Love with the Chinese Novel:
Voyage around the Hung Lou Meng
I have some understanding of labyrinths: not for nothing am I the
great grandson of that Ts'ui Pźn who
was governor of Yunnan and who renounced
worldly power in order to write a novel
that might be even more populous than
Lu Meng and to construct a labyrinth
in which all men would become lost.
– Jorge Luis Borges, 'The Garden of Forking
Paths,' pp. 47-48.
guess my love affair with the Chinese
novel began the day I bought the first
volume of A Dream of Red Mansions
in a little junk shop a few doors down
from my parents' house in Mairangi Bay.
The date on the flyleaf tells me that
it was a few days before my seventeenth
It was always a depressing place to visit. The owner, a thin, nervous,
middle-aged man, would spring up and
ask you what you were looking for. Each
time I'd reply that I'd come to check
out the books. Each time he'd ask, 'Any
particular one?' even though his whole
stock couldn't have exceeded twenty
or thirty titles, most of them Readers'
Digest Condensed Books and suchlike dross. Each time I'd respond,
'Just browsing, thanks,' and he would
I felt very sorry for him. A lot of businesses had started up on that
particular site, only to go under a
few months later, dashing some poor
sod's hope of worldly independence.
This man's struggle was so desperate
and prolonged, though, that one could
only speculate what demons had driven
him to invest his all in this sub-fusc
bric-ą-brac shop. It was blindingly
obvious that he'd never make a go of
it. And yet, having started, he had
Anyway, on this particular occasion there actually was a book which looked interesting on his
single set of shelves. It was priced
at thirty cents, I recall – hardly
a fortune to me even in those days.
The cover was blue and red, with a Chinese
character inscribed on it, and it had
the most beautifully luminous pictures
of Chinese ladies and gentlemen tipped
into the text. Not exactly a bargain,
though – the introduction made
it plain that this was the first of
I took it home and started to read.
Tsao Hsueh-Chin & Kao Ngo. A Dream of Red Mansions. Trans. Yang Hsien-Yi & Gladys Yang.
3 vols. Peking: Foreign Languages Press,
. . . he saw a dozen or more large cupboards with paper strips pasted
on their doors on which were written
the names of different provinces. He
was careful to look out for the one
belonging to his own area and presently
found one on which the paper strip said
'Jinling, Twelve Beauties of, Main Register'.
Bao-yu asked Disenchantment what this
meant, and she explained that it was
a register of the twelve most outstanding
girls of his home province.
– Cao Xueqin, The Story of the Stone, Vol. 1, p.132.
the significance of the Hung Lou
Meng in Chinese culture (or the Red Chamber Dream, The Dream of the Red Chamber, A Dream of Red Mansions, or even The Story of the Stone, to list a few of the titles English
translators have given it), is a bit
like trying to convey the weightiness
of names like Dickens, Kafka or Tolstoy
to someone completely unfamiliar with
It's a romance, yes – the hero Bao-yu must decide between the
competing charms of the petulant but
ethereal Dai-yu and the cheerful, practical
Bao-chai – but it's also a detailed
analysis of the decline and fall of
a great Chinese family, in its turn
a mirror for the whole of Manchu culture.
It was composed in the late 18th
century – no-one is entirely sure
by whom – and issued in a number
of truncated and re-edited manuscripts
and editions (the 80-chapter and 120-chapter
versions being the two main subdivisions).
What is certain is that the novel conceived by Cao Xueqin – the
most probable candidate for authorship
– was never published in the form
he first conceived it. If he completed
it at all, that original conclusion
is lost. The first eighty chapters of
the text we have are thought to be mostly
by him, the last forty may or may not
be based on the notes and drafts he
left behind – though many would
prefer to attribute them to the novel's
editor Gao E.
Strangely enough, it hardly seems to matter. So compelling is the world
this master-novelist conjured up (principally
as a tribute to the twelve beautiful
women he most loved in his youth, as
he himself tells us in the crucial fifth
chapter of his story), that even the
tamperings of over-zealous relatives,
terrified by the story's subversive
tone, cannot dull its effect.
I was interested, a few years ago, glancing down the list of titles
in a book of essays by the Chinese poet
Gu Cheng (so tragically celebrated for
his own murder-suicide on Waiheke in
1993), to see that one of them was an
attempt to contrast the relative 'purity'
of the novel's two heroines Dai-yu and
Bao-chai. Like Anna Karenina or Emma
Bovary, the Hung Lou Meng's characters have a tendency to arouse
strong (and not exclusively literary)
feelings in both students and casual
But I'm running ahead of my story.
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. New York: Grosset & Dunlop,
Tsao Hsueh-Chin. Dream of the Red Chamber. Trans. Chi-chen Wang. 1929. London:
Vision Press, 1959.
In all fictional works, each time a man is confronted with several
alternatives, he chooses one and eliminates
the others; in the fiction of Ts'ui
Pźn, he chooses – simultaneously
– all of them. He creates, in
this way, diverse futures, diverse times
which themselves also proliferate and
– Jorge Luis Borges, 'The Garden of Forking
Paths,' p. 51.
I leafed through the exquisitely beautiful
pages of this product of the master
printers of the People's Republic of
China (who could issue even a cheap
foreign-language edition of a classic
with all the trappings of a deluxe edition:
dust-jacket, sewn-in bookmark, and protective
cardboard case), I realised that there
was something a little familiar about
some of these names: Pao-yu, Tai-yu,
Pao-chai . . .
For years I'd been simultaneously drawn to, and daunted by, a thick
Penguin Classic entitled The Story
of the Stone. It had a picture of a reedy-looking girl on the
cover, playing a flute. The fact that
it was announced as the first volume
of five hardly inspired one to buy it.
Now, when I picked it up, I found that the character's names all matched
– albeit in the Pinyin transliteration,
rather than the more outdated Wade-Giles
system still (then) in use in Mainland
China. It was, in fact, another version
of the novel I was already reading under
the title A Dream of Red Mansions.
Rather fuller and more fluently translated,
it has to be said, but perhaps lacking
just a little of the incommunicable
mystique of the Chinese edition.
Shortly afterwards I located the second volume of the Penguin translation,
the Crab-Flower Club, which takes us to the heart of the childish, innocent
world of the capricious, unworldly Bao-yu
and his exquisite cousins and other
female playmates. I was thus forced
to make my way through the narrative
in graduated leaps and bounds. Volume
One of the Beijing version had taken
me to chapter 40. This was now complemented
by the 53 chapters in these two Penguin
books: The Golden Age and The Crab-Flower Club.
Then, one day, in a little shop off Lorne Street run by the China-New
Zealand friendship society, I found
all three volumes of the Yang translation
and was able to complete my set. Joy!
Now I would be able to find out the
upshot of Wang Xi-Feng's political machinations,
the fate of Bao-yu's favourite maid
Aroma, and the dénouements of a dozen
The result was, I have to say, somewhat disappointing. As a non-expert
and a non-Chinese speaker, of course
I have no right to intervene in the
debate, but all I can say is that if
the last forty chapters of the Red
are by the same hand as the first eighty,
then I'm a monkey's uncle. There's a
pompous, perfunctory tone to them, a
resolute refusal to fulfil earlier hints
(notably in the music drama 'A Dream
of Golden Days' in chapter five) at
the character's eventual fates.
There's some powerful writing too, mind you – Dai-yu's tearful,
frustrating last days, for example,
or the marital frustrations of Bao-chai
– but they read to me more like
a sequel than a piecing together of
the original author's drafts. I feel
sure that his poetic soul would have
conjured up something more transcendent
as the conclusion to the great operatic
structure of his life work.
The appearance of volume three of David Hawke's translation, The
came accordingly as a bit of an anticlimax.
Most frustrating of all, though, was
the long wait for volume four, issued
eventually in a translation by John
Minford, who completed this Penguin
Classics edition of the whole novel
By then, however, my interests had moved on.
Cao Xueqin. The Story of the Stone: A Chinese Novel by Cao Xueqin
in Five Volumes.
Trans. David Hawkes. Harmondsworth:
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. Harmondsworth:
Vol. 4: The Debt of Tears (1982)
Vol. 5: The Dreamer Wakes (1986)
Since great vessels take years to produce, this earthenware pot of
mine still serves some purpose; but
though this fact has prolonged the life
of my book, I am disheartened by this
dearth of new writing. In a melancholy
mood I have gone through these proofs,
hoping that better scholars will soon
produce a more authoritative book .
. . [Night of November 25, 1930].
– Lu Hsun, A Brief History of Chinese Fiction,
eldest brother Jim studied Chinese at
Auckland University in the early 80s
– until he chose to go off to
Otago instead to do medicine.
On the negative side, this gave him a pretext to pressure me into giving
up my second-hand copy of Feng Meng-lung's
Stories from a Ming Collection,
which he claimed was a set text for
one of his courses (I still bristle
slightly every time I see it sitting
on his shelves).
On the positive side, though, it meant that he had a large number of
interesting books on Chinese literature.
The most valuable of these, from my
point of view, was C. T. Hsia's The
Classic Chinese Novel. I read and reread this, and for the
first time got some sense of an agreed-upon
canon for the traditional Chinese novel.
Hsia confined his discussion to the following six representative works:
[San-kuo-chih-yen-i] – c.1400
Water Margin [Shui Hu Chuan] – late 14th century
Golden Lotus [Chin P'ing Mei] – late 16th century
to the West
[Hsi-yu Chi] – c. 1592
Scholars [Ju-lin wai-shih] – mid 18th century
Red Chamber Dream
[Hung Lou Meng]
– late 18th century
rereading his book, I bristle slightly
at Hsia's denigrations of the Chinese
authors' 'deficiencies' by comparison
with the more dominant European novel
tradition, but I can see that such a
pioneering effort required him not to
make too great claims for them.
Besides, the critical conventions of the Modernist literary establishment
he was addressing, still struggling
to come to terms with Proust and Woolf
– let alone James Joyce –
would soon be exploded by the game-playing
fictions of John Barth and Donald Barthelme
(on the Anglo-Saxon side), Jorge Luis
Borges and the nouveau roman (on the continental).
His book was published in 1968. In our own era of genre-bending, postmodernist
fiction, the self-conscious artificialities
of the Classical Chinese novel look
The really frustrating thing about Hsia's work, though, was the shortage
of reliable translations of the works
he analysed in such tantalising detail.
Short of devoting ten years of my life
to mastering Chinese, how could I succeed
in reading even these six masterworks
in their complete form? Hsia listed
as many translations (alas, generally
also abridgements) as he could, but
even now not all of them are available
in satisfactory English versions.
was. I dutifully read it, but couldn't
really empathise with its satire on
the Confucian examination system. Also,
it lacked the features which attracted
me most in these exotic, non-European
fictions: the inordinate length, requiring
volumes of translation and commentary
(like a roman-fleuve), the hugely–detailed anatomies
of a whole society (anticipating, if
not outdoing, Zola and the Naturalists),
the strange blend of supernatural and
quotidian events (prefiguring Latin-American
But, then, of course, there was Monkey.
Feng Meng-lung, ed. Stories from A Ming Collection. Trans. Cyril Birch. 1959. Indiana University
Press, Bloomington, 1979.
Yang, Shuhui & Yunqin, trans. Stories Old and New: A Ming Dynasty
compiled by Feng Menglong. Seattle &
London: University of Washington Press,
Hsia, C. T. The Classic Chinese Novel: A Critical Introduction. 1968. Bloomington: Indiana University
Lu Hsun. A Brief History of Chinese Fiction. 1923-24. Trans. Yang Hsien-Yi & Gladys Yang.
Foreign Languages Press, 1982.
Wu Ching-Tzu. The Scholars. Trans.
Yang Hsien-Yi & Gladys Yang. 1957.
Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1973.
the world before Monkey, primal chaos
reigned. Heaven sought order, but the
phoenix can fly only when its feathers
are grown. The four worlds formed again
and yet again, as endless aeons wheeled
and passed. Time and the pure essences
of Heaven all worked upon a certain
rock, old as creation. It became magically
fertile. The first egg was named "Thought".
Tathagata Buddha, the Father Buddha
said "With our thoughts, we make
the world". Elemental forces caused
the egg to hatch. From it came a stone
– Saiyūki ['Monkey'] – starring Masaaki Sakai, Toshiyuki Nishida, Shiro Kishibe
and Masako Natsume – (Japan: Nippon TV, 1978-80)
nature of Monkey was irrepressible!'
Sunday we used to hurry home from our
ritual family picnic to watch the latest
installment in this absurd, intriguing,
infuriating drama. It was never quite
as good as it should have been (or as
it one remembers it to have been), but
the sheer oddity
of that opening invocation, that little
glimpse of the immense fecundity and
inventiveness of Buddhist tradition,
somehow made it add up to more than
the sum of its parts.
I think I knew that it was based on a novel. I may even already have
read my brother's copy of Arthur Waley's
1942 abridgement. It was a attractive
little Penguin classic, with an ivory
sculpture of intertwined monkeys on
Then, in Hong Kong in 1981, while visiting the garish Tiger Balm gardens.
I saw the four travellers – Tripitaka
and Monkey, Pigsy and Sandy –
sculpted in bas-relief on one of the
walls, and began to get some intimation
of the immense pervasiveness of the
legend (not just Wu Cheng-en's novel)
in Eastern culture: like a Chinese Pilgrim's
Progress, available in myriad forms for all levels
Later still, I acquired copies of the two complete English translations
of Journey to the West: by W. J. F. Jenner (another of those evocative,
beautifully illustrated Beijing Foreign
Languages Press editions) in three volumes;
and by Anthony C. Yu (more scholarly,
with very full notes) in four, and began
to see just how much one missed by reading
It wasn't that it was a good novel, exactly. Or not in conventional
terms. Chapter after chapter repeated
essentially the same scenario, with
minimal variations in personnel: monster,
victim, villagers, and so on. And yet
that repetitiveness seemed to contribute
something – and in a far more
considered way than could be said of
the equally episodic but frustratingly
inconclusive TV series.
Tripitaka's journey to India to find the missing Buddhist scriptures
could not be made to seem too easy. One of the points of the book (besides its light-hearted satire
on religious shibboleths), I came to
realise, was to put the reader through
a similar ordeal. Only then could even
the possibility of enlightenment be
Not a good
novel, then, but very possibly a great
Wu Ch'źng-śn. Monkey. Trans. Arthur Waley. 1942. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin,
Wu Cheng'en. Journey to the West. Trans.
W. J. F. Jenner. 1982. 3 vols. Beijing:
Foreign Languages Press, 1990.
The Journey to the West. Trans. Anthony C. Yu. 4 vols. 1977-1983. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1980, 1982,
Bao-yu, who was still bemused after his dream and not yet in full
possession of his faculties, got out
of bed and started to stretch himself
and to adjust his clothes, assisted
by Aroma. As she was doing up his trousers,
her hand, chancing to stray over his
thigh, came into contact with something
cold and sticky which caused her to
draw it back in alarm and ask him if
he was all right. Instead of answering,
he suddenly reddened and gave the hand
– Cao Xueqin, The Story of the
Vol. 1, p.149.
my brother in Dunedin one summer holidays
meant that I got to meet his two flatmates
Isaac and Julie, a Chinese couple from
Singapore, who had come to New Zealand
to study business. Julie told me how
interested she'd been to see my brother's
copy of The Scholars.
'No 'Before Midnight',' she specified,
covering that part of the title of my
latest purchase with her hand.
I'd been trying to conceal the book from her in any case, as even a
cursory examination would probably have
revealed it to be extremely pornographic,
albeit in a lighthearted, intentionally
exaggerated way (the hero, a young libertine,
is persuaded to undergo an operation
which supplements his own manly appendage
with that of a dog, thereby better equipping
himself to satisfy the numerous ladies
The Before Midnight Scholar (also translated as The Carnal Prayer Mat, or Prayer-mat of Flesh) provided me with my first insights into
the frank, yet still intensely moralistic
world of Chinese sensuality.
Julie's self-confident, openhearted ways were pretty beguiling anyway.
Later that summer, when my brother locked
his keys in our rental car's boot up
by Mt Cook, I remember her enlisting
half the people in the Motor camp to
help us out, while Jim and I sulked
in the background. Finally a couple
of the middle-aged men she'd recruited
succeeded in prising up the backseat,
allowing us to retrieve the keyring
with a coathanger.
Later still, when I visited Isaac and Julie in Singapore on my way to
the UK, I was surprised to see her so
subservient to her husband. All practical
decisions seemed to be his department,
despite her obviously (to me) greater
intelligence and charm. Ah me. Their
daughter Denise – known as 'girr'
– took up most of their attention
by then, anyway.
Which brings me to the Chin P'ing Mei.
Li Yu. Jou Pu Tuan: The Before Midnight Scholar, or The Prayer-mat
Ed. Franz Kuhn. 1959. Trans. Richard
Martin. 1963. London: Corgi Books, 1974.
Li Yu. The Carnal Prayer Mat. Trans. Patrick Hanan. 1990. Honolulu: University
of Hawaí'i Press, 1996.
Bao-yu had long been attracted by Aroma's somewhat coquettish charms
and tugged at her purposefully; anxious
to share with her the lesson he had
learnt from Disenchantment. Aroma knew
that when Grandmother Jia gave her to
Bao-yu she had intended her to belong
to him in the fullest possible sense,
and so, having no good reason for refusing
him, she allowed him, after a certain
amount of coy resistance, to have his
way with her.
– Cao Xueqin, The Story of the Stone, Vol. 1, p.150.
was a pretty exciting day for me when
I found a copy of Clement Egerton's
complete, four-volume translation of
the Golden Lotus, reputed to be the longest and most detailed work of pornography in
world literature, in a small bookshop
in Lorne Street. The woman who owned
the shop wanted $120 for it, which seemed
a lot to me at the time, but I think
I only ended up paying $60, as the shop
was in the process of closing down.
Egerton's translation had first appeared in the 1930s, when publishers
were more prudish than now, so his versions
of the novel's numerous sex scenes were
printed in Latin. My copy of the 1972
reprint, however, translated all of
these passages into English.
So far so good, but the book's immense, gloomy realism almost defeated
me. Its effect, it has to be said, was
more emetic than aphrodisiac. It wasn't
until years later, when I encountered
David Tod Roy's epic retranslation,
The Plum in the Golden Vase, that I began at last to understand the book's true
Roy, alas., died last year, with his task unachieved. He specialised
in the Academic study of the book, apparently,
and waited too long before beginning
his actual translation. We're left with
the hope that someone else will take
it up – a John Minford to his
David Hawkes. In the case of the Penguin
Story of the Stone, though, there was the logic of a book which feel naturally into two
halves. With the Chin P'ing Mei we're dealing with a single, albeit anonymous, master-craftsman.
The starting point of the novel is an incident from an earlier vernacular
novel, The Water Margin, which describes the adultery of a young man-about-town,
Hsi-men Ching, with Golden Lotus, the
wife of a crippled tradesman. The two
lovers conspire to poison her husband,
but the murder is avenged by the cripple's
stalwart brother, who slices them into
little pieces in his rage.
The Water Margin's two, rather crude, chapters devoted to this story have been expanded
by this later master into an immense
saga of a Chinese household's rise and
fall. Pornographic, to be sure –
at any rate in European terms –
but mainly just stunningly realistic.
It's easy to see how this book inspired
the circumstantial detail of the Hung
Lou Meng's picture of everyday life in a great
family, as well as the sardonic satire
of Wu Ching-Tzu's Scholars.
Though it's always been difficult to obtain in China, the Chin P'ing
is undoubtedly one of the world's landmark
works of fiction, especially given the
fact that it was composed in the late
16th century, at around the
same time as Cervantes' Don Quixote. It will be nothing short of a scandal if Princeton
University Press's sumptuous complete
version is allowed to remain a magnificent
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,
Kuhn, Franz, ed. Chin P'ing Mei: The Adventurous History of Hsi Men
and his Six Wives.
Trans. Bernard Miall. 1939. London:
John Lane The Bodley Head, 1952.
David Tod, trans. The
Plum in the Golden Vase or, Chin P'ing
Mei. 5 vols.
Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University
Vol. 1: The Gathering (1993)
Vol. 2: The Rivals (2001)
Vol. 3: The Aphrodisiac (2006)
He read with slow precision two versions of the same epic chapter.
In the first, an army marches to a battle
across a lonely mountain; the horror
of the rocks and shadows makes the men
undervalue their lives and they gain
an easy victory. In the second, the
same army traverses a palace where a
great festival is taking place; the
resplendent battle seems to them a continuation
of the celebration and they win the
victory. I listened with proper veneration
to these ancient narratives, perhaps
less admirable in themselves than the
fact that they had been created by my
blood and were being restored to me
by a man of a remote empire ...
– Jorge Luis Borges, 'The Garden of Forking
Paths.' p. 52.
magic, fantasy – and war. Even
though the Shui Hu Chuan is probably the most celebrated of the
classic Chinese novels, translated by
Nobel-prize-winner Pearl Buck as early
as the 1930s (All Men are Brothers), and the inspiration for films and TV series in both English and Chinese,
it took a long time to nerve myself
to read it.
Which version to start with, for one thing? Pearl Buck's seemed rather
difficult to follow, and the crabbed
red volumes of J. H. Jackson's Hong
Kong version looked even more outdated.
Once again, the Beijing Foreign Languages Press came to the rescue.
It is, after all, the most 'proletarian'
of the classic Chinese novels, and was
therefore held up for admiration even
when the others were in eclipse during
Mao's Cultural Revolution.
Sydney Shapiro's translation is competent and full. It's a repetitive,
picaresque tale, somewhat reminiscent
of the Robin Hood stories in England.
The band of revolutionaries living in
the Marshlands (though bloodthirsty
and warlike) are made to seem more and
more admirable as the narrative proceeds
and the extent of the courtly corruption
they're fighting against is revealed.
After their surrender and pardon by a well-meaning but ineffectual Emperor,
the callous way these peerless warriors
are wasted in pointless colonial campaigns
shows, once again, the characteristic
attitudes of authority towards the powerless.
The Water Margin, then, can be legitimately be called a classic – not so much
because of the elegance of its composition,
but because of the universality of its
Buck, Pearl, trans. All Men are Brothers [Shui Hu Chuan]. New York: The John Day Company, 1933.
Shih Nai-an. Water Margin. Trans. J. H. Jackson. 2 vols. Hong Kong: The Commercial
Nai'an & Luo Guanzhong. Outlaws
of the Marsh. Trans. Sidney Shapiro. 3 vols. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press,
Weir, David. The Water Margin. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1978. [based
on the BBC TV series]
No other work of this genre, in past times or present, has had such
a deep and wide-ranging impact on Chinese
society . . . The various episodes have
been transmitted to every nook and cranny
of Chinese society, either directly
or indirectly by means of the theatre,
songs and other channels of popular
culture, and are known in every household
in the land.
– Shi Changyu, 'Introduction.' In Luo Guanzhong.
Three Kingdoms, vol. 1, p.1.
you took a poll of Chinese readers to
find out which of the six traditional
novels held most significance for them,
many more (we're told) would single
out the Sanguo Yanyi,
or Romance of the
than the Hung Lou Meng.
In his introduction to the recent complete English translation by Moss
Roberts, Professor Shi Changyu fails
to make the book seem particularly attractive:
The heroic sweep of the novel, fixated as it is on describing the
great events of history, leaves no room
for descriptions of daily life not connected
directly with the main action. Love
and marriage, insofar as they are not
tied in with political intrigues, are
also outside the scope of the novel,
as are detailed descriptions of physical
surroundings and psychological motivations.
[vol. 1, p. 16.]
love, no physical descriptions, no psychology
– it sounds like a definition
of how not to write an effective, engaging
Should Three Kingdoms even be called a novel? Most of its subject matter is factual (or at
any rate repeated from earlier histories).
It's no accident that its first English
translator, C. H. Brewitt-Taylor, described
it as a 'Romance.' I imagine the analogy
he had in mind was with writers such
as Geoffrey of Monmouth or Sir Thomas
Malory, who turned the extravagant fictions
of the French Arthurian prose tradition
into more-or-less sober chronicles.
is certainly as fascinating to read
as Malory. It's far less mystical, though
– more of a robust analysis of
a fragmenting imperial system. Perhaps
a better comparison might be with the
Icelandic Family Sagas, those extraordinary
evocations of daily life in a barbarous
backwater of Europe, combining careful
detail with unflinching realism.
'The style of Three Kingdoms., like that of its historical subject matter, is
vigorous, robust, and tragic,' continues
Professor Shi in the passage from his
introduction quoted above. Certainly
the subject matter of the novel is violence
and disorder, but the pillars of its
narrative turn out to be loyalty and
The three warriors who take the Peach Garden oath in the first chapter
have their faith in one another tested
in every conceivable way. Their arch-enemy
Cao Cao takes a more realpolitik approach to the acquisition of power, and arguably
achieves greater success.
War and Peace
is certainly a 'novel' in a very different
sense from Three Kingdoms. But the difference in genre should not
blind one to the equally immense ambition,
and achievement, of the earlier work.
It's the last of the six classic novels I read, the one I embarked on
with most reluctance (Moss Robert's
translation runs to 2340 pages, in four
paperback volumes), but also –
in a sense – the most disarmingly
I can understand better now why the implications of its portrayal of
the roots of power and stability in
society have been debated for so many
centuries, and why it's hardly ever
been out of print in all that time.
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. Trans. Moss Roberts. 1995. 4 vols. Beijing: Foreign
Languages Press, 2001.
. . . my purpose is merely to record true feelings and actual events.
Criticism of my writing will be like
the shining of a bright light into a
– Shen Fu, Six Records of a Floating Life, p.25.
Fu's poetic memoir, composed in the
early nineteenth century, of his various
lives as a magistrate's secretary, a
loving husband, a painter, and an unsuccessful
tradesman, opens with a chapter entitled
'The Joys of the Wedding Chamber.' In
it he gives a bittersweet account of
the vagaries of his courtship and marriage.
The two young people begin with halting conversations about literature:
One day Yün asked me, 'Of all the ancient literary masters, who do
you think is the best?'
' . . . I could never give a complete list of all the
talented writers there have been. Besides,
which one you like depends upon which
one you feel in sympathy with.'
'It takes great knowledge and a heroic spirit
to appreciate ancient literature,' said
Yün. 'I fear a woman's learning is not
enough to master it. The only way we
have of understanding it is through
poetry, and I understand but a bit of
that.' [p. 31]
Shen Fu, I'm forced to confess the pointlessness
of compiling endless lists of Chinese
novels and other prose works. There
are, of course, a lot of them. Lu Hsun
discusses far more than Hsia's classic
six in his Brief History of Chinese
(though he includes short stories and
myths as well).
Like Yün, I also have to acknowledge my lack of learning and (no doubt)
'heroic spirit.' Perhaps it's that which
has led me to concentrate, in this account
of my own thirty-year love affair with
that extraordinary phenomenon called
the Chinese novel, on the romantic Red
Chamber Dream rather than the swashbuckling Water
or Three Kingdoms.
'Which one you like depends upon which one you feel in sympathy with.'
I think it's safe to say that if you don't find yourself moved by any of Hsia's classic six, then there's little
prospect of finding a Chinese novel
that suits you better.
To mention just two of the others I've come across personally, the 16th-century
Creation of the Gods
is a blend of the historical realism
of Three Kingdoms with the fantastic realism of Journey
to the West.
It may lack the analytical gravity of
the first or the dreamlike inventiveness
of the second, but it's still an amusing
read (especially in the half-text, half-cartoon
form of the Singaporean version –
entitled, somewhat bafflingly, The
Canonisation of Deities – which I bought on sale from the Auckland
University Bookshop sometime in the
Flowers in the Mirror, an early nineteenth-century allegory a little in the sprit of Gulliver's
fortunately it lacks Swift's lacerating
contempt for mankind), has its charms
too, but its fields of warring flowers
do tend to pale beside the depth and
originality of the Hung Lou Meng.
Gu Zhizhong, trans. Creation of the Gods. 2 vols. 1992. Beijing: New World Press,
Low, C. C. & Associates, trans. Pictorial Stories of Chinese
Classics: Canonization of Deities. 3 vols. Singapore: Canfonian Pte Ltd., 1989.
Li Ju-Chen. Flowers in the Mirror. Trans. Lin Tai-Yi. London: Peter Owen, 1965.
Shen Fu. Six Records of a Floating Life. Trans. Leonard Pratt & Chiang Su-Hui. Penguin
Penguin, 1983. p.25.
Which of us cares to hear the cuckoo's sorry
For waking us before the dawn's first red?
'Today perhaps the winter's come,' you said,
Wrapped-up and warm against the season's flurry.
– Jack Ross, 'Life in a Chinese Novel'
years, as each new class joined the
Language School, I would try to talk
to any Chinese students I had about
their classic novels. A few of them
had read the books at school, but I
suspect that to most it was the equivalent
of asking an average English-speaking
adolescent their opinion of The Canterbury
Tales or The Faerie Queene.
Yet I don't regret it. Perhaps the thing I really hoped to convey was
respect: respect for a tradition which
wasn't (and could never be) mine, but
which had given me so much.
Perverse Bao-yu, with his contempt for all things masculine; delicate,
peevish Dai-yu; lovely Bao-Chai –
these names have meaning for me: they
constitute complex lessons in how to
That isn't all, of course. Whether or not you'd classify yourself as
particularly spiritual, Monkey (aka
'Great Sage Equal of Heaven') and his
eccentric companions on the Journey
to the West will do their best to set you on the road to Enlightenment.
Three Kingdom's Cao Cao and his opponents of the Peach Orchard Oath have a good deal
to tell us all about the world of politics.
Hsi Men and his harem of seductive,
intriguing women will demonstrate the
pitfalls (and attractions) of unbridled
I've never been very impressed by those critics who assume as a given
the superiority of the European novel.
True – like the nicotine in cigarettes
– it's never been successfully
eradicated from a country once it's
taken hold. Wherever it goes, it tends
to swallow up indigenous fictional forms.
But what riches have been lost in the
The Chinese novel is our chief witness to the fecundity of these might-have-beens.
I'm the last one to underrate the Icelandic Sagas, the Monogatari of
Japan (including the incomparable Genji), the frame-story collections of Persia and India,
or the Classical Romance (Apuleius,
Petronius and the Greeks). Over the
years, I've taken pleasure in each of
these complex literary traditions. But
I still believe that the only group
of fictions which can rival those produced
during the great age of the European
novel, the 19th Century of Balzac and
Dostoyevsky, remain these six amazing
Chinese works of genius.
They seized hold of me when I was seventeen – at once and at first
sight. Like Jean Genet with the Palestinians
(as he tells it in his 1986 memoir Un
Captif amoureux), what else can I call myself but a prisoner of love?