Popular Novels, Their Endings, and Their Fandoms

Today’s post discusses the ending of Dream of the Red Chamber(Honglou meng 紅樓夢), namely the last forty chapters of the 120-chapter novel, and the different ways the fans of Honglou meng deal with them. These chapters were added on by the publishers of the first print edition around three decades after the death of the author Cao Xueqin 曹雪芹 (1715 or 1724-1763/4) in 1791. This post is mostly inspired by the recently aired finale to Game of Thrones that lead to heated online debates among disappointed fans who were quick to point to the overall decreased quality of the show after the material of the book series A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin was surpassed and producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss had to take over writing according to Martin’s outline themselves. Chinese fans had the added disappointment that the scheduled broadcast of the very last episode was cancelled due to Trump’s war on Huawei. This didn’t stop online discussions of the finale though, and it seems that I’m not the only one to make a connection between Game of Thrones and Honglou meng.

So what had happened in 18th c. China and how does it affect readers of Honglou meng today? Cao Xueqin, a scholar from a prominent clan which had since lost both prestige and wealth, worked on a epic novel based on his own childhood experiences of living in the compound of a rich family. Manuscripts of this unfinished novel, still called The Story of the Stone 石頭記 in those days, circulated among his friends, some of which added commentaries on the margins as a sort of peer-review to help Cao improve his work. These are known as “rouge versions” 脂本. Unfortunately, Cao only completed 80 chapters before he passed away in his 40s or 50s. We don’t know the exact life dates of Cao Xueqin, nor are we able to ascertain his place in the family tree of the Cao family. This tells us that he was nowhere near as revered in his own day as he became later. After Cao’s death the Honglou meng was in danger of remaining an unfinished manuscript circulating in handwritten copies. But in 1791 publishers Cheng Weiyuan 程偉元 and Gao E 高鶚 published a complete 120 chapter version based on the “rediscovered original draft” by Cao Xueqin. With the rigid structure of full-length novels 章回小說 there is no doubt that Honglou meng was conceived as a 120 chapter novel, but the fortuitous rediscovery of a draft that had remained unknown for almost 30 years is highly dubious.


The increased reach of print medium allowed the now complete work went on to make an impact on the literary scene. Parents even feared for their daughters’ health as they were binge reading and observed depressive bouts when they reached the chapter in which Lin Daiyu 林黛玉 dies of a broken heart. I don’t know if boys didn’t read Honglou meng or if parents simply weren’t as concerned about their reading habits. Lin Daiyu’s helplessness when love clashed with matchmaking certainly was something most of the young ladies 閨秀 of the Qing would understand and share.

Honglou meng‘s popularity continues to this day. I’m not aware of anyone reading themselves to death, but both the novel and a 1987 TV show are held in great esteem in the Sinophone world. The academic study of the book is so plentiful that it spawned its own discipline: Redology 紅學. In the course of this study the author Cao Xueqin, his life and his work took center stage in the discussion and appreciation of the novel. Consequenlty, a purist reading of the novel would insist to stop at chapter 80, claiming the ending to be a purely economically motivated hack-job not worthy of attention. They would lament the lack of an ending but prefer its unfinishedness to an inferior conclusion. Fans disappointed by inferior endings/ sequels/ adaptations to beloved works take similar stands, choosing to not engage with these (parts of) shows. As an additional coping mechanism, fans also like to pretend these seasons/movies never happened. Currently people might say that its neat that the excellent animated series Avatar-The Last Airbender is being adapted into a life-action TV show, since its a shame that is has definitely never been adapted into a movie. (Statements like these have the added benefit of separating fans from casual bystanders who tend to accept claims to the contrary on Google, Wikipedia, imdb etc.)

1963年 越剧红楼梦
Photo from a Shaoxing Opera 越劇 production of Honglou meng in 1963. Depicted is the pivotal scene of Jia Baoyu and Lin Daiyu reading a script for The West Chamber 西廂記, a romantic play deemed to racy for them . Via Wikimedia Commons.

I’m not aware that a consensus on denying the existence of an ending to Game of Thrones has been reached, but there has been a petition to re-shoot the 8th season. While nothing similar is known concerning a rewrite of the Cheng-Gao version ending, several unauthorized sequels show that there was a market for alternative endings. However, in the case of Honglou meng that meant writing a happy end that the original author never intended. It is clear from some hints early in the novel, that Cao had envisioned fates for his characters that were probably much more devastating than what the Cheng-Gao version describes. Yet sequels and rewrites were overly concerned with resurrecting their heroine Lin Daiyu and creating a household in which formerly clashing characters now lived in harmony. Game of Thrones fans on the other hand seem to accept the fact that beloved characters need to meet cruel fates, since that is part of the nature of the show, but they would prefer them to do so in a way that does not insult character development and storytelling.

It remains to be seen if Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire will be able to establish its own discipline of scholarship (“Gameology”? “Throneology”?). If it does the current debates and the debacle of the last season are definitely going to contribute immensely to academic debate. In the meantime, the resonance this show found online in American, Chinese and other markets and the heated online debates it sparked, serves to show the power of great narratives and how they inspire people everywhere, just as Honglou meng continues to inspire readers to this day. And a little (or a lot of) controversy around its inception only serves to liven the debate.

A lot of excellent introductory essays to Honglou meng and Redology can be found in:

Andrew Schonebaum and Tina Lu, Approaches to Teaching “The Story of the Stone” (Dream of the Red Chamber), on Worldcat.org

The Story of the Stone: A Chinese Novel in Five Volumes, translated by David Hawkes and John Minford, on Worldcat.org

A Dream of Red Mansions, translated by Gladys Yang and Yang Xianyi, on Worldcat.org

Der Traum der roten Kammer oder die Geschichte vom Stein, translated into German by Rainer Schwarz and Martin Woesler, on Worldcat.org

P.S. I haven’t had a chance to watch Game of Thrones or read A Song of Ice and Fire yet, since the show came on while I was writing my PhD and I can only deal with one epic narrative (i.e. the topic of my PhD, Fengshen yanyi 封神演義) at a time. A question for everyone who has seen/read it: Knowning how it ends, should I still watch it? Should I watch to the end or stop before? Should I read the books instead? I’d love to hear your recommendations! Also, when the show first came out, people told me it was like The Romance of the Three Kindoms 三國演義. Does this assessment still hold up?


May 4th 2019 in Kaohsiung 高雄

Today’s post deals with May the Fourth and popular science fiction, but it won’t be about Star Wars. Instead, it will focus on the May Forth Movement 五四運動 that was started a century ago on May Fourth 1919, as well as on the absolutely unconnected Ingress XM Anomaly that took place in Kaohsiung this Saturday, May Fourth 2019. I will use Liu Cixin’s 劉慈欣 Three Body Problem 三體 to bridge the gap between these two events. Is this going to be a stretch? Absolutely! But I think I can make it work.

The May Fourth Movement began in 1919 as a reaction to the Treaties of Versailles. In the treaties, the German territories in Shandong that had been leased from the Qing dynasty were not returned to the newly established Republic of China, but instead given to the Japanese Empire. Chinese intellectuals felt that this was a reflection of the way in which China was perceived internationally: an underdeveloped, backwards country that could be disrespected and whose objections to the willful redistribution of its lands could be ignored without consequence. As a result, these intellectuals joined into the concerted efforts of the New Culture Movement 新文化運動 to modernize China on all fronts: military, technology, education, culture etc.  They sought to reach and educate the common people by adopting vernacular language in their literary writings and essays – this step was quite remarkable, since so far scholars and officials had used classical Chinese to communicate, a language as closely related to vernacular Chinese as Latin to modern French, Spanish or Italian.

One of the things the modernists sought to spread through their writings was technological knowledge. Arguing that the common people would be more open to science in the form of fiction, the genre of science fiction was first introduced to China around the turn of the 19th century. Yet, while the efforts for mass education stayed important during the rest of the 20th century, science fiction literature unfortunately did not. It disappeared from the literary scene for half a century and then only returned in the form of short stories in dedicated magazines like Science Fiction World 科學世界 from the 1990s onward. Until…

Until Liu Cixin published his Three Body Problem trilogy. Not only was this series a smashing success in China, the first volume went on to to the first novel in translation to win the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2015, showing international recognition. The Three Body Problem more than revitalized Chinese science fiction: novels by a range of authors can now be found in major book stores and movies are being produced. Unfortunately, the first Three Body Problem movie appears to be stuck in production limbo, but The Wandering Earth 流浪地球, based on a short story by Liu Cixin, opened to great success in Chinese theaters.

Looking at Liu’s work in particular, it seems as if the worries of the May Fourth Movement have been overcome: these stories don’t seek to modernize China; they portray Chinese society and scientists as leading in the world. China no longer needs to fight to make its voice heard; China is a global superpower and a highly sought-after international partner. China safes the world.

While the PRC uses science fiction to celebrate its own greatness, the city of Kaohsiung in the ROC embraces science fiction in a very different way by hosting an event of the Ingress XM Anomaly that is part of a worldwide series. (See, I told you I could connect the May Fourth Movement to Ingress!) Last Saturday, they connected Taiwanese players to the to the worldwide community and inviting international players to engage with them in Pokemon Go style street battles around the city. (It should be pointed out though that Ingress launched years before Pokemon Go, meaning the latter technically uses Ingress style strategies.) My brother was one of these players, having come all the way from Germany to join into the fun and do a bit of sight-seeing before and after.

On May Fourth 2019, a hundred years after the May Fourth Movement was started in the Republic of China by intellectuals dissatisfied with how the international community viewed them, gamers in the Republic of China on Taiwan are a natural part of the Ingress community. Even though the company behind Ingress was probably more concerned with 5/4 2019 being a Saturday, their schedule decision nevertheless allowed me to both take a trip to Kaohsiung and write this far fetched post about the development of Chinese science fiction.

Please check out actual articles on 100 years May Fourth Movement as well. Here are some i liked:

Jeremiah Jenne: Memories of May Fourth in Downtown Beijing on The World of Chinese

Yang Chunmei: The May Fourth Movement in Chinese History on Sixth Tone

Shakar Rahav: May Fourth for the World on the China Channel


Smallpox in 19th c. China

I am currently reading The Talented Women of the Zhang Family by Susan Mann, an imaginative retelling of the biographies of the Changzhou 常州 writer Tang Yaoqing (1763-1831), her four daughters and the daughters of her youngest children, daughter Zhang Wanying 張紈英 (1800-1881) and son Zhang Yuesun 張曜孫 (1807-1863). Here I stumbled upon a poem lamenting the death of several young children because of smallpox, which was particularly striking in light of recent resurgences of childhood diseases due to the anti-vax movement. I thought I might share it here, to give a little insight into the devastating effects outbreaks of smallpox had as recently as the 19th c.

In her book, Mann was able to reconstruct a situation in which female education was passed on within the family, since – except for second daughter Zhang Guanying 張𥿑英 (1795 – 1824) – all daughters remained with their natal family 娘家 for most of their live even after marriage. The books focus on the younger siblings’ children makes it seem like the elder sisters Zhang Qieying 張䌌英 (1792- after 1863) and Zhang Lunying 張綸英 (1798-1859) never had children of their own. In fact, Qieying had given birth to three children, Lunying to two. But in 1827, while the family was in Jinan 濟南 en route to their father Zhang Qi’s 張琦 (1764-1833) new post as governor in western Shandong, a son and daughter of Qieying and the two daughters of Lunying died in a smallpox epidemic. Lunying would (as far as we know) never give birth again and insted adopt a son from her husband’s family and a daughter from her sister Wanying’s children. Qieying gave birth to another son who also died of smallpox. This was in 1831 in Beijing, whence she had moved to be with her husband and his son from his first wife who had passed away.

Around 1839 Zhang Qieying wrote a poem about the smallpox deaths of those five children, which clearly shows her pain and loss:





From the “Ming Qing Women’s Writings” Database at McGill University

Moved on Reading Master Sun Zixiao’s “The Death of Apricots,” I Composed This Poem in the Same Genre

Striking my eye, stopping my heart, a scene exactly as I knew it,
Tears course down my face, soak through my jacket.
Grievous aching of the heart, its cause the same pain.
Fraught images so vivid, the poem seems like a painting.
Twice in six years have I seen souls die,
Note: In the spring of 1827, I lost a son and a daughter; in the winter of 1832, another son.
For months at a time my whole family’s had no more tears to shed.
Early in my live I was to learn the reality of “each in its own time.”
Note: The saying goes that in smallpox, it is timely for the elder to go before the younger; the reverse is untimely.
Elder sister, then younger sister, each lost precious “pearls in the palm.”
Note: At the time I was accompanying our late mother, lodging in Jinan; Lunying in that same month lost her own two daughters to smallpox.
The little souls had no symptoms, so a cure was not carefully considered,
How I regret that we used needles and herbs as if we were treating an ordinary illness.
The children gave no hint of dying, then suddenly they were gone,
Everyone had wished them long live, but their lives were not long at all.
As the illness worsened, we administered powerful drugs,
The doctors all insisted they had good remedies.
Hardest hit was the loving mother, her hurt cut to the quick,
From sunset til dawn burning incense, praying for unseen help.
The moment when the crisis came, I now can bear to recall,
They seemed about to depart and yet unable to bear to leave.
Calling their mother in low tones, their spirits ebbing away,
Looking at their father, eyes still ahead, tears still welling.
Their share of this life over, with no days left to live,
While for half my own life I’ve made empty talk about rearing children.
After twelve years with a heart near breaking,
I am ready to reread “The Death of Apricots.”

Translation by Susan Mann, in The Talented Women of the Zhang Family, p. 94


While this poems is very powerful on its own, I would still like to add some context: death of young children was common enough that poets developed a dedicated image to talk about it: “death of apricots” 杏殤, which goes back to a poem by Meng Jiao 孟郊 (751-814), lamenting the death of his son. The poem that inspired Zhang Qieying was written by Sun Yuanxiang 孫原湘 (1760-1829, courtesy name Zixiao 子瀟) as a lament for his own young children.

It is also important to note that the Zhang family were among the elite of their time and had access to good doctors and medicine and Qieying was staying in the capital Beijing  with all its resources during the death of her third child. Even though, they were unable to shield their children from the virus or find medicine that could heal them. It can only be imagined how much worse this type of childhood diseases ravaged normal families.

It seems that since the development of vaccines against common childhood diseases we have lost sight of the devastating effects that smallpox, measles etc. have had on previous generations. For the five dead children of the Zhang family, we only know their year of death because of this lament. Because they died so young, neither their names nor their years of birth have been recorded. They might as well not have existed, except for their parents’ grief about their deaths.

Please vaccinate your children.

Ming Qing Women’s Writing Database at McGill University

Susan Mann: The Talented Women of the Zhang Family, 2007, on worldcat.org

Happy New Year!

The Chinese Year of the Pig started two weeks ago and I thought this might be a good time to reflect on the state of Sino Literature this past year, especially since the blog has been rather dormant recently. This has to do with the fact that I moved to Taipei last autumn to start working as a postdoc at NCCU 政大, develop my new research project on women in late imperial China and continue my work on Nezha-related topics. Especially the task of exploring possible ways to approach my new research topic and reading up on primary sources as well as secondary literature has somewhat taken over my brain and pushed everything I ever new about shenmo xiaoshuo神魔小說 to the side. This makes it very hard to contribute to this blog on a regular basis.

Taipei 101 being photogenic on a sunny day. Lately it usually hides behind clouds.

The good thing is that my content, like my research, is by no means time sensitive and any post I am going to write about a 400-year-old novel will still be as relevant next year as it would be today. The stats for my blog seem to support this: while the largest part of my readership is directed to Sino Literature from my social media pages, where I share new posts, a reassuring number of views come from people typing book titles into search engines. One of the reasons for starting this blog was the feeling that there was not a lot of resources about late imperial literature other than the most famous novels out there. The fact that people decided to click the link to my blog seems to confirm this impression.

Another thing I am quite happy about is the fact that views come from all over the world, as this side-by-side of 2017 and 2018 shows. People interested in the novels I discuss – though still few in numbers – live all over the world:


This greatly motivates me to keep on writing for Sino Literature, as soon as I can free up some brain cells.

Thanks everyone and a Happy New Year!

Teaching Honglou meng 紅樓夢

I recently happened to discuss teaching the monumental Chinese classic Dream of the Red Chamber  (Honglou meng 紅樓夢) – commonly viewed as the best Chinese novel ever written – with professors from both Italy and Taiwan. As you can imagine with a book that is associated with such high praise, there is quite a chance that students will walk away disappointed if they aren’t introduced to it properly. I formerly wrote about the advantages of obscure novels in this regard: If you have never heard of the book before you are more apprehensive of its quality and there are greater chances of it exceeding your barely-there expectations. Honglou meng does not have this advantage. And while its important to note that it is a great book, the standards for “the best novel” are very subjective and largely as dependent on personal preference for genre as on the quality of the writing.

A good introduction should therefore probably start with an overview of the genre of  “novel of manners” (renqing xiaoshuo 人情小說, a term coined by Lu Xun 魯迅 in his Brief History of Chinese Fiction 中國小說史略) and probably also point out some essential facts about family life and the wealthy elites of late imperial China. Once you have prepared this introduction, the next question is: Do you give it to your students before you assign them individual chapters to read or do you throw them right into the novel before putting what they read into context? Importantly, which approach is more likely to make your students actually read the assigned reading?

The Taiwanese professor I talked to thought the answer to the latter question was fairly easy: Just give your students a quiz at the start of every lesson to make sure they actually read it! This approach seems work in Taiwan, where Honglou meng classes are taught at Departments of Chinese Literature, maybe even as part of a compulory Introduction to Chinese Literature class. But in the context of European Sinology or Chinese Studies, Honglou meng (and sometimes even Introduction to Chinese Literature) classes are usually electives and as such in competition other electives. Fear of next weeks quiz is far more likely to make students drop Chinese literature in favor of more “practical” classes, like Chinese economics, or classes with fewer requirements.

It is therefore essential to show students that a novel like Honglou meng can be very interesting and maybe even fun to read. Reading assignments should never only be chores. For the same reason it is also impossible to assign students the whole novel to read. Like any good late imperial novel it is loooong – 80 chapters written by author Cao Xueqin 曹雪芹 and 120 in the “complete” version. Selected chapters it is then.

But which episodes do we choose? The mythological framework at the beginning, a.k.a. “The Story of the Stone” (that gave the novel its first title)? Jia Baoyu’s 賈寶玉 dream in chapter 5, a.k.a. “The Dream of the Red Chamber” (that gave the novel its current title)? selected scenes of Jia Baoyu and Lin Daiyu’s 林黛玉 romance, the most celebrated romanic couple in Chinese literature? Granny Liu’s 劉姥姥 visit to the garden, which shows the excessive splendour of the Jia family mansion through the eyes of a country woman? Wang Xifeng 王熙鳳, a capable and quite badass manager, eaten by jealousy and “too masculine to bear a son”? Spoiled rich brat Xue Pan 薛蟠? The poetry club? The visit of the imperial concubine? Jia Baoyu and his father? Grandmother Jia’s 賈母 lecture on romantic literature? Or just a random domestic scene with Jia Baoyu and his maid Xiren 襲人?

This question is complicated by a narrative feature of Honglou meng that is quite characteristic for late imperial Chinese novels: Stories are generally told in an episodic framework with sometimes minimal contact between individual episodes. This feature is the most obvious in Suihu zhuan 水滸傳 (Water Margin), where characters are geographically extremely mobile. We follow one character for a couple of chapters until his story arch nears its conclusion. Then he usually meets an aquaintance, they have a drink together and we laeve that first character  behind as the aquaintance becomes the protagonist of the next episode. Only occasionally former main characters make guest appearances in new episodes.

This is an unusual narrative framework if you are used to Western narratives with clear overall protagonists and parallel storylines that are alternatively brought to the forefront. It is even more perplexing in Honglou meng, where all characters live in the same place. But the novel has no problem exclusively focusing on a certein charachter and its story arch while completely ignoring all others for the time being. It even fundamentally changes its narrative tone after the first few chapters from a tale steeped in mystery to a largley realistic destription of family live. For large parts we may even be forgiven for forgetting that there ever was a mythological framework.

Another problem of the episode structure is the huge cast of characters it creates, since every episode essentialy introduces its own host of supporting characters, meaning the novel features over 400 named characters. This is something that makes students’ reading experience very frustrating and confusing. Providing at least a schematic of the Jia family tree is essential to make any reading comprehension possible.

I do not have a definite answer to the question of how to teach Honglou meng. But generally speaking I would probably start with an introduction of family live in late imperial elite families and give a bit of background on author Cao Xueqin. Then I would assing and discuss chapters from the middle parts, because these descriptions of family life make up the majority of the novel. I would save the mythological framework for last, since that could lead into a discussion of the textual history of the novel when talking about the missing conclusion of the frame and the later completion.

What are your experiences with teaching Honglou meng? Have you had a chance to teach students from different backgrounds? How did they react to the novel differently?

The Story of the Stone: A Chinese Novel in Five Volumes, translated by David Hawkes and John Minford, on Worldcat.org

A Dream of Red Mansions, translated by Gladys Yang and Yang Xianyi, on Worldcat.org

Der Traum der roten Kammer oder die Geschichte vom Stein, translated into German by Rainer Schwarz and Martin Woesler, on Worldcat.org

A Quiet Hero: Yang Jian 楊戩

Today I want to talk about my favorite hero from Fengshen yanyi 封神演義: Yang Jian 楊戩, a young Daoist adept with magical abilities, a third eye in the middle of his forehead, the Howling Celestial Dog 哮天犬 by his side. He is the righ hand man of commander Jiang Ziya 姜子牙 and continually raises his profile throughout the novel. I like Yang Jian, because he is intelligent, a good fighter, has manners, is capable of strategizing, and gets stuff done. He is neither a distant, calculating strategist like Jiang Ziya, nor a hot-blooded fighter like Nezha 哪吒 et al.

Relief of Erlang/Yang Jian via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Dharma from Penang, Malaysia [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Especially the latter is a beloved character type in Chinese popular literature, with Sangguo yanyi‘s 三國演義 Zhang Fei 張飛 and Shuihu zhuan’s 水滸傳 Li Tieniu 李鐵牛 as prime examples. They are popular, because they don’t stand being bullied, condescension or unfair treatment, but unlike regular commoners, they are endowed with superhuman strength that allows them to actually vanquish their opponents. It is these same beloved qualities that sometimes annoy me: they are quick to anger and always act upon their feelings immediately. They are incapable of looking at the bigger picture and channelling their anger into more effective methods of defeating their enemies. Usually they aren’t even interested in the bigger picture at all. Their only course of action is violence and especially Li Tieniu regularly wipes out entire villages in a frenzy of rage.

Yang Jian on the other hand is a quiet hero: He reliably contributes to the cause of the Zhou. He also stops to think in the face of danger and does not rush into unnecessary confrontations. But he is by no means a boring character. He is regularly sent to all corners of the world to borrow potent weapons from Immortals 仙 living on serene mountains. He is the readers’ guide into the marvelous world of Daoist perfection.

He also gets to fight seven animal demons (who took on human form) on Mei Mountain (梅山七怪) with Nezha as his sidekick. (Chapter 92) The monsters he fights are at their core a white ape, a water buffulo, a dog, a wild boar, a centipede, a white snake and goat. Naturally they don’t stand a chance against our heroes. This fact is important, when we look at Yang Jian in another context: Xiyou ji 西遊記. Yang Jian is another book-hopping character and has a rather memorable fight with the handsome monkey king 美猴王 Sun Wukong 孫悟空 at the beginning of the novel.

This fight sees both characters go through a number of transformations, trying to outdo each other. The scene is hilariously depicted in the classic 1964 animated movie 大鬧天宮(1:35, Youtube link that worked December 2018). Interestingly, Yang Jian – who is mainly known as Erlang shen 二郎神 in this novel – enters into the fight with the monkey king right after Nezha has to retreat defeated, making it very clear that he is a stronger and more cunning fighter than Nezha in both novels. In Xiyou ji, Yang Jian is not able to defeat Sun Wukong and it takes the intervention of Laozi 老子 and ultimately the Buddha, to restrain the monkey king. Fengshen yanyi tries in many ways to rectify the depictions the Xiyou ji (which was presumably published 2-3 decades earlier) and redeems Yang Jian from this defeat.

Yang Jian also features heavily in the story of progress the Fengshen yanyi tells: The Zhou dynasty, which is established at the end of the novel, is the Golden Age of Confucianism, in so far that this is the time people talk about when they mention “the good old days” when everybody still behaved as they should. The founding kings Wen 文 and Wu 武 are revered as paragons of sage rule. Naturally, their opponent king Zhou 紂 of Shang is vilified as a cruel and unprincipled tyrant who let himself be influenced by – gasp – a woman!

Fengshen yanyi doesn’t confine this theme of progress to the political sphere. The kind of hero that carries the Zhou to victory is one such example: Early on in the novel the hot-blooded “vanguards” such as Nezha, Leizhen zi 雷震子 (the god of thunder) and Huang Tianhua 黃天化 assist in small personal battles and help kick-start the war that had been brewing since the beginning. But later on in the story they lose prominence while Yang Jian, who joined the party rather late, becomes Jiang Ziya’s right hand man – signifying the increased maturity of the Zhou dynasty. Seems like the author of Fengshen yanyi also preferred heroes with foresight to those with no self-control.

Unfortunately, heroes like Yang Jian remain exceptions in Chinese literature to this day. The public opinion seems to still favour quick-to-anger characters that pack a heavy punch. Or intelligent but frivolous characters that usually get annoying after a while. So if you know about any character like Yang Jian, who is a good fighter with self-control; intelligent and professional; and gets to do cool stuff: Please let me know.

Creation of the Gods, translated by Gu Zhizhong on Worldcat.org

Journey to the West, translated by Anthony C. Yu, on Worldcat.org.

Journey to the West, translated by WJF Jenner, on Worldcat.org

Die Reise in den Westen, translated by Eva Lüdi Kong, on Worldcat.org

The Ouevre of Jin Yong 金庸

If you have been paying attention to new Chinese literature in translation in the past couple of months, you have surly seen announcements and reviews for the first English translation of The Legend of the Condor Heroes 射鵰英雄傳 by the famous Hong Kong author Louis Cha 查良鏞 (*1924), who better known by his pen name Jin Yong 金庸. The first installment of Condor Heroes now published is called “A Hero Born” and the translator is Anna Holmwood. I have yet to read this novel, so I can’t say anything about the book in Chinese or English. Rather, this post is to talk about Jin Yong’s oeuvre and how it was framed in the reviews to appeal to a Western audience. A caveat: My understanding of Jin Yong novels is based on the 2003 adaptation of Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils 天龍八部 and the first few chapters of A Deadly Secret 連城訣, which I am reading at the moment. (This is a very poor basis for a book review. Kids, don’t do that at school!)

The reviews on “A Hero Born” face the daunting task of introducing a new audience to a whole universe that is very much based in Chinese history and tradition. The wuxia 武俠 elements may be traced back to classics such as Shuihu zhuan 水滸傳 (Water Margin), with strong fighters that adhere to a very specific “chivalrous” conduct. The backdrop is firmly rooted in Chinese history, that would be familiar to a Chinese reader, but completely foreign to a Western one. (A failure of our school systems exclusive focus on European and Post-Columbian North American history perhaps?) As a Sinologist I was very fascinated by the use of the complex political landscape of the Northern Song 北宋 (960–1127) in Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils, where the leaders of Dali 大理, Yan 燕, Jurchen 女真, Western Xia 西夏 and Liao 遼 (Khitan 契丹), as well as various spies and ambassadors contributed to a layered and varied storytelling, with groups of bandits, monks and assassins making the chaos complete.

This was the universe I pictured in my mind, when I read the first of many reviews to claim that Jin Yong’s novels are “the Lord of the Rings of Chinese Literature” and the author as “China’s Tolkien“. And I asked myself: How? How does a storytelling universe based on historical tradition compare to a fictional world that was created for its story? How do the complex relationships between characters, the power play of various groups and the conflicting loyalties the characters face compare to a novel featuring a character that is the ultimate enemy? Was this comparison made, simply because there are fantastic elements in both of them? Unfortunately, there is a tendency among literary critics to not take novels in the “fantasy” genre seriously, to disregard nuances and subgenres (often lumping it together with science fiction on top of that) and picture the readership as predominantly young adults. Is this what happened here?

I had sort of forgotten about this awkward comparison until I saw a summary of Alexandre Dumas’ (1802-1870)  The Three Musketeers (1844) on youtube in the excellent playmobil reenactment by “Sommers Weltliteratur to go” (in German only).* Only knowing The Three Musketeers from the excellent movies featuring Michael York and Richard Chamberlain (and other movies which, while fun, weren’t nearly as good), I learned now that this story was originally published as a serial, with new chapters published separately. (Again, don’t do this at home kids. I do not assume that I have “read” The Three Musketeers after having seen some movies and a youtube summary.)

As Martin Sommer was retelling the back and forth of the story that was full of sword fights of the four protagonists against whole armies, d’Artagnan repeatedly falling in love, betrayals, power plays, hidden connections between characters etc., I was very much reminded of the style of Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils: larger than life heroes destroy whole enemy armies, one protgonist falls repeatedly at love at first sight, characters get betrayed by those closest to them, tragic deaths lead to dramatic vengence plots and secret relationships between characters are constantly uncovered. At every turn the stakes are high and they only get higher. This breathless tension is unfortunatley coupled with a clumsy writing style, lack of in-depth world-building and an overall YA novel or soap opera feeling in the main characters approach to relationships.

Just like Dumas, Jin Yong published his works in installments. Both of them were professional writers dependant on publications for their income and even both hired other writers as ghostwriters: Auguste Maquet and Ni Kuang 倪匡 respectively. They needed to keep the readers interested in every installment; slowly building up towards a climax or crafting a complex story was not possible. They were the exact opposite to J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973) who took almost 20 years to slowly write his masterpiece and argue with publishers about proposed cuts and volume titles while continuing his day job. The stories they wrote reflect their fast writing and publication process. And before you complain about the lack of the supernatural in The Three Musketeers as compared to Jin Yong’s works: I personally never gave up on a book because there was too much or too little magic in it. I did give up on books, because I did not like the style of writing.

I don’t think that the works of Jin Yong should need to be framed in terms of a “corresponding Western novel” to be considered worthy of our time. To me, the very fact that they are unlike the books I read as a kid or teenager makes them more interesting. But I understand that for some readers it might be helpful to have some idea of what they will get themselves into and I think telling them Jin Yong’s oeuvre was “the Chinese Lord of the Rings” is misleading. Instead: Think Three Musketeers, think constant excitement, adventure, love triangles and sword fights set against a romanticized historical universe. Not one giant epic story that is given time to grow, but fun and excitement in every single installment.

Jin Yong’s works in the original Chinese can be bought in many reprints across the Chinese-speaking world.

Jin Yong, A Hero Born, Vol.1 of Legend of the Condor Heroes, translated by Anna Holmwood, MacLehose Press 2018.

Alexandre Dumas on gutenberg.org (page currently blocked in Germany)

Les trois mousquetaires

The Three Musketeers

*Many thanks to my colleague Andrea Kreuzpointner for alerting me to the fact that playmobil reenactments are a thing.