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three pairs of lovers with space



The Rouputuan 肉蒲團  (The Carnal Prayer Mat), written in 1657 and published under two different long pseudonyms  in 1693, is a satirical novel and classic of Chinese erotic literature. It is usually attributed to Li Yu 李漁 (1610-80), an innovative Chinese playwright and novelist who touched on the subject of Greek love in several of his writings.

It tells of the adventures over three years of a scholar in his twenties named Vesperus (Chinese Weiyangsheng, meaning “Unfinished one”), after he rejects the advice of Lone Peak, a Buddhist abbot, and embarks on a life of lechery. The story is set in the late Yuan era of the fourteenth century.

The following extracts, all that concern Greek love, are taken from the translation by Patrick Hanan (University of Hawaii, Honolulu, 1996).

Chapter Three

The recently-married Vesperus has grown dissatisfied with his life in the household of his austere and severe father-in-law Iron Door and has decided to leave under the pretext of furthering his studies elsewhere, but really for sexual adventure:

Before his departure Vesperus thought of leaving one of his servants behind to attend to the chores. Because the Master was a miser who begrudged providing board for his servants, his whole household consisted of only the three family members and two maidservants, who had been part of the wedding settlement. He had no manservant at all, which was the reason for Vesperus's concern. Summoning his pages, Vesperus stood them in front of the Master and invited him to choose one. To his surprise neither was acceptable.

Vesperus's wife, his father-in-law Master Iron Door and Vesperus, in an 1894 illustration to The Carnal Prayer Mat

What was the reason? Vesperus was amphibious - that is to say, given to both homosexual and heterosexual pleasures. His pages were always under twenty, handsome young fellows with slicked hair or sly young rogues who were beautifully dressed. Master Iron Door had often in his mind urged Vesperus to send them packing, and now that he was to choose one of them as a servant, he was troubled.

We do need someone to fetch and carry for us, he thought, but with my son-in-law away and my daughter on her own, how can I have these pretty boys in and out of the house? Looking after her is far more important than getting the chores done. I must on no account do something I'll come to regret.

To Vesperus he replied, “You're the only one who has any use for these good-for-nothings. I certainly don't want them, so see you take them off with you. If I need help, I’ll always be able to get someone. Don’t worry about the chores.”

Since Master Iron Door was so adamant, Vesperus did not dare press the point. But knowing that his father-in-law might be too stingy to hire any help, he thought it best to leave a few taels behind to pay for a servant. Then he departed, accompanied by the pages he had brought with him.

Chapter Six

Vesperus has entered into sworn brotherhood with the Knave, a professional thief. The latter becomes reluctant to help him, as promised, in his amorous adventures, when Vesperus  will not shown himself to well enough endowed for the purpose, so he reluctantly shows him what he fondly believes to be a great endowment:

The Knave approached and scrutinized it. This is what he saw:

[…] In length all of two inches;
In weight a good quarter-ounce. […]
A twelve-year-old virgin could accommodate it,
A thirteen-year-old catamite would delight in it.

The Knave bursts out laughing at Vesperus’s ignorance of his own “limitations”. to which Vesperus protests that his “instrument … has been much admired”, in reply to which:

 “Admired?” said the Knave. “A virgin with her maidenhead intact or else some boy who has yet to make his debut – people like that would admire it. But apart from them, I’m afraid everyone else would find it as hard as I do to flatter your honourable instrument.”

Chapter Seven

Having finally convinced a sad Vesperus that he was telling the truth, the Knave soon after departed:

[Vesperus] sat alone in his room, turning the following thoughts over and over in his mind: In the course of my twenty-odd years I’ve seen a great many things in this world, but I’ve rarely seen another man’s penis. Ordinary people keep theirs tucked away under their clothes, where naturally they can’t be seen. The only time anyone showed me his was when those nancy-boys took down their trousers and did it with me, but they were younger than I was and naturally their things were smaller than mine. Since the only ones I ever saw were smaller, mine appeared larger. When I was young and played the nancy-boy myself with my schoolmates, we did see each other’s things, but we were all of an age and naturally we were about the same size. I came to regard that size as normal and assumed from my own experience that everybody's was much the same. But he claims he has never seen one as small as mine. If so, it's utterly useless! What good is it?

Chapter Eight

Vesperus has just arranged radical surgery by an old man to enhance vastly the size of his endowment, but one of the drawbacks is that he will have to wait one hundred and twenty days after the operation before he can have sex:

Taking leave of the adept, Vesperus returned to his lodgings, where he lay in bed contemplating the sexual adventures he would enjoy after reconstruction. He felt the excitement building up in him.

I’ve been living the single life for ages, he reflected, and my heart is choked with long-repressed desire. I'll never be able to bear the period of enforced impotence after tomorrow’s operation. Before I go under the knife, I ought to take this chance to find a woman and have a bout or two with her. It would act like a dose of rhubarb and purge all the emotional congestion from my system.

Preoccupied by these concerns, Vesperus had trouble sleeping. He was about to get up and go in search of a prostitute when it occurred to him that by this hour prostitutes would be busy with their clients and reluctant to open their doors to him. For a while he endured the frustration, then realized, I have emergency relief right here at hand! Why not get it out and put it to use? I’ve been ignoring the unbolted south gate while trying the blocked-off north road.[1] He then called one of his pages into bed, to serve as a woman and allow him work off his desire.

Man and boy making love on a terrace: 18th-century painting on silk

He possessed two pages, one named Satchel, the other Sheath. Because Satchel, who was only fifteen, could read a little, Vesperus had entrusted his books to the boy's care as if he were a satchel, hence the name. To Sheath, who was a few years older, Vesperus had entrusted his antique sword, an heirloom, as if he were a sheath, hence his name. Both boys were attractive; indeed, apart from their big feet, they were on a par with the most beautiful women. But Sheath was somewhat artless and lacking in coquetry, and although Vesperus had frequently dallied with him, he had never been completely satisfied. Satchel, on the other hand, although younger, was extremely artful and an expert sexual partner. While joining Vesperus in his pleasures, he was able, like a woman, both to raise his buttocks to meet Vesperus’s thrusts and also to utter cries of passion.[2] Vesperus favored him, and so on this occasion it was Satchel, not Sheath, whom he called into bed to help him vent his now violent desires.

Satchel waited until he had finished, then asked in a coquettish tone, “Master, you’ve been so preoccupied with women that you’ve completely neglected the two of us. Why this sudden interest in reopening the old accounts?”

This is not sex we're having tonight," said Vesperus. “This is a farewell.”

“A farewell? Surely you couldn’t bear to part with us?”

Who said anything about selling you? Perhaps the word farewell needs some clarification: I'm not the one saying farewell, it’s my penis that’s saying farewell to your buttocks.”

“But why?”

Well, as you know, I’m due to have my penis restructured in a day or two. After the operation it will be dozens of times bigger than it is now. Even a woman whose vagina is a little on the tight side will no longer be able to receive me. So after tonight you and I won't be able to have sex again.[3] If that’s not a farewell, I don't know what is!”

Perhaps yours is rather small, but why would you want to restructure it?”

Vesperus explained that women differed from boys preferring the large to the small.

“So after surgery you intend to seduce girls? You'll have no use for us?”

“That’s right.”

“When you go off on your seductions, you'll need to have an escort. Take me along, and if there are any girls left over whom you don't have time for, give one to me so that I can see what sex with a woman is like. That way I’ll not have wasted my time in the service of a great lover.”

“That's easily arranged. A well-fed general doesn’t starve his troops, you know. While their mistresses are sleeping with me, you shall have any maid you want. And not just one, but dozens, hundreds . . .”

Satchel was so delighted that he climbed on top of Vesperus and doused the flesh-colored candle.

Vesperus slept the rest of that night.

[… Of Vesperus’s two catamite-pages, Sheath disappears from the story after this episode, while Satchel features twice as initiating into sex young virgin girls not ready for well-equipped men before making his final appearance in Chapter Nineteen below]

Chapter Eighteen

Two married brothers, students enrolled in the National Academy in the capital, paid a visit home after a year away:

Once home, needless to say, each was treated to a welcome-home party by his wife, and then asked how many courtesans and catamites he had been with and how he had enjoyed himself as compare with his experience at home.


Chapter Nineteen

Finally taught to repent of his adulteries with other men’s wives through the adulterous elopements of his own wife and concubine, Vesperus packed his bags to go and rejoin the abbot Lone Peak:

He had intended to take Satchel with him, to serve him as a novice. But on reflection, he feared that having a catamite with him might only stimulate his lust again. Better not risk distraction by setting eyes on any object of desire. In the end he sent him back with the messenger and started off alone, an action that is summed up in the proverb “A man bitten by a snake will be frightened of an old rope for years thereafter.”


Chapter Twenty

Vesperus has just become a monk with the new name of Stubborn Stone in this final chapter, the following beginning the explanation of why he soon after castrated himself:

But any young man joining the order has certain problems he must face. However strongly he tries to rein in his lusts, however firmly he tries to extinguish his desires, prayer and scripture reading will get him through the day well enough, but in the wee hours of the morning that erect member of his will start bothering him of its own accord, making a nuisance of itself under the bedclothes, uncontrollable, irrepressible. His only solution is to find some form of appeasement, either by using his fingers for emergency relief or by discovering some young novice with whom to mediate a solution. (Both methods are regular standbys for the clergy.) Had Vesperus done so, no one who caught him at it would have been disposed to criticize. Even Guanyin herself would have forgiven him, if she had come to hear of it; she would hardly have had him consumed in the fires of his own lust![4]

Vesperus felt differently, however. He maintained that those who had joined the order ought to accept its commandment against sexual desire as a cardinal rule, whether or not their standbys took the form of actual adultery. Even if the standbys broke no rules and brought no dishonor to those practicing them, they represented a failure to suppress desire just as surely as adultery itself. Moreover, the handgun led to intercourse, and homosexual relations to heterosexual. Sight of the make-believe causes us to yearn for the reality, and one act leads to another by an inexorable process that we must not allow to get started.


[1] The words for south and male are both pronounced nan. [Translator’s note 52]

[2] The translation of this sentence by Franz Kuhn and Richard Martin in Jou pu tuan (The Prayer Mat of Flesh), New York, 1963, p. 107, is longer and more explicit:

[Satchel] had learned to raise his ‘rear audience chamber’ just like a woman and to wriggle his muscles in such a way as to facilitate his esteemed visitor’s entrance. He was also able to emit cries of pleasure and moans of bliss, which though simulated were just like those of a woman.”

[3] Vesperus’s explanation is clearer in the translation by Franz Kuhn and Richard Martin, Jou pu tuan (The Prayer Mat of Flesh), New York, 1963, p. 108: “The tiny gate of your ‘rear audience chamber’ will then be quite impracticable.”

[4] The goddess of mercy. [Translator’s note 94]




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