Li Yu

The Carnal Prayer Mat



What first attracted me to Li Yu was his love of comic invention. "Broadly speaking," he once wrote to a friend, "everything I have ever written was intended to make people laugh." He was never content, as other writers were, to make minor variations upon the standard literary themes. Instead he submitted those themes to a drastic overhaul and created a new comedy of his own, claiming all the while that his version of reality was the true one and that everybody else was deluded. He thus belongs to that rare breed of comic writer-rare in any culture-who discovers or invents the terms of his own reality. [1]

Let me give two obvious examples, both of them discoveries rather than inventions. In its most general outline a Chinese romantic comedy consisted of a handsome youth with brilliant literary gifts falling in love with a beautiful and talented girl and, after overcoming a number of vicissitudes, marrying her. By the seventeenth century countless stories and plays, some of them masterpieces, had been written to this formula. But Li Yu would have none of it. In his first play (or opera, both terms apply), Lianxiang ban, a title freely translatable as Women in Love, he adapted the formula and applied it-for the first, and perhaps only, time in the history of Chinese literature-to a love affair between two women. Eventually the lovers are united as wives to the same man-the only solution open to them. Similarly, in Li Yu's Silent Operas (Wusheng xi) collection, there is a story about a love affair between two men that derives its comic power from the way it parallels a perfect heterosexual marriage, all the way from courtship to widowhood. Examples of comic discovery and invention abound also in his novel, The Carnal Prayer Mat (Rou putuan).

Invention and discovery, together with the implied virtue of originality, were stressed more by Li Yu than by any writer before him. "Newness is a term of approbation for everything in the world," he wrote, "but above all for literature." Copying is taboo, of course, even from the ancients, but so is echoing other writers, and not merely other writers but ourselves; we are not permitted even to echo ourselves-an impossible ideal, and one that Li Yu himself did not come close to realizing.

His passion for invention carried over from literature to life. He was a designer and practical inventor as well as a writer, and his essays ring with the (slightly self-mocking) refrain: "Is it not strange that the world had to wait for Li Yu to invent this?" A version of the refrain occurs in Chapter Ten of the novel, too, after Vesperus has shown his savoir-faire with pillows: "The general principle is known to all, but… that particular formula has never been understood before." So strong was Li Yu's passion for novelty that he was also quite capable of shocking his readers for sensational effect.

A second unique quality is his voice or persona. Strictly speaking, he had not one voice but a range of them, mostly humorous, that he employed in his fiction and essays. The narrator in the traditional Chinese novel had always been a strong vocal presence anyway, in vague simulation of an oral storyteller, and Li Yu exploits that convention-openly manipulating the narrative, commenting on the action, addressing his readers as if they were an audience, and even answering questions posed by a fictitious member of that audience. A passage in Chapter One of his novel exemplifies this last convention:

"Storyteller, since you want people to suppress their lecherous desires, why not write a tract promoting morality?"

"Gentle readers [or audience], there is something of which you are evidently unaware…"

The difference is that Li Yu is substituting a voice of his own for the voice of the traditional narrator. Every Chinese novelist had to make some accommodation with the figure of the traditional narrator-a history of the genre could be written in terms of their accommodations-but Li Yu's solution was the most personal, and perhaps the most satisfying. He was a noted wit and pundit in life, and I suggest that he managed to create in the voice of his fictional narrator a perfect literary correlative for his oral wit and punditry.

Few people realize that a lively tradition of erotic fiction existed in China, particularly in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It was a superior tradition, in my opinion, to its somewhat later counterparts in England and France. Granted, Fanny Hill is a small miracle, but it seems a miracle precisely because it is isolated; and Sade's novels, as fiction, are second-rate at best-full of philosophizing as well as ludicrous cruelties and blasphemies. In China, by contrast, several novels of undeniable power were written. The Jin Ping Mei (The Golden Lotus) is only a partial member of the genre, being much else besides. If there is a classic example of the Chinese erotic novel, it is surely Li Yu's Carnal Prayer Mat.

It is in the nature of erotic fiction to seek out forbidden territory to explore. In China that was likely to mean adultery, not defloration as in the corresponding European genre. (In Europe adultery was left to the bourgeois novel.) The reason is clear enough: adultery violated the husband-wife ethic, one of the key Confucian social obligations. In a family-centered morality, it was a natural choice as the crucial sin, but for precisely the same reason, it also posed an intolerable threat to society. The libertine's adulterous adventures may enthrall the reader with their glimpse of forbidden pleasure, but ultimately they must fail. Sexuality for the Chinese writer, unlike Western apostles of eroticism from Sade to Lawrence, was a drive that had to lose when it collided with social values. That is why Chinese libertines are generally the objects of satire-as they certainly are in Prayer Mat. And it also explains why the Chinese novels can end only with the libertine's punishment and repentance.

But although the libertine adventure may be headed for disaster, the erotic novels obviously cannot be taken at their face value as the dire warnings they profess to be. For all its obsessiveness, the libertine adventure is presented to us with so much gusto that we are surely meant to enjoy it. I suggest that there is an inevitable-and artistically quite justifiable-tension in much visual and literary art on erotic subject matter. In Chinese fiction at least, the reader plays voyeur as well as judge as he watches the tale unfold, observing, with both pleasure and foreboding, its exploration of forbidden territory and its inescapable end.

The agency of punishment varies from novel to novel. A common one is retribution according to the doctrine of karma-that is to say, punishment in the next life for sins committed in this one. In Chapter Two of Prayer Mat, Li Yu takes the extraordinary step of introducing the Buddhist priest Lone Peak to explain this notion to us. The priest calls it "otherworldly" retribution and pairs it with a "thisworldly" retribution by which one's sins are repaid in this life. The second kind of retribution is an age-old, popular notion unrelated to Buddhism proper. (The novel's views are eclectic, embracing Heaven, the Principle of Heaven, the Creator, and the ancient sages, as well as Buddha.) The priest goes on to quote the adage "If I don't seduce other men's wives, my wife won't be seduced by others," and then erects it into a general principle by which an adulterer's wives and daughters are condemned to "redeem" his sins with their own-a characteristic Li Yu twist to an old idea.

The retribution plot fascinated the Chinese novelist, and one can see why; it allowed him to work human experience into newer and more meaningful shapes. He did not need to believe in the actual possibility of metaphysical retribution, for both he and his readers accepted it as part of the machinery of causation in fiction. But although Li Yu himself adopts the retribution plot gratefully enough in Prayer Mat, he cannot suppress his skepticism about it, as witness the debate between hero and priest in Chapter Two. The possibility of self-mockery must always be kept in mind while reading Li Yu.

The typical qualities of the erotic novel are almost all to be found in Prayer Mat, often in exaggerated form: the relentless quantification of sex, a feature perhaps derived from the sex manuals; the fascination with women's sexuality; the emphasis on penis size, in which Li Yu's idea of the animal implant outdoes all other novels; the trivial games, petty jealousies, and revenges that preoccupy the characters; and even the orgy, in which Li Yu's wine-and-cards party again outdoes all others.

At the same time Prayer Mat gives a far more prominent place to warnings against libertinism; Chapter Two is taken up with the libertine's debate with the priest, and Chapter Twenty with the former's repentance and redemption. Li Yu is using Buddhism as the ascetic alternative to libertinism-and also as a handy means of atonement. In comparison with the other novels, too, his language is not lubricious; he tends more to ribaldry than sensuality. Nor are the sexual techniques he describes particularly eye-opening by the standards of other novels.

His prime values of novelty and structural ingenuity are everywhere apparent, and there is no need to detail them here. In any case they have been adequately described in the critiques. (The critiques are short passages that follow each chapter and assess its moral implications and literary technique.) But one quality that must be stressed is his discursiveness, which the critique to Chapter Five singles out for special mention. Although other novelists may use discourse in their prologues, we are told, they abandon it once the narrative begins, lest the reader become confused. Li Yu, however, continues to alternate discourse and narrative throughout his novel, to the reader's delight. The critique is correctly pointing to discursiveness as one of the most striking features of the novel. Li Yu not only gives up his whole first chapter to a discussion of sex in society, together with an account of the aims and methods of his book, he also constantly intervenes as narrator to explain a principle or give a reason, often conducting a simulated dialogue with his readers to do so. Sometimes the interventions are intended to tease the reader, particularly when they occur just before or during a sexual encounter. But more often they spring from Li Yu's irrepressible, inventive punditry. The opinions are his own, not those of some generalized narrator; some of them actually resemble the ideas we find in his sharp, witty, highly personal essays.

Chapter One is an extraordinary innovation, for in it Li Yu offers us a personal approach to sex. This is Li Yu the essayist speaking, as he offers us a reasonable, if reductive-love is not mentioned once-approach that prepares us for the two contrasting attitudes presented in the next chapter: Vesperus's libertinism and the priest's asceticism. Li Yu's reasonable views thus dominate the novel, even though its narrative ends on an ascetic note. But does Li Yu claim to have resolved the tension between erotic desire and social and moral values? Not at all. The epilogue to his last chapter makes it clear that he regards such tension as a permanent part of the human condition.

However, Prayer Mat's greatest difference from other erotic novels lies in its wholehearted comic spirit. The other works often leave room for ribaldry, even in their most intense moments, and at least one of them is told in a wry, semihumorous tone, but none is as obviously comic as Prayer Mat, which is why I have labeled it a sexual comedy. Admittedly, some of the humor is facetious; Li Yu was always reluctant to pass up a comic idea, and some of his ideas worked better than others. As the final critique remarks, "This is a book that mocks everything!" But the novel as a whole-by turns humorous, witty, outrageous, vulgar, shocking-remains the ultimate comedy on that forbidden subject: unrestrained sexual desire at large in society.

Prayer Mat was written at the beginning of 1657 and, like most Chinese novels, was published under a pseudonym. (For this book, perhaps because of its controversial nature, Li Yu chose a fresh pseudonym.) He was in Hangzhou at the time, making a living as a writer. His plays or operas, with their audacious brand of social comedy, had caused a great stir, and his stories-a second volume of Silent Operas had appeared-were also extremely popular, so popular, indeed, that they were soon pirated.

Over the next three centuries Prayer Mat was banned many times, but seldom with much success. A dozen editions survive from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries alone, some in only one copy; it seems likely, therefore, that still more editions once existed. The novel has circulated freely in Japan ever since an abridged (but unexpurgated) version, adapted for Japanese readers, was published there in 1705. Prayer Mat circulates now in several Chinese-speaking countries, but not in China itself, where it is deemed unsuitable, not merely for the general reader but even for the scholar. The earlier generation of Chinese scholars, who were able to read the novel, recognized its literary merits even if they deplored its subject matter. The first edition has not survived, but we know a good deal about it from a manuscript copy and from the other editions. Like the first editions of Li Yu's stories, it must have been a fine woodblock edition with illustrations by a leading illustrator. The title-page attributed the authorship of the novel to a certain Master "Secrets of Passion." The preface, with a date corresponding to 1657, was written by a Hangzhou friend using a Buddhist pseudonym, Layman "Eternal Absolute." Curiously the table of contents and the first page of text, places where the author's name is customarily repeated, give a different pseudonym:

Composed by the Man of the [Buddhist] Way Who, After Being Crazed with Passion, Returned to the True Path

Commented upon by a Society Friend Who, After Dying of Passion, Was Restored to Life

Society Friend means a fellow member of the same literary society. It is possible that the commentator was Sun Zhi, a Hangzhou writer and close friend, who wrote prefaces to some of Li Yu's plays, in one of which he signed himself Society Brother.

Like some other Chinese novels published at the time, Prayer Mat carried its own commentary, in fact, two kinds of commentary: the critiques that are mentioned above, as well as upper-margin notes that comment on particular expressions or passages, often in a flippant or humorous way. The notes do not survive in the editions, only in the manuscript. Since I have not included them in my translation, I shall give a few examples here:

In Chapter Three, when the narrator explains that a woman's feet without their leggings on look like flowers with no leaves about them, the note runs, "The author must be considered the leading romantic of all time. Others who talk about sex are like Yiyang actors performing Kun opera. All you hear is the drumbeat." Yiyang was a raucous popular form of opera, much despised by Li Yu and other writers of the more artistic and melodious Kun form.