Banned Books Week: Remembering David Tod Roy & The Plum in the Golden Vase

Over the course of history and across cultures, books have been banned for various reasons: religious and political, sexual and social. From the Princeton University Press archives, perhaps none is more remarkable than The Plum in the Golden Vase or, Chin P’ing Mei. Equally remarkable is the book’s translator: Crowning nearly 50 years of scholarship, the late David Tod Roy published the fifth and final volume of his masterful translation of this ‘banned book’ in 2013, and I had the pleasure of working as his publicist. The culmination of this project marked the pinnacle of David’s career, one that too sadly coincided with his diagnosis with Lou Gehrig’s disease. In spite of his physical decline, David was wonderfully engaged and engaging during the months following the book’s publication, as interview requests poured in from The New York Times and beyond. He spoke thoughtfully about his lifelong love of Chinese literature, his adventurous youth as the child of Presbyterian missionaries in China, and what exactly led him to open up The Plum in the Golden Vase for the first time (Hint: it’s a pretty racy read).

Written anonymously, the late sixteenth-century novel that became Roy’s lifelong work is a jewel of Ming-era Chinese literature, presenting an impressively detailed picture of daily Chinese life. Famous for its unprecedented eroticism, the book was described by David Marche in the LA Review of Books as “Jane Austen meets hard-core pornography.” It will come as no surprise that the book was long banned, restricted to high officials in the Chinese government, had its erotic content edited out, or replaced with Latin. The interviews David Roy did about the book before his recent death, this one for the Tableau, touch on its history of censorship:

The Chin P’ing Mei has been banned by various Chinese governments ever since it first appeared, including that of Mao Zedong. Interestingly, Mao’s diary indicated that he was an avid fan of the novel and thought it was a profound work, but he didn’t want his citizens to read it. One edition was published under Mao’s aegis, but it was restricted only to upper levels of the Communist party.

Though the novel is about more than sex—it is also considered significant for its absence of mythical heroes, attention to female psychology, and depiction of everyday life—the level of eroticism in the book has been surprising even to modern day readers. On the occasion of the release of Roy’s translation, the New York Times wrote:

“When I taught it, my students were flabbergasted, even though they knew about the novel’s reputation,” said Patricia Sieber, a professor of Chinese literature at Ohio State University. “S-and-M, the use of unusual objects as sex toys, excessive use of aphrodisiacs, sex under all kinds of nefarious circumstances — you name it, it’s all there.”

The book’s pornographic reputation attracted a teenage Roy, but his translation, a three-decade project, reflects a lifelong fascination with Chinese literature and is celebrated today for its exhaustive research that includes 4,400 endnotes. Its publication in 2013 marked a major personal achievement for Roy and a historic publishing event for PUP. As for the book’s availability in modern China, Roy said:

Now the book is available, but it’s not always easy to obtain. Since Mao’s death there has been a flood of scholarship in Chinese on the Chin P’ing Mei; there is even a periodical on Chin P’ing Mei studies. I’ve drawn heavily on that material, but I’ve actually discovered quite a few sources that haven’t been identified yet by Chinese scholars.

You can read more about The Plum in the Golden Vase here, and more about the book’s illustrations on our design Tumblr.

A University of Chicago memorial service will be held for David Tod Roy in October.

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