Merrisa, an American who lives in the U.S., has been immersed in a Chinese romance novel over the past two days. The novel tells the love story between a former Chinese emperor and his concubine, a woman renowned for her seductive charms. But it's not just the love story that attracts; it's the descriptive prose.
"I like how the author and the translator depict the love scenes between the characters. Every kiss and every interaction between the two characters is beautifully written," said 24-year-old Merrisa.
"The language used to describe the love scenes is subtle compared to some Western romance novels, but somehow, it's more romantic and graceful and leaves more room for imagination compared to the Western ones."
Merrisa is among an increasing number of foreigners who are showing a strong interest in Chinese romance novels.
A page called "romance books with Asian love interests" has 431 book recommendations on goodreads.com, one of the world's largest social media sites for readers and book recommendations headquatered in the U.S.
The majority of the books on the page are based on China, and fans are always asking for new recommendations.
As Chinese cultural products attract more people around the world, China's ancient romance literature is also getting more attention.
One such writing is Jin Ping Mei. Written hundreds of years ago, during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the novel, whose name is The Plum in the Golden Vase in English, has attracted many Western readers since being translated. It has also gotten many positive reviews on amazon.com, with some of the readers referring to it as "fascinating."
Drawn by the mysteries of the Orient
Merrisa has always been interested in the culture of the Orient. She started to teach herself Chinese two years ago and thought that she could learn more about Chinese history and culture by reading Chinese novels.
Initially, she only read romance and other fiction, but after she read erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey and watched the movie, she wondered what its Chinese counterparts were like. The first book she read was the classic The Plum in the Golden Vase.
"I was told that it's like the Chinese version of the Kama Sutra, and I was prepared for a book of smut and bedroom acrobatics, like the typical Western wham bam stuff, but it was far more than that," Merrisa said.
As a fan of Chinese language and culture, Merrisa said that she learned things about Chinese history and customs from it.
"The Plum in the Golden Vase is also a tale of Confucian morals and the consequences of failing to follow them," she said.
"The book is also a treasure trove of details regarding the clothing, traditional Chinese festivals and traditions of the middle Ming Dynasty."
She added that compared to some Western romance novels, Chinese romance novels pay more attention to plot and character development.
"Take The Plum in the Golden Vase for example, the general plot follows the intricate daily triumphs and frustrations of Ximen Qing and his wives and concubines," Merrisa said.
"The story is also rife with inter-household competition, infidelity, corruption and domestic abuse. Even without the erotic parts, it's still an exciting novel."
Britney, 31, a Canadian teacher, is also a fan of Chinese romance novels. She recently read The Dragon and the Pearl by Jeannie Lin. It tells of the forbidden love between an emperor's concubine and a cold-hearted general. According to Britney, she learned about many historical incidents through the novel which weaves a fictional tale around real historical events.
"The romance was set in the Tang Dynasty (618-907)," Britney said.
"I learned many things about the political upheavals of that period and about the military governors of that time called jiedushi. [Reading these kinds of novels is] another way to learn things about China."
Ancient representations of sex
Another thing that draws non-Chinese readers is the mysterious ancient and religious sex practices in China.
Richard, 27, from the Philippines, has been an avid reader of Chinese romance novels for the past few years. The sexual techniques of the Taoists fascinate him.
One of his favorite novels, Jade Lee's White Tigress, tells the story of an English woman named Lydia who went to Shanghai and was forced to become a sex slave. It draws heavily upon Taoist sexual practices that had by that time become taboo in China.
"The book talks about the Taoist treatises on effective sexual techniques for 'maximizing life energies.' It is wickedly sensual," Richard said.
"It's about achieving the balance between yin and yang and the two people reaching into the heaven. I love Taoist mysticism."
According to Richard, China's ban on pornographic works might lead outsiders to believe that the country is prudish, but the reality is not quite so black and white.
"China has a long tradition of romance literature," he said. "It's hardly the asexual country most people imagine, and there is a lot to explore."
Subtlety more intriguing
Although compared to some Western romance novels the Chinese ones are more subtle in wording and description, some readers say they prefer it that way.
"The way it's written is so sensual and detailed. Just reading it gives me chills and makes my heart pound," Britney said, referring to a paragraph in The Dragon and the Pearl.
The hero and heroine's intricately woven dance serves as the most sensual forms of foreplay, according to Britney.
"Although the sex descriptions are not as explicit as the Western ones, it leaves more room for imagination," she said. "That kind of sensuality and sexual tension is off-the-charts hot."
Chinese romance novels also pay more attention to details that build the scene, according to some readers.
"There's a cinematic quality to the novel. If I close my eyes, I can imagine our heroine wearing her blue silk, standing between the stone guardians of her lover's fortress, hoping he will come home alive," she said.
"I can vividly imagine the heroine submitting herself to her lover's ink, letting him leave his mark on her."
For Britney, the skilled use of euphemisms is "more sexy" than words with direct meanings.
"It is a beautiful book," she said. "Underneath all that taut sensuality, the author manages to tell a tale of political treachery and war unlike what we see in the world today."