Pan Jinlian (Chinese: 潘金蓮; Wade–Giles: P’an Chin-lien) is a fictional character in the 17th-century Chinese novel Jin Ping Mei (The Plum in the Golden Vase), and a minor character in Water Margin, one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature. She is an archetypal femme fatale and one of the most notorious villainesses of classical Chinese culture. She has also become the patron goddess of brothels and prostitutes.

Pan Jinlian is married to Wu Dalang, the elder brother of Wu Song. Wu Dalang is short and ugly, while Pan Jinlian is renowned for her beauty; as a result, many people feel that the couple are a mismatch.

Pan Jinlian, dissatisfied with her marriage, has an extramarital affair with Ximen Qing, a handsome womaniser in town. Wu Dalang eventually discovers the affair, but Pan Jinlian and Ximen Qing murder him by adding poison to his food. They bribe the coroner to conceal the true cause of his death.

Wu Song grows suspicious of his brother’s death. He carries out his own investigations and discovers the truth. In Water Margin, Wu Song’s slaying of the adulterous pair is described in graphic detail and is one of the most memorable scenes in the novel. In Jin Ping Mei, however, Pan Jinlian marries Ximen Qing as a concubine, and Wu Song kills Pan after Ximen dies from excessive sexual activity.


Pan Jinlian has become perhaps the most controversial fictional woman in today’s China. Pan Jinlian is one of the few women characters in Shi Nai’an’s Water Margins (Outlaws of Marsh) written around 1500 about a hundred and eight rebels against the establishment and ironically their demise after being offered amnesty.

Pan Jinlian was the wife of Wu Dalang, whose younger brother, Wu Song, eventually became one of the major marsh rebels and the most memorable hero among the average Chinese. While Wu Song was a handsome, stout and tall young man, Wu Dalong was an unsightly dwarf, making a living by peddling bread. Pan Jinlian, young, beautiful and graceful, was always jeered by neighbors as a flower planted in a cow’s dung. Her affair with a wealthy and fine-looking womanizer in town led to her murder of her husband and her own execution by her brother-in-law, who took the law into his own hands in revenging his brother after his failure to bring the case to a corrupt court.

In a society when women were supposed to resign to their fate no matter whom they married, Pan Jinlian’s act made her the most vicious and therefore condemned woman in Chinese history. It has been so for centuries until today, when the Chinese begin to re-examine Pan Jinlian in an entirely new perspective, thus making her a controversial literary figure. The debate has reached far beyoud literary circles. It has been part of the Chinese social changes. None has done more work of revision in the perception of Pan Jinlian than a famous contemporary dramatist Wei Minglun.

In a drama written in the late 1980’s, Wei Minglun brought people of different times and cultures together and provided them with a common forum for discourse. While a Lu Shasha, a modern young woman, blasted Shi Nai’an, the author of Water Margins who created Pan Jinlian, for his deep-rooted traditional bias against women and lamented that Pan Jinlian could not file a divorce, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina pleaded with Jinlian to run away from home like her or commit suicide as she did later instead of homicide. At the drama unfolded and Jinlian met her tragic end, a contemporary female judge would have penalized Wu Song for his lawlessness and cruelty in killing his sister-in-law.

As China becomes more open to discussions of extramarital relations and the society more tolerant with such behavior, the debate is more and more found to Pan Jinlian’s advantage though no one condoned her murderous act. Her tragedy was not a product of herself, but of the society in her time and for a long time to come. Indeed, if she had lived in the modern society, she would have sought a legal solution to her plight. The discourse around Pan Jinlian in Chinese history reflects the change of attitudes of the Chinese society towards women, marriage and their choice of sexual relations.

Pan Jinlian, a beautiful young woman with the grace of an eminent family, was married to a dwarf named Wu Dalang, a bread peddler in Qinghe County. Pan Jinlian was born into a well-to-do family. When the family went bankrupt, she was sent to a wealthy landlord to become a house maid. The landlord, named Zhang coveted Pan Jinlian’s beauty and tried to violate her. She told his wife about his misconduct. To retaliate, the landlord “gave” Jinlian away to the dwarf as a punishment for her rejection of his sexual advances. Wu Dalang’s luck was Pan Jinlian’s nightmare.

Wu Dalang had a younger brother named Wu Song, who was a tall and sinewy young officer in his mid-twenties. His presence around his brother was always a deterrence to those who would have jested the dwarf for having such a beautiful wife, comparing the mismatch as a flower planted in the cow’s dung. One day, however, Wu Song was unable to protect his elder brother. In fact, he could not even protect himself from the law. At least that was what he thought. At a drinking party with his colleagues, he got into a brawl. Inebriated, he knocked one of them out, but thought he had knocked him off. He had but to flee, leaving behind his poor brother at the mercy of others’ harassing ridicules. When Wu Dalang and Pan Jinlian had had enough, they relocated to the county of Yanggu. Not a single day passed without Dalang missing and worrying about his fugitive brother.

One day, as he was peddling bread in the street, Wu Dalang saw the street teeming with people. He learned that they were celebrating a hero that had single-handedly killed the tiger that had terrorized the county for a long time. The county magistrate had sent out hunters everyday to try to catch the beast. The hero was none other than his brother Wu Song. It turned out that he was on his way back home after he had learned that his victim was still alive and he had never been charged with the crime he had never committed. While he was passing the Jingyang Hill, he happened to kill the beast out of no fear due to his habitual inebriety. The hunters invited him to the county as a hero. Admiring his courage and prowess, the county magistrate hired him as a lieutenant.

That evening, Wu Dalang had sold all his bread and was heading home when he ran into Wu Song, who was accompanied by the county magistrate on their way to the county house. Both brothers were happy to see each other. With Dalang’s invitation and the consent of the magistrate, Wu Song found home in Dalang’s apartment, a two-storey townhouse overseeing a busy street.

Pan Jinlian could not believe her eyes when Wu Dalang introduced his brother to her. She never imagined that her wretched husband should have such a mighty brother! He was every bit the opposite of the dwarf.

“I heard our neighbor Old Woman Wang talking about a heroic tiger buster and we meant to go to the street to see him and participate in the celebration. Who would think he should be my brother-in-law and is now standing in front of me!” The woman seemed over excited. She asked Wu Dalang to go and buy some food and drink while she entertained their guest and kin. While Dalang was away, she acted more hospitable than what was expected of a hostess. In fact, she fell in unrequited love with her handsome and young brother-in-law. The innocent Wu Song did not give much thought to her solicitousness. Instead, he was glad that her brother had such a good wife.

Eventually, Pan Jinlian could not stand Wu Song’s naivete and let her flirtation explicitly known to him while her husband was out on his bread-peddling trip. Her insidious move caught Wu Song by surprise and made him mad. Not only did he reject her indecent proposal, but he also dressed her down hard, telling her to behave. When Wu Dalang was back, he found something wrong in the atmosphere and inquired about the reason. Without giving Wu Song a chance to explain, Pan Jinlian began to put the blame on him and falsely accused him of harassing her. Confounded, Wu Song did not know what to say. Instead of defending himself, the taciturn hero chose to move out. Still in anger, Pan Jinlian forbade Wu Dalang to contact his brother.

For days, the hen-pecked Wu Dalang did not dare to visit his brother now living in the county house. One evening, Wu Song came to say good-bye. At the magistrate’s command, he was going on an errand and would not be back for a month or so. Worrying about Dalang’s being victimized by street bullies and the danger his sister-in-law’s misbehavior might incur to the family, Wu Song told him to be back home early each late afternoon and keep the door and windows shut. He also told his brother to keep away from trouble by enduring any humiliation until his return.

One day, as Pan Jinlian was trying to shut the windows on the second floor with the help of a bamboo rod, it accidentally slipped from her hand and fell into the street, hitting a pedestrian on his head. He was the drugstore owner named Ximen Qing, who was a man of influence and also of debauchery. Seeing that the culprit was a pretty woman, his anger immediately turned into luster. The dandy’s gracious pardoning of her imprudence also left an indelible impression on Pan Jinlian.

Losing no time, Ximen Qing went into the teahouse owned by Old Woman Wang, who lived next door to Pan Jinlian. Pleased with his bribe, the money grubber old woman agreed to arrange an rendezvous between him and Jinlian.

The next day, Old Woman Wang invited Pan Jinlian to her tea house and asked her to help with some needlework. While she was busying herself, there came knockings on the door. It was Ximen Qing, who claimed that he came to return something he had borrowed from the old woman. Old Woman Wang introduced Ximen Qing and Pan Jinlian to each other and left them alone, on the pretense of buying food and drink to entertain them. Brief and awkward greetings soon gave way to intimacy. For, the man and the woman had fallen love with each other at first sight during their initial encounter. They were in the middle of their affair when the old woman returned and caught them in action. Embarrassed and terrified, Pan Jinlian begged for mercy. Actually, this was part of the scheme to blackmail her into submission. Sure enough, when the Old Woman Wang threatened that she would tell her husband unless she agreed to come each time Ximen Qing wanted her, she agreed. Each morning, Pan Jinlian would be anxious to see her husband leave the apartment so that she could sneaked into the next door for the routine rendezvous of amour.

Eventually, Wu Dalang’s neighbors discovered the affair and told him about it. One day, he returned home early and went to the teahouse to confront the adulterous couple. Old Woman Wang, who was on guard, gave Ximen Qing and Pan Jinlian a warning. While Wu Dalang was scuffling with the old woman, trying to break into the house, Ximen Qing burst out of the door, threw his leg and hit Wu Dalang hard on his chest. The nearly fatal injury confined him to bed. Instead of taking care of her husband, Pan Jinlian went to meet Ximen Qing as usual. The neglected and frustrated Wu Dalang threatened to tell everything to his brother Wu Song when he returned so that he would revenge him. To prevent this from happening, the triad plotted Wu Dalang’s murder. Ximen Qing took a pouch of arsenic trioxidea from his drugstore and gave it to Pan Jinlian. When Wu Dalang asked for medicine, Pan Jinlian adulterated the medicine with the poison. Seeing that he was still breathing, she placed a pillow to cover his nose and mouth and smothered him.

Old Woman Wang told Pan Jinlian to ask He Jiushu, a leader of the neighborhood, to arrange for a quick funeral and cremation so that Wu Song could not find any evidence when he came. When Ximen Qing offered him a bribery, He Jiushu became suspicious: what was the bribery for if everything was alright? But he could not openly decline Ximen Qing’s offer. At the same time, he was also worried that Wu Song would not forgave him when he learned of his involvement in a cover-up. At his wife’s suggestion, he took a few bones during the cremation without anybody’s knowledge and, along with Ximen Qing’s bribery, he saved them as evidence.

Pan Jinlian and Wu Song

When Wu Song returned and learned of what had happened to his brother, he took He Jiushu and the evidence he had kept to the county magistrate for justice. Having already taken the wealthy Ximen Qing’s generous bribery, the magistrate refused to take the case, arguing that the body was no longer existent and the bones and money were not enough evident to convict two innocent people.

Indignant, Wu Song took the law into his own hands. Gathering a dozen neighbors of social status as witness, he held a sentence of his own. He made Pan Jinlian and Old Women Wang confess in front of the witnesses and have their confessions documented. Then he killed Pan Jinlian with his sword. Ordering his solders to prevent the neighbors from leaving the house, Wu Song went out to look for Ximen Qing who, according to a neighbor, was dining with his friends in a restaurant by the Stone Lion Bridge. The two fought for each one’s own life, but Ximen Qing was certainly not Wu Song’s match. After only a few bouts, Wu Song threw him out of the restaurant’s window and slain him with his sword.

After he offered the heads of the adulterers to the spirit tablet for his deceased brother, he thanked his horrified neighbors and went to surrender to the authorities, taking Old Woman Wang with him.

In his time, Wu Song was regarded as a hero for all his atrocious lawlessness. He was pardoned because Pan Jinlian, a scarlet woman, got what she deserved. Even to this day, the name of Pan Jinlian is still synonymous to “dissipation.” Nevertheless, since the end of the puritanical Cultural Revolution in 1976 and the initiation of the economic reform and opening to the outside world two years later, China has gone through epochal changes. These changes were not only economic but also intellectual. They awakened the Chinese awareness of rule by law and love with freedom. The debate around Wu Song’s action and Pan Jinlian’s fatal marriage and affair, whatever its outcome may be, is by itself a testimony of the far-reaching influence the image of Pan Jinlian is exerting upon the Chinese culture.

WKU

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