The Tiger Killer v. The Golden Lotus

Among all the stories of lovers, heroes, and villains that populate the great classical novels of China, how many have the distinction of appearing in more than one? Only one. The tale, told in two of the novels, which concerns Wu Song the "Tiger Killer"; and Pan Jinlian the "Golden Lotus" (because of her tiny feet), the adulterous wife of his elder brother. The story, told and retold in the novels, is repeated again frequently in film. Here, then, is the full story.

[NOTE: This article is not intended for younger or more sensitive readers, and contains profanity, violence, and sex.]

The Texts

The story of Wu Song appears first in the SHUI-HU ZHUAN (aka The Water Margins; first popularized in English by Pearl S. Buck as All Men are Brothers, which is not a translation but a new title of her own devising), an epic novel about imperial corruption balanced by heaven sending down 108 demon stars, who become righteous outlaws against injustice. In this vast, sprawling novel, Wu Song makes a strong impression early on, but after his story is told, blends into the background for much that remains. He first appears in Chapter 23, and his story continues through Chapter 32. Over the course of his adventures, he is lauded a hero, promoted to Captain of the Guard, then becomes a murderer, and finally a fugitive, before joining up with the other outlaws of the marsh. The part of the story that concerns us here, of Wu Song, his elder brother, and his brother's wife, is told in Chapter 24 - Chapter 26.

These three chapters become a cornerstone of the later novel CHIN PING MEI (aka The Plum in the Golden Vase, alternatively titled The Golden Lotus). Here, the story expands from three chapters to ten, and focuses on Pan Jinlian, the adulterer, instead of Wu Song the hero. The main character of the novel is actually Ximen Qing, a swaggering pervert of an official who gathers up lots of women in indecent ways, and over the course of 100 chapters deflowers, debauches, buys an aphrodisiac from the personification of a penis, and finally gets his comeuppance in the end, dying graphically and horribly from an overdose of the ancient Viagra. In the sprawling scope of the novel, Pan Jinlian is but one of his conquests.

The two accounts are similar in many ways (and indeed, in some passages copied verbatim), but told with a different emphasis. The story in THE WATER MARGINS follows Wu Song, and we learn what becomes of him after the tale, while in CHIN PING MEI we see the story from Pan Jinlian's point of view, and learn what becomes of her afterwards. What follows is an outline of the story, from both sources. I've used as my english language sources THE TIGER KILLERS, book two of the Water Margins translation by John and Alex Dent-Young [1], and THE GATHERING, volume one of the Plum in the Golden Vase translation by David Tod Roy [2]. These are my favorite versions of these stories in English. Young and Young's translation of THE WATER MARGINS is a great read, and very thorough, but lacking in scholarly rigour. Roy's translation of CHIN PING MEI is quite simply the best translation of any ancient Chinese text I have ever read in my life, period -- though be warned, only three of the five planned volumes of David Tod Roy's translation have appeared to date.

The Tale

The two sources for the story share much in common, but also diverge in several crucial moments. As was expected, THE WATER MARGINS takes more time to explore the character and motivation of Wu Song, while CHIN PING MEI details further Pan Jinlian and especially Ximen Qing, who becomes the central character of the story following the events described here.

Regardless of source, the tale can be divided into five parts: 1. The Tiger Killer, 2. The Temptation, 3. The Affair, 4. The Murder, and 5. The Revenge. The largest discrepancy between the two sources is in the fifth part, The Revenge. More on that later. But now, the story begins:

1. The Tiger Killer
This part of the tale is told best in THE WATER MARGINS. Wu Song has greatly overstayed his welcome at Chai Jin's mansion, hanging on for a year, abusing the staff, and coming down with malaria. A chance encounter with Song Jiang, "The Opportune Rain," a righteous and respected official, does much to restore his health and spirits, and so he leaves for home, apologetic for his behaviour before. On his way, he gets completely knock-down wasted on wine -- 18 bowls when ordinary folks pass out after 3. Then, thoroughly knackered, he heads into Jingyang Pass as the sun goes down. The innkeeper pleads for him to wait until morning because of a fierce tiger in the area. Wu Song responds:

"Balls! I tell you, if there really is a tiger, it doesn't scare me. What you want is to get me to stay in your house so you can come in the middle of the night and rob me of my money and my life. That's why you're trying to intimidate me with some tale of a fucking tiger!"

He leaves the innkeeper fuming, only to come upon a government sign an hour up the pass warning of the tiger as well. Too embarassed to go back, he decides to head up the mountain anyway, where naturally, he runs smack into the man-eating beast.

Interestingly, Wu Song's character is much kinder in the CHIN PING MEI, and seems to climb the mountain trail out of bravery, not out of foolish drunkenness.

He dispatches the tiger with some effort, then heads on his way when some hunters appear and he tells them what happened. They don't believe it, even when he points out that he's completely covered with blood. So he leads them back up the mountain to show the dead tiger (Again, the CHIN PING MEI story is simpler -- the hunters see him defeat the tiger with their own eyes). He is led to the town of Yanggu at the base of the pass and heralded as a hero. He is given a cash reward, which he distributes among the hunters. Impressed, the magistrate quickly appoints him head of the guards. Wu Song accepts the position, cancelling his plans to go home.

There are hundreds of different versions of this part of the story, quite outside the scope of what we are attempting to cover here. To get an idea of the variation, visit the Research Database for the Wu Song Project.

2. The Temptation
This part of the tale is almost identical in both versions. Wu Song bumps into his older brother, who has also moved to this town. Elder Wu, nicknamed "The Three Inch Poxy Midget" [or the "Three-inch Mulberry-bark Manikin"] is a homely dwarf who gets by selling wheat cakes. He implores Wu Song to move in with him, and he agrees. Only trouble is, Elder Wu is married to Pan Jinlian, a ravishingly beautiful and talented young woman who despises him.

How the dwarf and the beauty were married is barely mentioned in THE WATER MARGINS but elaborated on at length in CHIN PING MEI. To summarize quickly, she was a servant girl in a rich old merchant's household. He had his way with her, his wife found out, he married her off to Elder Wu who rented a storefront from him because he was nearby and he could sneak over and continue to copulate with the girl whenever Elder Wu was out. This is how "Such a fine piece of mutton ended up in the mouth of a dog". Finally, the rich merchant died (a "venereal chill"), and his wife drove Elder Wu and Pan Jinlain away. They moved to Yanggu, and so ran into Wu Song.

Pan Jinlian immediately takes a shine to hunky Wu Song, and tries to get him drunk and seduce him at every opportunity. He finally tells her off and leaves, warning her:

Don't ever dare behave in that disgusting manner again...[or] I swear to you this: even though my eyes tell me you're my sister-in-law, my fists won't care!

Pan Jinlian tries to trick Elder Wu into believing his younger brother took a pass at her, instead of the other way around, but he doesn't fall for it. Wu Song moves out.

A few months later, Wu Song must leave to accompany a caravan to a distant city. He visits his brother and sister-in-law before he leaves, suggesting that he leave to sell wheat cakes late and come home early, and close his shutters and lock up right away so no trouble happens. He also suggests to Pan Jinlian that she try not to act like such a hussy, which pisses her off greatly. In the end, Wu Song leaves, and his brother does as he recommends. And now, the trouble really begins.

3. The Affair
Pan Jinlian, while closing the blinds one day, drops the rod on the head of a passerby, who happens to be the sexually insatiable Ximen Qing. He gets an eyeful of the beauty and can't stop thinking about her.

Enter next door neighbor and teashop owner, Mrs. Wang. She sees his thoughts and realizes that she can make a lot of cash from him if she can make his dreams a reality. So she coaches him, for a fee, in the art of wooing, and concocts an elaborate plan by which he can have a tryst with the lady Pan. But it will only work, she warns, in one of my favorite colorful bits of the story, if Ximen Qing has the "five prerequisites:

"He must have the looks of Pan Yueh, the member of a donkey, the wealth of Teng Tung, the youth and resilience of a 'needle in a wad of cotton', and plently of leisure. Only if you have all these prerequisites, which are known for short as 'looks, member, wealth, youth, and leisure,' can you hope to consummate such an affair."

Needless to say Qing is "equipped" for success, and her plan goes off without a hitch. Soon the two are happily coupling every day in the teahouse while Elder Wu is out selling his wheat cakes.

This idyllic moment for the two clandestine lovers comes crashing down for them when a young fruit seller by the name of Qiao stops by the teahouse to sell Ximen Qing some pears. Mrs. Wang refuses to let him in, shouting:

"You cocksucking little monkey! You think you can come farting around my place, do you?"

They verbally abuse one another, and she beats him until he leaves. Qiao, in anger, decides he is going to go tell on them to Elder Wu.

Elder Wu can scarce believe what he hears, so they concoct a plan together to come upon them in the act. Their plan works, and Elder Wu catches them in the same bedroom together, scrambling to get dressed. Unfortunately for him, Ximen Qing is very adept in martial arts and he kicks the midget right in the solar plexus, nearly killing him.

Wu the Elder is in bad shape and can hardly get out of bed, his injuries are so acute. Now, Pan Jinlien gets ready for her trysts in front of him, putting on powder, fixing her hair, and going out, and he can not even lift a finger.

4. The Murder
Now the lovers start to worry -- what happens when Wu Song returns? His brother will spill the beans, and they'll both be dead. Ximen Qing is in a panic, but the crafty old woman Wang has another idea -- poison her husband, bribe the coroner, bury the corpse. When Wu Song comes back, what can he do? What Pan Jinlien does after that is none of his business. The two lovers agree and Pan takes some arsenic back home, mixes it with Elder Wu's medicine, and gives it to him. While he doubles over in agony, she grabs the bedsheets and suffocates him with them. He bleeds all over the place, leaking graphically out of all his orifices. Pan panics a bit, but Mrs. Wang comes by and helps her clean up the mess. Ximen Qing bribes the coroner, they cremate the corpse, and that's it, mission accomplished, and soon they are shagging up a storm just like before.

Here, the two versions of the tale begin to diverge. In THE WATER MARGINS, the coroner, Uncle Ho, is disturbed by the bribery attempt and resolves to keep the silver given to him as evidence, along with a couple pieces of bone that he pinches from the crematorium. The bone is completely black, evidence of the poison in Elder Wu's body. He keeps the bones with the silver and waits for Wu Song to return.

In CHIN PING MEI, on the other hand, the coroner is corrupt as the rest and no evidence is kept. Meanwhile, Ximen Qing finds out about a rich widow, and quickly buys her and adds her to his house. He couples with her night and day, clean forgetting about Pan Jinlien, until finally Jinlien in her despair arranges for Mrs. Wang to bring Ximen Qing back. They reunite, and after the 100 days mourning have elapsed, Ximen Qing brings her into his house, where she must find her place in the heirarchy of women already there.

5. The Revenge
Finally, Wu Song returns and discovers his brother is dead. He is suspicious, so he spends the night in front of his brother's spirit tablet. In the night, his brother's apparition appears and laments, "I had a terrible death!" He goes round, gathers evidence, and presents it to the magistrate, who is heavily bribed by Ximen Qing, so the case is thrown out.

What happens next is strikingly different in the two narratives, though many differences have already crept in. For example, in THE WATER MARGINS, when Wu Song returns for the first time, shouting "Sister-in-law, it's me, Wu Song!", Pan Jinlien and Ximen Qing were going at it upstairs and

[Ximen Qing] shit himself when he heard Wu Song shout. He fled at once, out the back way and through Mrs. Wang's."

On the other hand, in CHIN PING LIN, Pan Jinlien has already entered Ximen Qing's household, and neither are around to see Wu Song's return, though they certainly hear of it.

Now, the ending as described in THE WATER MARGINS goes like this: When Wu Song's case before the magistrate falls through, he heads back to his brother's house, and invites all the neighbors over, including Mrs. Wang. He also requires Pan Jinlien to be there. Once he has given the neighbors wine, he asks them to be witnesses, and he viciously beats Jinlien until she confesses her crime. The gig is up, and Mrs. Wang must also confess. Afterwards, he forces Jinlien, who has begun wailing, to her knees in front of his brother's altar. Then:

Wu Song pulled her over backwards and planted both feet on her shoulders. He tore the clothing from her breast and -- it's slow in the telling but happened in a flash -- with one slash of the knife he opened her up. Placing the knife between his teeth he plunged both hands inside and tore out the heart and liver and placed them on the altar. Then, wham! one more blow cut off the head. There was blood everywhere.

Afterwards, he goes looking for Ximen Qing, severed head in hand. He finds him at the wineshop near Lion Bridge, and flings Jinlien's head in his face. Then he picks Qing up and throws him off the balcony, to smash head first into the street below. Wu Song retrieves his head as well, then surrenders himself at the magistrate, heads in hand and Mrs. Wang bound beside him.

Under the extreme circumstances, everyone is inclined to be lenient towards Wu Song, even though he committed murder. Instead of the death penalty, he is branded a criminal, forced to wear a cangue, and exiled to Mengzhou. Mrs. Wang, on the other hand, is not so lucky:

...she was brought out and paraded through the streets...to the marketplace, where she was hacked to pieces.

And so, in THE WATER MARGINS, the evildoers are punished by the righteous hero. This contrasts sharply with the way the story ends in CHIN PING MEI, which goes like this: When Wu Song's case before the magistrate falls through, he tries hunting down Ximen Qing and learns he is at the wineshop near Lion Bridge. He rushes over, but Ximen Qing sees him coming on the street and jumps out the back way. The official that Qing was eating with, Li Waiquan, refuses to answer Wu Song's questions, so Wu Song picks him up and tosses him out the window, then runs down into the street and kicks Li "square in the crotch," finally killing him. Wu Song is taken prisoner, and exiled to Mengzhou. Ximen Qing and Pan Jinlien have a laugh over his troubles, then he tries to get a threesome going and she gives him a blowjob:

[Ximen Qing] Bent his head in order the better to savor,
The marvelous sight as it went in and out.
She sucked audibly for some time, until
Their lewd excitement was redoubled.

Ximen Qing does finally get his comeuppance, roughly seventy chapters later, when he dies horribly from an overdose of aphrodesiac. Then toward the end of the novel, after many episodes, Wu Song buys Pan Jinlien from the Qing household and disembowels her. The go-between in this transaction was once again Mrs. Wang, who gets decapitated for her troubles.

Love, violence, murder, lots of sex, and an angry dwarf. It is little wonder that the story has attracted the attention of playwrights and filmmakers.

For part two of this article, about the early film adaptations, click here.


[1] The complete translation is in five volumes, available at amazon.com: The Broken Seals contains the first 22 chapters, followed by The Tiger Killers, which contains the story above described, then The Gathering Company, Iron Ox, and The Scattered Flock. The first three are excellent, the last two are however slow going and the way the authors chose to handle all the names begins to grate on the nerves. Still, you won't find a better nor more complete translation. All quotations from THE WATER MARGINS in this article are excerpted from these books. [Back]

[2] As of this writing, only the first three volumes are out and available at amazon.com: Key to this story are Volume 1: The Gathering, which contains this story, and Volume 2: The Rivals. All quotations from CHIN PIN MEI in this article are excerpted from these books. [Back]

Posted by Peter Nepstad on February 16, 2009.


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