Rouputuan, or The Carnal Prayer Mat, is a 17th-century Chinese erotic novel published under a pseudonym but usually attributed to Li Yu. It was written in 1657 and published in 1693 during the Qing dynasty. It was published in Japan in 1705 as Nikufuton with a preface proclaiming it the greatest erotic novel of all time.
The novel’s protagonist, Weiyangsheng (未央生; lit. “Unrealised One” or “Unfinished One”), visits a Buddhist temple, where he meets a monk, who notes that he exhibits wisdom but also lust. Weiyangsheng says that the monk’s purpose in life is to sit on a zafu (or prayer mat) and meditate, while his desire is to marry a beautiful woman and sit on a “carnal prayer mat” (肉蒲團). The title of the novel comes from this line said by Weiyangsheng.
Weiyangsheng is an egoistic young scholar who often boasts of his aspiration to marry the most beautiful woman in the world. He seeks neither fame nor glory, and prefers to indulge in women and sex. A monk called “Budai Heshang” (布袋和尚; lit. “Monk with a Cloth Sack”) once urged him to give up on his philandering ways and follow the path of Buddhism, while his father-in-law, Taoist Tiefei (鐵扉道人), also attempted to persuade him to be more decent, but Weiyangsheng ignored both of them.
On a trip to the capital city, Weiyangsheng encounters Saikunlun (賽崑崙), a bandit, and becomes sworn brothers with him. Saikunlun introduces Weiyangsheng to Tianji Zhenren (天際真人), a Taoist magician, who surgically enhances Weiyangsheng’s penis by splicing strips of a dog’s penis into it, causing it to be enlarged and become more ‘powerful’. With Saikunlun’s help, Weiyangsheng gets involved in illicit sexual relationships with many married women, including: Yanfang (艷芳), the wife of Quan Laoshi (權老實); Xiangyun (香雲), the wife of Xuanyuanzi (軒軒子); Ruizhu (瑞珠), the wife of Woyunsheng (臥雲生); Ruiyu (瑞玉), the wife of Yiyunsheng (倚雲生).
When Quan Laoshi learns of his wife’s relationship with Weiyangsheng, he is furious and is determined to take revenge. He disguises himself and infiltrates Weiyangsheng’s household, where he has an affair with Weiyangsheng’s wife, Yuxiang (玉香), and makes her pregnant. Quan elopes with Yuxiang and sells her to a brothel to be a prostitute. Later, he realises that he has committed grave sins and decides to show penitence by becoming a monk and studying under Budai Heshang.
Meanwhile, in the brothel, Yuxiang is trained in a special technique – writing calligraphy by clutching a brush with her genitals. Later, she meets Xuanyuanzi, Woyunsheng and Yiyunsheng, and has sex with each of them. When Weiyangsheng visits the brothel, Yuxiang recognises her husband and commits suicide in shame. Weiyangsheng is given a good beating, which makes him come to his senses. He decides to follow in Quan Laoshi’s footsteps and become a monk under Budai Heshang. He also castrates himself to avoid being distracted from this calling by his surgically enhanced penis.
The alternative Chinese titles of the novel – Huiquanbao (The Karmic Cycle) and Juehouchan (Zen After Awakening) – reflect the overarching theme of the story, specifically on Zen and the Buddhist concept of karma: Weiyangsheng had improper sexual relationships with the wives of Quan Laoshi and others, and later he received his karmic retribution when these men had sex with his wife; his sexual escapades came to an end when he finally ‘awakened’ (i.e. came to his senses) and decided to pursue Zen by following Budai Heshang.
We have here an English translation by Patrick Hanan, The Carnal Prayer Mat (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1996)
Make use of lechery in putting a stop to lechery;
Start off with sex in treating the subject of sex.
Raven hair so quickly gray,
Ruddy cheeks soon past.
Man’s unlike the ageless pine—
His fame and fortune, e’er in flux,
Gone in the flower-destroying blast.
How sad if youth is deprived of joy!
(From the courts of love the old are cast.)
So once you hear the siren song,
Rush to enjoy the flowers’ throng.
True paradise on earth,
All things considered well,
Is found in bedroom bliss.
Unlike the realm of fame and glory,
Here joy begins and troubles cease.
Each day is spent in slippered ease,
In drunken slumber till the morning bell.
So open your eyes, take this to heart:
All the world’s
A vast erotic work of art.
This lyric, to the tune of “Fragrance Filling the Courtyard,” points out that our lives would be so filled with toil and worry as to leave no room for pleasure-had not the Sage who separated Heaven from Earth in us the desire for sexual intercourse to alleviate our toil and worry and save us from despair.
In the parlance of our Confucian sticklers for morality, a woman’s lions are the entrance through which we come into the world and also the exit by which we leave it. But the way wise men see these things is that, without those loins, our hair might go white a few years sooner than otherwise, and our deaths occur a few years sooner too. If you doubt their word, consider how few priests there are whose hair has not turned white by the age of forty or fifty, and whose bodies have not succumbed entirely by seventy or eighty. Of course, the objection might be raised that, although priests have joined the order, they still have a way open to them, either through adultery or by having relations with their disciples, and that they may be no more apt to preserve their vital energies than the laity, all of which would explain their failure to live to a ripe old age.
But if that is true, consider the case of the eunuchs in the capital, who, far from committing adultery, have lost even the basic equipment for it and who, far from having relations with their disciples, lack even a handle on such things. In theory they ought to retain their delicate, youthful looks over a lifetime of several centuries. Why, then, do they have even more wrinkles than anybody else? And why does their hair go white even sooner? Granddad may be our name for them, but the truth is they look far more like grannies. Plaques are put up in the capital to honor ordinary folk who have lived to a great age, but no centenary arch has ever been erected to commemorate a eunuch.
It would thus appear that the activity we call sex is not harmful to mankind. However, because the Materia Medica failed to include it, we lack a definitive explanation. One view holds that it is good for us, another that it does us harm. But if we compare both views in the light of the above argument, we must conclude that sex is beneficial. In fact its medicinal effects closely resemble those of ginseng and aconite, two substances with which it can be used interchangeably. But there is a point to be noted here. Potent tonics as they are, ginseng and aconite should be taken only in small doses and over long periods of time. In other words they should be treated as medicine, not as food. When swallowed indiscriminately, without regard to dosage or frequency, they can prove fatal.
Now, sex has precisely the same advantages and disadvantages. Long-term use results in the mutual reinforcement of yin and yang, whereas excessive use brings the water and fire elements into conflict. When treated as medicine, sex relieves us from pent-up emotion, but when treated as food it gravely depletes our semen and blood.
If people knew how to treat it as a medicine, they would behave toward it with a dree of detachment, liking it, but well short of addiction. Before first engaging in it, they would reflect, “This is a medicine, not a poison. Why be afraid of it?” And after engaging in it, they would reflect, “That was a medicine, not a food. Why become addicted to it?” If they did this, their yang would not be too exuberant nor their yin too depressed. No one would die an early death, and what is more, no girls would be lft without husbands nor men without wives, a development that would contribute substantially to the institution fo Royal Government.
But there is one further point to consider. The properties of sex as a medicine are the same as those of ginseng and aconite in every respect save the location in which it occurs and the criteria by which it is selected; in both of those respects there are contrasting features of which users should be apprised. In the case of ginseng and aconite, the genuine variety is the superior one, while the local product brings no benefit; whereas with sexual activity, it is the local variety that is superior and the genuine one that not only brings no benefit but can even do harm.
What do I mean by local product and genuine variety? The team local product refers to the women you already possess, your own wives and concubines; you have no need to look further afield or to spend your money; you simply take whit is at hand. There is no one to stop you, no matter how you choose to sleep, nor any need for alarm, no matter who knocks on your door. Sex under such circumstances does no damage to your vital energies; it even benefits your ancestral shrine. If a single encounter results in such physical harmony, surely we can agree that sex does us good!
Genuine variety refers to the dazzling looks and glamour that are found only the boudoirs of rich men’s houses. Just as the bland domestic fowl lacks the refreshing tang of the game bird, so our wives’ faded looks can hardly compare with the youth and glamour of these fledglings of the boudoir. When you set eyes on a girl of this kind, you dream about her; you strive to win her at all costs; you make advances, then follow them with presents; and you scale walls to get to secret assignations or chamber through tunnels to declare your passion. But no matter how emboldened you are by lust, you’ll still be as terrified as a mouse; even if no one has seen you, you’ll always think someone is coming; you’ll seat more from fear than from love, and semen will seep from every pore. The desire for love exceeds the heroic spirit; when you’re taken in adultery, you’ll lose your beard and eyebrows. A plunge into the abyss will result in a frightful disaster. In the other world you’ll have destroyed your moral credit; in this world you’ll have broken the law and will be put to death. Since there is no one left to pay for your crime, your wife will have to live on and develop her own desires, engaging in unchaste behavior and doing all kinds of harm – an unbearable tragedy. In the case of sex it it obvious that people must on no account sacrifice the near in favor of the far, the coarse in favor of the fine, or spurn the commonplace in order to seek what is rare.
The author of this novel has been motivated solely by compassion in his desire to expound the doctrine. His hope is to persuade people to suppress their desires, not indulge them; his aim is to keep lechery hidden rather than to publicize it. Gentle readers, you must on no account misconstrue these intentions of his.
Storyteller, since you want people to suppress their lecherous desires, why not write a tract to promote morality? Why not write a romantic novel instead?
Gentle readers, there is something of which you evidently unaware. Any successful method of changing the current mores must resemble the way in which Yu the Great controlled the floods: channeling current trends into a safe direction is the only way to get a hearing. People there days are reluctant to read the canonical texts, but they love fiction. Not all fiction, mind you, for they are sick of exemplary themes and far prefer the obscene and the fantastic. How low contemporary morals have sunk! Anyone concerned about public morality will want to retrieve the situation. But if you write a moral tract exhorting people to virture, not only will you get no one to buy it; even if you were to print it and bind it and distribute it free along with a complimentary card, the way philanthropists bestow Buddhist scriptures on the public, people would just tear the book apart for use in covering their winepots or in lighting their pipes and refuse to bestow a single glance upon its contents.
A far better solution is to captivate your readers with erotic material and then wait for some moment of absorbing interest before suddenly dropping in an admonitory remark or two to make them grow fearful and sigh, “Since sexual pleasure can be so delightful, surely we ought to reserve our pleasure-loving bodies for long-term enjoyment instead of turning into ghosts beneath the peony blossoms, sacrificing the reality of pleasure for its mere name?” You then wait for the point at which retribution is manifested and gently slip in a hortatory word or two designed tp provoke the revelation “Sinc adultery is always repaid like this, surely we ought to reserve our wives and concubines for our own enjoyment instead of trying to shoot a sparrow with the priceless pearl, repaying worthless loans with real money?” Having reached this conclusion, readers will not stray, and if they don’t stray, they will naturally cherish their wives, who will in turn respect them. The moral education offered by the Zhounan and Shaonan songs, is really nothing more than this: the method of “fitting the action to the case and the treatment to the man.” It is a practice incumbent not only upon fiction writers; indeed, some of the sages were the first to employ it, in their classical texts.
If you doubt me, look at how Mencius in Warring States times addressed King Xuan of Qi on the subject of Royal Government. The king was immersed in sensual pleasures and the pursuit of wealth, and Royal Government did not figure among his interests, and so to Mencius’s speech he returned only a perfunctory word of praise: “Well said.” To which Mencius replied, “If Your Majesty approves of my advice, why not follow it?” “I have an affliction,” said the king, “I love wealth.” To whet his interest, Mencius told him the story of Liu the Duke’s love of wealth, which is on the theme of frugal management. But the king then said, ” I have another affliction. I love sex.” By this remark, he meant that he was interested in becoming another King Jie or Zhou. It was tantamount to sending Mensius a formal note rejecting the whole idea of Royal Government.
Now, if a puritan had been there in Mencius’s place, he would have remonstrated sternly with the king along these lines: “Rulers from time immemorial have admonished us against sexual license. If the ordinary folk love sex, they will lose their lives; if the great officers love sex, they will lose their positions; if the feudal lords love sex, they will lose their states; and if the Son of Heaven loves sex, he will lose the empire.” To which King Xuan, even though he might not actually have voiced the sentiment, would certainly have replied mentally along these lines: “In that case, my affliction has penetrated so deep that it is incurable, and I have no further use for you.”
Mencius, however, did not reply like that. Instead he used the romantic tale of King Tai’s love of sex to gain the king’s interest and get him so excited that he could hardly wait to start. From the fact that King Tai, although fleeing on horseback, still took his beautiful consort along with him, he deduced that the king’s lifelong love of sex made him loath to be parted from his women for a moment. Such a dissolute ruler ought surely to have lost both his life and his kingdom, but this king practiced a love of sex that allowed all the men in his country to bring their women with them in their flight, and while he was making merry with his consort, his men were able to make merry with their women. It was a case of moral influence exerted by a king who “brought springtime with him wherever he went and was unselfish in all things.” Everyone was moved to praise him and none dared criticize.
Naturally from this point on, King Xuan was perfectly willing to practice Royal Government and made no further I have an affliction excuses. Otherwise he might well have demurred again with trite excuses such as I love wine or I have a bad temper. Mencius’s ploy may truly be said to have made a “lotus emerge from the flames” – a technique from which the author of this novel drew his inspiration. If only the entire reading public would buy this book and treat it as a classic or as history rather than as fiction! Its addresses to the reader are all either admonitory or hortatory, and close attention should be paid to their underlying purpose. Its descriptions of copulation, of the pleasures of the bedchamber, do indeed come close to indecency, but they are all designed to lure people into reading on until they reach the denouement, at which point they will understand the meaning of retribution and take heed. Without these passages the book would be nothing but an olive that, for alll its aftertaste, would be too sour for anyone to chew and hence useless. My passsages of sexual description should be looked upon as the date wrapped around the olive that induces people to keep on eating until they reach the aftertaste. But please pardon the tedium of this opening; the story propper will begin in the next chapter.
How enticing this novel sounds! I am sure that when it is finished, the entire reading public will buy it and read it. The only people who may not are the puritans. The genuine puritans will; only that species of false puritan, those who try to deceive people with their righteousness, will not dare. On the other hand, it has been suggested that, although the false puritans will not dare buy it themselves, they just may get someone else to buy it for them, and although they won’t dare read it openly, they just may do so on the sly.