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Fountainhead of Chinese Erotica

Charles Stone

Publication Year: 2003

The Lord of Perfect Satisfaction (Ruyijun zhuan), a short work of fiction from the early sixteenth century, tells the story of the Tang dynasty's notorious Wu Zetian, the only woman to rule as emperor of China. It is famous not for the history it relates, but for its graphic sexual descriptions--the first ever in a Chinese novel--purportedly given from a woman's point of view. Despite its renown and unmistakable influence on later writing, the origins and significance of the Ruyijun zhuan have never been explored, in any language, and until now it has never been translated. Its date of composition is unknown, its author unidentified. One of its earliest appraisals, written by a contemporary scholar known for his conservatism, maintains that the Ruyijun zhuan is a moral work notwithstanding its sexual content. Combining a complete translation with a detailed and far-ranging study of the text, The Fountainhead of Chinese Erotica places this important cultural document into historical context and offers possibilities on its meaning.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press


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pp. v

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p. vii-vii

It was for a seminar on the Jin Ping Mei taught by David Roy a few years ago that I first wrote about the Ruyijun zhuan, a work that has been a source of entertainment, education, and vexation ever since. I thought I had just enough material to write a paper—not so much that I could scarcely fit it...

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pp. 1-9

The Ruyijun zhuan (Lord of perfect satisfaction) is a short work of ¤ction written in classical Chinese by an unidenti¤ed author at a time uncertain.1 It purports to tell the story of Empress Wu Zetian’s (r. 690–705) controversial rise to power during the late seventh century and her irregular conduct...

Part One Context and Analysis

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1. Pornography and the West

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pp. 13-24

The Ruyijun zhuan contains explicit descriptions of sexual activity that are unprecedented in Chinese

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2. Precursors

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pp. 25-38

The peculiar combination of love, politics, history, and moral remonstration found in the Ruyijun zhuan is not unique to this work or to the fiction of the late Ming dynasty. This combination is found, as well, in early Chinese poetry like the Shi jing (Book of poetry). ...

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3. Desire in the Ming Dynasty

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pp. 39-56

Is the Ruyijun zhuan a precursor of radical philosophies that appeared during the latter part of the sixteenth century? Writers like Li Zhi (1527–1602), the most famous exponent of the iconoclastic style associated with the Taizhou school of Neo-Confucianism, argue that spontaneous, individual experience...

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4. Authorship

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pp. 57-73

The earliest known appraisal of the Ruyijun zhuan, the “Du Ruyijun zhuan,” was written by Huang Xun, a scholar who held several government positions during the Jiajing reign period (1522–1567). The original text, three pages long, is found in his Dushu yide (Tri fles gleaned from reading books), a collection...

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5. Speculations About Contemporary Events

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pp. 74-84

Even if the reader should acquire a taste for the manner in which Huang Xun incorporates obscure allusions, he is still unlikely to find the collected works appetizing. The type of mourning vestments a son should wear at his mother’s funeral—to recall one memorable example from the early twelfth century he...

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6. Sources

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pp. 85-100

Wu Zetian is the only woman to have become emperor of China. Most historians depict her ascent to such heights as an anomaly and criticize her personal conduct with particular asperity. She was an opportunist. She committed adultery. She committed incest. She cast a spell upon two emperors that no...

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7. Preface, Postscript, and Colophon

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pp. 101-114

The preface to the Ruyijun zhuan was written by a man whose pen name was Huayang Sanren. Scholars have concluded that it was written between 1514 and 1754 by a contemporary of the author, by a precocious hermit of the seventeenth century, by an anonymous Japanese author of the eighteenth century, ...

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8. Later Works

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pp. 115-125

Contemporaries recognized that the Ruyijun zhuan was, if nothing else, a novel creation for Chinese literature: a unique combination of history and fiction that described sexual relations in weird and unprecedented detail. Quite a few authors paid it the dubious compliment of copying its most licentious passages...

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9. The Moral

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pp. 126-129

The last person who claimed to have perceived a moral in the Ruyijun zhuan— and had the temerity to put this opinion in writing—was Huayang Sanren. His preface of 1634 argues that this work illustrates, in an offensive fashion, a moral that is nevertheless worthy of consideration. His observations have not, ...

Part Two Translation and Original Text

Annotated Translation

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pp. 133-160

Critical Edition

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pp. 161-172


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pp. 173-229


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pp. 231-236


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pp. 237-258


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pp. 259-271

E-ISBN-13: 9780824862589
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824824129

Publication Year: 2003