Obscene Things

Sexual Politics in Jin Ping Mei

Obscene Things

Book Pages: 368 Illustrations: Published: July 2002

Author: Naifei Ding

Asian Studies > East Asia, Gender and Sexuality > Feminism and Women’s Studies, Literature and Literary Studies > Literary Criticism

In Obscene Things Naifei Ding intervenes in conventional readings of Jin Ping Mei, an early scandalous Chinese novel of sexuality and sexual culture. After first appearing around 1590, Jin Ping Mei was circulated among some of China’s best known writers of the time and subsequently was published in three major recensions. A 1695 version by Zhang Zhupo became the most widely read and it is this text in particular on which Ding focuses. Challenging the preconceptions of earlier scholarship, she highlights the fundamental misogyny inherent in Jin Ping Mei and demonstrates how traditional biases—particularly masculine biases—continue to inform the concerns of modern criticism and sexual politics.
The story of a seductive bondmaid-concubine, sexual opportunism, domestic intrigue, adultery and death, Jin Ping Mei has often been critiqued based on the coherence of the text itself. Concentrating instead on the processes of reading and on the social meaning of this novel, Ding looks at the various ways the tale has been received since its first dissemination, particularly by critiquing the interpretations offered by seventeenth-century Ming literati and by twentieth-century scholars. Confronting the gender politics of this “pornographic” text, she troubles the boundaries between premodern and modern readings by engaging residual and emergent Chinese gender and hierarchic ideologies.


"[A] highly original study of one of China's most important novels. . . . this is an outstanding study of an important novel and its traditions of 'legitimate' readership (as well as a remarkable 'illegitimate' challenge to these traditions). It will inform scholarship on classical fiction well into the future and any students or academics working on masculinity, femininity and sexuality in literature will find the insights in Obscene Things invaluable." — Louise Edwards , Intersections

"[A] highly sophisticated study of gender politics; it offers a nuanced rereading of Jin Ping Mei in terms of reader positionality in relation not only to gender difference but also to class and socioeconomic status." — Karl Kao, The China Review

"[T]he first major reading of the sixteenth-century novel Jin Ping Mei in terms of the material and social-symbolic conditions that allowed it to emerge in the Ming. . . . Besides exposing gender politics in the writing and reading of Jin Ping Mei, Ding's book provides a number of detailed and historically sensitive readings of episodes in the novel. . . . With her book . . . Jin Ping Mei will become more accessible to us. . . ."- > ."
— Keith McMahon , Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies

"Ding's scholarship is ever so impressive; she has a formidable command of all that has been written about JPM in Chinese and English, as well as a thorough familiarity with the JPM text in its many editions. . . . One of her major contributions is doing a feminist interpretation of the text and its commentaries. . . . [A] landmark in Jin-ology." — Nicholas Koss, Bulletin of the Institute of Chinese Literature and Philosophy

"Obscene Things is an important book. It features a wealth of original insights and poses a number of crucial questions that point at previously uncharted critical directions within Jin Ping Mei studies, while contributing at the same time to a growing body of scholarship on late Ming and early Qing culture, in particular on the emergence of the book market and the role that intellectuals played in it. . . . For the wealth of its provocative insights and inspiring tactics, for its critical originality and theoretical subtlety, Obscene Things will be read and discussed for years to come." — Giovanni Vitiello, China Review International

"This . . . is a significant book, both for Taiwan and for contemporary Chinese studies as a whole. The author is to be complimented. . . ."

— Bradley Winterton , Taipei Times

“Ding’s reading of Jin Ping Mei is unique and extremely important. By reading this novel as a cumulative accretion of text and commentary and as a cultural icon, she shows how all of us who read it from an aesthetic perspective are implicated in covering up its disturbing and hatefully misogynist core. This is a true coup.” — Maram Epstein, University of Oregon

“In this absorbing study of the multiple lives of a literary classic that is also a popular pornographic text, Naifei Ding steals across the border between cultural studies and feminist/queer literary criticism. Bringing a gendered social history of modern print culture in China into a ‘porous intimacy’ with both a critique of interpretive power and a feminist ‘counter-ethics’ of reading, Obscene Things is a scholarly work of exceptional creativity. Ding herself is a wonderful storyteller, and her critical narration of the fortunes of Jin Ping Mei will inspire anyone concerned with the how of studying historical modalities of gender, sexuality, status, and cultural power.” — Meaghan Morris, Lingnan University

“Those who read Ding’s investigation will never look at critical interpretations of Chinese fiction with the same complacency again.” — Robert E. Hegel, author of Reading Illustrated Fiction in Late Imperial China


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Open Access

Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Naifei Ding is Professor of English at National Central University in Taiwan.

Table of Contents Back to Top


Part One: Practices

1. Jin-ology

2. The Manic Preface: Jin Shengtan’s (1608-1661) Shuihu zhuan

3. A Cure for Melancholy: Yuan Hongdao (1558-1610) and Qifa (Seven Stimuli)

4. Tears of Resentment: Zhang Zhupo’s (1670-1698) Jin Ping Mei

Part Two: Intervention

5. Seduction: Tiger and Yinfu

6. Red Shoes, Foot Bindings, and the Swing

7. A Cat, a Dog, and the Killing of Livestock

8. Very Close to Yinfu and Enu; or, How Prefaces Matter for Jin Ping Mei (1695) and Enu Shu (Taipei, 1995)



Works Cited

Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-2916-9 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-2901-5
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