Jin Ping Mei: Plum in the Golden Vase
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Guqin in Jin Ping Mei
The Plum in the Golden Vase, a novel (Wiki; 中文) 1  
Anonymous late 16th c. novel  
  Pan Jinlian Toys with Her Pipa 2        
Jin Ping Mei (The Plum in the Golden Vase) is one of the four great "early" (published before the Ming dynasty) classic Chinese novels.3 However, it seems often to be excluded from such lists, presumably because of its erotic content.4 Dating from the late 16th c. (but set in the Song dynasty5), it was written anonymously by the self-styled Scoffing Scholar of Lanling (蘭陵笑笑生 Lanling Xiaoxiaosheng).6

The present page is part of a section, The Qin in Popular Culture: Novels and Opera that includes a number of such works. These works tend to mention qin in a way that invites an illustrated guqin performance. There, generally speaking, the melodies played tend to give color to scenarios that often are the subject of both the melodies and the stories.

Doing this for Jin Ping Mei, however, provides a different sort of challenge. For all its erotic content the book is largely social satire and it does not depict many literati as the sort of people who one might imagine aspired to qin ideology with all its lofty ideals. So putting together such a program may begin with finding melodies that simply connect to parts of the story here, but it should also include melodies that are relevant to the society as depicted in the novel.

But are there melodies or melody lyrics that can be used to give insights into such social criticism or could be used as a natural accompaniment to such a topic? To know the possibilities of doing this requires carefully examination of references in the book. This of course also requires looking at the original Chinese text as well as translations, though in this one encounters a number of textual issues, beginning with extant surviving original texts and hence to English translations.

Regarding English translations of this work, there have been a number of abridged English ones,7 but to get a better flavor one should read the complete work. Fortunately, there is a complete and well-annotated English translation. It is in five volumes, as follows:

    David Tod Roy, The Plum in the Golden Vase or Chin P'ing Mei; Princeton Library of Asian Translations, 1993-2013.8

  1. The Gathering (Chapters 1-20)
  2. The Rivals (Chapters 21-40)
  3. The Aphrodisiac (Chapters 41-60)
  4. The Climax (Chapters 61-80)
  5. The Dissolution (Chapters 81-100)

As for the original Chinese text,9 a number of Chinese editions are extant, but two seem to be the most prominent. These are as follows (see image below with a sample cover for a contemporary edition of each):

  1. "Cihua": 金瓶梅詞話(全校本)Jin Ping Mei cihua, an illustrated edition originally published with a preface dated 1618 (in the Wanli period, 1572–1620).
  2. "Zhupo": 金瓶梅:兩種竹坡評點本合刊, the version originally edited by 張竹坡 Zhang Zhupo (1670–1698)

Modern versions of the cihua edition (which is the one on which David Tod Roy's translation is based) usually credit as their source a 1963 Japanese photo-reprint of an ancient copy. As with Roy it divides the whole work into five volumes of 20 chapters each and contains numerous woodblock prints. However, the Zhupo edition seems to be the source of most other translations, and this is also the one more generally available online.9

As for finding qin references in Jin Ping Mei, this perhaps best begins with reading a work by David Rolston, linked here, that has a comprehensive analysis of musical references in the cihua edition. Here (p.19) Rolston says,

As we might expect, Ximen Qing can neither play the qin-zither nor is he shown in the presence of the performance of one. The only mentions of the playing of the instrument occur in poems quoted by the narrator at the beginning of chapters (29.363, 69.981, and 71.1016), the middle of them (78.1189), or in songs that are sung (44.576-77 and 61.838). Two of these mentions (61.838 and 69.981) refer to romantic uses of the instrument, by Zhang Junrui 張君瑞 in the Xixiang ji 西廂記, and the seduction of Zhuo Wenjun 卓文君 by Sima Xiangru 司馬相如, respectively. Zhuo Wenjun and Sima Xiangru are also mentioned in a passage of parallel prose in which the instrument of seduction is the related se-zither (se 瑟; e.g., 37.483-84). As noted, most of the references come in passing, and there is an almost overwhelming element of satire involved in the author's presentation of the literati, and in the process the qin is not at all idealized. The main protagonist, Ximen Qing, likes to use qin (along with books and paintings) as a decorative object. It seems that characters in the novel are at best depicted as giving only lip service to the lofty ideals connected to the qin. How should this be viewed by those who think the qin aesthetic represents the loftiest ideals of the Chinese literati? Take offense, or through this try to learn more about actual attitudes towards the qin prevalent at that time?11

Presenting The Qin in Jin Ping Mei

Putting together such an actual presentation begins with looking through materials which make appropriate, or potentially appropriate, connections. Here there seem to be two main avenues to pursue: references or at least allusions to actual qin melody titles, and then song lyrics that might be sung to existing melodies. Fortunately, there is related existing research along these lines to help get started.13

Relevant melody titles 14

If this is merely a matter of playing qin melodies taken from names mentioned in Jin Ping Mei, then there are a number of pieces that can be played, beginning with melodies connected to the story of Sima Xiangru using his qin play to seduce Zhuo Wenjun. This includes Wenjun Cao and Feng Qiu Huang, or perhaps also even Baitou Yin (Chapter 14; I/274).

Other possibilities include

The lyrics of songs 15

As well as the search for melody titles, perhaps the other most likely angle to pursue is to examine the numerous poems and lyrics included in the original text of the novel and try to pair them with some old qin melodies. In this my method has always been to search for poems and lyrics that have character counts and phrase patterns that might be paired to exisiting qin melodies following the standard pairing practice.

Here are some possibilities:

  1. 黃嬰兒 Huang Ying Er (Yellow Oriole); Chapter 56; Roy Volume III/pp.387-8
    The Chinese text of this poem, listed as "Yellow Oriole" in the index under "tune titles", has the same form as that of
    a poem of this title by 黃峨 Huang E. There is also a qin melody entitled 黃嬰吟 Huang Ying Yin (actually a 開指 modal prelude; its title is translated there as "Golden Oriole"). It would take a lot of changes to adapt the qin melody to the text of the lyrics in Jin Ping Mei. If that were done, what would it signify?

    好事近 Hao Shi Jin (A Happy Event is Imminent); Chapter 46; Roy III/p.106
    Here Ximen Qing asks for a music group to play a melody of this title. A qin handbook published in 1664 has a qin setting (listen
    here at 01'43" while reading these lyics) that should fit the lyrics if Jin Ping Mei had written down what was sung here. (See another example of the same form in Roy 59/461).

    浣溪沙 Huan Xi Sha (Sands of Silk-Washing Creek); Chapter 61; Roy IV/21 has a translation
    This tune title is a variant on the tune title
    Tanpo Huan Xi Sha but I have not yet been able to find the original cihua text.

    憶吹簫 Yi Chui Xiao (I remember her flute playing); Chapter 71 Roy IV/388
    Here there is mention of a song that begins with the words "憶吹簫 Yi Chui Xiao". If this were the melody title it could be a short form of
    Fenghuang Taishang Yi Chui Xiao, for which there are several qin settings, the second one called Gui Yuan Cao. The first line is,"香冷金猊,被翻紅浪,起來慵自梳頭。 ...."). However, here the actual melody is part of a song suite called "A Gathering of Worthy Guests" (集賢賓 Ji Xian Bin. I have not yet found its contents. In addition, in Chapters 52/p.269 and 58/p.439 this appears as a tune title, the latter of them in a separate suite. Supplemental material at Roy II/467 gives sources for a song suite of this name but this at present does not allow me to find whether there are any lyrics that might have the same pattern as Yi Chui Xiao.

As of this date I have only just begun this search, limiting it to melodies that I have actually reconstructed and played myself. There are many others that can also be checked, mostly from several 17th century qin handbooks that focus on songs.

Of course, even if one does hear a melody played as written down for qin in the 17th century that exactly fits lyrics from Jin Ping Mei described as played with other instruments, this is no guarantee that it is the same melody. But is it enjoyable on a different level than it would be from listening to a newly created melody, or no melody at all.

Thus, in the end perhaps a program introducing the topic of this page, Qin and Jin Ping Mei, would first point out ideals or idyllic scenes as expressed in or illustrated by the melodies, then contrasting this with the actuality of life and attitudes depicted in the novel. 16

Footnotes (Shorthand references are explained on a separate page)

1. The Plum in the Golden Vase (金瓶梅 Jin Ping Mei)
Many years ago (before I even began to study qin) I read (not carefully enough) the abridged translation by Clement Egerton. Now to do this page properly I need to read Roy's complete translation together with the original text of the same edition, trying to discern what the author actually thought of qin music and how that may have affected his writing.

Meanwhile I have made use of several available online articles. The most useful of these has been the following, which I understand to be an essay introducing the references it found in preparing and annotating material for a conference held in 2006. The material is in its Appendix 1 (pp. 49-207), which is followed by 5 data charts.

David L. Rolston, Imagined (or Perhaps Not) Late Ming Music in an Imaginary Late Ming Household: The Production and Consumption of Music and Oral Performing Literature by and in the Ximen Family in the Jin Ping Mei cihua (Plum in the Golden Vase), 2006
complete pdf copied from here)
Note in particular his mentions, beginning on page 19, of guqin (qin-zither) in the novel. His summary is quoted here. References there such as "29.363" are to Chapter 29/page 363 of the Japanese photo-reprint of the cihua edition.

2. 潘金蓮彈琵琶 Pan Jinlian plays her pipa
Copied from The Plum in the Golden Vase, Volume 2, Chapter 38, p. 395. The full title there was "Pan Chin-lien on a Snowy Evening Toys with Her P'i-p'a". The text says she has idly been playing the qupai 二犯江兒水 River Water with Two Variations.

Pan Jinlian (Wiki) is a main character in the novel: the female counterpart to 西門慶 Ximen Qing (Wiki). Her name means "Golden Lotus Pan", hence an alternate translation of the novel's title is Golden Lotus.

In all Roy's translation has more than perhaps 200 such illustrations within its five volumes. But although music instruments are a common occurence in the novel, I have not yet found an illustration that includes guqin. I have also not read in the book what the source is of these illustrations, though logic suggest they should be those included in the original Jin Ping Mei Ci Hua.

3. Four classic pre-Ming dynasty novels
The most famous of these are:

  1. San Guo Yan Yi
  2. Shui Hu Zhuan
  3. Jin Ping Mei
  4. Xi You Ji

Because of its erotic content some people refuse to accept Jin Ping Mei in this list; to get four novels they move forward a century to include Hong Lou Meng, or make it five by adding Rulin Waishi.

4. Erotic novel or pornographic novel?
Whether the content is erotic or pornographic is a question both of translation and of point of view.

More specifically, Roy says the novel was intended to support the ideals of the ancient philosopher Xunzi. Roy writes (Vol.1, p.XXV),

Hsün-tzu is most famous for his enunciation of the doctrine that, although everyone has the capacity for goodness, human nature is basically evil and, if allowed to find expression without the conscious molding and restraint of ritual, is certain to lead the individual disastrously astry. That the implied author of the Chin P'ing Mei endorses this view should be apparent to even the most superficial reader, but he also makes it quite explicit by quoting in four different places in his novel, including the first chapter, a line that reads, "In this world the heart of man alone remains vile."

Beneath that statement the same entry mentions several places in Xunzi where the qin is mentioned. In particular there is mention of Boya and his qin play.

Could any of such qin-connected material connected to Xunzi be used to illuminate issues of concern in Jin Ping Mei (e.g., could any of these references be connected both to the novel and to actual surviving qin melodies)?

5. Song dynasty setting
Jin Ping Mei shares some characters and incidents with Shui Hu Zhuan

6. 湯顯祖 Tang Xiangzu: The "Scoffing Scholar of Lanling (蘭陵笑笑生 Lanling Xiaoxiaosheng)" who wrote Jin Ping Mei?
David Tod Roy (I/xliii) wrote that he thought 湯顯祖 Tang Xiangzu (Wiki) was the most likely of the dozens of people who have been mooted as the author of Jin Ping Mei. Tang is most famous for his operas, specifically

Tang Xianzu is said at one time to have met the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci when the latter was still living in 肇慶 Zhaoqing (in a part of what is now Guangdong province near Guangzhou). Tang was then a government official who had assigned to a post in (i.e., exiled to) Guangzhou. Some commentators have said that in his writing he seems to have been impressed by what he saw there.

7. Other translations
The one perhaps best known is entitled "The Golden Lotus". It is a partial translation of what Roy says was a B or C edition, with the racy bits in Latin, by Clement Egerton (with the assistance of Lao She), 1954, Grove Press, Tuttle (in 4 volumes).

The title "Golden Lotus" is itself an abridgement. The complete title "Jin Ping Mei" comes from the names of the three leading female characters, 潘金蓮 Pan Jinlian, 李瓶兒 Li Ping'er and 龐春梅 Pang Chunmei: see again Wikipedia.

8. Complete translation
David Tod Roy (1933 – 2016; Wiki) published the five volumes over a period from 1993-2008, but it was the result of a lifetime of work. In the process he made numerous file cards with the references he found - I started out the same with my search for qin references, then was rescued from this by learning to use a computer. At that time it also seemed that the easiest way to search the material was to put it online and use a search function. Hence the beginning of this website.

9. Original Chinese text (ctext? zh.wikisource seems the same) Modern copies: Zhupo and Cihua   (expand)            
Because this search requires looking at the original Chinese text as well as translations, it has so far been a problem having only seen the online ctext and zh.wikisource version. On the surface they seem to have a complete online Chinese text version, but according to a comment on the ctext site their version is either corrupt or from a different edition than that of the complete version that David Tod Roy translated into English.

What is the best Chinese edition to use as reference? In his own preface to his complete English translation David Tod Roy mentions there are three known early editions, referred to as A, B and C. He says B and C are similar to each other but have significant differences from A. Roy's translation is of A, the earliest. Online I have not found what seems to be a copy of that version. So far all I have seen is the one in ctext/zh.wikisource. Is it either B or C?

A clear example of the problem comes at the beginning of Chapter 1. The ctext version begins here with the chapter title "西門慶熱結十弟兄 武二郎冷遇親哥嫂", followed by a poem that opens "豪華去後行人絕....", a second one that begins, "二八佳人體似酥....", then the text itself begins, "這一首詩,是昔年大唐國時....".

In contrast, in Roy the first chapter is entitled, "Wu Song fights a tiger on Ching-Yang Ridge; P'an Chin-Lien disdains her mate and plays the coquette". This is followed by Roy's translation of two different poems, the originals of which are, (眼兒媚) "丈夫只手把吳鈎,欲斬萬人頭。如何鐵石,打成心性,卻為花柔。" and "請看項籍並劉季,一怒使人愁。只因撞著虞姬、戚氏,豪傑都休。" The text then discusses these poems before going on (p.16) to a story about Wu Song (武松, i.e., 武二郎) at 景陽崗.

The owner of the two editions at right says that, whereas the Zhupo edition (green cover) begins with the poem found in the ctext version ("adapted from the Tang poem 銅雀台怨 by female poet 程長文"), the cihua edition (red cover) has the 眼兒媚 Yan Er Mei poems. On this basis I have tentatively concluded that the Cihua edition is more likely to be what Roy calls the A edition. (Roy's bibliography lists a Jin Ping Mei Ci Hua with preface dated 1618, so this should be his A edtion, but for some reason he does not seem ever to state this clearly. )

11. Lofty ideals
This remark is prompted by people saying not to look to Jin Ping Mei for qin ideals. As for these ideals, they are discussed here under Qin ideology. Note however the skepticism expressed by James Watt in his article The Qin and Chinese literati.

13. Getting started
In addition to the work of David Rolston mentioned above there are the indices that David Tod Roy made for each of the five volumes of his translation. Both of these help provide appropriate connections between words in the entries and actual existing qin melodies as well as writings on qin ideology.

It is also necessary to go beyond the original text of the novel itself. Thus, most volumes of Roy's translation have a section of Supplementary Material which gives the full form of many poems referred to or quoted from in the main text. For this it will be necessary to track down their original texts.

Furthermore, for finding such references, in addition to searching for terms such as "琴", as outlined above, one might also be able to find specific 曲牌、詞牌, etc. by searching for "tune titles" in Roy's index for each volume.

To be examined further: Cipai and Qin Melodies.

(This search is currently very much hampered due in part to text questions raised above - largely from the lack of a searchable edition of Jin Ping Mei ci hua.)

14. Results from David Tod Roy's indices
Here is an outline from David Roy's indices at the back of each volume.

  1. The Gathering ("琴" ref: 280, 444 (sup), 482n.29, 483n.13); Sima Xiangru 79-482; 89-483; also I/274 Baitou Yin, from "何如得遂相如意,不讓文君詠白頭。")
  2. The Rivals ("琴" ref: 131 (satire on priests and monks), 166, 222 (furnishing), 285 (again), 357 (with books), 365 (like Wenjun), 454 (sup), 463, 468); 365/463; 454 (Supplemental text: 漁家傲); also p.460 Meihua and Yan Hui (specifically 泣顏回 Qi Yan Hui, but I do not play that quite recent melody)
  3. The Aphrodisiac ("琴" ref: 69, 155 (琴棋書畫 as decoration), 259 (repeats), 328 (zither stands), 458 (lacquer), 460 (hanging), 623n.20;
    (Also, Chapter 21/p.37 and Chapter 73/p.396 mention "三弄梅花 Sannong Meihua" as the first words of a melody called 粉蝶兒 Powdery Butterflies but they give no lyrics so this is an unlikely connection)
  4. The Climax ("琴" ref: 6 (lyrics), 96 (琴瑟), 114 "琴劍書箱", 135 琴瑟, 156 琴瑟, 175 琴書瀟灑 decor, 244 司馬相如琴, 251 琴書, 306 1st line, 321 (not in Chinese text?), 377, 585, 772n.1); 585: 商陵操 of 商陵牧子 Shangling Muzi 837n.13 (Bie Gu Cao)
  5. The Dissolution ("琴" ref: none);

In these references from the index in each of the five books the word "zither" comes under "Musical Instruments". Most are passing references. The indices also have potentially relevant melody names listed under "tune titles".

Note that, in spite of numerous references to the Sima Xiangru/Wenjun story, no mention has yet been found in the book of any relevant melody titles

15. Poetic and lyric references
Found mostly by searching Rolston.

16. Developing connections  
N.B., as of this writing (28 August 2021) this is a tentative work-in-progress. My current need is to find get a copy (preferably a searchable online one) of a Cihua edition. Here I am largely influenced by Roy saying it is probably the original one and so it seems important to be able to align its text with Roy's translation. However, it also seems quite valid to consider Jin Ping Mei in an expanded sense, i.e., also taking into account the Zhupo version as well. Perhaps then it will turn out that the two versions show interesting differences in the way they use references to qin.

As for the incomplete references above, these are mainly notes to myself of things to pursue. When I am able to find more substantial connections the above references will be modified accordingly and probably relegated to footnotes.

N.B., "("琴" ref: ) refers to pages in Roy's translation that mention "zither" (i.e., guqin) as garnered from "zither" under "Musical intruments" in his Index for each volume. Searching the Chinese text for "琴" gives quite a few more references but mostly to "琴童 qin boy" (here in effect "page boy"); "ch'in niang" 琴娘 in his index means "qin girl" but it seems to occur only in footnotes and to designate a character from theater.

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