Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Reflections on a Braised Pig's Head: Food and Vernacular Storytelling in Jin Ping Mei

Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Reflections on a Braised Pig's Head: Food and Vernacular Storytelling in Jin Ping Mei

Article excerpt

Jin Ping Mei (The Plum in the Golden Vase, hereafter JPM) is a sixteenth-century vernacular novel that explores the everyday life of a parvenu merchant Ximen Qing surrounded by women, servants, and sycophants in a provincial town of northern China,1 The novel was published in the later period of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) under the penname of Lanling xiaoxiaosheng (The Scoffing Scholar from Lanling). There have been numerous conjectures on the real identity of the author, but none of them has been widely accepted. The novel covers a groundbreaking subject for the vernacular novel of its time--the domestic life of the semi-literate women of the affluent merchant class--and the novel is notorious in Chinese literary history for its detailed depiction of Ximen Qing's sex life with his wife, concubines, maids, and many other women of different social classes. The unprecedented subject matter and the scale and depth of its literary presentation demand effective methods for disclosing the inner worlds of the female characters, especially their unspeakable and unspoken thoughts when competing with other women for men's favors. This paper looks at how descriptions of food and dining are used in the novel for the portrayal of female characters' inner worlds, a portrayal that was gr, oundbreaking and innovative in a literary genre that had previously been dominated by a public and male-dominated mode of storytelling.

The principal argument of this essay is that food is effectively employed in JPM as a nar--ratological device to reveal the female characters' inner thoughts that are difficult to voice by the novelist in other ways. Drawing upon previous studies of the novel, I put particular emphasis on the issue of gender. An episode of a New Year's dining party held by Ximen Qing's three concubines in chapter 23 of the novel is analyzed in detail to illustrate the nar--ratological effectiveness of food in the presentation of the female characters' psychology and sensibility, and the power dynamics between them. To demonstrate the historical and literary significance of such use of food, I further contextualize it in the development of the Chinese vernacular novel. fin Ping Mei represents a literary breakthrough with its use of vernacular prose and external details of everyday life to depict female characters' inner feelings and hidden thoughts.

This essay consists of three main sections and some concluding remarks. In the first section I give an overview of the presentations of food in JPM and the different approaches by which they have been studied, in order to highlight the distinctive analytical approach of this paper. The second section provides a close reading of the dining party episode in chapter 23 and an analysis of how food is employed as a narrative trope for character portrayal and plot development in the power dynamics of the Ximen household. In the third section, the use of food in the New Year's party episode is placed in the context of the development of the Chinese vernacular novel as an emerging literary genre and the evolution of vernacular prose as a language for literature in the Ming dynasty. In my concluding remarks, I return to the earliest extant Ming comments on JPM from a time when it was circulating in manuscript among a small group of literati. These comments help to elucidate the literary innovations and narratological ingenuity of JPM displayed in the dining party episode of chapter 23.



The main story of JPM revolves around the life of its protagonist, Ximen Qing. At the beginning of the novel, Ximen Qing is a young, good-looking, virile, and imperious merchant in Qinghe of Shandong Province, a town with lively commercial activities in northern China. His parents died early, and, having no siblings, he is the sole master of the household. Ximen Qing is tyrannical to his wife and concubines at home and an open-handed and dissolute customer in the pleasure district. …

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