Academic journal article Tamkang Review

A Negative Poetics: Desire and Death in the Xiuxiang Jin Ping Mei

Academic journal article Tamkang Review

A Negative Poetics: Desire and Death in the Xiuxiang Jin Ping Mei

Article excerpt

Death is the sanction of everything that the storyteller can tell. Walter Benjamin


As we know, the novel Jin Ping Mei utilizes three textual systems: known as the Jin Ping Mei cihua [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (alternatively known as the Wanli [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] edition, hereafter cihua), the xiuxiang [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] edition (the illustrated text, also known as the Chongzhen [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] edition, hereafter xiuxiang), and the Diyi qishu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] edition with Zhang Zhupo's [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (1670-1698) commentary (hereafter Diyi qishu). (1) While the xiuxiang text and the Diyi qishu edition are almost identical except for some minor textual variations, the xiuxiang text and the cihua edition differs significantly, thus resulting in varying critical evaluations of the two editions up to date. It is not my intention to add to the long-standing textual, ideological, or aesthetical controversies regarding the xiuxiang and the cihua editions. (2) My argument is that while the cihua edition deserves all the critical attention that it has received, (3) given the wide circulation of the Diyi qishu edition before the uncovering of the cihua edition in the early twentieth century, the status of the xiuxiang edition, from which the Diyi qishu edition is copied almost verbatim, should be appropriately recognized in the history of the Chinese novel. (4) My contention in this study is that one of the contributions of the xiuxiang Jin Ping Mei to the development of the Chinese novel is that it presents a "negative poetics" of desire and death, (5) a poetics that exerted considerable impact on the conceptualization and representation of self and desire. (6) The purpose of this paper is to tease out the negative poetics of desire and death in the xiuxiang Jin Ping Mei as both a structure of signification and organizing principle, and how this negative poetics informs the representation of the individual, a core thematic concern in seventeenth-century Chinese fiction. (7)

In his influential thesis Reading for the Plot Design and Intention in Narrative, Peter Brooks interprets plot as the interplay of two of Barthes' five narrative codes: Proairetic code which concerns the code of actions (Voice of the Empirical), and Hermeneutic code which concerns the questions and answers that structure a story (Voice of Truth). Plot, Brooks further argues, then might be thought of as an "'overcoding' of the Proairetic by the Hermeneutic, the former structuring the discrete elements of the latter into larger interpretive wholes, working out their play of meaning and significance." Based on Peter Brook's theory of narrative plot, I argue that while in the xiuxiang Jin Ping Mei desire sets forth the narrative of action, death is the "hermeneutics" of desire. (8)

As pointed out by a scholar, Jin Ping Mei is a work about death. (9) Interwoven with the narrative of desire, the pervasive images of death in Jin Ping Mei bespeak a sense of profound anxiety over a changing society as a result of rapid commercialization taking momentum from the mid-Ming onward. (10) Reading against its historical context, desire, embodied by money and sex in Jin Ping Mei, is the perfect image of commercialized economy which permanently changed the fabric of Chinese society, as evidenced by the endless flow of money and women in Ximen Qing's sensualist world of consumption. In the hedonistic new world of Jin Ping Mei where desire is represented as a free-floating signifier disassociated from any social institutions, only death can put an end to people like Ximen Qing with insatiable desires and their disruptive impacts on social order. Put differently, death in Jin Ping Mei negates desire and is the signified of the free-floating signifier of desire.

What differentiates the xiuxiang text from the cihua text is that while the cihua text explores the social and political ramifications of desire with a Confucian conceptual framework which corresponds family to state (or the local to the imperial), (11) the xiuxiang text confronts the problem of man's existence through man's relationship with desire with a Buddhist vision of emptiness and transcendence. …

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