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The Carnal Prayer Mat


Rouputuan, translated as The Carnal Prayer Mat, is a 17th-century Chinese erotic novel published under a pseudonym but usually attributed to Li Yu. It was written in 1657 and published in 1693 during the Qing dynasty.

The novel had a controversial status in Chinese literature, and has long been banned and censored; recent scholarship treats the work as an allegory which uses its unabashed pornographic nature to attack Confucian puritanism. The prologue comments that sex is healthy when taken as if it were a drug, but not as if it were ordinary food.

The Carnal Prayer Mat

What first attracted me to Li Yu was his love of comic invention. “Broadly speaking,” he once wrote to a friend, “everything I have ever written was intended to make people laugh.” He was never content, as other writers were, to make minor variations upon the standard literary themes. Instead he submitted those themes to a drastic overhaul and created a new comedy of his own, claiming all the while that his version of reality was the true one and that everybody else was deluded. He thus belongs to that rare breed of comic writer-rare in any culture-who discovers or invents the terms of his own reality.

Let me give two obvious examples, both of them discoveries rather than inventions. In its most general outline a Chinese romantic comedy consisted of a handsome youth with brilliant literary gifts falling in love with a beautiful and talented girl and, after overcoming a number of vicissitudes, marrying her. By the seventeenth century countless stories and plays, some of them masterpieces, had been written to this formula. But Li Yu would have none of it. In his first play (or opera, both terms apply), Lianxiang ban, a title freely translatable as Women in Love, he adapted the formula and applied it-for the first, and perhaps only, time in the history of Chinese literature-to a love affair between two women. Eventually the lovers are united as wives to the same man-the only solution open to them. Similarly, in Li Yu’s Silent Operas (Wusheng xi) collection, there is a story about a love affair between two men that derives its comic power from the way it parallels a perfect heterosexual marriage, all the way from courtship to widowhood. Examples of comic discovery and invention abound also in his novel, The Carnal Prayer Mat (Rou putuan).

Invention and discovery, together with the implied virtue of originality, were stressed more by Li Yu than by any writer before him. “Newness is a term of approbation for everything in the world,” he wrote, “but above all for literature.” Copying is taboo, of course, even from the ancients, but so is echoing other writers, and not merely other writers but ourselves; we are not permitted even to echo ourselves-an impossible ideal, and one that Li Yu himself did not come close to realizing.

His passion for invention carried over from literature to life. He was a designer and practical inventor as well as a writer, and his essays ring with the (slightly self-mocking) refrain: “Is it not strange that the world had to wait for Li Yu to invent this?” A version of the refrain occurs in Chapter Ten of the novel, too, after Vesperus has shown his savoir-faire with pillows: “The general principle is known to all, but… that particular formula has never been understood before.” So strong was Li Yu’s passion for novelty that he was also quite capable of shocking his readers for sensational effect.

A second unique quality is his voice or persona. Strictly speaking, he had not one voice but a range of them, mostly humorous, that he employed in his fiction and essays. The narrator in the traditional Chinese novel had always been a strong vocal presence anyway, in vague simulation of an oral storyteller, and Li Yu exploits that convention-openly manipulating the narrative, commenting on the action, addressing his readers as if they were an audience, and even answering questions posed by a fictitious member of that audience. A passage in Chapter One of his novel exemplifies this last convention:

“Storyteller, since you want people to suppress their lecherous desires, why not write a tract promoting morality?”

“Gentle readers [or audience], there is something of which you are evidently unaware…”

The difference is that Li Yu is substituting a voice of his own for the voice of the traditional narrator. Every Chinese novelist had to make some accommodation with the figure of the traditional narrator-a history of the genre could be written in terms of their accommodations-but Li Yu’s solution was the most personal, and perhaps the most satisfying. He was a noted wit and pundit in life, and I suggest that he managed to create in the voice of his fictional narrator a perfect literary correlative for his oral wit and punditry.

Few people realize that a lively tradition of erotic fiction existed in China, particularly in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It was a superior tradition, in my opinion, to its somewhat later counterparts in England and France. Granted, Fanny Hill is a small miracle, but it seems a miracle precisely because it is isolated; and Sade’s novels, as fiction, are second-rate at best-full of philosophizing as well as ludicrous cruelties and blasphemies. In China, by contrast, several novels of undeniable power were written. The Jin Ping Mei (The Golden Lotus) is only a partial member of the genre, being much else besides. If there is a classic example of the Chinese erotic novel, it is surely Li Yu’s Carnal Prayer Mat.

It is in the nature of erotic fiction to seek out forbidden territory to explore. In China that was likely to mean adultery, not defloration as in the corresponding European genre. (In Europe adultery was left to the bourgeois novel.) The reason is clear enough: adultery violated the husband-wife ethic, one of the key Confucian social obligations. In a family-centered morality, it was a natural choice as the crucial sin, but for precisely the same reason, it also posed an intolerable threat to society. The libertine’s adulterous adventures may enthrall the reader with their glimpse of forbidden pleasure, but ultimately they must fail. Sexuality for the Chinese writer, unlike Western apostles of eroticism from Sade to Lawrence, was a drive that had to lose when it collided with social values. That is why Chinese libertines are generally the objects of satire-as they certainly are in Prayer Mat. And it also explains why the Chinese novels can end only with the libertine’s punishment and repentance.

But although the libertine adventure may be headed for disaster, the erotic novels obviously cannot be taken at their face value as the dire warnings they profess to be. For all its obsessiveness, the libertine adventure is presented to us with so much gusto that we are surely meant to enjoy it. I suggest that there is an inevitable-and artistically quite justifiable-tension in much visual and literary art on erotic subject matter. In Chinese fiction at least, the reader plays voyeur as well as judge as he watches the tale unfold, observing, with both pleasure and foreboding, its exploration of forbidden territory and its inescapable end.

The agency of punishment varies from novel to novel. A common one is retribution according to the doctrine of karma-that is to say, punishment in the next life for sins committed in this one. In Chapter Two of Prayer Mat, Li Yu takes the extraordinary step of introducing the Buddhist priest Lone Peak to explain this notion to us. The priest calls it “otherworldly” retribution and pairs it with a “thisworldly” retribution by which one’s sins are repaid in this life. The second kind of retribution is an age-old, popular notion unrelated to Buddhism proper. (The novel’s views are eclectic, embracing Heaven, the Principle of Heaven, the Creator, and the ancient sages, as well as Buddha.) The priest goes on to quote the adage “If I don’t seduce other men’s wives, my wife won’t be seduced by others,” and then erects it into a general principle by which an adulterer’s wives and daughters are condemned to “redeem” his sins with their own-a characteristic Li Yu twist to an old idea.

The retribution plot fascinated the Chinese novelist, and one can see why; it allowed him to work human experience into newer and more meaningful shapes. He did not need to believe in the actual possibility of metaphysical retribution, for both he and his readers accepted it as part of the machinery of causation in fiction. But although Li Yu himself adopts the retribution plot gratefully enough in Prayer Mat, he cannot suppress his skepticism about it, as witness the debate between hero and priest in Chapter Two. The possibility of self-mockery must always be kept in mind while reading Li Yu.

The typical qualities of the erotic novel are almost all to be found in Prayer Mat, often in exaggerated form: the relentless quantification of sex, a feature perhaps derived from the sex manuals; the fascination with women’s sexuality; the emphasis on penis size, in which Li Yu’s idea of the animal implant outdoes all other novels; the trivial games, petty jealousies, and revenges that preoccupy the characters; and even the orgy, in which Li Yu’s wine-and-cards party again outdoes all others.

At the same time Prayer Mat gives a far more prominent place to warnings against libertinism; Chapter Two is taken up with the libertine’s debate with the priest, and Chapter Twenty with the former’s repentance and redemption. Li Yu is using Buddhism as the ascetic alternative to libertinism-and also as a handy means of atonement. In comparison with the other novels, too, his language is not lubricious; he tends more to ribaldry than sensuality. Nor are the sexual techniques he describes particularly eye-opening by the standards of other novels.

His prime values of novelty and structural ingenuity are everywhere apparent, and there is no need to detail them here. In any case they have been adequately described in the critiques. (The critiques are short passages that follow each chapter and assess its moral implications and literary technique.) But one quality that must be stressed is his discursiveness, which the critique to Chapter Five singles out for special mention. Although other novelists may use discourse in their prologues, we are told, they abandon it once the narrative begins, lest the reader become confused. Li Yu, however, continues to alternate discourse and narrative throughout his novel, to the reader’s delight. The critique is correctly pointing to discursiveness as one of the most striking features of the novel. Li Yu not only gives up his whole first chapter to a discussion of sex in society, together with an account of the aims and methods of his book, he also constantly intervenes as narrator to explain a principle or give a reason, often conducting a simulated dialogue with his readers to do so. Sometimes the interventions are intended to tease the reader, particularly when they occur just before or during a sexual encounter. But more often they spring from Li Yu’s irrepressible, inventive punditry. The opinions are his own, not those of some generalized narrator; some of them actually resemble the ideas we find in his sharp, witty, highly personal essays.

Chapter One is an extraordinary innovation, for in it Li Yu offers us a personal approach to sex. This is Li Yu the essayist speaking, as he offers us a reasonable, if reductive-love is not mentioned once-approach that prepares us for the two contrasting attitudes presented in the next chapter: Vesperus’s libertinism and the priest’s asceticism. Li Yu’s reasonable views thus dominate the novel, even though its narrative ends on an ascetic note. But does Li Yu claim to have resolved the tension between erotic desire and social and moral values? Not at all. The epilogue to his last chapter makes it clear that he regards such tension as a permanent part of the human condition.

However, Prayer Mat’s greatest difference from other erotic novels lies in its wholehearted comic spirit. The other works often leave room for ribaldry, even in their most intense moments, and at least one of them is told in a wry, semihumorous tone, but none is as obviously comic as Prayer Mat, which is why I have labeled it a sexual comedy. Admittedly, some of the humor is facetious; Li Yu was always reluctant to pass up a comic idea, and some of his ideas worked better than others. As the final critique remarks, “This is a book that mocks everything!” But the novel as a whole-by turns humorous, witty, outrageous, vulgar, shocking-remains the ultimate comedy on that forbidden subject: unrestrained sexual desire at large in society.

Prayer Mat was written at the beginning of 1657 and, like most Chinese novels, was published under a pseudonym. (For this book, perhaps because of its controversial nature, Li Yu chose a fresh pseudonym.) He was in Hangzhou at the time, making a living as a writer. His plays or operas, with their audacious brand of social comedy, had caused a great stir, and his stories-a second volume of Silent Operas had appeared-were also extremely popular, so popular, indeed, that they were soon pirated.

Over the next three centuries Prayer Mat was banned many times, but seldom with much success. A dozen editions survive from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries alone, some in only one copy; it seems likely, therefore, that still more editions once existed. The novel has circulated freely in Japan ever since an abridged (but unexpurgated) version, adapted for Japanese readers, was published there in 1705. Prayer Mat circulates now in several Chinese-speaking countries, but not in China itself, where it is deemed unsuitable, not merely for the general reader but even for the scholar. The earlier generation of Chinese scholars, who were able to read the novel, recognized its literary merits even if they deplored its subject matter. The first edition has not survived, but we know a good deal about it from a manuscript copy and from the other editions. Like the first editions of Li Yu’s stories, it must have been a fine woodblock edition with illustrations by a leading illustrator. The title-page attributed the authorship of the novel to a certain Master “Secrets of Passion.” The preface, with a date corresponding to 1657, was written by a Hangzhou friend using a Buddhist pseudonym, Layman “Eternal Absolute.” Curiously the table of contents and the first page of text, places where the author’s name is customarily repeated, give a different pseudonym:

Composed by the Man of the [Buddhist] Way Who, After Being Crazed with Passion, Returned to the True Path

Commented upon by a Society Friend Who, After Dying of Passion, Was Restored to Life

Society Friend means a fellow member of the same literary society. It is possible that the commentator was Sun Zhi, a Hangzhou writer and close friend, who wrote prefaces to some of Li Yu’s plays, in one of which he signed himself Society Brother.

Like some other Chinese novels published at the time, Prayer Mat carried its own commentary, in fact, two kinds of commentary: the critiques that are mentioned above, as well as upper-margin notes that comment on particular expressions or passages, often in a flippant or humorous way. The notes do not survive in the editions, only in the manuscript. Since I have not included them in my translation, I shall give a few examples here:

In Chapter Three, when the narrator explains that a woman’s feet without their leggings on look like flowers with no leaves about them, the note runs, “The author must be considered the leading romantic of all time. Others who talk about sex are like Yiyang actors performing Kun opera. All you hear is the drumbeat.” Yiyang was a raucous popular form of opera, much despised by Li Yu and other writers of the more artistic and melodious Kun form.

In Chapter Five, when the narrator remarks that a painting-like a woman’s beauty-is worthless if it lacks power, the note runs, “The insight of a romantic genius!”

In Chapter Six, when the woman whom we later know as Fragrance is described as not wearing heels, the note runs, “These days women with big feet have to use raised heels in order to hide their defect. Not wearing heels is a way of flaunting small feet.”

Again in Chapter Six, when Vesperus needles the Knave by suggesting that he finds poor people easier to take advantage of, the note runs, “Brilliant provocation!” And soon afterward, when Vesperus boasts of his sexual prowess by using the analogy of a banquet, a matching note runs, “Fine hyperbole!”

In Chapter Twelve, when Cloud explains to Vesperus her jealous feelings toward her “sisters,” the note runs, “If anyone tries to tell me there has ever been a better novel than The Carnal Prayer Mat, I shall spit in his face!”

Finally, in Chapter Seventeen, when Flora explains how she and her husband used to involve the maids in their lovemaking, the note runs, “If this method were applied generally, there would be no jealous wives left in the world.”

Although the Society Friend was nominally responsible for all of the critiques and notes, it is highly likely, judging from their nature and tone, that some of them were written by Li Yu himself.

The novel shares the familiar features of the traditional Chinese novel. Each chapter begins with a pair of matched headings that hint at its contents. Next comes a poem or lyric (a different poetic genre with lines of irregular length) that reflects on the chapter’s theme. Here and there within the chapter are poems, lyrics, and set pieces (unrhymed passages of strict parallelism) that comment on the action or describe a scene. The chapter closes with some anticipatory remarks. Li Yu’s chapters characteristically end with an epilogue that reflects humorously on the novel’s progress.

There is no good text of the novel; all of the reasonably well-edited editions prove to be abridgments. The fullest text is a manuscript preserved in the Institute of Oriental Culture of Tokyo University. It is the only one to contain either the 1657 date or the upper-margin notes and, for that reason among others, I believe that its copyist utilized a manuscript copy of Li Yu’s original edition. In making my translation, I have relied on this manuscript and also on the fullest printed edition, one that is best identified by its page format (ten columns of twenty-five characters each). The Harvard-Yenching Library at Harvard University has two of several surviving copies.


Make use of lechery in putting a stop to lechery; start off with sex in treating the subject of sex.


Raven hair so quickly gray,

Ruddy cheeks soon past.

Man’s unlike the ageless pine-

His fame and fortune, e’er in flux,

Gone in the flower-destroying blast.

How sad if youth is deprived of joy!

(From the courts of love the old are cast.)

So once you hear the siren song,

Young masters,

Rush to enjoy the flowers’ throng.

True paradise on earth,

All things considered well,

Is found in bedroom bliss.

Unlike the realm of fame and glory,

Here joy begins and troubles cease.

Each day is spent in slippered ease, each night

In drunken slumber till the morning bell.

So open your eyes, take this to heart:

All the world’s

A vast erotic work of art.

This lyric, to the tune of “Fragrance Filling the Courtyard,” points out that our lives would be so filled with toil and worry as to leave no room for pleasure-had not the Sage who separated Heaven from Earth created in us the desire for sexual intercourse to alleviate our toil and worry and save us from despair.

In the parlance of our Confucian sticklers for morality, a woman’s loins are the entrance through which we come into the world and also the exit by which we leave it. But the way wise men see these things is that, without those loins, our hair might go white a few years sooner than otherwise, and our deaths occur a few years sooner too. If you doubt their word, consider how few priests there are whose hair has not turned white by the age of forty or fifty, and whose bodies have not succumbed entirely by seventy or eighty. Of course the objection might be raised that, although priests have joined the order, they still have a way open to them, either through adultery or by having relations with their disciples, and that they may be no more apt to preserve their vital energies than the laity, all of which would explain their failure to live to a ripe old age.

But if that is true, consider the case of the eunuchs in the capital, who, far from committing adultery, have lost even the basic equipment for it and who, far from having relations with their disciples, lack even a handle on such things. In theory they ought to retain their delicate, youthful looks over a lifetime of several centuries. Why, then, do they have even more wrinkles than anybody else? And why does their hair go white even sooner? Granddad may be our name for them, but the truth is they look far more like grannies. [2] Plaques are put up in the capital to honor ordinary folk who have lived to a great age, but no centenary arch has ever been erected to commemorate a eunuch.

It would thus appear that the activity we call sex is not harmful to mankind. However, because the Materia Medica failed to include it, we lack a definitive explanation. [3] One view holds that it is good for us, another that it does us harm. But if we compare both views in the light of the above argument, we must conclude that sex is beneficial. In fact its medicinal effects closely resemble those of ginseng and aconite, two substances with which it can be used interchangeably. But there is a point to be noted here. Potent tonics as they are, ginseng and aconite should be taken only in small doses and over long periods of time. In other words they should be treated as medicine, not as food. When swallowed indiscriminately, without regard to dosage or frequency, they can prove fatal.

Now, sex has precisely the same advantages and disadvantages. Long-term use results in the mutual reinforcement of yin and yang, whereas excessive use brings the water and fire elements into conflict. When treated as medicine, sex relieves us from pent-up emotion, but when treated as food it gravely depletes our semen and blood.

If people knew how to treat it as a medicine, they would behave toward it with a degree of detachment, liking it, but well short of addiction. Before first engaging in it, they would reflect, “This is a medicine, not a poison. Why be afraid of it?” And after engaging in it, they would reflect, “That was a medicine, not a food. Why become addicted to it?” If they did this, their yang would not be too exuberant nor their yin too depressed. No one would die an early death, and what is more, no girls would be left without husbands nor men without wives, a development that would contribute substantially to the institution of Royal Government.

But there is one further point to consider. The properties of sex as a medicine are the same as those of ginseng and aconite in every respect save the location in which it occurs and the criteria by which it is selected; in both of those respects there are contrasting features of which users should be apprised. In the case of ginseng and aconite, the genuine variety is the superior one, while the local product brings no benefit; whereas with sexual activity, it is the local variety that is superior and the genuine one that not only brings no benefit but can even do harm.

What do I mean by local product and genuine variety? The term local product refers to the women you already possess, your own wives and concubines; you have no need to look further afield or to spend your money; you simply take what is at hand. There is no one to stop you, no matter how you choose to sleep, nor any need for alarm, no matter who knocks on your door. Sex under such circumstances does no damage to your vital energies; it even benefits your ancestral shrine. If a single encounter results in such physical harmony, surely we can agree that sex does us good!

Genuine variety refers to the dazzling looks and glamour that are found only in the boudoirs of rich men’s houses. Just as the bland domestic fowl lacks the refreshing tang of the game bird, so our wives’ faded looks can hardly compare with the youth and glamour of these fledglings of the boudoir. When you set eyes on a girl of this kind, you dream about her; you strive to win her at all costs; you make advances, then follow them up with presents; and you scale walls to get to secret assignations or clamber through tunnels to declare your passion. But no matter how emboldened you are by lust, you’ll still be as terrified as a mouse; even if no one has seen you, you’ll always think someone is coming; you’ll sweat more from fear than from love, and semen will seep from every pore. The desire for love exceeds the heroic spirit; when you’re taken in adultery, you’ll lose your beard and eyebrows. A plunge into the abyss will result in a frightful disaster. In the other world you’ll have destroyed your moral credit; in this world you’ll have broken the law and will be put to death. Since there is no one left to pay for your crime, your wife will have to live on and develop her own desires, engaging in unchaste behavior and doing all kinds of harm-an unbearable tragedy. In the case of sex it is obvious that people must on no account sacrifice the near in favor of the far, the coarse in favor of the fine, or spurn the commonplace in order to seek what is rare.

The author of this novel has been motivated solely by compassion in his desire to expound the doctrine. His hope is to persuade people to suppress their desires, not indulge them; his aim is to keep lechery hidden rather than to publicize it. Gentle readers, you must on no account misconstrue these intentions of his.

Storyteller, since you want people to suppress their lecherous desires, why not write a tract to promote morality? Why write a romantic novel instead?

Gentle readers, there is something of which you are evidently unaware. Any successful method of changing the current mores must resemble the way in which Yu the Great controlled the floods: channeling current trends into a safe direction is the only way to get a hearing. People these days are reluctant to read the canonical texts, but they love fiction. Not all fiction, mind you, for they are sick of exemplary themes and far prefer the obscene and the fantastic. How low contemporary morals have sunk! Anyone concerned about public morality will want to retrieve the situation. But if you write a moral tract exhorting people to virtue, not only will you get no one to buy it; even if you were to print it and bind it and distribute it free along with a complimentary card, the way philanthropists bestow Buddhist scriptures on the public, people would just tear the book apart for use in covering their winepots or in lighting their pipes and refuse to bestow a single glance upon its contents.

A far better solution is to captivate your readers with erotic material and then wait for some moment of absorbing interest before suddenly dropping in an admonitory remark or two to make them grow fearful and sigh, “Since sexual pleasure can be so delightful, surely we ought to reserve our pleasure-loving bodies for long-term enjoyment instead of turning into ghosts beneath the peony blossoms, sacrificing the reality of pleasure for its mere name?” You then wait for the point at which retribution is manifested and gently slip in a hortatory word or two designed to provoke the revelation “Since adultery is always repaid like this, surely we ought to reserve our wives and concubines for our own enjoyment instead of trying to shoot a sparrow with the priceless pearl, repaying worthless loans with real money?” Having reached this conclusion, readers will not stray, and if they don’t stray, they will naturally cherish their wives, who will in turn respect them. The moral education offered by the Zhounan and Shaonan songs [10] is really nothing more than this: the method of “fitting the action to the case and the treatment to the man.” It is a practice incumbent not only upon fiction writers; indeed, some of the sages were the first to employ it, in their classical texts.

If you doubt me, look at how Mencius in Warring States times addressed King Xuan of Qi on the subject of Royal Government. The king was immersed in sensual pleasures and the pursuit of wealth, and Royal Government did not figure among his interests, and so to Mencius’s speech he returned only a perfunctory word of praise: “Well said.” To which Mencius replied, “If Your Majesty approves of my advice, why not follow it?” “I have an affliction,” said the king. “I love wealth.” To whet his interest, Mencius told him the story of Liu the Duke’s love of wealth, which is on the theme of frugal management. But the king then said, “I have another affliction. I love sex.” By this remark he meant that he was interested in becoming another King Jie or Zhou. It was tantamount to sending Mencius a formal note rejecting the whole idea of Royal Government.

Now, if a puritan had been there in Mencius’s place, he would have remonstrated sternly with the king along these lines: “Rulers from time immemorial have admonished us against sexual license. If the ordinary folk love sex, they will lose their lives; if the great officers love sex, they will lose their positions; if the feudal lords love sex, they will lose their states; and if the Son of Heaven loves sex, he will lose the empire.” To which King Xuan, even though he might not actually have voiced the sentiment, would certainly have replied mentally along these lines: “In that case, my affliction has penetrated so deep that it is incurable, and I have no further use for you.”

Mencius, however, did not reply like that. Instead he used the romantic tale of King Tai’s love of sex to gain the king’s interest and get him so excited that he could hardly wait to start. From the fact that King Tai, although fleeing on horseback, still took his beautiful consort along with him, he deduced that the king’s lifelong love of sex made him loath to be parted from his women for a moment. Such a dissolute ruler ought surely to have lost both his life and his kingdom, but this king practiced a love of sex that allowed all the men in his country to bring their women with them in their flight, and while he was making merry with his consort, his men were able to make merry with their women. It was a case of moral influence exerted by a king who “brought springtime with him wherever he went and was unselfish in all things.” Everyone was moved to praise him and none dared criticize.

Naturally from this point on, King Xuan was perfectly willing to practice Royal Government and made no further I have an affliction excuses. Otherwise he might well have demurred again with trite excuses such as I love wine or I have a bad temper. Mencius’s ploy may truly be said to have made a “lotus emerge from the flames” -a technique from which the author of this novel drew his inspiration. If only the entire reading public would buy this book and treat it as a classic or as a history rather than as fiction! Its addresses to the reader are all either admonitory or hortatory, and close attention should be paid to their underlying purpose. Its descriptions of copulation, of the pleasures of the bedchamber, do indeed come close to indecency, but they are all designed to lure people into reading on until they reach the denouement, at which point they will understand the meaning of retribution and take heed. Without these passages the book would be nothing but an olive that, for all its aftertaste, would be too sour for anyone to chew and hence useless. My passages of sexual description should be looked upon as the date wrapped around the olive that induces people to keep on eating until they reach the aftertaste. But please pardon the tedium of this opening; the story proper will begin in the next chapter.


How enticing this novel sounds! I am sure that when it is finished, the entire reading public will buy it and read it. The only people who may not are the puritans. The genuine puritans will; only that species of false puritan, those who try to deceive people with their righteousness, will not dare. On the other hand, it has been suggested that, although the false puritans will not dare buy it themselves, they just may get someone else to buy it for them, and although they won’t dare read it openly, they just may do so on the sly.


An old monk opens his leather bag in vain, As a young layman prefers the carnal prayer mat.


Though the Sea of Desire seems not so deep,

Like Weakness Water, it cannot be crossed.

You may skim as light as a dragonfly’s flight,

But touch a wave and you’re surely lost.

Our story tells how in the Peaceful Government era of the Yuan dynasty there lived on Mount Guacang a monk whose religious name was Correct And Single and whose monastic name was Lone Peak. Before becoming a monk, he had distinguished himself as a licentiate in the Chuzhou prefectural school. However, he had also shown early signs of a propensity for the religious life. While only one month old and still in swaddling clothes, he would babble on and on like a schoolboy reciting his lessons, to the bewilderment of his parents. An itinerant priest came begging to the door, caught sight of the infant half-crying and half-laughing in a maidservant’s arms, and after listening intently, declared, “It’s the Surangama Sutra the child is reciting! He must be the reincarnation of some famous priest.” He pleaded with the parents to let him have the baby as his disciple, but the parents dismissed his talk as nonsense.

As the child grew, his parents made him study for the examinations, but although he could absorb several lines at a glance, his heart was not set on worldly success, and on several occasions he forsook Confucian for Buddhist studies and had to be severely disciplined by his parents before returning. Forced to take the examinations, he graduated as a licentiate while still a boy, and afterward used his stipend to help others. When his parents died, he completed the three years of mourning and then distributed the whole of the valuable family property among his relatives. For himself he made only a large bag to hold his wooden fish, a copy of the Sutrapitaka, and a few other things, then took the tonsure and lived the life of a recluse while practicing the Buddhist virtues. Enlightened people called him Abbot Lone Peak; others called him Priest Leather Bag.

He differed from other priests in abstaining not only from wine, meat, lust, and depravity but also from three staple activities of the priestly life. Which activities were they, do you suppose?

Asking for alms

Explicating the scriptures

Residing on a famous mountain

When people inquired as to why he didn’t ask for alms, he would reply, “In general one must approach Buddhism through self-denial, striving to wear oneself out physically and stinting on one’s food in order to make starvation and cold an ever-increasing threat. Once that is achieved, lustful thoughts will not arise, and if they do not arise, impurity will gradually give way to purity, and in the fullness of time one will naturally become a buddha. It is not necessary to recite scriptures or chant mantras. If, on the other hand, you choose neither to plow your own fields nor to weave your own cloth but rely instead on benefactors for your food and clothing, once you’re well fed and warmly clad, you’ll want to stroll about at your ease and sleep in a soft bed. As you stroll about, your eyes will light on objects of desire, and while you’re sleeping in your soft bed, you’ll have dreams and fantasies. Not only will you be unable to study Buddhism with any success, all kinds of damning temptation will come unbidden to your door. That is why I live off the fruits of my own labor and abstain from asking for alms.”

When asked why he did not explicate the scriptures, he replied, “The language of the scriptures comes from the mouth of Buddha himself, and he is the only one who can explain it. All attempts at popular explication are like the ramblings of an idiot, with each layer of exegesis merely adding another layer of distortion. Long ago Tao Yuanming chose not to seek a detailed explanation in reading texts. Now, if a Chinese does not dare seek a detailed explanation in reading a Chinese text, how can he be so reckless as to try interpreting a foreign one? I do not presume to be Buddha’s right-hand man; all I hope is to escape his condemnation. That is why I keep my ignorance to myself and abstain from explicating the scriptures.”

When they asked him why he chose not to live on some famous mountain, he replied, “A practicing Buddhist must not set eyes on any object of desire, lest it throw his thoughts into turmoil. Now, objects of desire are not confined to carnal pleasure and money. A cool and pleasant breeze, an enchanting moon, melodious birdsong, even succulent fernshoots-anything that charms or enraptures and makes us unwilling to give it up is an object of desire.

“Once you start living in some scenic place, the spirits of mountain and stream will be there to tempt you to poetry, so that you can never put your writing aside. And the nymphs of wind and moon will disturb your meditations and make you fidget endlessly on the midnight prayer mat. That is why those who go up famous mountains to pursue their examination studies never finish them, and also why those who go there to master the doctrine find it so hard to purge their senses. Moreover, on every famous mountain there are women who come to pray and gentlemen who come to celebrate. The affair between the priest Moonbright and the girl Liu Cui is a warning of what can happen. That is why I have spurned famous mountains and come to live here in this desolate place, my sole purpose being to ensure that nothing I see or hear will block my progress.”

His questioners were greatly impressed with his answers, which, they felt, contained insights never before expressed by an eminent priest.

By virtue of these three abstentions, he became famous despite himself. But although visitors flocked there from all quarters to join the order, he would not accept them easily. Before giving applicants the tonsure, he insisted on examining them to ensure that they had a good moral basis and had renounced all worldly desires, and if he felt the slightest doubt, he would reject them out of hand. For this reason, despite the many years he had been in the order, he had very few disciples. He lived alone beside a mountain stream in a small thatched hut that he had built with his own hands, eating the food he grew himself and drinking the water from his stream. He wrote out a pair of scrolls, which he stuck on the uprights in his hut. They read,

No ease or comfort is to be found in the study of Buddhism; through all eighteen hells you must make your way.

It is no simple matter to understand Zen; how many thousand prayer mats have you worn out?

Even in these scrolls one can see his lifelong mortification of the flesh.

One day of dismal autumn wind, when the trees were shedding their leaves and the drone of insects filled the air, the priest rose early in the morning, swept the leaves from his door, changed the pure water before the image of Buddha, inserted the incense, and then, placing a prayer mat in the center room, sat down cross-legged upon it to meditate. By chance he had forgotten to shut the door, and suddenly a young student attended by two pages came walking in. In appearance:

An expression like autumn water,

A form like a spring cloud.

A face like Pan An’s,

A waist like Shen Yue’s.

An unpowdered complexion pale as any woman’s,

Unrouged lips rosy as any maiden’s.

Eyebrows so long as to meet his eyes,

A form so delicate as hardly to bear his clothes.

A jet-black crepe-silk cap he had,

Matching his face like a crown of jade.

Bright red tapestry-silk shoes he wore,

And stepped as lightly as if walking on clouds.

These lines describe the grace and charm of his whole person, and yet they give only the most general of accounts. If you were to try describing the various parts of his body one by one, you could write dozens of rhapsodies and hundreds of eulogies and still not do them justice. But with the single exception of his eyes, his features, fine as they were, were not greatly superior to other people’s. His eyes, however, were quite extraordinary. Extraordinary in what way, you ask. A lyric to the tune ” Moon Over West River ” supplies the answer:

Crevices fine as delicate jade,

Pupils frozen-crystal clear.

Their black and white too bold a clash,

Flames forever on the move.

At sight of man, they’re white,

At sight of woman, black.

In contrast, Ruan Ji’s eyes were short on passion;

No mirror they, of pretty girls.

Eyes of this type are what are commonly known as lustful eyes. People who have them generally prefer the covert glance to the direct gaze, and reserve it for their specialty, which is peeping at women. They do not need to be at close range, either. Even when hundreds of feet away, they need flash only a single glance at a girl to tell if she is pretty or not. If she is pretty, they’ll send her a wink. If she is a proper, highly principled girl and passes by with her head lowered, not glancing at the man’s face, the wink has fallen on stony ground. But if they meet a woman with lustful eyes, one who shares their own weakness, then winks will pass back and forth, a whole love letter will be exchanged through their eyes, and they’ll be inextricably involved. That is why, for both men and women, it is by no means a blessing to be born with such eyes, for they lead only to the loss of honor and reputation. If your honorable eyes are of this kind, gentle reader, you must exercise the greatest care.

On this occasion the student came in and bowed four times before the image of Buddha and another four times before the priest. He then straightened up and stood to one side, stock-still and bolt upright. The priest, having already begun his meditations, was unable to return his greeting. Only when he had finished his duties did he leave the prayer mat and give four deep bows in return. Then, inviting his visitor to sit down, he asked him his name.

“Your disciple,” said the student, “has come from a long way off to pursue his studies in Zhejiang. My sobriquet is Scholar Vesperus. Hearing that the master is the most eminent priest of the age and a living buddha between Heaven and Earth, I have fasted and observed the proscriptions, and I come here to do him reverence.”

Storyteller, when you told us just now that the priest asked him his name, why didn’t he give his family and personal names instead of a sobriquet?

Gentle reader, you should understand that the intellectuals at the end of the Yuan dynasty held to certain rather unusual practices. Educated men were reluctant to use their family and personal names and addressed each other by their sobriquets instead. Thus everybody had a sobriquet. Some called themselves Scholar This, some called themselves Savant That, while others called themselves Master Whatever. In general, the young men used the word Scholar, the middle-aged Savant, and the elderly Master. The characters that formed the sobriquet all had their various connotations, signifying some passion or predilection. The only requirement in choosing your characters was that their meaning be apparent to you; it was not necessary that it be apparent to everybody else.

Since the student was preoccupied with sex and favored the nighttime over the daytime and the earlier part of the night over the later part, he had, on seeing the lines “What of the night? Vesper’s still the hour” in the Poetry Classic, plucked a character or two out of context and taken the name Scholar Vesperus.

Embarrassed by the young man’s effusive greeting, the priest replied with a few modest phrases.

By this time the vegetables in the priest’s earthenware pot were ready to eat. Since his visitor had come such a long way, the priest thought he must be famished and asked him to stay and share the morning meal. Then, sitting there opposite each other, they began to discuss Zen, in which their wits proved to be evenly matched. The reason for this was that Vesperus, in addition to being highly intelligent, had not only prepared himself thoroughly in his examination subjects, he had also ranged through the texts of all the various religions and philosophies. Zen subtleties that others would not have understood even after long explanations he grasped completely as soon as the priest touched on them. Although the latter did not voice the thought, he could not help musing, What a fine intelligence the man has! But the Creator is at fault for giving him this physical form. Why match a heart that was meant for the study of Buddha with a face that will lead to damnable deeds? In his looks and demeanor I see all the signs of a notorious satyr who, should I fail to get him into my leather bag, will wreak havoc in the women’s quarters with his clandestine amours. Goodness knows how many women throughout the world will be ruined by him! If I’d never met this troublemaker, I could have ignored him, but I would be offending against the principle of compassion if I did not try for mankind’s sake to stop him. Even if the root of evil should prove too firmly planted, I will at least have done my best!

“Ever since I set my heart on the salvation of mankind,” he said to Vesperus, “these eyes of mine have observed countless people. Those stupid husbands and wives who refuse to turn to goodness we can ignore. But even the scholars who come here to study Zen, like the officials who come to hear the doctrine, are rank novices. In general it takes a different kind of intelligence to understand Zen than to understand doctrine, Zen being much the harder. People who understand ten times as much as they are taught in Confucianism can expect to understand only twice as much on turning to Buddhism. So I am pleasantly surprised at your perceptiveness, worthy lay brother. If you were to apply it to Zen, you could expect to attain perfect understanding within just a few years. For a human born into an earthly existence, attaining physical form is the easy part, attaining a soul the difficult. Mere time is easy to endure, it’s an eon that is hard. Having the innate capacity to become a buddha, you must not take the demons’ road. Why not seize this moment, in the bloom of your youth, to rid yourself of sexual desire and take your vows as a monk? Common clay though I am, I may still serve to bring out better things in you. If you will take this pledge and secure the fruits of enlightenment, after your death you will not only share sacrificial benefits with other priests, you will also escape the rule of the demons in Hell. Well, layman, what do you say?”

“Your disciple has long aspired to join the order,” said Vesperus, “and at some point in the future I shall certainly turn to it. But I have two unfulfilled desires that I cannot rid myself of. I intend to return and fulfill them while I’m still young, enjoying a few years of pleasure and ensuring that my life has not been lived in vain. There will be time enough afterward for ordination.”

“May I inquire what your two desires are?” asked the priest. “Can I assume that you want to do justice to your studies by gaining an appointment in some prosperous place and also to repay the Court by winning glory in foreign parts?”

Vesperus shook his head. “It’s not fame and glory that I seek. Although all educated men are expected to try, those certain to succeed are far outnumbered by those destined for failure. Even Liu Fen was failed by the examiners, even Li Bai never succeeded. Your talents may seem certain to bring you success, but you still need the right destiny, and I can hardly arrange that for myself! Glory and high achievement are dependent on fate, and if Heaven denies you the opportunity for glory and men the chance of achievement, even if you have the loyalty of Yue Fei and the integrity of Guan Yu, you’ll still just be beating your brains out and sacrificing your life with no guarantee of ever making a contribution to your country! I know how fame and fortune work, and what I am seeking is not to be found among such things.”

“In that case, what do your desires consist of?”

“What I seek are rewards I can achieve through my own efforts, things I can count on. They are no pipe dreams, nor are they particularly difficult to obtain. To make no bones about it, master, your disciple’s memory for texts, his grasp of doctrine, and the quality of his prose style are all absolutely first-rate. Our present-day men of letters are reduced to quoting texts from memory and shuffling them about so as to produce a few school exercises that they then publish in a volume of prose or poetry, after which they set themselves up as original geniuses and indulge their idiosyncrasies for the rest of their lives. If you ask me, their works are nothing but pastiche. If you want to be a truly great writer, you have no choice but to read every rare and remarkable book in existence, make the acquaintance of all the exceptional men of the age, and visit every famous mountain. Only after that should you withdraw into your study and set down your thoughts for posterity. If you are fortunate enough to succeed in the examinations, you may also make a contribution to the Court. But if you are out of luck, and spend your life in some humble position, you will still have earned yourself an immortal reputation. Therefore I cherish two secret desires in my heart: First, to be the most brilliant poet in the world…”

“That is your first wish,” said the priest, “but what is your second?”

Vesperus had opened his mouth to speak but then choked back the words as if afraid that the priest would laugh at him. “Since you’re afraid to mention it,” said the priest, “let me say it for you.”

“How could my master know what I have in my mind?”

“Let me try. If I’m wrong, I’ll take the consequences, but if I’m right, you must not deny it.”

“If my master were to guess correctly, he would be an immortal as well as a bodhisattva, and I’d beseech him to point out to me the error of my ways. I would never dream of denying it.”

Slowly and deliberately the priest intoned, “Second, to marry the most beautiful girl in the world.”

Vesperus was struck dumb. After a long pause he managed a smile.

“Master, you truly are a wizard! I repeat those two wishes to myself all day long. You guessed it the first time, just as if you had overheard me.”

“Have you never heard the saying, ‘The whispering of men on Earth echoes in Heaven like a roll of thunder’?”

“By rights,” said Vesperus, “I ought not to discuss matters of sexual passion in your presence. But since you have brought this up, master, I can only reply truthfully. To be candid with you, my religious vocation is still quite undeveloped, whereas my desires are at their peak. The two terms beautiful girl and brilliant poet have always been inseparable. For every brilliant poet there has to be a beautiful girl somewhere to form a pair, and vice versa. But so far I have never seen a truly outstanding beauty. All the women with any claims to attractiveness are already married to the ugliest of men and cannot help but secretly regret it. Now, my poetic gifts go without saying, but my looks are flawless too. I often gaze at myself in the mirror, and if Pan An and Wei Jie were alive today, I would not concede very much to them. [23] Since Heaven has given birth to someone like me, it must also have given birth to a girl fit to be my mate. If there’s no such girl alive today, that is too bad. But if she does exist, your disciple will be the one to seek her hand in marriage. That is why at twenty I am still unmarried-I want to do full justice to my genius and my looks. Let me go back, find a beautiful girl, marry her, and have a son to continue the ancestral sacrifices. By then my desires will have been fulfilled and I will have no further ambitions. Not only will I repent my ways, I will also urge my wife to seek salvation along with me. What do you think, master?”

The priest said nothing at first, but then gave a sardonic chuckle and finally replied. “At first sight, your idea seems irreproachable. The only trouble is that the Lord of Heaven, who created all men, blundered dreadfully in your case. Had he given you an ugly body, your luminous soul might have attained the fruits of enlightenment, for the same reason that so many people crippled by leprosy or epilepsy have become immortals and buddhas by suffering Heaven’s punishment. But when the Lord of Heaven endowed you with physical form, he was a little too indulgent. He acted like those doting parents who cannot bear to spank or scold their child lest he be physically or psychologically harmed by the experience. By the time the boy grows up, he is convinced that his body and nature were given him by Heaven and Earth and nurtured by his father and mother so that no harm will ever befall him, and he does any wicked thing that enters his head. Only after he has committed a crime and been sentenced by the judge to a beating or by the Court to execution does he resent the fact that his parents’ excessive indulgence has brought him to this state. That soft flesh and pampered nature of yours are not a good sign. Layman, because of your looks, and because you are a brilliant poet, you wish to seek out the most beautiful girl. Whether you find a beauty or not is one thing, but supposing you do, I don’t imagine that she’ll have NUMBER ONE inscribed on her temples, and when you see someone better, you’ll want to change your mind. But the second one, supposing she shares your nature, will be very particular about whom she marries and will want to wait for the most brilliant poet. Will you be able to obtain her as a concubine? And what if she already has a husband, how will you deal with that? If you give up this wild idea of yours, you will not have married the most beautiful girl, true, but if you persist in carrying it out by any and every means, your actions will have consequences that will condemn you to Hell. Layman, would you rather go to Hell or to Heaven? If you’re prepared to go to Hell, just continue your search for the most beautiful girl. But if you wish to go to Heaven, I beseech you to put this wild idea out of your mind and join me in the order.”

“What the master said before, I found extremely interesting. But terms like Heaven and Hell are rather banal, hardly the sort of thing one expects from an eminent priest. The way to understand Zen is simply to realize one’s own origin in order to place oneself outside birth and death and so become a buddha. There’s no such place as Heaven for us to ascend to! Even if one commits a few sins of the flesh, they will offend against Confucian doctrine only. There’s no such place as Hell for us to descend to!”

“‘Those who do good go to Heaven; those who do evil go to Hell.’ You’re right, those are banalities,” said the priest. “But you intellectuals can avoid the banal in every sphere of life save that of personal morality, where it is absolutely inescapable. Disregard for a moment the irrefutable evidence for the existence of Heaven and Hell. Even if Heaven did not exist, we should still need the concept of Heaven as an inducement to virtue. Similarly, even if Hell did not exist, we should still need the concept of Hell as a deterrent to vice. Since you’re so tired of banalities, I’ll skip the matter of otherworldly retribution, which will take place in the hereafter, and deal only with the thisworldly retribution of the present. But in order to discuss it, I shall need to start off with another banality, an adage that runs, ‘If I don’t seduce other men’s wives, my wife won’t be seduced by others.’

“Now, I grant you, this adage is the hoariest of all banalities, but the lecher has not been born who has escaped its consequences. Those who have seduced other men’s wives have had their own wives seduced; those who have defiled other men’s daughters have had their own daughters defiled. The only way of escaping the banality is to stop your adultery and defilement. If you persist, it will inevitably come to apply to you. Do you want to escape it or not? If not, go right on searching for the most beautiful girl in the world. If you want to escape it, I beseech you to put these wild ideas out of your mind and join me in the order.”

“You’ve given a very thorough exposition, master. The trouble is that, when expounding the doctrine to ignorant people, you have to put things dramatically enough to make their flesh creep if you want them to heed your warnings. But when you’re reasoning with people like me, there’s no need for any of that. The Lord of Heaven lays down strict rules, but he is always merciful about applying them. Although many adulterers and seducers do receive retribution, a considerable number receive none. If the Lord of Heaven goes from door to door checking on adultery and making the seducer’s wives and daughters pay for his seductions, what a prurient mind he must have! In general terms, of course, the principles of cyclic movement and of retribution are infallible, and wrongdoers have to be apprised of them; that is the main theme of moral education. But why must you be so literal-minded?”

“Am I to understand from what you say,” said the priest, “that there are cases of adultery and seduction that receive no retribution? I seriously doubt that the Lord of Heaven, having once laid down the rules, has ever allowed anyone to escape his net. Perhaps your loyalty and generosity have so affected your observation that you tend to see people escaping. But so far as my observation goes, no one has ever seduced another man’s wife or daughter and failed to receive retribution for it. The cases in both the oral tradition and the written record number in the thousands and tens of thousands. As one who has joined the order and accepted the commandments, I have trouble speaking about such matters, but just think for a moment. Seducing another man’s wife or daughter means taking advantage of him, and so the seducer is ready to talk about it and many people come to know. But having your own wife or daughter seduced means suffering a loss, so you are reluctant to talk about it and few people get to know. There are cases, too, of wives and daughters keeping their husbands and fathers in the dark, so that the men are ignorant and think there has been no retribution for their adultery and seduction. Not until the coffin lids close over their heads do they start to believe in the ancient adage, by which time it is too late to tell anyone of their discovery. Not only will your wife and daughters have to repay your debts of seduction and adultery, but the thought of adultery and seduction will no sooner have entered your mind than your wife and daughters will automatically start thinking licentious thoughts themselves. For instance, if you have an ugly wife who does not greatly excite you during intercourse and you get your pleasure by imagining her as the pretty girl you saw that day, how do you know that at that very moment your wife isn’t just as put off by your ugliness and isn’t getting her pleasure by imagining you as that handsome young fellow she saw the same day? This sort of thing is universal, of course, but although no one’s chastity has been compromised, damage has been done to even the stoutest heart and, in its way, that damage is also retribution for lechery. If even your thoughts are repaid like this, think how much worse is the crime you commit when you enter a woman’s chamber, press yourself upon her, and, unseen by ghosts and spirits and beyond the Creator’s censure, deprive someone’s wife of her chastity! What I’m telling you, layman, is no banality. Wouldn’t you agree?”

“Again, you’ve given a very logical exposition,” said Vesperus, “but there’s one question I’d like to raise with you, master. The man with a wife and daughter who seduces other men’s womenfolk has his own wife and daughter to repay his debts. But if he’s a bachelor, without wife or concubine, sons or daughters, how are his debts going to be repaid? This is a case to which the Lord of Heaven’s rules don’t apply. And there is a further argument. A man’s womenfolk are limited in number, whereas there is an infinite supply of feminine beauty in the world. For example, if you have just one wife or concubine, plus a child or two, and you seduce an infinite number of women, even if your wife and daughter go wrong, you will still have made a huge profit on the transaction. How does the Lord of Heaven deal with that?”

When the priest heard him make this argument, he realized that he was dealing with a stubborn stone indeed, one who could not be swayed. [24] His only recourse was to suggest a compromise that would give Vesperus a measure of freedom.

“Layman,” he remarked, “your debating skills are so sharp that I’m afraid I’m no match for you. Since my words have failed to convince you, you’ll have to experience these things yourself before you grasp the principle involved. By all means go back, marry a beautiful girl, and gain your enlightenment on the carnal prayer mat; then you’ll discover the truth. I’ll stop my prattling, but I have one last thing to add. Layman, you have the attributes of a sage among men, you have the capacity to attain the heights, and I cannot bear to give you up. When you have seen the light, if you wish to come and ask me about the road back to salvation, don’t be too embarrassed and cut yourself off from me just because my advice has been all too correct. From now on I shall spend each day waiting anxiously for your return.”

So saying, he cut off a piece of paper, picked up his brush, and wrote a four-line gatha on it. The gatha ran,

Pray cast aside the leathern bag

And on the carnal prayer mat wait.

While still alive you must repent,

Not cry: “The coffin’s shut-too late!”

He then folded the paper several times and gave it to Vesperus. “I am a thick-witted priest who knows nothing of decorum. The gatha is too drastic, I know, but I assure you it is prompted only by compassion. Keep it with you, and one day it will prove me right.”

With that, he stood up as if to see Vesperus on his way. Vesperus realized he was being dismissed and felt it impossible to stay. But he respected the older man too much as an eminent priest to take an ill-mannered departure, so he bowed his head and apologized. “Your disciple is too stupid and pigheaded to accept your instruction, but he still hopes you will forgive him, master. When one day he returns, he will respectfully beseech you to take him in.”

He knelt down again and bowed four times. The priest responded in like manner and then saw his visitor out of the gate, where he repeated his warnings before parting.

With this sentence the priest’s debut is concluded. We shall proceed to tell of Vesperus’s obsession with sex but without further mention of Lone Peak. If you wish to learn what becomes of him, you will have to keep on reading until the final chapter, in which he reappears.


Vesperus is the male lead of a play in which Lone Peak is a supporting character. If anyone else had been writing this novel, he would certainly have begun with Vesperus and brought in Lone Peak as his visitor; that is the orthodox method of fiction writing. This novel, however, begins by telling of Lone Peak in such inordinate detail as to make the reader suspect that the priest may later on behave immorally himself. To our surprise, he does nothing of the sort. Only when, engrossed in his Zen meditations, he forgets to shut the door does the true intent of the novel emerge and give the reader pause. This is a variant technique in fiction, an instance of the author’s complete rejection of conventional practice. Even if another writer were to try it, he would be bound to confuse the theme and jumble the plot lines, leaving the reader unable to tell who is the main character and who the secondary. In this novel, by contrast, they are as distinct as eyes and eyebrows, so that when the reader reaches the opening of the theme, everything is clear to him.

The remarks at the end of the chapter also clarify the plot, relieving the reader of any difficulties. This author is a master of the art whose equal has never been seen outside of the author of the Shuihu.  There are those who say he is a younger brother of the author of the Jin Ping Mei. If so, might this not be a case of the younger outshining the elder?

Continue to Chapter Three…

Edited and proofread by audiowuxia.

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