Tu Fu and Wu Song

Wonder of wonders, a second bean has emerged. I’ve named him Wu Song after a hero in The Water Margin which is a rollicking good adventure novel. Among other things, Wu Song, with his bare hands, killed a tiger that was attacking him. Normally, AS a tiger myself, I’m not too keen on anyone killing tigers, but this is a special case.

I named this bean Wu Song for a couple of reasons. Obviously, I like the book but also because Wu Song is strong, handsome, brave and good and the same can be said for Scarlet Emperor Beans. The first beans to emerge are the bravest especially when it has taken them SO LONG to break through. I figure they really want to. Pearl Buck did a translation which is known as All Men are Brothers. I think the title came from her fervent wish that all men WOULD BE brothers. Here’s part of the entry from Wikipedia if you are curious about the book and its heroes. I’ve left the links in the quotation below because they lead to very cool places.

Water Margin is one of the earliest Chinese novels written in vernacular Mandarin and is attributed to Shi Nai’an.[1] It is also translated as Outlaws of the Marsh and All Men Are Brothers.

The tragic story, set in Northern Song dynasty (around 1120), tells of how a group of 108 outlaws gather at Mount Liang (or Liangshan Marsh) to rebel against the government. Later they are granted amnesty and enlisted by the government to resist the nomadic conquest of the Liao dynasty and other rebels. While the book’s authorship is attributed to Shi Nai’an (1296–1372), there were references laid out in the book that did not exist until the Jiajing reign (1521-1567) of Ming dynasty, sparking a long-lasting academic debate on when it was actually written and which historical events the author had witnessed that inspired him to write the book.[1]

It is considered one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature.[2] It has introduced readers to many of the best-known characters in Chinese literature, such as Wu SongLin ChongPan JinlianSong Jiang and Lu Zhishen.

Pearl Buck and the Chinese Novel: Part 7

Where we left off yesterday: Fiction seemed to open doors to the future. Like fiction everywhere, Chinese fiction provided a mirror of human experience, and may have played a part in bringing about the end of Confucian dialectics, especially works such as The Scholars and Hong Lou Meng.


Chinese fiction has particular heroes/protagonists. There is the Confucian rebel, a muscle-man, who might also be a scholar. Such a hero is Song Jiang in the Shui Hu Chuan. Song is the model of filial piety, risking his life to see that his father is well and supplied with all the things he needs. In spite of his disappointment in government and its officials, when the emperor asks Song Jiang to lead his gang against the enemies of China, the Tartars, Song Jiang does what he emperor requests. This kind of hero is the kind of hero Western readers can understand and appreciate.

Bao-yu, the hero in Hong Lou Meng, is a different type, but such characters do exist in the western tradition. He is an intelligent, pleasant, interesting man who sees nothing of value in what society thinks is important. He is “disillusioned” in the Buddhist/Taoist sense of the word. Bao-yu is, in fact, an immortal and knows nothing on the earth is permanent, that all things pass away, which makes it difficult for him to adapt even though he doesn’t remember his origins as an unneeded piece of jade used to build the sky. All he knows is that what everyone wants him to do seems stupid and futile. His actions look like rebellion against the family system and Confucian scholarship. To Jia-Zheng, Bao-yu’s father and honorable official, and to the rest of his human family, Bao-yu seems lazy because he doesn’t apply himself to studying the things he should. In hopes that Bao-yu’s life won’t be a total disgrace, Jia-Zheng takes him to the schoolmaster:

I have come here today,” he [Bao-yu’s father] began, “because I felt the need to entrust my son to you personally, and with a few words of instruction. He is no longer a child, and if he is to shoulder his responsibilities and earn a place in the world, it is high time he applied himself conscientiously to preparing for his exams. At home, he spends all his time idling about in the company of children. His verses, the only field in which he has acquired any competence, are for the most part turgid juvenilia at their best, romantic trifles, devoid of substance… For the present I would humbly suggest a course of reading and exegesis of primary scriptural texts, and plenty of compositions. If he should show the least sign of being a recalcitrant pupil, I earnestly beseech you to take him in hand and in so doing to save him from a shallow and wasted life.

On this note he rose, and with a bow and a few parting remarks, took his leave… when [the teacher] returned to the classroom, Bao-yu was already sitting at a small rosewood desk in the southwest corner of the room, by the window. He had two sets of texts and a meagre-looking volume of model compositions stacked in a pile on his right… “We must see to it that you apply yourself with zeal from now on.” (Cao Xueqin, Hong Lou Meng)

What does Bao-yu really think of all this? Well, considering that Bao-yu is essentially a piece of jade, not a mortal, his feeling that the whole thing is stupid seems reasonable. But, unlike the reader, the other characters in the story don’t know Bao-yu’s true identity. This creates an interesting tension within the story. The family’s reactions illustrate an idea which had long existed in Chinese life and is one of the reasons for the schism between fiction and “literature.” Important things are serious; anything that is not serious cannot be important. 

Bao-yu, a being outside the “red dust” (the transient reality in which sentient beings live), is able to see, with the eyes of an immortal, what is and what is not important. The scholarly life is not important. What’s important is the here and now and doing what he likes. He knows that the people he knows and loves are fated to pass out of his life soon and forever which it’s important for him to spend every possible moment with them.

Carved onto the rejected jade from which Bao-yu originally came is this verse:

Unfit to mend the azure sky,
I passed some years on earth to no avail;
My life in both worlds is recorded here;
Whom can I ask to pass on this romantic tale?

Hong Lou Meng (trans. Gladys Yang)

The wonder of it is that now Hong Lou Meng is, itself, an object of intense scholarship. My favorite in this short and random list is, “Towards a New Paradigm of Redology.”


I’m kind of sorry younger Martha didn’t finish this project, but I can see why. It’s huge and her credibility was/is questionable.

I’m stopping here. Looking forward at the last two pages of this thing, I see it just peters out. I wonder where it all went. I remember writing about the anti-Japanese war and the May Fourth Movement and the struggle to create a written Chinese language that could be taught more easily to people, but it’s no where to be found. Could I start writing it now? I don’t know. The world has moved on and I have moved on, too. The only thing from this I understand better than I did at 36 is that Bao-yu was right, but so were a lot of other guys all around the world from many generations… “Drink! for you know not whence you came nor why: drink! for you know not why you go, nor where…” The Rubaiyatt of Omar Khayyam.

The jade pendant in the featured photo was a gift from a student in San Diego, the first student from the PRC that I taught in the US. The words are, “Bamboo whispers peace.” I felt very guilty about this gift and gave her a Navajo pendant made of Montana moss agate. There’s nothing kenspeckle about any of this, I’m afraid.


And now I’ve found more… Women in Chinese fiction and Pearl Buck. Shui Hu Chuan. More. I think it can all wait forever or until I get interested again.

Pearl Buck and the Chinese Novel: Oral Tradition, Part 3

Where we left off yesterday: “Last time I stopped at the point where, ordered by his master, Bao Xing went to the kitchen with a teapot in his hand, but, no sooner had he raised the door curtain than he exclaimed in alarm ‘Aiya!’ Well…’ Liu paused for a moment… All at once, my heart sprang into my mouth. What did he mean? What had happened? Staring at Liu, I thought over and over again that it must be an assassin or a man’s head dripping with blood. To my surprise, Liu answered the riddle. “The water on the stove hadn’t boiled yet!” (Liu Shaotang, Catkin Willow Flats, “An Encounter in Green Vine Lane,” Trans. Alex Young, 1984)

Many critics look at the changes in the approach to fiction as a progressive thing, beginning, in all cultures, with a story told by one person to another person. The story might be fiction, but is just as likely to be a true story, or a true story that evolved into a legend. Then, there someone with a pen, stylus, stick, hammer and chisel and some surface (wax, stone, papyrus, whatever) who writes these stories down just as they’re told. Maybe they’re eventually printed (as in China) and story tellers can buy these printed stories and use them to tell their stories better, to help them remember all the episodes and to learn new stories. Then, perhaps someone else with writing tools or a printer will sit down and allow his mind to act imaginatively on the old tale as it’s told. Yet, he retains in the structure of his revision the structure of the original oral story. It accrues, simply by being written, a kind of authority the oral tale cannot possess. 

From this comes the completely imaginative novel which might still be written in the style of the oral story, or letters, sermon, poem, opera, epic, ballad. From there some other person will realize that there are many new and different things he can do; that this written fiction is a completely new form, not necessarily related at all to an oral story. Presumably, all of this “progress” is related to generalized literacy in a civilization. A nation without a literate population has little use for printed stories. 

In China, the oral tradition endured, and in super-modern China, teahouses with story-tellers have enjoyed a rebirth of popularity. That said, the persistence of what has been regarded in some cultures by some critics is considered a “backward” literary form, has made it difficult for modern Chinse scholars to reconcile the Chinese tradition to the Western tradition (Martha in 2021 doesn’t know why they should…) which is considered more “sophisticated” and “advanced.” What many scholars view as an evolution of the novel has been stymied somewhat in China because Chinese Communist policy insisted for some time that foreign things and values are bad, and only truly Chinese things are good (notwithstanding a huge Soviet influence on Chinese fiction during the mid-twentieth century). This has led to the (possibly) unreasonable insistence that Shui Hu Chuan is as good as any novel produced in the West. (For what it’s worth, 21st century Martha thinks it might be and thinks this judgement depends on who’s looking…)

As C. T. Hsia said in his introduction to Chinese Classical Fiction:

Whatever the critical fashion in Communist China, it seems to me self-evident that we cannot accord the Chinese novel full critical justice unless, with our due awareness of its special characteristics that can only be fully understood in historical terms, we are prepared to examine it against the Western Novel…The modern reader of fiction…expects a consistent point of view, a unified impression of life as conceived and planned by a master intelligence, an individual style fully consonant with the author’s emotional attitude toward his subject matter. He abhors explicit didacticism, authorial digression, episodic construction that reveals no cohesion of design, and clumsiness of every other kind that distracts his attention. But, of course, even in Europe the conscious practice of fiction as an art was a late development, and we cannot expect colloquial Chinese fiction, with its humble oral beginnings, to have been designed for the cultivated modern taste. (Hsia)

The general human tendency to regard new things as more developed than old things prejudices us in favor of the new, but maybe the long, episodic novels of old China truly ARE difficult to read, even for Chinese.

After writing continually for five or six weeks, I felt really discouraged and could not continue. All those shallow and stupid novels of interminable length, they really couldn’t get me interested and I haven’t written about them since. (Hsia)

(Twenty-first century Martha has read a few of these interminable novels and they interested me enough to read a couple of them in more than one translation. C.T. Hsia’s education and training was similar to mine [if you don’t make a big deal out of the VERY prestigious schools he attended and at which he taught and the VERY notable exception that he was Chinese.] You can read about him here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/C._T._Hsia

But if art is an imitation of life, isn’t life difficult to read and difficult to follow? Does life have a consistent point of view or “cohesion of design”? If it does, it is not apparent to any of us living our lives.

Because the written novel has lost some of the sensory power and involvement that was part of the oral novel it must simplify itself  so it can be as understandable as the story teller’s tea-house version. The second question involves someone looking at the Classical Chinese story/novel in relation to the Western novel. Is a novel written to tell a story or to illustrate a form? Some modern critics have devalued the story, but Pearl Buck did not. She believed — based on her close relation to Chinese fiction written in the 1920s and 1930s as well as her personal experience — that story is the most important part of a, well, a story. It should teach something, challenge assumptions and be entertaining. She wrote:

No, happily for the Chinese novel, it was not considered by the scholars as literature. Happily, too, for the novelist. Man and book, they were free from the criticisms of these scholars and their requirements of art, their techniques of expression and their talk of literary significance and all that discussion of what is and what is not art as if art were an absolute and not the changing thing it is fluctuating even within decades! The Chinese novel was free. It grew as it liked out of its own soil, the common people, nurtured by that heartiest of sunshine, popular approval and untouched by the cold and frosty winds of the scholar’s art. (Buck, Pearl S., “The Chinese Novel,” Nobel Prize Speech, 1938)


The novel throughout the world has had an interesting history. Once I thought it was a very interesting coincidence that it emerged in various places at the same time, but that wasn’t it. It was simply labeled “the novel” at the same time. The word “novel” itself means “new” like we have gotten to enjoy the company of a novel virus for the past two years.

The first REAL novel in English is considered to be an 18th century product. It’s debated, of course, but it’s generally thought to be Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe. When I was in grad school in a course on “The Early Novel,” I was told it was Pamela by Samuel Richardson. Older stories are contenders (because it’s important to be first, right?) including The Monte d’Arthur by Thomas Malory written in 1485.

I have no strong opinion on any of this. My life after China took me into realms of literature that weren’t taught in any school I ever attended. But I have to bless Wikipedia (to which I give $6/year to keep going) for a really cogent and concise discussion of what makes a novel a novel. Here’s everything Wikipedia has to say and it’s pretty much exactly what I learned in graduate school.


Differing definitions of the novel

There are multiple candidates for first novel in English partly because of ignorance of earlier works, but largely because the term novel can be defined so as to exclude earlier candidates. (The article for novel contains a detailed information of the history of the terms “novel” and “romance” and the bodies of texts they defined in a historical perspective.)

Length

  • Critics typically require a novel to have a certain length. This would exclude Oroonoko, arguably a novella.

Content and intent

  • Critics typically require a novel to be wholly original and so exclude retellings such as Le Morte d’Arthur.
  • Critics typically make a distinction between collections of short stories, even those sharing common themes and settings, and novels per se, which typically has a single protagonist and narrative throughout. This might also lead to the exclusion of Le Morte d’Arthur.
  • Critics typically distinguish between the romance, which has a heroic protagonist and fantastic elements, and the novel, which attempts to present a realistic story. This would, yet again, exclude Le Morte d’Arthur.
  • Critics typically distinguish between the allegory (in which characters and events have political, religious or other meanings) and the novel, in which characters and events stand only for themselves, and so exclude The Pilgrim’s Progress and A Tale of a Tub‘.
  • Critics typically distinguish between the picaresque, made up of a connected sequence of episodes, and the novel, which has unity of structure, and so exclude The Unfortunate Traveller.

Owing to the influence of Ian Watt‘s seminal study in literary sociology, The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding (1957), Watt’s candidate, Daniel Defoe‘s Robinson Crusoe (1719), gained wide acceptance.


I’ve also been thinking about episodic structure in a novel. It’s really a lot like life.

I was thinking about my friend, Alex, who recently died after suffering Alzheimers for several years. I didn’t know him when he was himself, but what I knew of him I liked very much. Last year he and his wife bought themselves one of my paintings. Each of us lived our whole lives without knowing each other, but then our lives converged to a limited extent and then, at the conclusion, I came home with all of his paints, which judging from the care with which he stored them, meant a lot to him. I thought “out of the thousands of episodes in our lives, the whole thing ended with me cleaning an old tackle box to get the cat pee smell off of it, giving up, and putting the paints with my own.” It might not be over. I took photos of the box as it was given to me and IF the enzymatic cleaner works, I’ll put everything back, meanwhile, I have on my windowsill a carpenter pencil onto which he carved his name. It’s ONE story comprising several episodes. The story could conclude (and might!) with me using Alex’ paints to do a painting of one of his favorite places to climb and giving it to his wife.

The difference between an episodic novel and a collection of short stories is that an episodic novel is ONE story that (apparently) digresses from time-to-time to follow a character. This means that it can jump back and forth in time, sort of “Meanwhile, back at the ranch” but it will end in a timely resolution that satisfies every subplot/episode Music does this all the time; a melody can vanish and re-emerge later, changed, maybe, slightly, but carried through an entire symphony. We even name the episodes of a symphony.

Personally, I like the episodic structure, and one of my novels — The Brothers Path —uses it (best-selling writer that I am). :-p I was briefly in a writers’ group at the time and was told by everyone (except the teacher!) NOT to do that. My classmates had totally bought into the arbitrary definition of what a novel is supposed to be. I think the word “novel” needs to be changed; it isn’t “novel” any more.

The review recently posted about As a Baby Duck Listens to Thunder, about the year I spent teaching in China, said this and it made me very happy. It says:

“There is no chronological story here – the anecdotes jump around the timeline as fancy (and photo prompts) take the author, and the author also carefully restricts herself to only discussing events and situations within her own personal experiences, which does leave some anecdotes unfinished and some questions unanswered, but gives the reader total confidence that she refrains from straying into speculation for the sake of tidying the story… real life is messy and we don’t always find out what happens next!” http://bookshineandreadbows.wordpress.com/2021/10/17/catch-up-quickies-12 )

The next section in this adventure is about what the Chinese DID revere as literature back in the day, and the day was really long. 36 year old Martha has written about old Chinese examination system, it, itself, and how it was viewed by the writers of Chinese fiction. Please let me know if that interests anyone at all. I am totally capable of writing in stream of tedium, and I don’t want to. 🙂

Here are pretty pictures from Dream of the Red Chamber or Hong Lou Meng.

Pearl Buck and the Chinese Novel: Oral Tradition, 2

Here’s where we left off yesterday: From the Chin Ping Mei (Plum Blossom in a Golden Vase) the listener (reader) is supposed to learn that a life given over to sexual satisfaction will lead to a grisly death and a curse lingering on a family for many generations. Karma is an important part of these stories, and there is a continuing admonition to the listener not to do anything to disgrace his ancestors or make life difficult for his children — never mind making his own next life one in which he must repay all the debts of the current life…

A story could be a tool of subversion. China, historically, has practiced a rough form of democracy. If the excesses of an imperial regime became too excessive, if people were taxed too heavily, if the rivers flooded and it seemed nature conspired against the peace and prosperity of the average person, the Chinese considered that Heaven’s mandate had been taken from the Emperor’s family. A new imperial family would always rise out of the ensuing revolution and reform society. More than once the old stories of the bandits in Shui Hu Chuan or the Romance of the Three Kingdoms were used to arouse peasant sentiment against a corrupt ruling house.

The entertainment imperative had a very strong effect on the development of story in China. Where most of the stories from the English oral tradition such as Beowulf or Sir Gawain and the Grene Knight have receded into the rarified world of academia, Chinese classical stories are still very much alive for the Chinese people in written forms that are believed to be close to the “originals.” The “novels,” transcriptions of orally transmitted tales, are still read and loved in the six and seven hundred year-old versions and not by graduate students on the brink of a thesis on some arcane aspect of “Medieval Chinese Literature,” but by everybody from kids to grannies. 

The books retain the qualities of oral fiction with strong plots, essential to story tellers so they can keep the momentum going from day to day. Usually they have an episodic organization rather than a great “unity of design” found in novels which were never part of the oral tradition.

An episodic story structure allows the story teller to interject: “Let’s leave so-and-so for now and see what is happening at such-and-such” if he sees the audience is getting bored. Because of the enduring oral tradition, Chinese fiction retained a certain episodic quality which western novels lost long ago. 

Then, because the story teller interprets the story to his audience, he can create a character with much less descriptive language. Story tellers have their bodies, faces, gestures with which to show a knife being raised into the air or lovers embracing. Watching and listening to a story teller involves more senses than simply reading a story in solitude under a tree somewhere or on a sofa or train. Watching and listening to a story teller involves more of our senses. Sympathetic characters, taken directly out of the oral context, become two dimensional, colorless, flat like paper dolls. 

Watching a ghost story unfold can be really scary, but it’s difficult to write in an equally and immediately frightening way. A written story is more abstract than something being read aloud to us or recited or interpreted dramatically.

In the early 1980s, when I was in China, many places did not have electricity, and it was not reliable in many places that did have it, even where I lived in Guangzhou. Many of the old people would rather spend an evening listening to a story than watching television, which wasn’t dependable anyway. The story teller was an important person in their lives. 

*Liu Shaotang, a twentieth century Chinese novelist, describes one of his childhood writing teachers. In this passage fro “An Encounter in Green Vine Lane,” Liu described the effect of a story teller’s narrative style on his listeners:

At the entrance (to the teahouse) hung a blackboard posted with playbills, announcing that there were two performances every day. The one during the day featured “The Cases of Prefect Bao [Xing]” performed by the celebrated Liu Jingtang, Jr., while the night show, “Strange Tales of Liaozhai,” were recounted by the master storyteller, Zhao Yingpo. Zhao was good at telling ghost stories and his narration was horrible and bloodcurdling. Some, while listening to his performance would, more often than not, be so frightened that they would rather pee in their trousers than pluck of their courage to go outside. Nor did they dare go home without someone to accompany them In a small alley, they would panic at the mere rustle of leaves in the wind. However whenever Zhao performed in this teahouse, under the spell of his mastery, would never miss a chance to listen, even at the risk of peeing their pants once again. (Liu Shaotang, Catkin Willow Flats, “An Encounter in Green Vine Lane,” Trans. Alex Young, 1984)

Liu then illustrates the way the story teller could manipulate his audience to make sure they came back to hear more of the story:

(Bao Xing went out) of the chamber with a teapot in his hand. Walking through the winding corridor, he came to the kitchen. But as soon as he pulled aside the door curtain, he exclaimed “Aiya!” if you want to know what happened next, please come again tomorrow and I’ll explain it in detail. (Liu Shaotang, Catkin Willow Flats, “An Encounter in Green Vine Lane,” Trans. Alex Young, 1984)

Liu Shaotang writes that he was so worried about what happened to Bao Xing, that he missed school the next day to be able to arrive early for the noon time recitation. He arrives just a few minutes late, terrified that he has missed the critical denouement. The story teller is saying:

“Last time I stopped at the point where, ordered by his master, Bao Xing went to the kitchen with a teapot in his hand, but, no sooner had he raised the door curtain than he exclaimed in alarm ‘Aiya!’ Well…’ Liu paused for a moment… All at once, my heart sprang into my mouth. What did he mean? What had happened? Staring at Liu, I thought over and over again that it must be an assassin or a man’s head dripping with blood. To my surprise, Liu answered the riddle. “The water on the stove hadn’t boiled yet!” (Liu Shaotang, Catkin Willow Flats, “An Encounter in Green Vine Lane,” Trans. Alex Young, 1984)

* A note on Liu Shaotang: He was born in 1921 which means he would have been THIS little boy during the period Pearl Buck was teaching at Nanjing University. Pearl Buck’s daughter, Carol, was born in 1920. It’s clear from Liu’s description that all his neurons were firing anticipating the resolution to the mystery!


There’s a garden out in front of my house that I have not had any contact with in ages. As far as it’s concerned, I’m over it. I think it’s the drought. I felt all summer that there was something wrong with pouring water on a bunch of flowers lined up against a south-facing wall.

My thoughts went back to the garden belonging to the president of my college (featured photo). His apartment was two floors below ours and he had a rose garden. One of my friends explained what a luxury this was because, during the reign of Chairman Mao gardens like that were, at the very least, severely criticized. Arable land should be used for food. That whole way of thinking seemed to me, later, to be the off shoot of a horrible famine caused by Chairman Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” in the 1950s when everyone — peasants, everyone — was put to work making steel leaving only the elderly and children to till the fields. There was mass starvation and no one knows for sure how many people died but estimates go up to 55 million.

China doesn’t have much arable land in comparison to the population, so a drought or flood has always had enormous consequences. There was a famine in China in the 30s and Pearl Buck wrote about it. The US government airlifted food to the Chinese, but it was food the Chinese wouldn’t eat, didn’t even recognize as food. Apparently the US had a surplus of dairy products and was dropping large amounts of cheese. OK, as a cheeseatarian I’d be very happy with that, but the Chinese didn’t make or eat cheese — or much milk. To them it was as if the US was giving them rotten milk. Pearl Buck wrote letters and articles decrying this and telling the government what they SHOULD send. I don’t remember if anything changed because of her out-cry. But, when I was a kid and left something on my plate, the grownups said, “Eat your peas. Think about the starving people in China

Caveat: There is a lot of stuff in this section that I would not write today, but I’m trying not to edit 36 year old Martha too much.

Pearl Buck and the Chinese Novel, 3

Here’s where we left off yesterday in our meandering discussion of early Chinese fiction: The supernatural can intervene at any time in much the way fate appears to intervene in human life. The effect of THAT is one of bewildering realism. 


In *Shui Hu Chuan (The Water Margin, translated by Pearl Buck as All Men Are Brothers), was written in the 14th century. The story opens with a somewhat rash Imperial Commander who has been sent to a sacred mountain in search of a Taoist master who has the ability to cure the entire nation which is, at that moment, suffering from a terrible plague. The commander succeeds in his question, having unknowingly spoken directly to the master who was disguised as a small boy on a buffalo. On his way down the mountain, the commander finds a small temple that has been sealed with paper. He questions the monks about why the temple is sealed. The monk replies that 108 demons are sealed inside. Curiosity gets the better of the commander who commands that that the temple be opened. Against the protests of the monk, the temple — a Pandora’s Box — is opened freeing the 108 demons to roam the world creating havoc. These 108 demons are the bandits and robbers who populate the Shui Hu Chuan.

Hong Loui Meng, written in the 18th century, is probably the most famous and most studied of the older Chinese novels. It opens with the story of Pao Yu, the main character. Pao Yu is not actually a mortal but the human incarnation of a piece of jade which was rejected when the sky was completed. Depressed over his rejection, Pao Yu is noticed by wandering Buddhist and Taoist monks who give him the opportunity to exist in the world of men, the “Red Dust.” Because he is not an ordinary mortal, he cannot be expected to act like one. This the reader knows, but, of course, the other characters in the novel can only guess Pao Yu’s destiny. In this way, the author is able to tie all of the episodes in the story together to make his statement at the end, that, essentially, while the Red Dust and its ways are all-right for mortals, it’s no place for gods. 

*Chin Ping Mei, a “spin-off” of the Shui Hu Chuan, was written in the 16th century. It begins with a Confucian exhortation against dealing with women (!), and, finally, as the ultimate example, the author launches into Chin Ping Mei itself:

Let us then purify our senses, and put upon us the garment of repentance, that so contemplating the emptiness and illusion of this world, we may free ourselves from the gate of birth and death and falling not into the straits of adversity, advance towards perfection. Thus only may we enjoy leisure and good living and still escape the fires of Hell. I am brought to these reflections upon the true significance of wine and women, wealth and ambition, remembering a family which, while flourishing, sank at length into a state of deepest misery. Then neither worldly wisdom nor ingenuity could save it and not a single relative or friend would put forth a hand to help. For a few brief years the master of this household enjoyed his wealth, and then he died, leaving behind a reputation which none would want. 


And THAT folks seems to be a wrap — that’s page 5 and there is no page 6! There is a page 7, 8, 9 etc. but I cannot see from this how younger Martha got to page 7. I’ve looked everywhere, even to the point of finding yet ANOTHER version. It seems that 36 year old Martha Kennedy was seriously into revision. As I typed this it struck me that it just rambles with no direction, and I wonder if that’s not something “she” noticed and that’s why I have three versions of this? NO idea — but I may jump straight to the twentieth century. We’ll see. What appears to be the newest revision of this tome IS the most engaging so maybe I’ll just go there? It’s better… Oh Martha, Martha, no wonder you didn’t finish this. 🙂

* The Shui Hu Chuan is still incredibly popular in Asia — cartoons, feature films, Kung-fu versions. It’s a wonderful adventure story — or compilation of stories. To me, it’s like an Icelandic saga, and I love Icelandic sagas.

** The Chin Ping Mei is a notorious book. An unexpurgated version has come out in English, but the one I read, translated in the 30s, had all the juicy bits translated into Latin. I could expend a lot of energy decoding it or move on. All this righteous stuff is really just a way to turn this extremely racy book into a moral lesson. Pearl Buck included the Chin Ping Mei in her novel, Pavilion of Women with the story that originally it had had poison on the corner of each page so that the evil magistrate (if I remember right) would die when he finished reading it, and, of course, he had to read it. Poisoned books are legendary across cultures — there is another more well known in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. It really discourages a person from reading.

I scored a copy of Clement Edgerton’s 1939 translation of Chin Ping Mei at a used book store. It’s the same version I read so long ago while working on the Pearl Buck project. Used books are great. In this case because someone else would have gotten the poison ( ha ha) and because the person who had this book apparently loved it. He inscribed it with his name in English and in Chinese. The featured photo is one of the new editions and my old books. You’d think the BIGGER book has more in it, but the old book is printed on very thin paper and the type is set close together. I don’t think there’s much difference in quantity of content, but in the new edition the juicy bits are in English.

On the subject of translation, I’m with Goethe. He wrote a very nice poem (which I can’t find now) about this and there’s also the story of how his secretary read to him a story written in French. Goethe said, “That’s a good story.” His secretary laughed and said, “That’s the French translation of your story.” I think it’s better to read a translation than not read the stories at all. Sure, maybe something — maybe a lot — is lost, but not everything. I have two translations of Hong Lou Meng. One is the translation officially sanctioned by the CCP published in an incredibly beautifully illustrated two volume set. The other is a much longer, more complete, less censored and didactic translation put out by the Oxford University Press. The both tell the story, and the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) version says in the illustrations much of what is left out in the words. There is also — in China — a whole field of scholarship over Hong Lou Meng. I like best the writer’s explanation for why he wrote it. Basically because he had nothing to do, was very poor, and writing it was a way to entertain himself and his friends. I feel that with all my heart. There is contention about who wrote it, but generally it is believed to be Cao Xuexin, the impoverished son of a disgraced official. It’s a wonderful book. It’s something I wish I could experience for the first time — again. ❤

I listened to this song all the time back in the day because I was getting sick of “sitting around here trying to write [that] book.”

Pearl Buck and the Chinese Novel, 2

In good news, it snowed for five minutes last night and I was out in it. ❤ Yeah, it’s cold but? (Scratching my head trying to figure out what’s bad about that…). One thing I’m learning from typing the Pearl Buck project is 1) I used the passive voice much more back in the 80s. You’re free to read into that. 2) I used more — and fancier! — words — I hadn’t benefited from the tutelage of Truman Capote yet. I have begun editing…but gently. That 34 year old Martha has a right to her voice. And if this gets too boring let me know. After getting so close to Pearl Buck in the past and reading all these Chinese novels, I think it really matters if my audience is having a good time which, as Pearl Buck said, comes from a combination of entertainment and education. ❤ But she was an English teacher, after all…


Here’s where we left off yesterday: “…amazingly few literary critics are able to obey that simple basic rule of criticism—to ask, ‘What does the novelist want to do and has he done it?’” (“Advice to a Novelist About to Be Born”)

This gives the critic a new perspective, and a new question. With this question in mind, it’s difficult to operate under the assumptions one might use evaluating the work of “a generation.” Pearl Buck never claimed a place for herself among the writers of her “generation,” among whom were the “Lost Generation” writers who wrote about what Buck considered “purposelessness.” 

I read modern American novels rather assiduously, as a matter of interest, and I find…evidence of whaat I have been trying to say in the lack of interest in life. The characters are almost universally subordinated to the incident and environment. That is what apparently interests the readers is how much characters hop, skip and jump, not how they feel and are…It may seem a curious contradiction to say on one hand that people demand nothing but amusement from literature, and then to say that literature which only amuses them does not satisfy them…with all our childlike love of a good time, we never really. have a good time unless we feel we are improving ourselves, too…Perhaps it is literature which today has become void of philosophy, so devoid that it has no inner light, so that people reading this have caught no real illumination…(Interview; “Literature and Life,” Saturday Review of Literature, 3/13/38, 3-4)  

Clearly, for Pearl Buck, the purpose of a work of fiction is to entertain and to instruct, a mission shared by Chinese writers since the Han dynasty.

The novel in China developed pretty much on its own until the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries when, after thousands of years of virtual isolation, China sent a few students to foreign countries to study in the universities of the United States, France, Russia, Great Britain, and Japan. Chinese students made contact with all these different literary traditions — and languages. This contact coincided with a period of tremendous upheaval and social reconstruction in the world’s largest nation. Until this time, the influence of any foreign literature on the literature of China had been negligible, confined to the inclusion of various religious mythologies — mostly Buddhist but also Muslim and Christian — in existing Chinese folk stories. 

In the twentieth century, Chinese writers began consciously imitating foreign writers. 

How did the novel develop in these two widely separated parts of the world, what the history, what the sources, who the authors? I need hardly tell you that it developed with complete independence. France, Russia, Spain, and other countries made their contributions to the English novel, but there was no early contributions either to or from China…the Chinese novel grew, enlarged, took on life without any contribution of note from other civilizations until the very recent past when western influence has been so strong in all phases of Chinese life. (Pearl S. Buck, “East/West and the Novel, 1932)

In her Nobel Prize lecture which considered the Chinese novel and its development she said of herself:

When I came to consider what I should say today, it seems that it would be wrong not to speak of China. And this is none the less true because I’m an American by birth and ancestry and though I live now in my own country and shall live there since it is there I belong. But it is the Chinese and not the American novel which has shaped my efforts in writing. My earliest knowledge of story, of how to tell and write stories, came to me in China…yet it would be presumptuous to speak before you on the subject of the Chinese novel for a reason wholly personal. There is another reason why I feel that I may properly do so. It is that I believe that the Chinese novel has an illumination for the western novel and the western novelist. 

The novel in China doesn’t trace its history back to a Platonic or Aristotelian set of dramatic unities, the famous and useful dramatic triangle where the action builds to a climax then drops down to a resolution. It was required only to tell a story and the story was supposed to be entertaining, provide a good moral example, and earn money for the teller. As C. T. Hsia writes in his book, The Classical Chinese Novel, the pre-twentieth century Chinese novel is everything the modern western novel reader isn’s supposed to like. 

The modern reader of fiction is brought up on the practice and theory of Flaubert or James; he expects a consistent point of view a unified impression of life a conceived and planned by a master intelligence, an individual style fully consonant with the author’s emotional attitude toward his subject matter. He abhors explicit didacticism, authorial digression, episodic construction that reveals no cohesion of design, and clumsiness of every other kind that distracts his attention (Hsia)

The novel of Old China had conventions of its own. First, the novelist or storyteller had to pay his dues to the deities. Every major novel written before the twentieth century begins with either a mythical story or a moral parable which serves to involve the supernatural in the plot. This helps the storyteller when it comes time to end the story and provide a moral conclusion for what might have been a lot of very loosely knit, barely related episodes. It gives the storyteller a vehicle for changing the direction of a plot if it isn’t working. The supernatural can intervene at any time in much the way fate appears to intervene in human life. The effect of THAT is one of bewildering realism.