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A minefield of creation

By Raymond Zhou | China Daily | Updated: 2011-03-15 09:30

In early September, 2010, a 21-year-old student stormed out of his classroom in Peking University. He was protesting against the lecturer for "spreading vulgar culture".

The lecturer in question was Liu Sola, a noted writer and musician who had discovered some of the old tunes from Jin Ping Mei.

A minefield of creation

"This must have been a shock to him," Liu recalls. "Now you can hear how ordinary people 400 years ago sang about various aspects of life, including - but not limited to - sex."

Liu attributes the student's reaction to "a deficiency in education". We are taught part of history, but much of it is ignored, such as folk customs and music. A Dream of Red Mansions, which is also interspersed with explicit descriptions, is respected because it portrays the aristocracy; while Jin Ping Mei is about the plebeian and is thus brushed aside as not worthwhile, Liu explains.

Liu has noticed a parallel between this novel and the Don Juan story, which has been adapted into many classics in poetry and music.

"Jin Ping Mei is so rich in content that, had there been no restrictions, it could have been made into any form of art, and masterpieces created."

Commenting on Wang Yuanyuan's dance drama, Liu says the most contemporary form can sometimes turn out to be a wonderful fit for old material, fusing into a unique work.

Wang's dancers have also been thinking about other art forms as a vehicle for this literary rarity. Paintings can obviously represent tableaux of the time. Traditional Chinese opera, with its high degree of stylization, lends itself well to this subject. Even music, such as blues, can capture the moods of the not-so-noble yet immensely vivid characters.

Guo Wenjing, a celebrated composer whose works include the opera Li Bai, has long set his eyes on the Jin Ping Mei story.

"I'm not interested in the sex parts at all, which are formulaic to me. What fascinates me is the characters' emotions and fate, which I feel are ideal for an opera treatment."

But nobody has dared to invest in such a project. Avant-garde theater impresario Meng Jinghui has been proclaiming his interest in adapting the book for several years. But so far, no production has come into being, except for a spoof play in Guangzhou last October and a school production at a foreign college.

Meanwhile, most youngsters get their knowledge of the book from such Hong Kong film treatments as The Forbidden Legend: Sex and Chopsticks, which are either pornographic, melodramatic, or both.

China Daily

(China Daily 03/15/2011 page19)

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