The Story of Madam Pan Jin Lian: Flirting with Her Brother-in-Law

(Jin Lian xi shu)

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Pan Jin Lian is perhaps the most controversial fictional woman in today's China. Deemed the Chinese goddess of fornication and prostitution, Pan Jin Lian is a character in the Chinese novels The Water Margin and The Plum in the Golden Vase.

Pan Jin Lian is married to Wu Dalang, elder brother of the eventual Liangshan chieftain, Wu Song. Pan Jin Lian has been born into a wealthy family, but when the family goes bankrupt, she is sent to a wealthy landlord as a housemaid. The landlord tries to rape her, and she tells his wife of his misconduct. To retaliate, the landlord gives Jin Lian away to a dwarf as punishment for her rejection of his sexual advances. The elder Wu is short and ugly, whereas Pan is renowned for her beauty; as a result, people always feel that the couple is a mismatch. Pan Jin Lian's neighbours jeer at her, calling her a flower planted in cow dung. Her affair with a wealthy and good-looking womanizer in town leads her to murder her husband, and to her ultimate execution by her brother-in-law, Wu Song.

Wu Song is a hero in The Water Margin, one of the four most famous classical works in Chinese literature. He is depicted as a bold and handsome hero, who killed a tiger after drinking wine. His masculinity appeals to his sister-in-law Pan Jin Lian. Pan Jin Lian cannot believe her eyes when Wu Dalang introduces his brother to her. She had not imagined that her husband could have such a mighty brother! He is the exact opposite of the dwarf. As time passes, Pan Jin Lian flirts openly with Wu Song while her husband is out on his bread-peddling trips. Pan even tries to seduce Wu Song, but in vain.

Pan Jin Lian's sneakiness angers Wu Song. He fiercely rejects her indecent proposals and tells her to behave herself. Wu Song later leaves on official business, only to return and find his brother dead. Wu Song discovers that Pan Jin Lian has committed adultery with a young man named Ximen Qing, and that the pair of adulterers have poisoned his brother. Wu Song goes to the county office to present his case, with a bone taken from his brother's cremated body and a neighbour as witness. The judge has been bribed by Ximen Qing, however, so Wu Song takes the law into his own hands. He kills Pan Jin Lian, then kills Ximen Qing with his sword. After he offers the heads of the adulterers to the spirit tablet for his deceased brother, he surrenders to the authorities.

The characters of Wu Song, Pan Jin Lian and Ximen Qing have long been appropriated on stage, in films and in novels, with various interpretations. Pan Jin Lian is no longer portrayed as a one-dimensional evil and adulterous wife; instead, she is depicted as a loyal wife who loved her hardworking husband, Wu Dalang. In this retelling, Pan Jin Lian is depicted as being forced into adultery with Ximen Qing after falling into a plot hatched by her neighbour Wong Po, who teaches Ximen Qing how to trap and seduce the hapless Pan Jin Lian.