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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
retold/ translated by Haiwang Yuan, ©2003
Last updated: October 19, 2003