October 25, 2017

Three-hundred-year-old Chinese erotica proves we’re all still prudes


The Wanli Emperor, under whose reign Preposterous Words was written.

A Hong Kong bookseller is finding relevancy and a new path to redemption with the publication of a long-lost erotic novel, and he’s hoping it will shed light on the horrors of China’s government.

Woo Chih-wai was the manager of Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay Booksthe store might ring a bell—up until 2016 when, following the devastating disappearances of five of the store’s booksellers, he discovered nearly all his inventory had been completely destroyed. That inventory also included stock of over 120 of his own books — Woo is a political writer who has self-published under the pen name Cheng Yi.

Left without a shop to mind, Woo found time to publish a novel substantially older than the political gossip books that built Causeway Bay’s reputation: the long-lost eighteenth-century classic Preposterous Words.

The book itself has endured quite a journey to its current-day iteration. In Quartz, Vivienne Chow leads readers through a captivating timeline of discovery, loss, translation, and resurfacing.

Written by Cao Qujing in the 1730s, Preposterous Words takes place during the reign of the Wanli Emperor (1563-1620), near the end of the Ming dynasty. The narrative centers on five characters who find themselves enduring a kind of damnation by being continually reincarnated into lives of suffering, punishment for the political crimes they committed as mortals. Featured prominently: graphic and tantalizing sexual acts that would make any modern-day reader blush.

Paola Zamperini, a professor of Chinese Literature at Northwestern University, told Chow Preposterous Words is much more transgressive than other erotic novels of the time: “[It] includes bestiality and what we would call today S&M.”

“I’ve been studying this text since 2002,” Woo says. “This is not just an erotic novel full of graphic descriptions of sexual encounters, but a text reflecting the horror of Chinese history that is still relevant today.”

Woo says his version repairs the mistakes and ommissions that have marred recent editions, making the text more available than it’s been in 300 years. He points especially to an edition published in China in 2000, from which as much as sixteen percent of the novel had been expurgated.

According to Chow:

That censored text was related to the political history of China, rather than graphic descriptions of sexual encounters and dirty jokes, Woo discovered upon looking up the original text in the Russian library in 2005. The stories in Preposterous Words are set in the late Ming period of unrest. Some tell of horrendous sexual crimes committed by mobs whose members were originally farmers. “This is seen politically incorrect,” Woo says, noting that the founding of the Chinese Communist Party is based on a farmers’ revolution that liberated the peasants.

With 220 copies in print in Hong Kong, Woo hopes to eventually bring the work to the United States, as well.



Alex Primiani is the associate director of publicity at Melville House.