Panel 1: Texts and Contexts (9:10 - 10:20 a.m.) 

Katherine Carlitz, “Incest and Misguided Fidelity: The Han Family Prefigures Dynastic Doom”

Wang Liu’er and her daughter Han Aijie bookend the novel Jin ping mei. We meet Wang Liu’er early on when she is caught sleeping with her husband’s brother. Thereafter her sexuality is a constant threat, as she twice exhausts Ximen Qing in the bedchamber, leaving it to Pan Jinlian to finish the job by depleting what is left of his essence and thus causing his death. 

Han Aijie then pledges herself to Ximen Qing’s feckless son-in-law Chen Jingji, but when Chen dies, she undermines the virtue of fidelity by becoming a nun. The celibate religious path essentially robs the Ximen family of any future, when Wu Yueniang is forced to relinquish Ximen Qing's only surviving son to the monk Pujing. Pujing grants us an advance look at the reincarnations of all the novel’s major characters, but there is nothing to suggest that they will improve upon the fates of their predecessors. The Han family is thus an efficient vehicle for predicting the fate of the author's own dynasty.

Suyoung Son, “Crediting Anonymous Text

The textual evolution of Jin Ping Mei from manuscript to printed book raises the interesting questions about the meaning of authorship when a text appears anonymously. Shifting away from the prevailing conception of Jin Ping Mei’s circulation without the known author as no more than a temporary screening of authorship of this scandalously obscene book, this paper examines the ways in which the secrecy afforded by the anonymity provided a space for the publishing agents to appropriate the established cultural personas of the author. Examining the extratextual materials attached to the different editions  from Jin Ping Mei cihua to Xu Jin Ping Mei, this paper will discuss what the textual evolution of Jin Ping Mei reveals about publication strategies, about the relation of authors to their readers, and more broadly, about authorial credit and authorial property in the increasingly competitive book market in late imperial China.



Panel 2: Intertexuality (10:30 a.m. - 12:15 p.m.)

Xiaofei Tian, “The Weather in Jin Ping Mei and the Birth of Chinese Novel

This paper discusses the narrative vision of the author of the Plum by focusing on three points: his/her tropism toward meta-narrative; his/her deployment of verses (shi, ci, and qu) considered from two different views, that of the lyricist and that of the novelist; and the weather in the Plum. I argue that Jin Ping Mei is crafted with a self-conscious artifice and, due to its attention to individual experience and contingency over universals and law, marks the birth of the Chinese novel in the true sense of the English word.


Catherine Swatek, “Coping with the Songs in the Jin Ping Mei cihua


Swatek will focus on the uses of vernacular songs in Jin Ping Mei. She will discuss Roy’s notes in relation to his choices as a translator when it comes to vernacular songs in different narrative contexts. The notes and Roy’s translations of song suites barely alluded to in the text helped to highlight the problems that undergraduate students might encounter when trying to make sense of this dimension of the novel. While many first readers choose to skip over the songs, for those who pause to read them and consider how they are used, there is much to be learned from Professor Roy’s translation, and especially from his notes.

Sophie Volpp, Intertextuality and the Reading of Character in Jin Ping Mei

How might we think about reading character in a way that takes into account the intertextual references documented in David Tod Roy’s annotation to his translation of Jin Ping Mei, by far the most complete set of notes that exists in any edition? As the research of He Yuming has shown, a pleasure in inserting predecessor texts in incongruous settings is central to the jokes, riddles and games of the late Ming, and as Shang Wei has suggested, this pleasure in incongruous juxtaposition infuses many signal moments of citation in Jin Ping Mei. I ask how this virtuoso bricolage can be brought to bear on reading character.  When Ximen Qing’s steward Lai Wang is sent into exile, the couplet that describes his departure is drawn from The Water Margin’s depiction of the exile of Wu Song. We could view this a comment on Lai Wang’s exile, but we could also view it as a moment when citation is not manifestly productive of meaning.  If ultimately, the logic of incongruous juxtaposition is a textual game played by the author of Jin Ping Mei, a series of masterful moves in sourcing lyrics, poems, set pieces and proverbs that are tangentially appropriate to the occasion, this has ramifications for how we think about character. I argue that characters are produced as textual effects that emerge out of Jin Ping Mei’s citation of the print culture of the period,  and that our mode of reading character must take into account this use of incongruous citation to represent thought and emotion.


Panel 3: Time and Fate (1:15 - 3 p.m.)

Ling Hon Lam, “Borrowed Time and Infinitude: Narrative, Media, and the Body in Jin Ping Mei

It is tempting to see the Jin Ping Mei’s world bounded up by an extended loan of time. The postman always rings twice, and the exiled bogeyman Wu Song is due to collect the debt however long the detour he takes. The transgression of Ximen Qing and Pan Jinlian – allegorically the infinite expansion of capital – is thus apparently capped by a doomsday destined to close the whole cycle. But this preliminary reading stumbles upon the fact that Ximen Qing has died way earlier than Wu Song’s return and that the novel does not quite end with Wu Song’s murder of Jinlian. The cyclical time does not quite bring things to nothingness, nor does it quite explain the premature demise of Ximen. The premise that human activities and enterprises wax and wane in a big cycle is therefore inadequate for the understanding the temporal structure of Jin Ping Mei. This paper argues that this late Ming novel showcases a delicate balance between the linearity and the cyclicity of capital. Only through this dual structure of temporality would we be able to fully capture the double paradox in form and content: that the sexual body in the story dies not of exhaustion but of the interruption of spending, and that the textual promiscuity of plagiarism and collage turns out to be salutary rather than detrimental to the unprecedented cohesion of narrative structure.

Andrew Schonebaum, “Mantic Arts in Jin Ping Mei

One of the difficulties in studying Chinese religion is that it creates a holistic worldview, a systematic cosmos – but the workings of that cosmos are assessed through a wide variety of practices and beliefs. Long domestic novels that record the practices of daily life are thus an important source for understanding how some of these practices were understood and performed – often out of public view. Mantic arts are so consistently and sometimes so thoroughly represented in premodern fiction that it seems at times to valorize those practices, or at least the cosmic structures that underlie them. However, the act of representing divinatory practice in a structured narrative forces fortunetelling into the role of foreshadowing. The future has already been decided by the author when the reader encounters divination in a novel, and in the case of Jin Ping Mei, readers familiar with The Water Margin know what happens to some of the main characters before they begin to read. This paper will investigate why Jin Ping Mei employs different kinds of mantic practices, and what these separate futures mean for characters, and for our understanding of fiction in the late Ming dynasty.

Thomas Kelly, “Character Splitting: Rereading Riddles in Jin Ping Mei

This paper reconsiders the significance of literary riddles (yin ) in different editions of Jin Ping Mei. While the surfeit of word games (dengmi 燈謎, xiehouyu 歇後語, chaibai daozi 拆白道字) in the Cihua has been linked to contemporary demimonde fashions and a “hucksterish” book culture, Kelly asks what these riddles have actually been seen to say. In particular, he identifies a sustained effort on the part of early readers to resituate the novel’s enigmas in a longer genealogy of riddling omens and hidden admonitions. Drawing from the late Ming compendium Xinqi dengmi: Jianghu qiaoyu 新奇燈謎江湖俏語 and Li Kaixian’s 1555 anthology of riddling verse, the Cihua artfully embeds its riddles within larger game sequences or scenes of play, inviting the reader to participate in the making of meaning, while testing the boundaries of sense and nonsense. Zhang Zhupo and the Chongzhen edition, by contrast, reorganize a number of these same enigmas to serve as coherent portents of characters’ fates, imagining commentary as a mode of solving riddles. While such tactics, reading riddles as omens, clearly influenced later authors, they obscure the seductive and, at times, unsettling uses of concealment within the Cihua.


Panel 4: Sexuality, Interiority, Materiality (3:15 - 5 p.m.)

Keith McMahon, “Saying All That Can Be Said: the Art of Describing Sex in Jin Ping Mei

A Ming commentator said about Jin Ping Mei: “This book is about saying all that can be said of the affairs of the world, no matter how trivial or momentous, no matter how exciting or indifferent.  Whatever obtains in the ways of the world, the author doesn’t hesitate to penetrate its depths” (此書只一味打破世情, 故不論事之大小冷熱, 但世情所有, 便一筆刺入). At the center of saying it all is the roughly two per cent of the novel that focuses on explicit sexual portrayal. The extent of portrayal is unprecedented, signaling a new space of reading and writing for displaying the obscene and the pornographic and to do so as if it were a constructive thing to do. Describing sex was a way of delineating, evaluating, and commenting on characters, situations, and sexual and psychic states of being. 

Our questions are: what are the types and modes of description – whether high erotic, for example, in which sex takes place on an alternate, sublimated plain, or graphic, which is about the raw sights and sounds of sex, its ferocity and precipitousness, and the sheer copiousness of sensual effects. What are the words the characters and author use and what are their connotations? What is the art of sex in terms of how the characters act and practice it and in terms of how the author portrays it? How justified are we to use the word pornography in this context and, if we use it, how must we adjust its meaning? Finally, how does the novel relate to the original art of sex in China as found in the ancient art of the bedchamber? All such questions relate to the different ways the women in the novel relate to Ximen Qing depending on such things as status and personality, whether as main wife, concubine, prostitute, widow, other man’s wife, servant, or wet nurse.

Tina Lu, “Vision as Psychology”

One of the first things one notices about Jin Ping Mei is that the novel inhabits a paradox: on one hand, the plot depends on both the characters’ and the reader’s constantly juggling appraisals of characters’ interiority. Without asking (and to some extent answering) questions like “what does Pan Jinlian think?” or “what does Ying Bojue know?” the novel does not cohere. On the other hand, the novel almost never describes its characters’ interior states. Lu is interested in examining the chapters that treat the Lantern Festival (24, 42, 78-79), the holiday that above all others showcases the act of looking (and concomitantly is also a moment of sexual license), to consider the relationship between seeing and interiority; characters are keenly aware of what they can see and what others cannot and similarly interested in manipulating the vision of others. Her focus is on whether this model of vision can be considered a model of psychology.

Wai-yee Li, “Recalcitrant Things in Jin Ping Mei

Jin Ping Mei is chock-full of things. A character’s appearance is usually accompanied by a detailed description of her (or his) articles of clothing, jewelry, and shoes – not only when we first meet her (or him), but on nearly every occasion. No repast seems insignificant enough to not merit a listing of all the dishes. Almost all the gifts and bribes are carefully itemized, sometimes with details about their market value. We know the exact cost of almost everything. What does this obsessive devotion to the world of things signify? In symbolic terms, Jin Ping Mei stands alone in the literary tradition in its relentless commitment to depicting characters defined by their material desires. In the process they are not only “transformed by things”; they are dehumanized and transformed into things. If things usually do not command sentimental or emotional value and if the logic of the marketplace reigns supreme, what are we left with? Do we see the objectification of people as the index to moral collapse? Is oppressive materiality a self-subverting proposition – does it necessarily imply its own vacuity and meaninglessness? Li will explore how things in Jin Ping Mei resist the imposition of emotional, moral, and spiritual meanings but also resist their own negation.