I wouldn’t have bothered with the Ming Dynasty book, The Embroidered Couch, if the distinctly non-gay guys in it hadn’t been fucking each other.
Frankly, the whole idea of antique erotica leaves me mostly limp. It’s all well and good, I suppose, if you’re writing a thesis or looking for curios, but I’m afraid things like the Kama Sutra never really did it for me. Not since I was fifteen anyway, back when my copy of Reay Tannahill’s History of Sex was the hottest book in my library, tempting me with stories of wealthy medieval Arab pilgrims screwing everything from their lieutenants and camel boys right on through to their camels on their way to Mecca.
In the absence of other explicit stimuli, sure, I can see Tales from the Jade Chamber (the second-century B.C.E. sex advice book by Taoist master P’eng Tsu) getting one moist, but when all you’ve got to do is type something like www.ass.com into your web browser to see pictures of anything you’d ever care to, flowery descriptions of the butterfly position
just don’t cut it. Not for pure turn-on, anyway. Maybe my tastes would have evolved differently if the translator of my copy of The Golden Lotus a celebrated and intermittently erotic novel also written during the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644 C.E.) hadn’t felt the need to render all the explicitly sexual passages in Latin, forcing me to translate passages like “Uno ictu ad medullas pervenire videbatur. Tum se detraxit, et in sinu quaerens pulviscum invenit qui vocatur thalami voluptas et fascinum redolens, et in ore ranae posuit.” This process drains even the hottest tales of rear-entry of much of their juice.
Which is the reason I was a little eager to read The Embroidered Couch by Lu Tiancheng, translated for the first time into English last month (Arsenal Pulp, 2001) by Lenny Hu: in this novel, there is actual sex, fully described, without a whole lot of spiritual, social or political teaching getting in the way.
The plot of The Embroidered Couch is a porn-standard circle jerk. Easterngate, a well-placed youngish man, married to a pretty younger woman, Jin, keeps a fuck-buddy on the side, the younger-still Dali. Dali’s young, widowed mother, Ma, hasn’t gotten laid in years; as a result, she is drawn in, through a little diddling on Jin’s part, to a delightfully rompy relationship with Easterngate, who likes the idea of fucking his fuck-buddy’s mother in a kind of partial turnabout for his fuck-buddy’s marathon-fucking Jin, who he’d had a crush on for a long time.
Like most current porn, the dialogue’s bad. But unlike most porn, this dialogue manages to be a good kind of bad, almost in spite of itself.
“Dali hurriedly bowed twice. ‘Elder Brother,’ he said, ‘you are so kind-hearted! I’m willing to let you ride anal whenever you want to. Even if you pound my asshole into the shape of a barrel, I’d not say a word.'”
Or, put another way a few pages later:
“‘Oh darling, I didn’t know you are so in love with me!’ Jin exclaimed. ‘I’ll let you do it with me any way you want and I’ll not complain a single word even if you pound me to a nad-shattering unconsciousness.'”
Among passages like this, intermingle the words “johnson,” “crank,” “nancy-boy,” “rectal tube,” “poop box” and the word “date” as a synonym for “fuck;” lace the story with poetic Chinese expressions like “shedding tears in front of the gate” to describe premature ejaculation; add the occasional jolt of pure idiocy like, “I had a very bad intercourse last night and ended up getting my pussy broken” and you’ve got the makings of a cult hit. It’s classic camp, using Sontag’s definition of “failed seriousness.” (The story was meant to be a romp; the vocabulary, as far as I can tell, was not.) I predict full-voice readings in college common rooms across the nation.
Though the whole of The Embroidered Couch is totally concerned with sex (there’s no hint of the memoir, sex manual or the spiritual guide here), the awkward language and stumbling syntax mostly get in the way of any actual arousal. But every once in a while, the sex itself shines through, and the combination of the decent characters, credible circumstances, and some pretty good action works its way into your lap.
But I think the most extraordinary thing about The Embroidered Couch is that none of its pansexual gender-hopping is portrayed as being anomalous. The various couplings evolve naturally out of the well-constructed characters and their relationships to each other. No one is classified as a nympho; there are no extenuating circumstances, like prison or the military or absent boyfriends; no miraculous aphrodisiac is lowered onto the stage like a penis ex machina to let the players, and therefore the readers, off the hook for a devotion to sex greater and broader than is usually allowed.
You do see this sort of thing from time to time in older erotica the Roman poet Catullus is great for it, and there are a dozen or so more examples, but not nearly enough to make the appearance of a new one worth skipping. But what kept me reading was the way this gender-hopping, and indeed the way sex in general, was treated. This novel distinguishes itself from the sort of jerk-off material that was written around the same time and place. Li Yu , a more famous Ming writer who often dealt with sexual variety, almost always featured younger men who had sex with older men for purely practical reasons. But Dali, when he’s not dicking around with Easterngate or Jin, is described as being off with a couple of other male fuck-buddies. Dali, it seems, just likes it. And, also unlike other catamites, Dali’s also a huge het stud, too.
In its basic assumptions about sex, this book has a lot more in common with, say, Gore Vidal, Jane Rule, Michel Foucault, Tony Burgess, D. Scott Travers and Dale Peck people who write with an understanding of human sexuality that does not assume that there is such a thing as innate or immutable sexual identity. The book’s utterly different approach to gender (as well as age, for that matter Dali’s about thirteen when he and Easterngate hook up for the first time), and the ease and reasonableness with which it’s handled, offer some support, some historical context and foundation, for some very current ways of thinking about sex.
Click here to buy The Embroidered Couch.