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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Emperor of China
in a House of Ill Repute

Pu Songling

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To purchase The Emperor of China in a House of Ill Repute

Title: The Emperor of China in a House of Ill Repute
Author: Pu Songling
Genre: Novel
Written: ca. 1700 (Eng. 2023)
Length: 411 pages
Original in: Chinese
Availability: The Emperor of China in a House of Ill Repute - US
The Emperor of China in a House of Ill Repute - UK
The Emperor of China in a House of Ill Repute - Canada
from: Bookshop.org (US)
directly from: Oxford University Press
  • Songs of the Imperial Visit to Datong
  • Chinese title: 幸雲曲
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Wilt L. Idema
  • This is a bilingual edition, with the original Chinese text facing the English translation
  • A volume in the Hsu-Tang Library of Classical Chinese Literature

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Our Assessment:

B+ : good fun and a good read

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The emperor of the title of this song-book novel is a real one, the Zhengde Emperor (正德; 'Right Virtue', as he is also referred to here), who ruled 1506-21 -- "a dismal failure as a human being and a ruler", translator Wilt L. Idema notes in his Introduction. So colorful that: "Already during his lifetime, the Zhengde emperor's antics had become the subject matter of storytellers", with the Zhengde emperor's reputation for taking trips far from the capital under an assumed identity (that of supreme commander Zhu Shou) turned, in the popular imagination, "into incognito trips in search of women". Pu Songling continues in that tradition in this adaptation of the story, of -- as it was also called --: 'Right Virtue Goes Whoring', with its protagonist: "an alcoholic and a sex fiend" (though also presented as quite clever, in control, and conniving, rather than merely debauched).
       The Emperor of China in a House of Ill Repute is, as the subtitle has it, a narrative in the form of a collection of Songs of the Imperial Visit to Datong. In fact, however, the 'songs' alternate with sections of prose -- and are often more or less simply poetic variations and embellishments on the action described in the prose sections; it reads, in English, very much like a straightforward prose novel with poems (which are identical in form) interspersed in the text -- generally only individual ones, but a few times with several stanzas in a row. (As Idema notes, the number of these songs in each of the twenty-eight chapter varies, ranging from as few as four to as many as nineteen.)
       The form of the 'songs' is identical throughout practically the entire novel; aside from a few stanzas 'To the tune of "West River Moon"' at the beginning and end of the novel, they are all to the tune of "Having Fun with the Child" (耍孩兒), a widely used and known tune (though Pu Songling notes: "everyone sings it differently").
       As Idema explains

Songs to the tune of "Having Fun with the Child" have eight lines, divided into three groups of three, three, and two lines, respectively. In the first group, the first two lines consist of two groups of three syllables (separated by a caesura); these two lines are followed by a seven-syllable line (with a caesura following the fourth syllable). The second group is made up of three seven-syllable lines. And the last two lines each consist of four syllables (often preceded by groups of three syllables). Lines four and five are expected to have a parallel structure, and likewise the last two lines. All lines rhyme, except lines four and seven.
       Got that ?
       While it sounds very strict and limiting, apparently it isn't, and Idema also notes that: "the songs are written in a simple, and at times even prosaic, style, freely employing the local dialect" -- and, of course, the English versions are freer yet (with Idema noting that, while he would: "have loved to use rhyme in my renditions of these versified passages" that was a bit beyond him).
       The 'songs' are just that, but the tune they go to is known only by its name, not what it sounded like; it is perhaps easiest to consider the verses just ... verse, and read them as such.
       The story is, in its outlines, fairly simple: the Zhengde emperor: "had no desire to manage the affairs of the court, / He only wanted to roam through the world for fun", which would seem to make him easy prey for Jiang Bin, who wants to get him out of the way. Jiang Bin convinces him that the place to go is Datong -- as:
Its people are extraordinarily talented and all very beautiful.
     The three thousand courtesans of the Displaying Martiality Ward
Are each and every one the near-equal of immortal maidens.
       The Zhengde emperor's wife has reservations, but he is gung-ho and cocksure:
What is the harm in rambling and roaming for pleasure ?
     When I rely on my huge good fortune equal to heaven,
What can possibly go wrong wherever I go ?
       There's continued concern back at the palace once he leaves -- "Now that Jiang Bin has tricked the emperor into leaving the capital, he must be scheming to lay his hands on our rivers and mountains", the empress worries -- but the action leaves Jiang Bin behind until near the end and instead follows the emperor making his way, incognito, to Datong.
       One of the thousands of courtesans of the Displaying Martiality Ward is known as Buddha's Lust. Orphaned when she was eight, her aunt then sold the girl to a madam at the ward. The girl turned out to be a great beauty, but a fortune teller told her that she was destined to become an empress, and so Buddha's Lust refused to see any customers, waiting for the emperor -- but it's been years now, and he hasn't shown up ..... The madam is frustrated but has indulged Buddha's Lust -- providing her with: "more than ten serving girls to wait on her in her southern upstairs room" -- but is also getting tired of that, while Buddha's Lust is also beginning to despair.
       Naturally, when the Zhengde emperor arrives -- disguised as a lowly officer -- he and Buddha's Lust are matched together, and while she tries to avoid giving herself to him with some tricks for a while, still holding out hope that she is destined to be saved by the emperor, eventually she can't escape him -- but she then also realizes that he is the man she had always been waiting for. They continue to play some games with others in Displaying Martiality Ward, before a grand finale where the emperor sees to it that his enemies get their just deserts -- and the entire Displaying Martiality Ward is burned to the ground -- and the emperor takes Buddha's Lust back to the capital as his concubine, where they seem destined to all live happily ever after (the emperor's wife generously welcoming Buddha's Lust). (In real life, of course, the hard-partying emperor did not last long, dying before he reached thirty.)
       Pu Songling has a great deal of fun with the disguised emperor on the way to and then in Datong, a man who -- intentionally -- looks, acts, and sounds almost like a country bumpkin but is in fact very sharp (and, at various times, assisted by: "the big and small ghosts that protected His Majesty" wherever he goes, offering an often amusing (and also protective) invisible helping hand). The emperor has some small adventures along the way to Datong, but it is once he's settled in there that the story really comes into focus, as he first toys with Buddha's Lust and then the two of them gang up on the obnoxious Wang Long (who really gets his at the end).
       Throughout, the emperor, playing dumb, is also able to throw around large amounts of gold and silver -- the likes of which many have never seen before -- a contrast to his appearance that befuddles many whom he deals with. Wang Long's female companion, Big Sister, suspects:
He must be a mounted bandit who robbed an imperial transport somewhere. It would be best to arrest that shithead and send him to the responsible officials for an inquiry.
       She is not the only one who suspects he is a criminal. But the disguised Zhengde emperor also repeatedly makes claims of knowing people in high places, constantly wrong-footing those who deal with him.
       The Zhengde emperor's toying with Wang Long in various contests and the like -- as well as his ghosts making sure Wang Long pays his due respects by kowtowing to the disguised man (which Wang Long vigorously denies: "I didn't kowtow to him, I slipped on a melon peel !") -- make for quite a few amusing scenes. Similarly, the back and forth between the Zhengde emperor and Buddha's Lust before she recognizes him also makes for good fun.
       Despite the setting -- much of the novel basically takes place in a (well-appointed) whorehouse -- The Emperor of China in a House of Ill Repute isn't too raw or explicit. Pu Songling mostly goes for broader and easier laughs -- though the song describing the second time the two have sex shows his considerable range:
佛動心今夜中 ⸴ 有八分愛武宗 ∘ 瘡口不敢說沒連縫 ⸴ 雖然路兒還生澀 ⸴ 也是癢裡帶著疼 ⸴ 不似昨日難扎掙 ∘ 他二人玩耍了半夜 ⸴ 一覺兒睡到天明 ∘

This night Buddha's Lust
Loved the Martial Ancestor eighty percent.
Her wound could not yet be said to have fully healed.
     But even though the road was still raw and constricted
And there was still some pain with an itch,
It was not as hard a struggle as the first time.
     The two of them had their fun for half the night,
Then fell asleep, sleeping till the sky turned bright.
       The story is occasionally a bit silly and vulgar, but The Emperor of China in a House of Ill Repute is also consistently entertaining -- a very rollicking good read. The mix of crudeness and eloquence -- manifesting itself both in the presentation of the story and in the character of the Zhengde emperor -- can be jarring, but often also works well, especially in the confusion it causes those who deal with the Zhengde emperor.
       Pu Songling is best-known for his stories, and The Emperor of China in a House of Ill Repute tends towards the episodic, but it's a solid, full-fledged novel, and it's good to see it available in English translation. This Hsu-Tang Library of Classical Chinese Literature also provides the Chinese original facing the translation -- always welcome --, and Wilt L. Idema's Introduction is also a helpful and informative one.

- M.A.Orthofer, 5 December 2023

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The Emperor of China in a House of Ill Repute: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Chinese author Pu Songling (蒲松齡) lived 1640 to 1715.

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© 2023 the complete review

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