Li Yu and Rou putuan [The Carnal Prayer Mat]

Page 1A du Rou putuan 肉蒲團

Je reproduis ci-dessous dans son intégralité une notice composée en 2005 pour paraître dans l’Encyclopedia of Erotic Literature  éditée par Gaetan Brulotte et John Phillips, et qui sortit chez Routledge (New York) l’année suivante en deux volumes. Elle figure pages 809 à 813 du volume 2. Elle a été traduite du français par Victor Thibout. Dans l’édition papier, la notice sur le roman intervient (pp. 809-811) avant la biographie (pp. 811-813). Je me suis contenté d’ajouter les caractères chinois. Pour une courte présentation de l’Encyclopedia of Erotic Literature voir l’article en ligne de Gaetan Brulotte ( ; pour une note sur la place réservée à la littérature chinoise dans cette encyclopédie, voir “L’Enfer chinois dans l’Encyclopedia of Erotic Literature » En illustration : page 1A du chapitre 1 du roman dans le manuscrit japonais  conservé à l’Université de Tôkyô : Sôkôdô bunka  雙紅堂文庫 (Tôyô bunka kenkyujo  東京文化研究所).

Li Yu 李漁 (1611-1680) is a quite original and astounding figure in the history of Chinese letters. As it is, his work and contribution widely exceed the sole field of literature. After failing three times the examination to what then was the step before last to an official position, the Bachelor’s degree, Li Yu soon (probably around 1642) abandoned any hope of making a career in the Imperial administration. He subsequently withdrew from society for a while, before taking up various activities which were to become his only source of income until the end of his lifetime.

Throughout his life, Li Yu mingled with high-level officials; from his early days when he was living in the Jinhua 金華 prefecture of Zhejiang 浙江 province, and later in Hangzhou 杭州, where he stayed from the beginning of the 1650’s before settling in Nanjing 南京 ten years later. He was to return from that city only in the spring of 1677, to spend his last years by the shores of the East Lake in Hangzhou, a place which remains intimately tied to his most famous penname: “The Old Fisherman by the Lakeside” [Hushang liweng 湖上笠翁].

But although he would often associate with officials, Li Yu nonetheless made a living from what his prolific imaginativeness could yield, much more than from the occasional support that some of these friends would grant him. And being an inveterate hedonist, he always took great care in creating a suitable environment for him and his large household to live in, often squandering the fruits of his inventiveness as fast as he had earned them.
Proof of Li Yu’s ever-fermenting creativity is not only to be found in the field of writing, but also in that of publishing — as he, over the years, set up several publishing studios through which he issued his own works — , as well as that of garden design and theatre-group direction. All these activities led him to travel extensively across the Chinese Empire in search of contracts. And while, as a true charmer and captivating narrator gifted with pleasant conversation, he graciously bowed to the necessities of society, he would however never let go of his taste for provocation which, for instance, led him to put several of his very own concubines on stage and direct them as a theatre group. Such actions tarnished his reputation for good and definitely draped his name and work with an aura of scandal. As a result, those were truly rediscovered only as late as the end of  the Twentieth Century.

Li Yu, it has to be conceded, is a puzzling character: he shows to have been as innovative regarding his works as he was regarding daily life. The initiator of an art of living which places the pursuit of pleasure and of harmony above all the constraints of Confucian society, he would always seek to convince others of the validity of his own beliefs and share his tastes. In doing so, he would also unhesitatingly display his loss of affection for right-thinking routine, just as he would often hunt down generally accepted ideas. Put back in the context of a traumatic dynastic shift which ended with the setting up of Mandchu power (1644), his attitude is actually one of unequalled boldness. No longer part of the literati, as he was tuned into the world of business (publishing, design, theatre management and direction), and yet not completely a businessman either since he always kept in touch with literati circles (although his interest led him to the fringe of official culture), he somehow opened a new way which turned out to match his audacity and talent. The fact that he managed to keep his course certainly owes a lot to a strong personality blessed with wily optimism, but also to his fundamental conception according to which “there are no more major genres than there are minor ones; the important question is whether one excels in the genre one has chosen or not”.

Li Yu’s written production is in the image of the rowdy and bubbling nature of its creator. It naturally appears profuse and original, but also provocative and laced with constantly underlying humour and irony. In as much as Li Yu would support the whole of it with unvarying fervor and took pleasure in constantly enriching it by implicitly or openly coming to the fore, it is thus difficult to take up one aspect of his work without referring to its entirety, and, even more so, to the author. For ages, Li Yu’s work was however reduced to its most acceptable part.

Yet, it would be extremely inaccurate to limit its highlights, as many still often do, only to the two introductory books of his collection of open essays, the Xianqing ouji 閒情偶寄 (Casual Expressions of Idle Feeling). Besides this major treatise on dramatic art, the value of which has been prized ever since it was first published in 1671, Li Yu actually left a work covering the whole spectrum of literary genres that were valued at that time, ranging from poetry, an art which he practiced with much liberty and talent, to essay-writing and to theatre, the latter genre being his favorite: he left us no less than ten successful comedies that were highly-rated in his days.

He, who every single time had achieved the feat of strength of breathing new life into genres that were being neglected or were losing momentum, could not possibly have avoided getting to grips with the art of writing novels in vernacular language, at some stage. He eventually did so, with consummate aptness and stunning mastery that were crowned with success. Within a period of three to four years, Li Yu thus managed to compose three collections of short stories and one novel in twenty chapters, delivering a work of remarkable coherence, revealing his will to offer a readership fond of novelty some quality entertainment while at the same time developing new forms of expression.
This work starts with the publication of two collections of tales entitled Wushengxi 無聲戲 (Silent Comedies, W), probably between 1654 and 1656. The second issue, made up of only six fairly developed stories already shows real progress as compared to the first one, which consisted of twelve shorter pieces written in a form that was taking liberties with the traditional huaben 話本 format. Li Yu’s style further evolves into an even more refined form of narrative with the publication of Shi’er lou 十二樓 (Twelve Towers, 1658, S) three years later, which offers twelve stories no longer told in one go but now organized in chapters. In these stories, the fading away of the oral form of the tale (huaben) inherited from the tradition of public storytellers and taken up by late-Ming literati such as Feng Menglong 馮夢龍 (1574–1645) and Ling Mengchu 凌濛初 (1580–1644) becomes even more obvious, making room for a form of literary expression deliberately meant to be read silently. In addition, this new approach to the genre owes a lot to Li Yu’s innate sense of comedy and taste for theatre. His choice of uncalled for and sometimes shocking situations, of eccentric characters, of issues viewed from innovative angles, and subject to thematic variations in which humour and irony blend together, gives Li Yu’s ever-evolving work a unique flavor. The maturity of its ultimate stage – which Li Yu probably considered impossible to surpass — certainly owes a lot to the practice of novel-writing. To an author seemingly unable to be satisfied with the marginalia and end-of-chapter commentaries which he used to lard his texts with from the early days, the cutting up of the story into chapters, in that respect, allows for even more elbowroom to manoeuvre. He now inserts his voice in the very narrative, through digressions or racy interventions in which humour vies with mischievousness, nay self-advertising. These two collections, which together total thirty short stories, constitute Li Yu’s “official” literary work, and after signing them he incidentally started embodying a new type of literati as he, on several occasions, showed ready to defend his copyright -as author and publisher- before the law, against rather unscrupulous booksellers. Yet, he already ventures to throw in a few saucy stories and scatologic details when he, for instance, wishes to illustrate the superiority of a countrywoman’s sense of wit on a highwayman’s deceitfulness (W I 5), the love of an effeminate young boy for his friend that leads him to emasculate himself (W I 6), the jealousy of a husband titillated by an impish friend during a drinking binge (W II 10), the sensuality of a naiad (S 4), or the frigidity of a wife in need of attention (S 8). However, the overall tone and content remain formally acceptable and good-mannered, as if care had been taken all along to remain within the limits of correctness. Such self-restraint must certainly have turned out to be extremely frustrating for an author who had repeatedly displayed his will to blow up all barriers, both formal and thematical ! These barriers, he eventually did blow up; by writing the Rou putuan 肉蒲團.

Although it was in question for a long time owing to an erronneous dating, attribution of the Rou putuan to Li Yu was recently confirmed by the discovery, in Japan, of a manuscript providing its most complete and coherent version, and dating its completion to the year 1657; a period when Li Yu was fully devoting himself to novel-writing. The similarities of the Rou putuan with the writings of Li Yu are so numerous that doubt is hardly permitted. That feeling is also strengthened when one reads the commentaries added at the end of each chapter: these confirm that we are here dealing with an author fully mastering his mode of expression, willing to assert his originality and, what is more, willing to tackle the issue of the proper place of sexuality in life from a fresh perspective. In doing so, he displays a stark ability for innovation and a form of imagination which, as he admits in a commentary, “really mocks everything”.

During the Zhihe 致和  era (1328), a young man of letters by the pseudonym of Vesperus [Weiyangsheng 未央生] remains deaf to the advice of a monk called Lone Peak [Gufeng 孤峰] concerning sexual moderation, and instead gives free rein to a fantasy of his urging him to try and marry the most beautiful woman in the world. Unable to be satisfied with the yet radiant beauty of Jade Scent [Yuxiang 玉香], his first wife and the prudish daughter of the austere Confucian greybeard Master Iron Door [Tieshan daoren 鐵扇道人], Vesperus sets to go hunting again. He is soon assisted by a master bandit and man of genius nicknamed The Knave [Sai-Kunlun 賽昆崙], who quickly manages to convince him that the small size of his penis is a bridle to his pretensions. Once he’s been surgically transplanted the penis of a dog, which turns him into a matchless lover, Vesperus moves on to seducing Fragrance [Yanfang 艷芳], a shopkeeper of ardent nature. Fragrance having eventually become pregnant, Vesperus on the sly conquers Cloud of Scent [Xiangyun 香雲], another beauty whom he had spotted long before his operation. The young woman introduces him to three relatives of hers: her aunt, who is a widow, and two “sisters” whose husbands happen to be away at the capital to take part in the official examinations and who have also proved, as husbands, not to be particularily well-gifted for nocturnal jousts. While Vesperus is unrestrainedly carousing with all four women, Fragrance’s husband, a merchant by the nickname of Honest Quan [Quan Laoshi 權老實], seduces Jade Scent in a bout of revenge and gets her pregnant before selling her to a brothel in the capital, where she rapidly becomes the most sought-after prostitute in the whole Empire. Enticed by her reputation, Vesperus, who by now thinks himself a widower -as his father-in-law was always too ashamed to confess his daughter’s elopement-, joins the crowd of patrons who aren’t exactly queuing up. But when he finally finds himself ready to get down to the job, the husbands of his various gallant conquests have already had a taste of his legitimate spouse’s privileges, and Jade Scent commits suicide to avoid such an embarrassing confrontation with her husband. Realizing, at last, that he’s been going astray, Vesperus returns to Lone Peak, the monk who had long ago tried to divert him from his tragic fate. Firmly resolved no longer to follow the winding roads of debauchery, he castrates himself and takes his vows together with a group of new converts, amongst whom we also find The Knave and Honest Quan.

A summary of the novel may certainly show how subtly Li Yu wove his plot; and in so doing, he actually respected a principle that he would later advocate for drama-writing, namely to build the the plot around a key-character and a central action for the story to revolve around [yi ren yi shi 一人一事]. It may also give an idea of the considerable number of saucy scenes that the author managed to accumulate, the effective description of which owes a lot to their variety. However, the strength of the novel lies not as much in what is being narrated as in the way Li Yu chooses to do it. In that regard, any attempt at summarizing eclipses the real innovations of the Rou putuan, a novel which continues the tradition of Chinese erotic novels -some of which are duly referred to, such as the Chi pozi zhuan 癡婆子傳 (Biography of a Foolish Woman), the Ruyi Jun zhuan 如意君傳 (The Lord of Perfect Satisfaction) and the Xiuta yeshi 繡榻野史 (An Unofficial History of the Embroidered Couch) — only to better assert its superiority on them and explore the theme of sexuality even further than they ever did.

The appended commentary moreover much pertinently insists not only on the dazzling imagination here at work, but also and above all on the main formal innovations. It has to be conceded that these are indeed sizeable and, as such, amply justify that this novel be considered a masterpiece of Chinese literature in vernacular language.
The first and foremost striking feature of the Rou putuan is probably its constantly humourous tone, which naturally resorts to plays on words, but also to learned expressions diverted from their original context. This humorous tone is carried by a remarkably fluid style which puts all the resources of vernacular language to good use. In addition, numerous entertaining metaphors give the narrative texture, such as comparisons between the futile resort to doping by candidates at the mandarin examinations and the illusory use of aphrodisiacs for sexual jousts by mediocre lovers, or between the art of literary composition and the practice of copulation. Li Yu furthermore very skillfully inserts digressions [yilun 議論] in the narrative, sometimes even in the very height of a sex scene; asides that give him the opportunity to express his views on a variety of subjects amongst which sexual practices, thereby turning the reader into some cat on a hot tin roof and reinforcing his/her interest in the story, the narration of which eventually resumes as if nothing had happened.

The novel combines such control of the output with perfect mastery in organizing the situations, many of the latter being chosen according to the surprise effect they may be able to trigger. Scenes of that kind are truly surprizing and often comical; an example among others would be when Fragrance has Vesperus’s sexual capacities secretly tested by her neighbor, who happens to be an excessively ugly woman. The effect that Li Yu draws from them is all the more powerful since the novel’s chapters are all designed as independent episodes further assembled into a methodically organized progression, exactly the way they would as as many scenes of a theatre play. Li Yu starts off by putting the reader into the comfortable position of a mere voyeur amused at the doings of a thoughtless young man so as to, later, better have him/her feel the horror of a tragic paroxysm which consummates the ruin of illusions, the latter eventually provoking the final revelation. Behind the novelist concerned with his effects, one feels the mark of the dramatist who presides over the destinies of his characters.

The number of characters is deliberately limited and reduced to a typology which characterizes Li Yu’s works and which mainly operates on straight-forward oppositions between characters with clearly marked tempers. Thus, the rigoristic Confucian father who locks his daughter up to protect her from the dangers of the outside world contrasts with the open-minded bandit who frees himself from the barriers of privacy. In that regard,  the character of The Knave who, ridding himself of all barriers, offers a forthright viewpoint on the sexual reality of his contemporaries is a real find. Besides, by providing the hero with the means for his emancipation, The Knave is actually at the origin of Vesperus’s career as a great seducer. But the tour de force of this moral tale certainly lies in the recourse to surgery — a practice literally poles apart from traditional Chinese medical science- which in the novel enables a young man (of originally mediocre capacities, when all is said and done) to become a top grade stallion through the transplant of animal sex organs. As the commentary indicates, it is indeed “complete aberration, which invites us to see the hero’s feats as purely bestial acts”. And at the same time as he turns his main character into an outstanding lover, the author also warns his reader of the dangers the latter would face were he/she to take the story he/she is so brilliantly being told too literally. “Fiction”, the commentary informs us, “is parable”.

The lesson to be learned, which could be summed up by the injunction that one should remain moderate in matters of sex, is not only expressed using the allegorical mode and through the commentaries, but also, very surprisingly so and in an original way, in a long essay that takes up the entire first chapter of the novel. That essay is in fact the preamble of a far more comprehensive treatise, the elements of which are provided to the reader in the numerous dialogues that punctuate the story, forming a real ars erotica that goes much further than a mere introduction and gives the novel a true educational and moral character.

Li Yu used to describe his Wushengxi as “a refreshing drink in a house on fire”. The Rou putuan actually offers all the characteristics of a “silent comedy”; it is namely a book which, under cover of an erotic comedy likely to enthrall even the most blasé of readers, brings along original and disturbing views on a hotly debated subject. Of higher moral qualities than it may appear on the first reading, the novel was conceived according to a process that Li Yu unveils in the introduction: the elevated, varied and sensual narrative, rich in licentious episodes, is supposed to be “like the date wrapped around the bitter olive which, alone, brings each and everyone to eventually experience the flavor of the fruit it conceals”. Recourse to this kind of technique proves necessary, according to the author, in such times of trouble when “moral books” would serve only to “cover winepots or light pipes”.

The impact of the Rou putuan was tremendous at the time it was first released, and later on as well. Despite the formal ban it quickly became the target of, the novel nonetheless kept on being circulated under various titles. Its influence on Chinese novel-writing, and mainly on that of erotic novels, was also considerable. Many a pattern, and even whole passages borrowed from it are to be found in other works. Yet, the savoir-faire it displays never was either equalled, or even really copied.

The same way as Li Yu’s entire work is some sort of comet in the field of Chinese letters, this novel is a constellation of its own in that of Chinese erotic literature.

Selected Works
 • Wushengxi
LI Yu, A mari  jaloux, femme fidèle, KASER, Pierre (trans.), Arles : Editions Philippe Picquier, “Picquier Poche” n° 95, (1990) 1998, 268 p.
LI Yu, Silent Operas, HANAN, Patrick (ed.), Hong Kong : The University of Hong  Kong, “Renditions  Paperbaks”, 1990, xiii, 201 p.
 • Shi’er lou
LI Yu, A Tower for the Summer Heat, HANAN, Patrick (trans.), New-York : Ballantine Books, 1992, xv, 249 p.
 • Rou putuan
LI Yu, The Carnal Prayer Mat (Rou Putuan), HANAN, Patrick (trans.), New York, Ballantine Books, 1990, xiv, 316 p. Reprint : Honolulu :  University of Hawai’i Press, 1996, xiv, 317 p.

Further Readings
HANAN, Patrick, The Invention of Li Yu, Cambridge (Mass.) : Harvard UP, 1988, 272 p.
CHANG Chun-shu, CHANG, Shelley, Crisis and Transformation in Seventeenth-Century  China : Society, Culture and Modernity in Li Yü’s World,  Ann Arbor : The University of Michigan Press, 1992, x, 452 p.
KASER, Pierre, L’œuvre romanesque de Li Yu (1611-1680). Parcours d’un novateur, Université de Paris VII, 1994. 588 p. [Unpublished PhD]
    ——-, “Présentation et traduction des commentaires du Rou putuan”, in DARS, Jacques, CHAN Hingho, Comment lire un roman chinois. Arles : Editions Philippe Picquier, 2001, pp. 182-196.

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