Yao Yuxin: Hsiang-yun among the flowers (1978)
[from Cao Xueqin: Hung-lou Meng, chapter 63]
They went out to look, and sure enough found Hsiang-yun lying on a stone bench in a quiet spot behind an artificial mountain. She was sound asleep and covered with peony petals, which had floated over from all sides to scatter, red and fragrant, over her face and clothes. Her fan, dropped to the ground, was half-buried in fallen blossoms, too, while bees and butterflies were buzzing and flirting around her. And she had wrapped up some peony petals in her handkerchief to serve as a pillow. They all thought she looked both sweet and comical..."
– Tsao Hsueh-chin, A Dream of Red Mansions, trans. Yang Hsien Yi & Gladys Yang (1978): vol. II, p. 364.
I've already had a fair amount to say on this subject at various times. My essay "In Love with the Chinese Novel: A Voyage around the Hung Lou Meng" appeared in brief 37 (2009): 10-28 (after being long-listed for the Landfall Essay Prize). I also put up a kind of bibliographical post with illustrations of classic Chinese novels here on the Imaginary Museum at roughly the same time.
If it does interest you, I recommend that you check out one or both of these pieces. There doesn't seem much point in repeating here what I've already written there. The topic is, however, a vast one, so I'm certainly not afraid of running out of things to talk about.
To summarise briefly, traditional Chinese critics have identified a canon of four - and only four - Great Classical Novels:
- Luo Guanzhong: Sānguó Yǎnyì [The Three Kingdoms] (c.1400)
- Shi Nai'an: Shuǐhǔ Zhuàn [The Water Margin] (late 14th century)
- Wu Cheng'en: Xī Yóu Jì [Journey to the West] (1592)
- Cao Xue Qin: Hóng Lóu Mèng [The Red Chamber Dream] (late 18th century)
The Three Kingdoms: The Peach Garden Oath (1591)
The Water Margin: Lu Zhishen uproots a tree (19th century)
Journey to the West: The Four Pilgrims (Summer Palace, Beijing)
Dream of the Red Chamber: The Crab-Flower Club (19th century)
Here are some of the principal English translations of each novel (all are fortunately now available in complete, scholarly versions):
- Lo Kuan-Chung. San Kuo, or Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Trans. C. H. Brewitt-Taylor. 2 vols. Shanghai: Kelly & Walsh, 1925.
- Luo Guanzhong. Three Kingdoms: A Historical Novel. Trans. Moss Roberts. Foreword by John S. Service. 1994. 3 vols. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press / Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.
- Luo Guanzhong. Three Kingdoms. Trans. Moss Roberts. Foreword by John S. Service. 1994. 4 vols. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 2001.
- Buck, Pearl, trans. All Men are Brothers [Shui Hu Chuan]. 2 vols. New York: The John Day Company, 1933.
- Shih Nai-an. Water Margin. Trans. J. H. Jackson. 2 vols. Hong Kong: The Commercial Press, 1963.
- Weir, David. The Water Margin. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1978. [based on the BBC TV series]
- Shi Nai’an & Luo Guanzhong. Outlaws of the Marsh. Trans. Sidney Shapiro. 3 vols. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1980.
- Shi Nai’an & Luo Guanzhong. The Marshes of Mount Liang. Trans. John & Alex Dent-Young. 5 vols. Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 1994-2002.
- Vol. 1: The Broken Seals. 1994.
- Vol. 2: The Tiger Killers. 1997.
- Vol. 3: The Gathering Company. 2001.
- Vol. 4: Iron Ox. 2002.
- Vol. 5: The Scattered Flock. 2002.
- Wu Ch’êng-Ên. Monkey. Trans. Arthur Waley. 1942. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973.
- Low, C. C. & Associates, trans. Pictorial Stories of Chinese Classics: The Adventures of the Monkey God. 1975. 4 vols. Singapore: Canfonian Pte Ltd., 1989.
- The Journey to the West. Trans. Anthony C. Yu. 4 vols. 1977-1983. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980, 1982, 1980, 1984.
- Wu Cheng’en. Journey to the West. Trans. W. J. F. Jenner. 1982. 3 vols. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1990.
- Tung Yueh. Hsi-yu pu. Tower of Myriad Mirrors: A Supplement to Journey to the West. Trans. Shuen-fu Lin & Larry J. Schultz. Berkeley, CA: Asian Humanities Press, 1978.
- Pisu, Silverio. The Ape. Illustrated by Milo Manara. New York: Catalan Communications, 1986.
- Monkey [“Saiyūki”]: Season One: Episodes 1-13. Japan: Nippon TV, 1978.
- Monkey [“Saiyūki”]: Season One: Episodes 14-26. Japan: Nippon TV, 1978.
- Monkey [“Saiyūki”]: Season Two: Episodes 27-39. Japan: Nippon TV, 1979.
- Monkey [“Saiyūki”]: Season Two: Episodes 40-52. Japan: Nippon TV, 1980.
- Tsao Hsueh-Chin. Dream of the Red Chamber. Trans. Chi-chen Wang. 1929. Preface by Mark van Doren. London: Vision Press, 1959.
- Kuhn, Franz, ed. Hung Lou Meng: The Dream of the Red Chamber – A Chinese Novel of the Early Ching Period. Trans. Isabel and Florence McHugh. 1958. The Universal Library. New York: Grosset & Dunlop, 1968.
- Cao Xueqin. The Story of the Stone: A Chinese Novel by Cao Xueqin in Five Volumes. Trans. David Hawkes. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973-80.
- Vol. 1: The Golden Days. 1973.
- Vol. 2: The Crab-Flower Club. 1977.
- Vol. 3: The Warning Voice. 1980.
- Cao Xueqin. The Story of the Stone (Also Known as The Dream of the Red Chamber): A Chinese Novel by Cao Xueqin in Five Volumes, edited by Gao E. Trans. John Minford. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982-86.
- Vol. 4: The Debt of Tears. 1982.
- Vol. 5: The Dreamer Wakes. 1986.
- Tsao Hsueh-Chin & Kao Ngo. A Dream of Red Mansions. Trans. Yang Hsien-Yi & Gladys Yang. 3 vols. Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1978.
- Wu Shih-Ch’Ang. On The Red Chamber Dream: A Critical Study of Two Annotated Manuscripts of the XVIIIth Century. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961.
Moss Roberts, trans.: The Three Kingdoms (1994)
The Three Kingdoms
John & Alex Dent-Young, trans.: The Marshes of Mount Liang (1994-2002)
The Water Margin
Anthony C. Yu, trans.: The Journey to the West (1977-83)
Journey to the West
David Hawkes, trans.: The Story of the Stone (1978-86)
The Red Chamber Dream
I suppose the first thing to say about these novels is that all they're very long; often available in a variety of versions, sometimes with different numbers of chapters; and that each of these chapters is carefully constructed, and generally introduced by a poetic couplet summarizing its contents.
Abridged or "adapted" versions can give you some of the flavour of the originals, but unfortunately they're bound by their very nature to miss out certain of the vital characteristics of these very particular masterpieces of the novelist's art: above all, the immense scope and inclusiveness of all four of these works.
Though they clearly build upon one another, each of the four has an atmosphere and style all its own:
- The Three Kingdoms is a kind of Chinese Iliad, an immense chronicle of war and intrigue spanning decades and vast terrains: a profoundly serious meditation on war and peace and statecraft.
- The Water Margin is equally complex, but far more popular and vernacular in tone. It chronicles the adventures of a group of Robin Hood-like outlaws, and is episodic in structure: serious and humorous by turns.
- The Journey to the West continues this emphasis on popular culture: in this case myths and folktales, but combines them with a wise, witty, and deeply disenchanted vision of the doings of all the creatures in Earth and Heaven. Wu Cheng’en's novel is, essentially, a satire on conventional religion, but one can't help feeling that the author remains agnostic about the true nature of the universe lying behind this absurd veil of appearances ...
- The Red Chamber Dream, finally, is a family chronicle - deeply autobiographical, we are assured, but transformed into a tapestry of poetry, philosophy and eroticism which rivals in intensity anything in Proust or Lady Murasaki. It's probably the most immediately approachable of these great novels, though the frustratingly fragmentary nature of the text means that only the first two thirds of the story seems to reflect accurately its author's original artistic intentions.
What else can one say? There they are. Read them. They're certainly as essential to any true understanding of the possibilities of the novel form as Tolstoy or Flaubert (not to mention Kafka or Joyce).
Once you have read them, though, a number of questions will no doubt arise for you. Why did only these four make the cut? What are all the other Classical Chinese novels like? Are they so inferior to these ones? How reliable is this particular piece of canon-making? Is there really a complete critical concensus about it?
Well, luckily the profusion of new translations of these and other Chinese novels in the second half of the twentieth century was accompanied with some marvellous works of literary analysis and commentary. The place to start remains C. T. Hsia's venerable The Classic Chinese Novel: A Critical Introduction (1968), a work which is unlikely to be superseded anytime soon (despite certain blindspots in his judgements of the individual novels).
Hsia enlarged the canon of "classic novels" to six, including the vast and sexually explicit Jīn Píng Méi [The Golden Lotus] (1618), as well as Wu Jingzi's satire on Confucian bureaucracy Rúlínwàishǐ [The Scholars] (1750). Both are now available in reliable contemporary English translations, luckily (though David Tod Roy's magisterial five-volume version of the Chin P’ing Mei was only completed this year - a couple of months ago, in fact):
- Egerton, Clement, trans. The Golden Lotus: A Translation, from the Chinese Original, of the Novel Chin P’ing Mei. 1939. 4 vols. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972.
- 'Lanling Xiiaoxiaosheng'. The Golden Lotus: Jin Ping Mei. Trans. Clement Egerton & Shu Qingchun (Lao She). 1939. Rev. ed. 1972. Introduction by Robert Hegel. 2 vols. Tokyo / Rutland, Vermont / Singapore: Tuttle Publishing, 2011.
- Kuhn, Franz, ed. Chin P’ing Mei: The Adventurous History of Hsi Men and his Six Wives. Trans. Bernard Miall. Introduction by Arthur Waley. 1939. London: John Lane The Bodley Head, 1952.
- Kuhn, Franz, ed. Ko Lien Hua Ying: Flower Shadows behind the Curtain: A Sequel to Chin P’ing Mei. Trans. Vladimir Kean. London: The Bodley Head, 1959.
- Jin Ping Mei: Fleur en Fiole d’Or. 2 vols. Trans. André Lévy. 1985. Collection Folio 3997-8. Paris: Gallimard, 2004.
- Magnus. Les 110 pillules, d’après Jin Ping Mei. Trans. Luca Staletti. 1986. Paris: l’Echo des Savanes / Albin Michel, 1991.
- Roy, David Tod, trans. The Plum in the Golden Vase or, Chin P’ing Mei. 5 vols. Princeton Library of Asian Translations. Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press, 1993-2013.
- Vol. 1: The Gathering. 1993.
- Vol. 2: The Rivals. 2001.
- Vol. 3: The Aphrodisiac. 2006.
- Vol. 4: The Climax. 2011.
- Vol. 5: The Dissolution. 2013.
- Wu Ching-Tzu. The Scholars. Trans. Yang Hsien-Yi & Gladys Yang. 1957. Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1973.
The Golden Lotus: Hsi-men Ching with Golden Lotus (Ming dynasty)
The Golden Lotus
Wu Jingzi (1701-1754)
These suggested additions to the list have probably attracted almost as many English-language readers as the other four, given the immense popularity of Hsia's book. And, indeed, the first of them is unquestionably a masterpiece: one of the great novels of world literature. As for the second, its disjointed structure and the very targetted nature of its satire make it a little difficult for a non-Chinese speaking reader to judge. It's certainly not lacking in appeal, though:
- The Plum in the Golden Vase is probably the most erotically explicit of all great world novels. Its most recent translator, David Tod Roy, argues persuasively that this is part of the author's complex plan to show the necessary consequences of official corruption in his own day - for Hsi-Men Ching, the protagonist, read the Emperor, and so on down the chain. There's certainly little of the hedonistic romp about it - though some of the earlier, more selective translations did try to stress some of the more playful aspects of the action, trying to imply that this framework of morality was simply a kind of necessary smoke-screen. At least we're finally in a position to consider this question in detail, thanks to Roy's immense and painstaking work of translation and commentary ...
- The Scholars is the least immediately impressive of these classic Chinese novels, but it's certainly readable enough, and one can see a kind of Balzacian intelligence behind it, alert to the untapped possibilities of the novel form for social and intellectual commentary.
David Tod Roy, trans.: The Plum in the Golden Vase (1993-2013)
Yang Hsien-Yi & Gladys Yang, trans.: The Scholars (1957)
It's probably too early to judge whether English-speaking readers are now in a position to appreciate properly the range and scope of the traditional Chinese novel. Certainly Lu Hsun's Brief History of Chinese Fiction (1923-24) lists large numbers of works which are still completely unavailable in translation. Of those that are extant, The 16th-century Creation of the Gods has little beyond the excitement of incident to add to the technical innovations of the "big five" (the four + Chin P'ing Mei). Li Yu's Carnal Prayer Mat is far more witty and entertaining, like a kind of Chinese Fanny Hill, but probably not in itself a "great work" (whatever that means).
The one that really sounds interesting is Li Ju-Chen's Flowers in the Mirror (1828), unfortunately still available only in an abridged and (we're told) inadequate English translation. It is - apparently - a kind of Chinese Alice in Wonderland, with certain aspects of the Pilgrim's Progress mixed in. But since a large part of its appeal comes from the learned game-playing of its author's prose-style, it seems quite likely that it will remain untranslatable for the foreseeable future.
I've compiled a list here of some other striking works of Chinese fiction, short and long. I wish I myself owned more of the excellent critical works which have come out on the subject since C. T. Hsia's, but they tend to be very expensive to buy, and to go out of print pretty quickly: the major ones appear to be Andrew H. Plaks' Four Masterworks of the Ming Novel (1987), David L. Rolston's Traditional Chinese Fiction and Fiction Commentary: Reading and Writing Between the Lines (1997), as well as the same author's earlier collection of edited essays How to Read the Chinese Novel (1990). The only other considerable work on the subject I have a copy of is Robert E. Hegel's excellent (though very specific) The Novel in Seventeenth-Century China (1981).
Miscellaneous Chinese fiction:
- Creation of the Gods [Fêng-shên yen-i] – 16th century
- The Carnal Prayer Mat [Jou Pu Tuan] – 1657
- Flowers in the Mirror [Ching hua yuan] – 1828
- Feng Menglong (1574-1645)
- Lu Xun (1881-1936)
- Pu Songling (1640-1715)
- Robert van Gulik (1910-1967)
- Anthologies & Secondary Literature
- Creation of the Gods [Fêng-shên yen-i] – 16th century
- Low, C. C. & Associates, trans. Pictorial Stories of Chinese Classics: Canonization of Deities. 3 vols. Singapore: Canfonian Pte Ltd., 1989.
- Gu Zhizhong, trans. Creation of the Gods. 2 vols. 1992. Beijing: New World Press, 1996.
- Li Yu. Jou Pu Tuan: The Before Midnight Scholar, or The Prayer-mat of Flesh. Ed. Franz Kuhn. 1959. Trans. Richard Martin. 1963. London: Corgi Books, 1974.
- Li Yu. The Carnal Prayer Mat. Wordsworth Erotic Classics: Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions, 1995.
- Li Yu. The Carnal Prayer Mat. Trans. Patrick Hanan. 1990. Honolulu: University of Hawaí’i Press, 1996.
- Li Yu. A Tower for the Summer Heat. Trans. Patrick Hanan. 1992. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.
- Li Ju-Chen. Flowers in the Mirror. Trans. Lin Tai-Yi. London: Peter Owen, 1965.
- Yang Xianyi & Gladys Yang, trans. Excerpts from Three Classical Chinese Novels: The Three Kingdoms, Pilgrimage to the West & Flowers in the Mirror. Beijing: Panda Books, 1981.
- Feng Menglong. Stories Old and New: A Ming Dynasty Collection. 1620. Trans. Shuhui Yang and Yunqin Yang. Seattle & London: Washington University Press, 2000.
- Lu Hsun. Selected Stories of Lu Hsun. Trans. Yang Hsien-Yi & Gladys Yang. 1960. Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1978.
- Lu Hsun. Old Tales Retold. Trans. Yang Hsien-Yi & Gladys Yang. 1961. Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1972.
- Lu Hsun. Wild Grass. 1974. Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1980.
- Lu Hsun. Dawn Blossoms Plucked at Dusk. Trans. Yang Hsien-Yi & Gladys Yang. Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1976.
- Lu Xun. Diary of a Madman and Other Stories. Trans. William A. Lyell. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1990.
- Lu Xun. The Real Story of Ah-Q and Other Tales of China: The Complete Fiction of Lu Xun. Trans. Julia Lovell. Afterword by Yiyun Li. Penguin Classics. London: Penguin, 2009.
- Lu Hsun. A Brief History of Chinese Fiction. 1923-24. Trans. Yang Hsien-Yi & Gladys Yang. 1959. Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1982.
- P’u Sung-ling. Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio. Trans. Herbert A. Giles. 1916. Honolulu, Hawai’i: University Press of the Pacific, 2003.
- Pu Songling. Strange Tales of Liaozhai. Trans. Lu Yunzhong, Yang Liyi, Yang Zhihong, & Chen Tifang. Illustrated by Tao Xuehua. Hong Kong: The Commercial Press, Ltd., 1982.
- Pu Songling. Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio. Trans. John Minford. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2006.
- Van Gulik, Robert, trans. Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee (Dee Goong An): An Authentic Eighteenth-Century Detective Novel. 1949. New York: Dover, 1976.
- Van Gulik, Robert. The Haunted Monastery & The Chinese Maze Murders: Two Chinese Detective Novels. 1961 & 1957. New York: Dover, 1977.
- Hegel, Robert E. The Novel in Seventeenth-Century China. New York: Columbia University Press, 1981.
- Hsia, C. T. The Classic Chinese Novel: A Critical Introduction. 1968. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980.
- Lévy, André, trans. Le Sublime Discours de la fille candide : Manuel d’érotologie chinoise. 2000. Picquier Poche 224. Paris: Philippe Picquier, 2004.
- Ma, Y. W. & Joseph M. Lau, eds. Traditional Chinese Stories: Themes and Variations. New York: Columbia University Press, 1978.
- Kim Man-Choong. The Cloud Dream of the Nine: A Korean Novel – A Story of the Times of the Tangs of China about 840 A.D. Trans. James S. Gale. London: Daniel O’Connor, 1922.
- Tshe ring dbang rgyal. The Tale of the Incomparable Prince. 1727. Trans. Beth Newman. The Library of Tibet. New York: HarperPerennial, 1997.
The Carnal Prayer Mat [Jou Pu Tuan] – 1657
Flowers in the Mirror [Ching hua yuan] – 1828
Feng Menglong (1574-1645)
Zhou Shuren ['Lu Xun' / 'Lu Hsun'] (1881-1936)
Pu Songling / P'u Sung-ling (1640-1715)
Robert Hans van Gulik (1910-1967)
Anthologies & Secondary Literature
The last two listed there, from (respectively) ancient Korea and Tibet develop a number of themes from such Buddhist-inspired works as The Journey to the West, but with some additional flavour from their own indigenous traditions.
I should also explain the (apparent) anomaly of listing the sinologist Robert van Gulik among the other authors above. Van GHulik first published a translation of a "genuine eighteenth-century" Chinese detective novel, Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee, in 1949. He proceeded to follow this up with his own original series of crime novels starring the same character, which proved quite popular. It's certainly an unusual (possibly unique) example of direct influence between the Chinese and Western fictional traditions, even though the results read (to me, at any rate) a little on the wooden side.
I guess I began this post with a quote from the Hung Lou Meng to try and give you something of the half-realistic, half-idealised atmosphere of that particular novel. I'll close, instead, with a famous scene from The Three Kingdoms where the warlord Cao Cao reveals his true nature:
During his stay in Lü Boshe's house, Cao Cao overheard the sharpening of knives and a conversation among Lü's servants about whether to "kill or to tie up first", and he suspected that Lü was pretending to be hospitable towards him while actually plotting to harm him. He and Chen Gong dashed out and indiscriminately killed everyone in Lü Boshe's household. Later, they discovered that the servants were actually talking about slaughtering a pig for the feast and that they had killed innocent people. It was too late for regrets, so Cao Cao and Chen Gong immediately packed their belongings and left the house. Along the way, they met Lü Boshe, who was returning from his errand. When Lü Boshe asked them to stay with him, Cao Cao asked, "Who's that behind you?" When Lü Boshe turned around, Cao Cao stabbed him from behind and killed him. Chen Gong was shocked and he questioned Cao Cao, "Just now, you made a genuine mistake when you killed those people. But what about now?" Cao Cao replied, "If Lü Boshe goes home and sees his family members all dead, do you think he'll let us off? If he brings soldiers to pursue us, we'll be in deep trouble." Chen Gong said, "It's a grave sin to kill someone with the intention of doing so." Cao Cao remarked, "I'd rather do wrong to the world than allow the world to do wrong to me." Chen Gong did not respond and he left Cao Cao that night.
That final comment of Cao Cao's:
nìng wǒ fù rén, wú rén fù wǒ!
"I'd rather do wrong to others than allow them to do wrong to me!"
has become proverbial. In Luo Guanzhong's novel, however, the original wording, used by the historical Cao Cao in 189 CE, has been subtly altered to read:
"I'd rather do wrong to the world than allow the world to do wrong to me."
Chinese critic Yi Zhongtian claims, in a 2006 essay on the Three Kingdoms, that Luo "deliberately changed the words in the quote to reflect that Cao Cao had no sense of remorse because 'world' [lit. "people under Heaven"] carries greater weight than 'others' [lit. "people"], so as to enhance Cao's image as a villain in his novel."
Whether that's true or not, it gives us a vivid sense of the delicate balance between historical truth and fictional interpretation Lou tries to maintain throughout this most revered of the classical Chinese novels.