Friday, 4 December 2015

Review of The Chin P'Ing Mei

I recently read and finished the Chin P'ing Mei, subtitled in my version as The Adventurous Story of the Mandarin and His Six Wives. It's a naturalistic novel set in medieval China and written somewhere around 1590, but don't let that put you off - it is surprisingly readable, at least in my translation by Arthur Waley, and provides a fascinating insight into how people lived during that era. Essentially a social novel, it follows the travails of one extensive family as they rise, and ultimately fall, through the social ranks, and I found it both surprisingly psychologically realistic, especially in its portrayal of the female characters, and also amusingly weird. The characters are all recognisably and authentically human, and in some ways their behaviour is strikingly modern, but all the time you are reminded that this is China and China in 1590 was a very different place to Britain in 2015. (An example: towards the end of the book two women are brutally murdered. But the correct thing to do, to all concerned - including the police - is to leave their bodies lying in the roadside until their murderer is captured. Why? No idea.)

I was also struck by how Yoon-Suinish the whole thing is: anybody who had read Yoon-Suin and this would probably think I was strongly influenced by it. This is a society of bureaucrats and judges, poets, prostitutes, gossip and a certain louche depravity: everybody is after money and sex, but they do it with such decorum that it almost seems polite. I loved it.

Some observations:

1) I've never had six wives, obviously, but the depiction of polygamy in the book struck me as extremely authentic. The women are in a sense rivals, but also in a sense sisters. That fundamental conflict is very sympathetically portrayed: there is an astonishingly moving scene towards the end of the book, indeed, which encapsulates this, as a solitary wife who finds herself living alone realises her profound loneliness without the other five around (despite the fact that she spent the whole book wanting her husband for herself). And while the husband is one of the great fictional anti-heroes and an all round cad, bounder, and whatnot (I reckon he has somewhere around 20 sexual conquests in the book, and isn't averse to having husbands and rivals killed off or falsely imprisoned), you also get a strong sense of his charm. The author was a keen observer of human relationships.

2) The legal system is amazingly corrupt. All the judges are venal and investigators either stupid or amoral. Becoming a judge so you can do away with your enemies on trumped-up charges is a matter of course.

3) While strikingly modern in some aspects, in others it feels a product of a world with a very underdeveloped sense of what a novel should be. The plot is sprawling and has a kind of "broken back" structure in which, three quarters of the way through, the hero dies (that's not a spoiler alert - the chapter titles all tell you what happens in each chapter) and we suddenly find ourselves following the exploits of his dissolute son-in-law for the last portion of the book. The author also starts off by presenting us with a story which is apparently going to focus on Hsi Men, the hero, and his gang of male drinking partners. But within a chapter or two this is abandoned and the plot becomes more and more about the relationships between the different wives and concubines and Hsi Men himself. The drinking partners appear from time to time, but have basically no role to play in the story. It's as though the author slowly but surely became more interested in the wives than the men - and indeed that's where the reader's attention is gradually drawn too.

4) Sex. If you're a teenage boy I reckon this book would be like mana from heaven.

In any event, I strongly recommend tracking it down and seeing for yourself. It's a long book but nothing like the marathon that you might expect, thanks to the very breezy and light-hearted style of the prose and the breathless speed of the plot.


  1. Leaving the murder victims' bodies by the road has some parallel in the West, in the practice of potential suspects being shown, and perhaps interrogated, in the presence of the body. Folklore contended that "signs" of guilt, such as wounds reopening, would then occur. To the extent such things were effective at all, it was likely a means of inducing confessions, or at least obvious "tells" of guilt on the part of the killer, or others with knowledge of the crime.