Sixty-three years ago, David Tod Roy was, as the New York Times puts it, “a 16-year-old American missionary kid looking for a dirty book” at a used book store in Nanjing, China.
The Chin P’ing Mei (金瓶梅), a 100-chapter vernacular novel from 16th century China. It relates the intricate details of daily life a fictional polygynous family, including graphic descriptions of sex. The novel follows the main character, Ximen Qing, from the time he acquires extreme wealth, five wives, fame and sexual stamina to the tragic and graphic dissipation of his estate, family, and life.
A mere nine years ago, on 12/21/2004, I submitted the final paper in my first ever Chinese literature class. The paper was on my understanding of how Confucianism figured into the moral framework of that very novel Dr. Roy went looking for, all those years ago.
A 19-year-old American missionary kid writing about a dirty book.
I was able to read it and be inspired by it because he did finally track it down. In the 1970s, he began working on an unexpurgated, scholarly translation of the work.
I distinctly remember sitting on my top bunk in my dorm room, surrounded by printouts of articles, a photocopied translation of The Xunzi, a dog-eared translation of The Analects, and two volumes of Dr. Roy’s translation of Chin P’ing Mei – all that had been published so far of the five that now complete the project. I read and read, much of the scholarship far beyond my abilities, but the potential for such detailed analysis of the deep meanings in this fascinating novel excited me more than any scholarship ever had before. I babbled about it to my roommates, confused them utterly, and then exclaimed, “I want to do this!”
I started dreaming of what it might be like to study traditional Chinese literature at the University of Chicago, where Dr. Roy still worked tirelessly on his translation. My advisor patiently helped me with reading through some of the novel in Chinese, one chapter per week for two semesters. It was the first Chinese literature that captured my attention so deeply that I found myself caring about the characters. Laughing at their jokes. Feeling sad at their deaths.
Without a doubt, I would not be where I am without Dr. Roy’s work.
Just last month, the New York Times published the article I quote from above:
David Tod Roy Completes His Translation of ‘Chin P’ing Mei’
One of the Chin P’ing Mei’s many wonders is how it immerses its readers into a complex, dizzying world of 16th century Chinese color, food, smell, sound, song, poem, and even a couple baojuan. In order to understand that world and faithfully render it into English, Dr. Roy had to first understand all the pieces that fed into the novel’s plot. As such, his office is packed, floor to ceiling, with thousands of books gathered in the years since his teenage shopping expeditions in Nanjing. Even a few from then.
His project completed, the university needs the office space. He says his wife jokes that she didn’t marry him to become a prisoner in a Chinese library, so the books can’t move into their home. So I’ve been hired to help locate and pack up the books that another university has purchased from him.
It’s an difficult thing, removing these books from their places on the shelves to a cart, and then trundling them off to be packed. Dr. Roy sits at his desk while a librarian and I work, offering help and commentary. We sat together, surrounded by books, eating lunch on Tuesday. Another opportunity for me to thank him for his influence on my life and work. To hear about what informed his career path. To discuss how amazing the novel that he translated truly is.
This packing, it’s emotional. It’s something I do with reverence for the books, the man who collected them, and the significance of his work.
But it’s not the conclusion.
Not for the books, and certainly not for Dr. Roy.
Ninety-nine of the chapters in the Chin P’ing Mei end this way:
In Dr. Roy’s words:
If you want to know the outcome of these events,
Pray consult the story related in the following chapter.