The Carnal Prayer Mat (Google eBook)

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University of Hawaii Press, 1990 - Fiction - 316 pages
13 Reviews
In the three hundred years since its initial publication, Li Yu's The Carnal Prayer Mat has been widely read in China, where it is recognized as a benchmark of erotic literature and currently enjoys the distinction of being a banned-in-Beijing classic. The story centers on Scholar Vesperus, a handsome orphan and student of Zen. Before taking his monastic vows, Vesperus embarks on a career of licentiousness. His adventures as "hero of the boudoir, a champion of sex" take both comic and calamitous turns, until eventually he attains "enlightenment on the carnal prayer mat."

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About the author (1990)

Though Li Yu's tz'u poetry has always been loved, the character of the man has been much maligned. As the last ruler of a short-lived dynasty known as the Southern T'ang, he has been accused of "fiddling while Rome burned." He was never temperamentally suited for imperial duties; he much preferred painting, poetry, calligraphy, and the passivity of Buddhist contemplation to empire building and war. But no matter what his inclinations had been, it would probably have made little difference, because the fate of his dynasty was sealed before he ever took the throne. In 975 his capital fell to the relentless army of the Sung, and he was taken as their captive to Pien-ching (modern Kaifeng, Honan). Many of Li Yu's idle days of imprisonment were spent writing poetry, and, in fact, the tragedy of his situation inspired some of his most delicate and poignant verses. In his maturity, he seems to have transcended the sort of personal grief that had informed verses on the loss of his beautiful wife and young son and to have embraced the larger futility of human endeavor. Li died on his forty-first birthday after drinking a gift of poisoned wine from the Sung emperor.

Mr. Hanan is Professor of Chinese Literature, Harvard University.

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