Tuesday, July 31, 2012
The Ming Storytellers - Sexuality
Issues of sexuality, sexual frustration and sexual obsession are an important undercurrent of the historical novel, The Ming Storytellers.
At the very core we have a world, the Forbidden City, where the only male population consists of an impotent emperor, Zhu Di, and his hundreds of castrates. Both ironically feel their inadequacies and both look to other worldly ambitions to compensate.
Zhu Di knows that he is unable to perform and in an attempt to dupe the world that he is still a virile man, continues to supplement his harem with yet more beauties from as far as Korea. Zhu Di persists in rubbing himself with aphrodisiac ointments and consulting with his physicians to improve his condition. Finding himself unable to perform, he assuages his masculinity on the military field.
Meanwhile the eunuchs who have sacrificed their manhood in order to accede to an imperial position understand that they will never have other means to succeed in their life than to serve their emperor. Maimed, conscious of their differences, plagued by lifelong health problems and sexually frustrated, they direct their ambitions, finding self-esteem and meaning in ascending the echelons of eunuchism, competing for roles and or often driving themselves to complex and illicit affairs with concubines.
For the hundreds of bored and sexually unfulfilled concubines in Zhu Di's harem, relief is found in forbidden literature. The women secretly indulge in the printed tales of the Ming storytellers, renown for their dubious virtue. They devour lascivious erotic vignettes, a Ming equivalent for pornography which arose during this period with the development of the printing industry.
In much the same way, Kareem, an envoy from Zanzibar is himself not foreign to the use of literature to compensate for the lack of spice in his bed. While his highly obsessed partner, Shahrzad, whiles her journey aboard the Ming fleet compiling theories about her idol, Admiral Zheng He, Kareem plunges ever deeply into the classic Persian volumes of One Thousand Tales (Arabian Nights).
Back in the Inner Palaces of the Middle Kingdom, bored and unfulfilled imperial concubines like the main protagonist, Min Li, become trapped in a form of fantasy, where they pine for unrequited forms of love. They become obsessed with eunuchs, perhaps men who believe themselves to be so inadequate that they shut themselves in a protective shell, convinced that they are undeserving of any adoration.
One such eunuch, Zhijian, will have to bear the frustration brought upon by castration all his life. He fills his time with the senseless completion of routine chores, without so much of a career goal, having abandoned all motive for life. The only escape from his torment is the obsession that he will develop for Min Li. His only joy following the castration that has deprived him of all he wanted from this life, is to seek every rumour concerning this one woman that he knows he can never have and who belongs to the emperor.
Zhijian will project his anima onto Min Li believing her to be pure and faultless, convinced that she is like him, a victim about to be slaughtered. Unable to function sexually, Zhijian elevates Min Li to muse status. He places her on a pedestal, relishing his platonic devotion as a welcome refuge because if he were to see her as a woman and desire her, he would ultimately need to face the 'villainy' of his physical condition.
But returning to the women of the palace, we find in the Ming Storytellers, another brand of sexual frustration one which perhaps would not be so problematic today, at least in many parts of the world.
It is the frustration of women who love other women and who are either forbidden to publicly meet due to social constraints or who entertain a secret passion for a loved one, a passion they hide, for fear of rejection.
The Ming dynasty is not foreign to sapphism. Palace women were known for having affairs with each other and wooden dildos have been found in the ruins of ancient Han palaces.
At the other extreme, there is another complex character who embodies a man completely at peace with castration yet who nevertheless suffers the frustration of remaining a man. Ji Feng is a eunuch, criminal at that. My conception of this character can be read in many ways. At the simplistic level he is a sexual criminal. At a more twisted level he is a man who has not 'come out' with his homosexuality. He experiences every woman as a threat, seeing them as creatures he can never compete with and whose form he can never hope to achieve.
Yet Ji Feng remains completely unaware of his own sexuality and of his seething jealously, nor is he conscious of his motivations for wanting to hurt women and see them under his power. Ji Feng's criminal impulse and his voyeurism, compound to produce a perverse individual capable of the worse crimes towards a gender that he cannot attain.
One salient undercurrent of The Ming Storytellers is the common theme of frustrated sexuality and soul-consuming sexual obsessions. It depicts a contrived world with extreme social taboos and physically maiming traditions, a world where eunuchism and forced concubinage combine to produce frustrated human needs that more or less contribute to the characters' journey.