Translator David Tod Roy showed world there was more to China’s infamous erotic novel than sex

By Wei Xi Source:Global Times Published: 2016-6-1 19:08:01

A scene from film Jin Ping Mei Photo: CFP

News of US sinologist David Tod Roy's passing at age 83 would probably not have caught the attention of media in China had it not been for the fact that he had translated one of the nation's most infamous classics Jin Ping Mei into English.

A 16th century novel written by an anonymous author who chose the penname "The Scoffing Scholar of Lanling," Jin Ping Mei, or as Roy called it The Plum in the Golden Vase, has long had a racy history considering its many explicit descriptions of sex. Long equated with pornography in China, almost all current published versions in the Chinese mainland are abridged versions from which the descriptions of sex have been removed.

It was precisely this book's reputation that caught Roy's attention. Born in Nanjing to a missionary family and fluent in Chinese, as a teenager Roy first picked up Jin Ping Mei to satisfy his sexual curiosity, but he soon found himself fascinated by the massive and detailed accounts about the characters and their daily lives.

Later Roy devoted 30 years of his life to a five-volume English translation of the novel.

A complete English translation

Although Roy was not the first person to introduce this Chinese classic to the English-speaking world, his contributions are recognized by professional translation circles both in and outside of China.

Another well-known translation is Clement Egerton's 1939 version, written with the help of Lao She, the well-known author of Rickshaw Boy. Although this translation has been reprinted four times, Egerton, however, chose to translate some of the more sexually explicit parts into Latin and ignored many of the poems from the original work.

"The earliest English version, as far as I know, was an excerpt version published in 1927," Wang Xiaoyuan, director of the Research Center for Translation at Shanghai University, told the Global Times, adding that there was another excerpt version in 1939 that was translated by Bernard Miall from Franz Kuhn's 1930 German version.

Wang said that the five volumes of Roy's work are a complete English version capturing the book's real meaning.

A similar opinion is held by Robert E. Hegel, professor of Chinese Language and Literature at Washington University in St. Louis.

In an interview with Time Weekly in early 2014, Hegel stated that the advantage of Roy's work was that he included all the folk elements from the original novel, including popular songs, folk customs, jokes and slang. And at the same time, he did not localize the novel, but made sure audiences would keep in mind the context that this was a completely different culture and time period.

Egerton's version, in Hegel's opinion, localized the Chinese story to the point it felt like it was a British novel from the 19th century.

A moral lesson

With its sexual content, Jin Ping Mei has long been regarded as a pornographic work.

Criticizing this idea as completely wrong, Hegel prefers to see the book as a moral lesson about the dangers of what happens when desire is taken to the extreme. He pointed out that the sexual portions only account for less than 1 percent of the entire novel.

"Most of its accounts are not about sex, but various other social communication," Hegel told Time Weekly.

Among those that study literature, the book is considered a valuable classic. As early as 1994, Jonathan Spence, Professor of History Emeritus at Yale, published a review of the book in the New York Review of Books.

"The 800 or so men, women and children who appear in the book cover a breath-taking variety of human types, and encompass pretty much every imaginable mood and genre - from sadism to tenderness, from light humor to philosophical musings, from acute social commentary to outrageous satire," he wrote.

Equating it to a print version of the famous painting Along the River During the Qingming Festival (an ancient Chinese painting that depicts hundreds of people going about their day in a city) or an encyclopedia, Wang said that he thinks it's a mistake to dismiss the book as erotic literature.

"Even many Chinese have a hard time understanding all the various detailed descriptions," he said.

David Tod Roy

Born in 1933 to a US missionary family in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province.

Love reading literature at a young age.


Asks a Chinese tutor for help in reading and writing Chinese. He is soon able to read Chinese classics such as Romance of the Three Kingdoms and A Dream of Red Mansions.


Discovers a copy of Jin Ping Mei in an old bookstore in Nanjing.


Returns to the US for college. Majors in Chinese literature at Harvard. Acquires PhD degree and begins teaching at Princeton.


Teaches at the University of Chicago and starts preparations to translate Jin Ping Mei in full.


Begins working on translation in earnest.


Retires and dedicates his time to the translation.


Finishes translation.


The fifth and last volume is published.


Passes away in Chicago on May 29.


Newspaper headline: Art not porn

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