Why you should care
Because gratuitous amounts of copulation can lead to wisdom.
When Weiyang Sheng — aka Vesperus — falls under the corrupting influence of the notorious bandit Sai Kunlun, the skilled trickster ruffles Sheng’s feathers by pointing out he’s not a well-endowed man. “You’re only good enough to scratch around between a woman’s pubic hairs,” Kunlun mocks.
Distraught and plagued by a lustful heart, the promising young scholar takes drastic action by undergoing a gruesome surgery: He grafts a dog penis onto his own to increase his girth … and please the ladies. Banned numerous times since it first appeared in the 1600s, The Carnal Prayer Mat (Rouputuan, or 肉蒲團) — despite shockingly graphic descriptions — is perhaps not so much about pornography or literary satire as karmic moderation.
The karmic lesson? Sex should be enjoyed — but only in marriage, and in moderation.
Also known as The Prayer Mat of Flesh, this 17th-century classic of Chinese erotic fiction was written under a pseudonym, so while most scholars attribute it to satirist and writer Li Yu (李漁), there’s lingering debate over its authorship. The story follows Weiyang Sheng in his quest “to be the most brilliant poet in the world” and “to marry the most beautiful girl in the world.” His absurdly comedic journey is rife with satirical jabs at stodgy Confucian norms, the inevitability of karmic retribution and what amounts to an explicit manual about how to engage in all manner of sexual intercourse — delving into the nitty-gritty with anthropological and gynecological detail.
After a brief stay at a Buddhist monastery, Sheng ignores a monk’s advice to rein in his sexual desires, and soon marries a beauty named Jade Scent and endures her highly ethical, Confucian father — for a time. He eventually joins the bandits, gets his canine penis and makes the ladies howl in bed. But he also revels in group sex and seduces other men’s wives. One of those cuckolded men, Quan Laoshi, seeks revenge by seducing Jade Scent (after Sheng sleeps with his own wife); he knocks her up and sells her to a brothel. Jade Scent learns to paint calligraphy with a brush clenched between her nether regions, and becomes a sought-after paramour. She ends up sleeping with other men whose wives were defiled by Weiyang Sheng, and when he shows up at the brothel, she kills herself out of shame. Sheng ultimately chooses to live as a monk, lopping off his enhanced organ in an attempt to avoid future temptation.
Keith McMahon, professor of Chinese language and literature at the University of Kansas, believes the novel “is an example of witty and urbane pornography” that features “a sexual anarchy of sorts, but not one that is a sign of social chaos or degeneracy.”
But The Carnal Prayer Mat isn’t for prudes. “Characters engage in varieties of sexual positions, games — as in who can fill the most cups with their fluids — and acrobatics … between one man and multiple women,” McMahon explains. The novel has offended many people over the years, starting with the Qing Dynasty censors who, says McMahon, “saw writings like Rouputuan as emblematic of late Ming decadence,” which they wanted to discourage.
The author introduces the story by directly addressing the reader, explaining that his carnal portrayals were designed to “lure people into reading” the novel through to the end, where they “will understand the meaning of retribution and take heed.” Which is code for using porn to titillate the audience long enough to teach them a karmic lesson: Sex should be enjoyed — but only in marriage, and in moderation.