crucial to a book that aims to 'challenge earlier scholarship' and 'intervene in conventional readings of the novel'. Part One of the book—titled 'Practices'—explores in detail three key Ming-Qing commentaries on the novel: Jin Shengtan's (1608-1661), Yuan Hongdao's (1568-1610) and Zhang Zhupo's (1670-1698). Part Two—'Interventions'—elucidates Ding's own feminist reading of the novel.

In this second section of the book we are drawn into a world of unrelenting misogyny where men's relations with women and animals are dominated by cruelty, disdain and the brutal exercise of power—the world of Jin Ping Mei. In this section of the book, Ding untangles key archetypes from classical Chinese fiction. The literary/political workings of the hero-villain and the licentious woman [yinfu] within the reading culture of Ming, Qing and contemporary China are painstakingly unpacked. We explore with Ding detail of these powerful literary paradigms as they are mobilized within the misogyny of Jin Ping Mei as well as their variants within other classical novels. In particular, Ding draws close connection between narratives of 'violence and seduction' as twin motifs linking Jin Ping Mei and The Water Margin—a chapter from the latter novel formed the origins of the former. Throughout the second section of Obscene Things Ding explores the detailed physicality of the 'bodies' of the mother, concubine and seductress as well as the licentious merchant. The symbolic significance of blood, semen and urine emitting from these bodies are explored along side the power of their props—red shoes, swings, flowers and animal parts.

In sum, this is an outstanding study of an important novel and its traditions of 'legitimate' readership (as well as a remarkable 'illegitimate' challenge to these traditions). It will inform scholarship on classical fiction well into the future and any students or academics working on masculinity, femininity and sexuality in literature will find the insights in Obscene Things invaluable. For non-China specialists reading Intersections, David T. Roy published an excellent translation of the Jin Ping Mei in 1993 under the title The Plum in the Golden Vase or Chin P'ing Mei, Princeton University Press.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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From February 2008, this paper has been republished in Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific from the following URL: intersections.anu.edu.au/issue9/edwards_review.html.

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