Saints, Sinners, and Sex in China

by Kenneth Champeon, Jul 15, 2003 | Destinations: China / Beijing

Like the Kama Sutra, Li Yu's novel The Carnal Prayer Mat is not exactly the kind of book that you would give as an anniversary gift, or borrow from a prissy librarian, but it does qualify as literature every bit as much as does, say, On the Imitation of Christ. First published in 1634, it is the story of a young man of exceptional intellect and good looks who also happens to be endowed with an exceptional libido. He forgoes a life of civil service or spirituality for a life of riotous sex and promiscuity -- at least, that is, until his various intrigues catch up with him, and with a vengeance. The book closes with a lecture from Li Yu on the perils of licentiousness; the novel is erotica, he explains, only so that those who are prone to an interest in such things will read it through and thereby also receive its final admonition.

The man is known as Before Midnight Scholar, which refers to the fact that he always concludes his amorous adventures before the day is finished. He takes a wife named Noble Scent, daughter to the stern hermit Dr. Iron Door, and he sets out to instruct the young lady in the matter of the "wind-and-moon game", a somewhat vague euphemism for copulation. Nor is this the only euphemism. To refer to the male member, Li Yu employs an astonishing variety of suggestive substitutes: yak whisk, obedient vassal, little fellow, javelin, jiffy, nephrite proboscis (nephrite is a form of jade), bellwether, shuttle, uplifted spear, truncheon, armament, equipment, implement, whistle, frontispiece, tortoise, battle-ax, doughty ambassador, egg beater. You get the idea. And you might be able to guess what phrases he uses for females (they include calyx, little meadow, pleasure house), and that the overall effect is that sex becomes not beautiful but comic, which was probably Li Yu's intention.

Before Midnight Scholar (hereafter called "the scholar") grows bored with his wife, so he deserts her under the pretense of going away to study. His next conquest is a woman named Aroma. I should say at this point that for the most part the women in the novel are just as randy as the men, though they may not show it at first. The scholar shows Noble Scent lewd pictures to arouse her, and though they initially have the opposite effect she later becomes an avid reader of erotica herself. Anyway, Aroma is already married to a silk merchant named Ch'|an, so the scholar begins his affair with her while her hapless husband is away. Eventually Ch'|an learns the truth, and he is so distraught by his wife's sudden enmity toward him that he consents to sell her to the scholar's friend, a Robin Hood-like thief named K'un-lun's Rival. When Ch'|an begins to plot his revenge, it first becomes clear that the scholar's charmed life may soon be coming to an end.

But before it does, the scholar takes on yet another project: three cousins named Jade, Pearl, and Scent Cloud, as well as their imperious Aunt Chen, who turns out to be the only woman capable of satiating the scholar's desires. This leads Li Yu to draw a distinction between women who are beautiful and women who are enjoyable, the latter being -- among other things -- bigger and more willful than the former. But things begin to go somewhat awry when Chen insists on having a "love contest", which involves a great deal of drinking and the performance in plain view of randomly chosen sexual positions with florid names like "fetching the fire behind the hill" or "making candles by dripping the wick in tallow." Envious of Chen's domination of the scholar, the three cousins conspire to have her position require anal intercourse, or, as the author puts it, something have to do with the "rear audience chamber." At this point the novel becomes seriously yucky, unless of course you're into that sort of thing.

Meanwhile Ch'|an seduces Noble Scent and she becomes pregnant. To avoid a scandal, he sells her and one of her maids to a brothel in Peking. Noble Scent eventually becomes a much sought-after courtesan, and her fame even reaches the ears of the scholar, though he is unaware of her true identity. You might be able to guess what happens next. Needless to say, it isn't good, and when the scholar learns that even Aroma has run off with somebody else, he decides that now is the time to return to the straight and narrow path. The novel had begun with the scholar trying to convince a famous monk named Lonely Summit that that there was nothing wrong with sleeping around; now he realizes his mistake and returns to the monk in search of atonement. And it turns out that Ch'|an has done the same. Hence "the carnal prayer mat." Hence also Li Yu's citation of the Confucian saying: "Only one who has sinned can become a saint."

In some ways the novel is only a sexually explicit variation on The Tale of Genji, which predates it by several centuries. It is peppered with proverbs, poems, and digressions on Chinese history, especially as it applies to love-related matters. And at least at first it seems to condone if not celebrate the earthly passions. This makes its moralizing conclusion somewhat difficult to stomach, as if the author were simply trying to make excuses for his apparent fascination with obedient vassals.

Speaking of which, in one of the more bizarre portions of the novel the scholar undergoes an operation with which all readers of email are familiar: penis enlargement. The scholar is told that his yak whisk is inadequate to his designs so he visits a doctor who promises miracles. The operation involves the transplant of canine erectile tissue, and when it is completed the scholar's nephrite proboscis is apparently awe-inspiring. Pity about the dog, whose implement was severed at the very moment it was most, um, uplifted.

Not that the novel is always so disgusting. Li Yu can turn a nice phrase once in a while, as when he compares a woman's lips to a "cherry burst open", or when he refers to the sun as the "Golden Bird" and the moon as the "Silver Hare" (the latter alludes to the Asian belief that the moon contains the image, not of a man, but of a rabbit.) In keeping with his military metaphors for the male member, he writes: "Esteemed reader, the battle of the sexes is in many respects not unlike the art of warfare: before the opening of hostilities, the two combatants spy upon each other, feeling out one another's strengths and weaknesses." He never uses the word orgasm: instead he refers to the "bursting cloud". He tells us that the Chinese character for adultery consists of the character for "woman" written three times. (This comes up when the scholar is busy with the three cousins.) And despite his apparent abhorrence of the sexual irregularities he so gleefully describes, he does not condemn relationships altogether. Consider this strongly-worded passage near the novel's end, and you may be able to forgive the author for writing (and me for reading) what is otherwise, as he calls it, "salacious trash":

"Man's life, day after day and from morning to night, is full of hardships and torment, of care and grief, which leave little room for quiet enjoyment. Let us therefore be thankful to the Creator of heaven and earth for having made two different sexes and for providing that there should be relationships between them. By doing so he has enabled men to relax from their hardship and torment, to cast off care and grief, so that we need not despair utterly of existence."

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Review of Li Yu's The Carnal Prayer Mat, Wordsworth Classic Erotica, 1995.

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