Media Collaboration in Jin Ping Mei: Relationship between Printed Fiction and Printed Illustration

Image from James Cahill’s Gazing Into the Past.

“Where did you get the Jin Ping Mei? Laying on my pillow I have been leafing
through this work, its pages oozing an erotic haze. It is indeed far more superior
than Mei Chung’s Seven Methods. Where is the last part? Please let me know
whenever you get your copy done so we can exchange them.” – Yuan Hongdao1


This is the first reference we know of the Jin Ping Mei (金瓶梅, jīn píng méi),2 one of the Four Great Classics of Ming Literature (明朝四奇大书, míng cháo sì qí dà shū) and the protagonist of this essay. The quotation is from a letter by the literati Yuan Hongdao (1568-1610) to his friend Dong Qichang (1555-1636), sent somewhere around 1596.3 This document is proof of the early development and circulation in manuscript form of the novel, eventually published on 1617. This bit also reveals three things: first, the strong relationship between the material side of the work and its social connotations, a manuscript that circulated among scholars and artists as an exclusive good. Second, the placement of the work in the literary cosmology of its times.4 Third, it hints at the conditions in which it was read: Yuan Hongdao lays down, relaxed and playful, and glances through the pages, getting infused by the general amusing flavor of the piece while at the same time is impressed by the deeper meaning contained in its pages. Jin Ping Mei was a book to be enjoyed, but it distinguished itself from other lesser types of literati pleasure by its carefully crafted critical message and literary quality. Through the Ming dynasty but specially during its last century, new forms of literary and artistic expression started to spread and popularize. Books became to be seen more than just academic and religious sources to also acquire a leisure-oriented dimension. The development of dramatic plays from the Yuan dynasty and the emergence of the novel as a new genre concurred with the expansion of the printing and publishing industry. Printed fiction came also accompanied by the rise of printed illustrations, as a complement of the written word but also as works with worth of their own. Some books used the illustrations to guide the reader, while other illustrations, even if they related to a literary source, aspired to be consumed autonomously and some were even produced to be circulated independently. These emerging practices can be treated as suggesting new expectations over artworks: their purpose was not only to convey a moral message or to rouse aesthetic reactions, but also to entertain or have worth by themselves. In this short text, I aim to explore the following idea: whether an artwork was a mere diversion or something more was not determined only by its content and value within its respective tradition, but also by the circumstances of its consumption and the implications brought by media collaboration. For that matter, I will take Jin Ping Mei as my case study and I will try to apply the concepts explored through my argumentation to its particular instance.

Howard Becker develops in “Art as Collective Action” the dimension to which the production of art depends on the cooperation of several individuals acting in different areas and stages of the process. So, on the one hand, we have collaboration as the coming together of actors that make materially possible the work of art (in the case of a literary work, for example, the author, the people who make paper and ink, the binder, and the publisher). But collaboration can also mean the creation of a universe of reference that provides art with meaning and function: the convention of language, of genre, the aesthetic taste in fashion, and so on. Becker’s ideas are therefore important when we consider these two things. First, the creation of a piece of art is never entirely dependent on the artist as a self-reliant individual but, on the contrary, it relies on a network of people from different backgrounds and disciplines. Second, for art to be judged it requires a social consensus, what Becker calls conventions, which dictate how we interpret a particular artwork, its function and value within a fluctuating system.

Becker’s examples of the collaborative character of art are works that are usually considered mono-disciplinary, such as a novel or a musical composition. I believe however that Becker’s observations can also be applied to multidisciplinary artworks such as the ones I am going to deal with in this essay. The process of creating an illustrated book is different from that of producing a book or a painting separately, and that difference is social, both in the material and in the conventional dimensions of the artwork. I will talk about different perceptions on the function of artworks, and how they are shaped by the expectations over their material nature, which can roughly be sorted as didactic, aesthetic, amusing, or conspicuous. Peter Burke makes some interesting observations regarding the last one, conspicuous consumption. A conspicuous good is that which is obtained because of what it symbolizes and not by what it is, despite its original purpose or actual function. Burke mentions furniture and interior decoration, but it is possible to fit in this description artworks produced during the Ming dynasty. These include previously considered high forms of art, such as calligraphy and painting, but also new forms related to the emerging printing industry. These conspicuous goods are items that help its owner boost his or her social status. They become tokens of exclusivity. The manuscript of Jin Ping Mei, for example, was a rare commodity that circulated within a narrow and select circle. Robert Hegel says that this restrictedness was sometimes even a preferred choice among literati. Its exceptionality was seen as a way to differentiate the connoisseur from the reader of mass-published works.5 Burke believes that literature can help historians decipher attitudes and consumer behaviors from the time they were conceived. I will not focus too much on the diegetic depiction of art in Jin Ping Mei, exploring instead the representative value of this artwork in itself.

Historical background

The Ming dynasty, spanning from 1368 to 1644, was founded by the emperor Hongwu (1368-1398), the leader of one of the major rebellions springing during the twilight of the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368). The Hongwu emperor and his second successor the Yongle emperor (1402-1424) are the accredited architects of the renewed imperial bureaucratic system that made possible the reestablishment of peace, kept political stability and laid the foundation for the economic and social growth that in broad strokes defined this period. Although the emperors that came after also deserve praise in trying to keep the country prosper, and other factors such as Western trade during the sixteenth century are also crucial when explaining the dynasty’s successes, there were Hongwu who with his initial reforms and Yongle with the re-foundation of the dynasty in Beijing the ones who planted the seed of a tree whose fruits would be picked after their time.

Hongwu’s revitalization of agriculture produced a surplus of crops. This excess boosted trade, promoting a national market and strengthening the role of the merchant class, which despite the bad reputation that the Confucian system conferred them saw their status improve through the acquisition of wealth. The invigoration of commerce speeded up the transformation of goods into commodities and the change of consuming habits. Families moved from the idea of autarchic production on every household to externalizing the production and acquisition of goods from the market.6 The expansion of commerce was possible thanks to another Hongwu-era reform: the investment on statewide communication infrastructures. Roads and canals were improved or built from scratch to connect the empire, especially to their capitals Nanjing and Beijing. This became a titanic enterprise meant to reinforce central power by making every corner of the empire bureaucratically reachable. At the same time, it ended up enabling a more efficient and widespread circulation of goods, people and ideas.7

Industry flourished and population almost doubled. This mild economic climate granted by a reinvigorated agricultural sector led to the enlargement of a class able and eager to consume, still marginal in terms of total numbers but already noticeable and noteworthy. These changes of course were gradual and became more evident through the second half of the Ming dynasty. Class status became relatively fluid and the cultivation of morality displaced by the seeking of personal wealth. Hongwu’s vision of a far-reaching, quasi-omnipotent imperial family quietly failed towards the end, with the imperial institutions losing their grasp on the social practices they originally made possible.8 The Jiajing era, named after the emperor Jiajing (1521-1567), is a good example of the broadening of this lavish way of life, especially among newly enriched merchants and carefree literati. During Jiajing times, excessive ornamentation, opulent banquets and guest-rites, or the popularization of private pavilions and gardens along the consorting practice were fashionable and would extend to the reign of the Wanli emperor (1582-1620). This behavior is reflected on Jin Ping Mei, which would have been probably written during the early years of the Wanli era and which would have therefore reflected, as Rushton points out, the lush practices of the wealthy at the time.9

Chinese society was becoming more urban, with shifts towards conspicuous consumption and the uprising of industrial production and national and international trade of non-essential goods. It is important to mention at this point that while this transformation was in process, external and internal agents were questioning the stability of the empire. Manchu invasions and pirate attacks kept the Ming army always occupied. Incompetence and diversion from official matters by the last rulers accelerated the decadence of the Ming rule. Confucian literati such as the ones that organized the Donglin Movement denounced the sumptuous way of living for being the cause of this dissolution and tried to no avail to readdress private and public behavior. The Chongzhen emperor (1627-1644) would be the last of the Ming rulers, but the industrial and commercial machinery kept on going through all this turmoil and prevailed, even further developed during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). Among the industries that flourished during the Ming and in close relation to the aforementioned change towards leisure consumption were the printing and publishing businesses. Book and illustration production went through a material transformation that was a response to the changing consuming habits of the Ming society.

Printed fiction

Three of the Four Great Classics of Ming Literature are probably the most widely read works of fiction of pre-modern China, along with Dream of the Red Chamber (红楼梦, hóng lóu mèng) which is also considered a Great Classic (大名著, dà míng zhù) but was written during the Qing dynasty. From the Four Great Classics of Ming Literature, only Jin Ping Mei can be considered a work conceived originally as a novel (小说 xiǎo shuō), since the other three (水浒传 shuǐ hǔ zhuàn, known as Water Margin; 三国演义 sān guó yǎn yì, Romance of the Three Kingdoms; 西游记 xī yóu jì, Journey to the West) were based on already popular stories, so I understand them as novelizations. Original or not, the idea of the novel remains the same: an extensive story with a central plot, regular characters and motifs, with a progressive evolution from presentation to conclusion in action and in the characters’ psychology.

It is not an easy task however to set up a definitive precedent in time to the genre of the novel. In addition to being a work of fiction, a novel seems to be conditioned by having a vernacular nature, that is, a popular foundation. Following this criteria, a direct precursor of the novel is the pinghua (评话, píng huà), or “plain tales”, at least in terms of themes and inspiration. Pinghua were short stories written both in classical and colloquial style, with a moralistic message and mainly based on historical chronicles, although stylistically embellished to attract more attention.10 They were very popular during the Yuan dynasty. During the Ming, the most popular pinghua were expanded and revised in order to become dramatic plays or novels.11 Another type of vernacular fiction more similar to the xiaoshuo is the cihua (词话, cí huà). Cihua were narratives that combined prose for the story with verse to be recited or sung. This combination of prose and verse was very popular and influenced with its chapter-based division the structure of the novel during the Ming era. The quality of the verses on the cihua varied depending on the editor and their target audience.12

Another genre of popular fiction developed during the Yuan and Ming dynasties were dramatic plays, xiju (戏剧, xì jù) or simply xi (戏, xì). Although drama is meant to be eventually played on a stage, a few works grew too large to be performed in their entirety, and only the most well-liked passages were played. Most of the dramas were just read. Dramatic plays were very popular among literati because of the creative space the genre provided. As Mei Chun points out, authors often opt for xi because they could use role-play as a way to break with social conventions and experiment more freely, even engage with veiled criticism.13 Writing popular fiction in such a scale was unprecedented in Confucian terms, and so this enterprise was taken also from a scholarly approach, as a way to explore aesthetic and intellectual concerns.14 Both dramas and novels shared very similar themes. Romances and high-born costumbrism became more popular while Ming society saw the increase of rich merchants and laid-off literati. Historical fiction was the greater umbrella under which all these categories eventually fell, and during the Jiajing era it became the preferred genre of fiction, an inclination that persisted through the Qing dynasty.15

Yet another genre emerged during the Ming dynasty: erotic novels. Following the inclination of Ming literati towards facetious amusement and concealed criticism, erotic literature started gaining momentum at the time. Before that, Chinese engagement with sex in the arts had been very scarce. Sex had a religious overtone for some Buddhist branches, with handbooks targeted at brides for medical purposes being circulated already during the 6th century.16 During the Song, Tang and Yuan dynasties, Confucian scholarship, traditionally prude, held a strong grip on public sexual displays. This attitude relaxed during the Ming and erotic literature flourished. Many of these erotic novels, however, were poor in literary terms and just worth considering as a means of amusement. They depicted stories with plain plotlines and unidimensional characters, the only appeal of which was the explicit level of sexual descriptions on them. They were written in colloquial style, filled with jargon of their particular time.17 The setups were similar to other novels or dramas, but the characters’ motivations were always tightly related to sex, without paying special attention to narrative coherence. Their only purpose was to entertain, and their lack of literary value, combined with the stiffened of censorship explains why most of these novels were purged during the Qing dynasty.18 Although Jin Ping Mei differs from these erotic novels in terms of literary excellence, which may explain why it survived when the rest perished, its erotic content is drawn from the style and conventions of the genre.19

The process of general book production also experienced substantial changes through the Ming dynasty, motivated by the aforementioned economic and social changes. The improvement of the publishing industry is crucial to understand the rise of the novel and the spread of printed fiction and illustrations. Printing has a long tradition in China. Book collecting is an ancient tradition, and thanks to their meticulousness in keeping detailed records of their books, we can know how these texts looked like and what their material conventions were. A book is made of paper and ink, materials invented during the Han period (206 BC – 220 AD). In general there have been three kinds of books: manuscripts (either original or hand-transcribed), block-print resembling the style of the manuscript, and standardized block-print, in different shades of quality. Bibliographic criteria generally included character size, authorship, ownership, place of publication, and sometimes even a log recording modifications. As for the formats of the books, Chinese used two terms: ce (册, cè), a pile of pages tied together with a cover as a ‘volume’, and juan (卷, juàn), which means ‘scroll’ and which refers to the amount of written content that fitted a rolled up piece of paper. With the emergence of books bounded with folded paper, juan came to mean ‘chapter’, as a way to divide the different parts of the book.20 Shape and size changed through time, but they were always related to the conventions of sister arts such as calligraphy or painting. Books were mounted in scrolls that were displayed horizontally, such as paintings. While the length of books only had as limits the author’s creativity, the height was generally standardized, a convention that derived from the size of painting scrolls.21 There were of course smaller and bigger editions, a change to the norm that was sometimes related to the quality of the object produced. Yuan dynasty pinghua were generally smaller than the standard, a fact that Hegel associates with a poorer consideration of fiction on that time.22

All these differences diminished with the process of standardization of book publishing that happened through the Ming dynasty. The origin of large-scale printing can be traced to the Five Dynasties era (907-970), when Buddhist canons were vastly reproduced for patterns. During the early 11th century, Confucian scholars took up the publishing industry for the print of canon texts and collections of prose with commentaries, which became progressively popular among an expanding customer base, increasing demand of prints. This escalation of demand drove printing houses to accelerate the process of production, opting for standard types, sizes, and bookbinding which eventually led to cheapen the production and broaden the readership. The demand of books was successfully answered by the publishing industry, causing another increase of orders, fueling the business.

The standardization of book publishing does not equate to a homogenization of what was printed but quite the opposite: printing houses specialized in specific material, following criteria either of genre (novels, dramas, poetry and others) or quality (from publishing houses of cheap editions, to the more expensive, exclusive ones). This specialization was also reflected spatially: most of the print and publishing houses were located near source materials, but also close to the commercial routes established by the Ming government, facilitating the circulation of these cultural goods.23 Publishing houses in Fujian specialized in producing cheaper books, while those in Hangzhou and Suzhou were known by the quality of their editions. This express distinction was proof of the practice of distinct target marketing: printed fiction was sold both to cultural elites and mass readership, but in different editions set apart by quality standards.24

This is an important remark. Vernacular fiction was an originally popular entertainment that became appropriated by the wealthy class, turned into more refined forms such as novels and plays and published in lavish editions. With the broadening of this class and the expansion of the printing industry, a more diverse readership requested this product, but unable to afford the same quality of prints, settled for cheaper ones. The cultural value of printed fiction decayed among the elite while the number of its editions increased, to the point in which fiction in manuscript form was deemed more valuable for it meant exclusivity.25 The print industry kept on growing until the Wanli era, but from then on withered. During the Qing dynasty, the number of publications kept on increasing, but their quality was below the standard held during the Ming. High quality prints targeted to the literati were produced during the Qing, but its numbers shrank considerably. During the Ming, the quality of editions was measured by standards such as the level of external ornamentation, the build and size of the book, the texture of the paper, and even the fragrance of the ink. One of the most important distinctions was the use of illustrations to accompany the written media and their quality.

llustrations in books were not a novelty in China, but during the Ming era they became quite popular and their value quickly changed and diversified. There are ongoing debates over whether printed illustrations depended on the text to have value, or on the contrary they held value on their own as autonomous artifacts. This is contingent to the time and type of illustration and book, but also, and I would like to stress this point, the expected experience of consuming the artifact. The reader of an illustrated book is different from that of non-illustrated books or independent illustrations, not only in social status, but also in consumer behavior. The act of reading an illustrated book during the late Ming, such as the Chongzhen edition of the Jin Ping Mei, is a unique experience that combines the implications of consuming different media: printed fiction and printed illustrations.

Printed illustrations

The first printed pictures were associated to Buddhist scriptures and were meant to have a prefatory effect on the reader, a complement to the text. These pictures depicted a high level of detail and care, but its function was to set a particular mood of inspiration and religious devotion that could enhance the experience of reading the scriptures. These religious pictures set the example that would be followed by the later printed illustrations associated with fiction: the image should be a supplement of the text, subjugating its function to the written media. The widespread of popular fiction increased the demand of printed fiction, which included illustrated books. The quality of the editions diversified, from cheaper to more expensive, and so did the illustrations depicted on them. Woodblock printed illustrations, considered a lesser art, acquired prestige thanks to its popularity, and illustrations went on a road of gradual emancipation from the text. At the end of the Ming and during the Qing, illustrated fiction bore a dynamic between text and image different from that of the beginning of their collaboration. These changes are attributed to the evolution of consumer behavior and social expectations (or conventions) towards art and media.

The process of producing printed illustrations is in broad strokes the same for quality or cheaper illustrations, and shares the same technology as printing fiction, which is xylographic printing. The illustrations are obtained by cutting woodblocks with the desired shape, wetting them on ink and pressing the mold on paper. This process is more expensive than the movable type, preferred in Europe and also experienced in China (although eventually discarded), but allows for mass production, as printers could endlessly imprint the same mold without having to redistribute the plates each time they had to print something different.

Fig. 1. Cheng Hongshou’s woodblock print, designed as part of a set of cards. Extracted from Craig Clunas’ “Pictures and Visuality in Early Modern China”.

Printed illustration received a huge transference of technical knowledge and conventions from traditional painting media. Some woodblock carvers became famous and their work sought after, and like painters, carvers built their niches in particular themes. At the peak of its popularity, some famous painters even tried out producing their own printed illustrations, such as Cheng Hongshou (Fig.1).26 The increase in prestige of printed illustration divided the tasks within the printing industry: during the late Ming, printing text and printing illustration were conducted by different people.27 This was a signal of the growing appreciation of illustrations as objects independent from text, and the acquisition of their own particular values, which would eventually blend with those of popular fiction in late Ming-early Qing illustrated fictions.

The relation between printed illustrations and text can be measured with two criteria: the nature of what is depicted in the illustration in relation to what is expressed in the text, and the placement of the illustration in the configuration of the book. Basically, the more independent the image is from the text, the clearer the physical separation within the visual matrix of the book.

Early illustrated books had the pictures positioned at the beginning of the chapter or at the top of each page, blending the two media in the same space. These pictures were strictly narrative and were meant to depict what was being described in the text, as a visual aid to reinforce the structure of the plot (Fig.2). This is what Li-Ling Hsiao calls the mimetic function. With the development of illustrated print, the display format changed. Illustrations went from being on top of the page to having their own page, side by side text or even another illustration. The function of these pictures also varied from being merely descriptions of the action to offer symbolic interpretations of the same, suggesting with their composition a deeper vision than just their former informative purpose.28 This new role, the performative function, came promoted by the popularization of dramatic plays. It had a feeling of staginess, of interaction with the reader as viewer of a scene symbolically reenacted. This new angle gave illustrations a new space for their own development, as they offered the reader a different intake on the narrative instead of trying to mimic the text’s descriptions. Their new location within the book also reinforces this empowerment. Authors as Hegel and Li-Ling Hsiao point out that the pictures-amid-text invited the reader to keep on leafing through the book to have visual gratification and thus encourage the complete reading of the book as a dynamic object, composed by both text and pictures.29

Fig. 2. Extract form Xinjan Gu Lienü zhuan (1063), as an example of the display of image above text. Extracted from  Robert Hegel’s “Reading Illustrated Fiction in late Imperial China” (169)

Either mimetic or performative, there seems to be consensus in ascribing printed illustrations with a function in the experience of reading an illustrated book. Whether these pictures were conceived and received by the readers of that time as aesthetic objects, however, is up to debate. Li-Ling Hsiao follows the lead of Craig Clunas in believing that illustrations were mainly functional.20 Hegel, and I concur with his vision, while recognizing the practical dimension of illustrations, also adds to the late Ming illustrations a decorative function, an aesthetic appeal.

There are various reasons to believe in the aesthetic value of late-Ming illustrated prints. First, the transference of knowledge and value from finer, higher arts such as painting to prints led to a reevaluation of illustration as a worthier media.31 Second, the increased autonomy of printed illustration from the text was driving prints beyond the descriptive towards the self-sustained. To keep the attention of readers, illustrations would need aesthetic appeal as artistic objects of their own. Third, the journey of printed illustrations towards autonomy comes full circle during the late Ming, when fascicles of illustrations, detached from their previous text, were produced and sold separately.32 This division would devaluate their performative function, as there was no text to refer to, and would appoint the aesthetic value of the prints as the appealing factor. Last, during the Wanli era, publishing houses produced high quality editions of illustrated books for elite buyers, who wanted to show status and differentiate from the more popular readership and their mass-provided editions. These buyers would demand, among other features such as external decorations or scholar commentaries, superior illustrations, the quality of which would have been measured by their aesthetic appeal.33 The aesthetic dimension of illustrations was mainly reserved to high-quality illustrations, and would not apply to cheaper editions. Moreover, with the decline in quality of prints during the Qing dynasty, the number of aesthetically appealing illustrations dropped.

In comparison, erotic prints maintained a different relation with their source text. Van Gulik believes that the authors of erotic novels made the content on the text as explicit as possible in order to facilitate the depiction in form of illustration, reversing even if so slightly the relation of dependence between the two media.34 The production of these illustrations had also their own particularities. There were few artists who specialized in erotic prints, and most were authors famous in other genre who tried erotic prints as a diversion.35 During the creation process, artists did not draw from observation but modified preexisting diben (底本, dǐ běn),36 unclothing them and trying to imagine how the human body looked like. This explains why some of these erotic prints portray anatomically awkward figures, with some progression towards exactitude with time.37

Erotic illustrations also experienced emancipation from texts, and were produced and circulated in the form of fascicles or albums. Collecting these albums, usually of great quality, was a popular hobby of the literati during late Ming, the time during which Jin Ping Mei was being written.38 These erotic albums contained not only erotic prints but also erotic paintings, which were presented in scrolls like conventional paintings.39 Most of these collections disappeared during the Qing dynasty, but a great bulk of them survived in Japan, to which they were imported during the early Tokugawa period, which coincided with the end of the Ming and the zenith of this artform.

Jin Ping Mei

The origins of Jin Ping Mei are still surrounded by a veil of mystery, constantly brought up to debate among scholars of the novel, which as it is customary in Chinese academia has its own field name, jinxue (金学, jīn xué). The letter mentioned at the beginning of this essay is the earliest firsthand account of the novel, but it is obvious from what it discusses that the novel had been already written (at least great deal of it) by the time of the letter (1596), and had been already circulating in manuscript form for some time. Robert Hegel speculates the conceiving of the first manuscript of Jin Ping Mei as early as 1582,40 while the first mention to the whole work was on 1607.41 Jin Ping Mei might have had a first edition on 1610, but the earliest that have survived is from 1617, which was a cihua.

Jin Ping Mei is the story of the rise and fall of the Ximen Qing family, set during the end of the Yuan dynasty but with a display that is actually Wanli China. Ximen Qing is a semi-analphabet merchant who through tricks and wits accumulates wealth and climbs the local social ladder as a factual power. The novel shows us how Ximen Qing acts in public, with portentous banquets, continuous parties filled with officials and other wealthy individuals, and how he bribes magistrates to get his way conducting shady businesses. It also deals with private matters, all of them involving his different wives, concubines, and servants and their struggle for power within the household. While the first part of the novel explains how Ximen Qing reaches success, the second part narrates his inevitable collapse.

The authorship of the novel has yet to be settled. There are critics who believe in a multiple authorship: as the manuscript rolled along the literati, some of them revised and added content. This theory tries to sustain itself in the fact that the other Great Works of Ming Literature were mainly collective enterprises, novelizations of previous pinghua and other folktales. A majority of scholars, however, reject the multiple authorship theory. Most of them agree that there was group collaboration in the process of creation, especially in the composition of verses, but one main redactor did the bulk of the work and kept the internal cohesion of the novel. The identity of this main redactor is still undetermined. We know he most probably was literati, a retired magistrate or even a seasoned author. Among the most probable candidates, three names are worth considering for being continuously cited as favorites. First, Tang Xianzu (1550-1616), a well-known poet and critic who wrote another famous work, The Peony Pavilion (牡丹亭, mǔ dān tíng), active during the estimated time of the elaboration of Jin Ping Mei and popular individual among literati circles. His experience dealing with feminine psychology leads to interesting parallelisms between the two works, but the critics consulted leave it in just a similarity of style, not authorship. The favorite candidate for decades was Wang Shizhen (1526-1590), literati and important figure in the Wanli court, author of other minor pieces. His candidacy has been accompanied by a tale of vengeance, although it was probably just a marketing stunt: Wang Shizhen sent through a messenger a manuscript copy of Jin Ping Mei to the man who killed his father. This copy had its pages soaked with toxin, but the victim, oblivious to this fact, kept leafing through the book, completely absorbed, wetting his finger with his tongue to pass each page and thus getting slowly poisoned until passing away when finishing the novel. The Wang Shizhen theory still has supporters, who for example link him being from Jiangsu province with the presence of southern characteristics in Jin Ping Mei. The third possible candidate that I want to mention is also from the south, Li Kaixian (1502-1568). Again another literati, retired magistrate, with experience in theatrical composition and popular among artistic circles, Rushton builds with many sources an appealing case to prove him as the main redactor.42 I am however drawn back by the date of his decease, way earlier than Hegel’s first account of the work, and although it is still a possible candidate, I would bet for a later author, working throughout the Wanli period. He was literati, with great knowledge of literary composition but also a taste for the vernacular and colloquial, a profile that matched the laid-back intellectual of that time.

Jin Ping Mei was written in guanhua of the late fifteenth century,43 combined with popular expressions and colloquial language, infusing the novel with a sense of realism, even if not entirely naturalist. Jin Ping Mei is a complex work in terms of influences. The reder can find Confucian, Daoist and Buddhist discourses, highlighting their virtues while at the same time mocking their defects. Popular beliefs and folktales are also represented on the novel. It is also read as a refined erotic novel, due to its explicit content when describing the wide-ranging sexual activities engaged by the protagonists. This erotic dimension is a source of dispute between commentators and readers. Some interpret this eroticism as a diversion, a means to amusement, given the popularity at the time of the erotic novels and similar frivolous attitudes. Its erotic content is sometimes used to diminish the value of the work, and has handicapped its recognition as a Great Classic. There have been others, of course, who see in this portrayal of eroticism a powerful message of criticism to the depravation and incompetence of the powerful. Rushton for instance believes that the persecution of Jin Ping Mei was hailed as a moral condemnation against its sexually explicit content, but is actually a way to overshadow the blatant criticism of political corruption, constantly represented throughout the work as embedded in the system, and which has been itchy to Chinese rulers from any period. I consider these two positions as perfectly compatible: Jin Ping Mei’s eroticism was conceived as a literati amusement, an entertainment fitting the playful spirit of its era, but at the same time it is an exercise of conscious criticism, devised to be decoded by the literati. This depth, or meaningful entertainment, is what has guaranteed the survival of the novel, and why any attempt of belittling the work reducing it to mere eroticism deserves to be ignored.

Fig. 3. Beginning of the first chapter of the Wanli, cihua edition of Jin Ping Mei. From Jin Ping Mei cihua.

While the construction of critical meaning in Jin Ping Mei is an attractive topic in itself, in this article I am more interested in the implications of its consumption. There are three classic editions of reference for Jin Ping Mei, that subsequently have served as source for its reproduction as reprints or translations. The first one is the Wanli edition, published in 1617. It is considered the closest to the original manuscript, and being a cihua, its chapters start with verses, related to the story but not specially worth by themselves (Fig. 3). It went out of circulation pretty early, and was only rediscovered and reinstated as first of the canon during the 1930s.44 The second edition was published during the Chongzhen era and thus bears its name. This second edition changed the verses at the beginning of the chapter for more refined ones, but unrelated to the novel, and the content of chapters LIII to LVII was different from the Wanli edition (Fig. 4). What I would like to stress of this edition, however, was that it included printed illustrations. The third edition was published during the early Qing dynasty, on 1695, and replaced the Chongzhen edition. It included a thorough commentary of the work by the scholar Zhang Zhupo (1670-1698), which still influences the way academics read the novel. In addition to these canonical editions there were other minor versions, censored, abridged and basically too altered to be taken seriously.

Fig. 4. Beginning of the first chapter of the Chongzhen edition of the Jin Ping Mei. From Zhen ben Jin Ping Mei: [100 hui].

The Wanli edition was the first preserved attempt to bring into a wider audience a novel which in manuscript form had been popular for a long time. This delay might be explained with two reasons: as I have mentioned above, the manuscript version entitled the reader with a sense of exclusivity and status, proving the owner had the connections needed to access a novel which was not officially in the market. The second reason is that there were actually earlier printed editions, mentioned by literati on their correspondence,45 but which did not survive to this time. These missives tell us that Jin Ping Mei was a very popular novel, even if considered polemic, and this success would have explained why during the Chongzhen period a revision of the novel was made in order to make it more accessible to a wider readership,46 and a high investment was put into play by turning it into an illustrated book. The Chongzhen edition had two hundred illustrations, two per chapter. These printed illustrations had each their own page and were performative: they showed the action narrated in the text but also offered the particular interpretation of the artists. These illustrations also added background details, such as gardens and the layout of pavilions. These pictures were therefore produced to help the text, to be decorative and to be seen as individual artifacts within the common matrix of the book (Fig. 5 and 6).

Fig. 5 and 6. Printed illustrations from the Chongzhen edition of the Jin Ping Mei, chapters 25 and 63. From Jin Ping Mei cihua: Ming ban quan tu.

Based on these arguments, it is my conviction that the experience of reading Jin Ping Mei evolved altogether with the changes on its material configuration. The manuscript edition was a form of exclusivism, of elite consumption, and the novel was regarded as valuable not only because of its content but for the status attached to being a scarce, hard-to-get good. The Wanli edition broke with this status of exclusivity and brought to print the novel, as close as possible to the original. The Wanli edition focused on the novel as text, and thus was more content-driven, targeting a potential reader that was left out for not being in the proper circles of manuscript circulation. This is explained by the simplicity of the edition, without decorations or illustrations, and the faithfulness to the original. Around the time the Chongzhen edition was published, the editors knew the popularity of the novel and could add to Jin Ping Mei an amusing side: the novel was revised to expand readership, and the illustrations made it more of a recreation than just serious literature, emphasizing the natural amusing side of the novel. Through its conversion into an illustrated novel, Jin Ping Mei lost exclusivity and accentuated a leisure-oriented interpretation, diluting the critical message but extending it to a broader base.

During the Qing dynasty, Jin Ping Mei‘s status as a controversial novel increased, virtually censored but still in circulation among the elite. The emperor Kangxi (1654-1722), for example, was a declared admirer of the novel and commissioned an album of painted illustrations based on the novel for his personal collection. Although unsigned, these illustrations were most probably the work of the artist Gu Jianlong (1607-1687). This album takes for reference the printed illustrations of the Chongzhen edition. It had the same amount of leaves and was an incredible demanding project (Fig. 7 and 8). The quality of these illustrations is outstanding, and although still dependent on the text to decipher them, their aesthetic attributes place them closer to the freestanding art objects that Ming quality illustrations strived to become.47 These paintings are even more performative than the Chongzhen printed illustrations, and the spatial configuration is altered to suit the taste of the time and enhance specific detailed behavior. These illustrations also reproduced the erotic aspect of the novel with detail, with clear jocular purposes given the nature of the project. They kept the idea of considering reading the novel a leisure activity, while allowing the possibility of enjoying the illustrations as a separate endeavor.

Fig. 7 and 8, Comparison between Chongzhen edition illustration and the painted version made for the Kangxi emperor. Both are inspired by the same scene, the punishment of Chunmei in chapter 12. From James Cahill’s “The Emperor’s Erotica I”.


In this paper my intention was to show how the material dimension of an artwork influences its function through the experience of its consumption. The perception of the artwork differs according to the different conventions attached to the media in which is represented. In the case of an artwork represented as media collaboration, such as an illustrated version of Jin Ping Mei, the conventions of each of the different media come into play at the same time, creating a new set of expectations that defines the object as each of the disciplines individually and as a combination of them. Therefore, reading illustrated fiction draws on the conventions on fiction, illustration, and finally the product of the combination of the two.


(1) Quoted and translated from Alicia Relinque’s “Introduction” to Atalanta’s edition of Jin Ping Mei, 24.

(2) From then on it would be referred to as Jin Ping Mei.

(3) Ibid, 24.

(4) Seven Methods (七法) is a poetic composition by Mei Cheng (140 BC) with moralist aims, very popular as a paradigm of the combination between aesthetic taste and didactic purposes.

(5) See Hegel “Reading Illustrated Fiction in Late Imperial China”, 157-162.

(6) See Cambridge History of China, chapter 10 “Communications and Commerce”, 579-707.

(7) Ibid.

(8) Ibid.

(9) See Peter Rushton, “The Jin Ping Mei and the non-linear dimensions of the traditional Chinese novel”, 24-25.

(10) See Robert Hegel, “Reading Illustrated Fiction in Late Imperial China”, 22-26.

(11) Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Journey to the West and Water Margin have pinghua origins.

(12) For example, the quality of the verses of the different editions of Jin Ping Mei, which had a cihua edition, differ from one another.

(13) “Playwrights often explained the lure of xi as offering them the freedom and power to assign roles or role-play in an attempt to break social fixities.”, see Mei Chun, “The Novel and the Theatrical Imagination in Early Modern China”, p. 17-18.

(14) “Early modern literati linked the nature of xi to political and social chaos by emphasizing the ephemerality of both plays and lives” and “writers and commentators of the novel, in particular, were interested in using theatricality to explore identity because writing and publishing popular literature was an unprecedented social role for literati in a Confucian society”, “The Novel and the Theatrical Imagination in Early Modern China”, 22 and 30 respectively.

(15) For a more comprehensive account of the most popular themes on fiction, see Robert Hegel “Reading Illustrated Fiction in Late Imperial China”, especially the chapter ‘Fiction as Text’.

(16) See Robert van Gulik, “Erotic color prints of the Ming period”, 151-152.

(17) Ibid, 131.

(18) Ibid, 128.

(19) “The authors of the Jiningmei and later erotic novels were greatly indebted to the Hsiu-t’a-yeh-shih and similar pornographic stories, it was these that supplied the sexual motifs and the models for the erotic verse.”, Ibid, 129.

(20) See Robert Hegel “Reading Illustrated Fiction in Late Imperial China”, 76-77.

(21) Ibid, 78-82.

(22) Ibid, 86.

(23) See Cambridge History of China, chapter 10 “Communications and Commerce”, 659-666.

(24) “Private publishers produced plays with illustrations by and for the educated elite in China’s cultural centers; commercial publishers turned to fiction and established standards of book production that catered to broader reading audiences who extended well beyond the most wealthy members of society”, Robert Hegel “Reading Illustrated Fiction in Late Imperial China”, 162.

(25) Ibid, 157-161.

(26) “Known artists such as Chen Hongshou were engaged to produce illustrations to be carved by expert engravers”, Ibid, 153.

(27) “Whereas during the early Ming both the text and its illustrations might be carved by the same person, this was clearly not the case by the Wanli period”, Ibid., 153.

(28) “While mimetic illustration reinforces the plot structure of the play, performance illustration often departs entirely from the plot, seizing on a specific scene, detail, or moment as somehow deeply symbolic and informative of the whole”, Li-Ling Hsiao 11.

(29) “Faced with the pictures-amid-text layout, however, the reader cannot maintain continuous absorption in either image or word; the interruption of the one by the other forces the reader to engage both.”, Ibid, 26.

(30) “Whatever the format and layout they adopted, the publishers and illustrators in the pre-Wanli era did not seem to question the essential premise that illustrations of literary works (whatever the genre) ought to be narrative”, Ibid, 24.

(31) “It appears that through the Wanli era there was no necessary distinction in the perceived aesthetic value of literati painting and of the more refined of the commercial arts”, Robert Hegel “Reading Illustrated Fiction in Late Imperial China”, 253.

(32) “Albums such as these may well have been the inspiration for grouping all the illustrations into one fascicle, a format that became increasingly common in fiction and plays during the late Ming.”, Ibid, 198.

(33) Ibid.

(34) Robert van Gulik, “Erotic color prints of the Ming period”, 134.

(35) “famous artists often tried their hand at this particular genre, but authentic specimens of their work in this field are rare”, Ibid, 155.

(36) Diben were blueprints of figures, scenes, stances (the example of the old man washing his feet on the river), transmitted from artist to artist.

(37) “the attempts made by the book illustrators at depicting the nude human figure are not based on actual observation. They took the ti-pen for human figures draped in clothes and tried to construct a nude body within this outline. The result was that their nudes are clumsily rendered, most of them having a disproportionately large upper body”, Ibid, 163.

(38) “The production of color-printed erotic albums in the late Ming was another elegant literati pursuit”, Ibid, X.

(39) “Erotic paintings were as a rule mounted either as horizontal hands scrolls, shou-chuan, or as folding albums, tse. Since they were not intended to be suspended on the wall, they were never mounted as vertical hangings scrolls”, Ibid, 160-1.

(40) “[Jin ping mei’s] draft was apparently composed before 1582, but the work may not have been completed until its first printing in 1617”, Robert Hegel “Reading Illustrated Fiction in Late Imperial China”, 38. (41) Relinque’s “Introduction”, 24.

(42) Peter Rusthon, “The Jin Ping Mei and the non-linear dimensions of the traditional Chinese novel”, 13.

(43) Guanhua is most of the time referred to as mandarin, the linguistic register used by magistrates, but I deem the use of the word “mandarin” inexact and outdated.

(44) Alicia Relinque, “Introduction”, 26.

(45) Ibid, 25.

(46) Ibid.

(47) “The above observations lead, I think, toward two conclusions: that the painted pictures were intended largely to stand on their own, being more tenuously tied to the novel than illustrations commonly are”, see James Cahill, “The Emperor’s Erotica, I.”