Can a novel detailing the lascivious escapades of a dubious businessman possibly be considered art?
Not if you’re the Chinese government, it seems. Seventeenth-century novel The Golden Lotus has been banned for most of the last three hundred years, primarily for its unashamedly lusty content.
But one of China’s most famous choreographers disagrees with the censure, and Wang Yuanyuan and her Beijing Dance Theatre staged a ballet adaptation of the steamy tale late last month.
Some put The Golden Lotus up for literary comparison with other risque page-turners, like DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
That seems a little unfair to the Chinese work, as The Golden Lotus is much older. Main character Ximen Qing, a merchant from the southern city of Xiamen, might also grumble at the comparison, as he seems to have been a lot more ambitious than Mellors, Lady Chatterley’s gruff gamekeeper (19 different partners for Ximen, although it would have helped that, unlike Mellors, he didn’t have to spend his evenings tracking down poachers).
Wang’s not alone in her regard for the story. The Golden Lotus is widely thought of as China’s ‘fifth classic’ (joining the canon that includes epics like Journey to the West) and has been praised as having a pioneering influence in Chinese narrative, especially in the portrayal of amorous activity.
More than this, it addresses the wider issues of manners and morality too, which has kept it topical. Despite being set in the Northern Song dynasty, some of the book’s stinging critique of the elite has resonance today.
Certainly, Wang thinks the book’s satire makes it still feel relevant.
“[The Golden Lotus] was written in the Ming dynasty, a rotten society,” she told the New York Times. “But the social phenomenon is the same now. People will do anything for money and they want everything quickly – there is no moral concept.”
Dancers in Wang’s production manage to keep a few clothes on during the show. But she knows the performance is very unlikely to survive a visit from the censors, and the ballet will not be performed in China itself any time soon.
“We have not applied for a performance permit for a simple reason: I do not like chasing after trouble,” Wang told the Daily Telegraph. “Besides, 80% of our shows are now staged abroad.”
Instead The Golden Lotus was performed at the Hong Kong Arts Festival, confirming the city’s status as a bastion of (relatively) freer speech (and dance).
But many in the audience will likely have been from mainland China rather than Hong Kong. Just last week we wrote about the day trips to the city being set up for Chinese tourists wanting to watch the world’s first 3D adult film. From art to adult entertainment, Hong Kong is clearly the place to be at the moment for those with a voyeuristic intent…
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