Jin Ping Mei was one of the quartet of classic novels in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) before A Dream of Red Mansions replaced it in the subsequent Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
"It holds fifth position now," says Liu Qian, researcher of Ming and Qing fiction, with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
A spin-off of a story in Outlaws of the Marsh, Jin Ping Mei evolves into an elaborate profile of Ximen Qing, a social climber and lustful merchant, with his six wives and concubines.
The title is taken from three of the women's names and the author of the book is known by his alias only, the Scoffing Scholar of Lanling, with no background information whatsoever.
"The style is sharp realism," explains Liu Qian. "It does have many passages of graphic sex, but they are used for character delineation, not sex for the sake of sex. So, the book is by no means vulgar."
About the character Pan Jinlian, Liu tends to see her as a victim.
"She uses sex for survival. You must remember that women at that time did not have social status. She had to rely on whatever she could grasp to get by."
Liu does not agree with the interpretation that puts Pan on the pedestal of feminist awakening.
Bonnie Baker, who wrote the script for the dance drama, sees Pan and Ximen Qing as two sides of the same coin. They are loyal to their desire and understand each other's needs.
Ximen starts as the "educator" but their relationship changes in the process. Pan gradually takes control. The drama ends with a danse macabre, with Pan using sex to send Ximen onto the road to another world.
"Male sexuality has always been forthright while female sexuality is dependent on things like marriage, love and interests. The Pan Jinlian I see does not hide sex behind a mask of love," expounds Baker.
Baker, a playwright whose original name is Zhang Shanshan, says the freedom accorded by the dance drama enables her to focus on the subtle shifts of emotions and the fundamental changes in the soul.
"I wring the story until only the essentials remain - much like one wrings dry the laundry. Whatever is left is put into my own inner world, where it is enriched with my own sap."
Jin Ping Mei has two English translations: The first one, The Golden Lotus, came out in 1938, translated by Clement Egerton, who was aided by renowned Chinese writer Lao She.
The second, The Plum in the Golden Vase or, Chin P'ing Mei, translated and richly annotated by David Tod Roy, started coming out in 1993 and so far four of the planned five volumes have been published. The translator has passed away and the publisher, Princeton University Press, has yet to publish the fifth volume.
When asked whether the Chinese original may "corrupt" youth if they get hold of it, researcher Liu Qian says: "The language is quite archaic. A regular teenager wouldn't be able to get through it."
(China Daily 03/15/2011 page19)