[Resource] open-lit.com

Researching traditional Chinese literature, I often encounter books that are not readily available (except in sinological libraries) and mostly quite substantial in length, making them difficult to carry around. Enter digital resources. While not acceptable basis for citation in an academic context, they provide a good starting point for initial contact with a book. Here, I want to share how one such resource works: open-lit.com

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The novel list on open-lit.

Open-lit.com 開放文學 is a Chinese language page in traditional characters that offers free full text versions of a number of novels from late imperial China. The build of the site is very simple: 657 novels are listed in 17 categories alongside 417 plays in 14 categories. Clicking on the title will lead you to a chapter page which in turn will lead you to the full texts for the individual chapters.

The home page URL is open-lit.com, but you can skip the introduction and go straight to the list of novels or the list of plays. So far I have only used the novels bit, so I will concentrate on that. I assume the list of plays works in a similar fashion. One example of a novel category is 神鬼仙俠: Gods, Ghosts, Immortals and Heroes:

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The arrangement of novels within each category is according to the radical 部首 of the first character, which can make it difficult to find stuff, unless you really know your radicals. But there is a way around this. If you know the title of your novel you can easily skip to it using the search function on you browser: You press Ctrl+F and then enter the search term in the bar at the bottom of your browser.

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You can also use the search function for novels built into the site to find novel titles or keywords. Just press the first link in the right hand corner of the novel list. By default the search is “full-text” 全文檢索, but you can change that to title 書明, author 作者, time of publication 年代, introduction 簡介 or chapter title 回目檢索. You can also combine two search terms with either “and” 和 or “or” 或.

open lit suchfunktion

What you can’t do, unfortunately, is combining a book title and a full text search term. You can get around that though, using Google. I might, for example, be looking for the mention of Nezha 哪吒 in Fengshen yanyi 封神演義, so I would type this into the google search bar: site:open-lit.com 封神演義 哪吒.

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When you have found you novel you can first read the basic information provided at the link 本書資料, which tells you (most important for academic work) the edition this text is based on. Then you can select the chapter you need from the table of content and start reading from there, comfortably skipping to the previous and next chapters with the arrows at the end of the page. There is actually a really handy tool built into the site that can help you read you Chinese text. On the right hand side of the page you fill see a very simple tool bar which can’t be reduced in size, making it a bit annoying for reading on a small screen. But if you come across an unknown character or word in the text (which I still do quite a lot) then you can simply select it with you cursor and open-lit will display a Chinese explanation on the right.

open lit wörterbuch
The dictionary toll. Right know it is telling me that “The House of Zhou” 周室 means “Zhou dynasty” 周朝. The pronunciation is included in Zhuyin: ㄓㄡ ㄕˋ (Pinyin Zhōu shì).

But you wouldn’t always want to read online. And you don’t have to. This is a function I only recently found out about and I was so happy. At the top of the novel’s page you will find the link “download this book” 本書下載 which will lead you to 3-4 options for download. The html version works quite well for me on my phone, after downloading a zip file and unpacking it. I haven’t encountered the file extensions “ebk”, “epb” or “chm” before, so I didn’t try them. If anybody knows what they are and how they work, please let me know in the comments below!

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And that concludes my introduction of open-lit.com.  The page is perfect, if you know you book and want a quick overview, find the exact wording of a passage or even read the whole thing on an electronic device. You definitely need to know Chinese and be able to read traditional characters. The navigation is rudimentary, but I actually found that the very simple nature of the site allows me to really concentrate on the text without getting distracted. Plus, a lot of texts are included in the site, some of which I couldn’t find anywhere else, making it my go-to online resource for late imperial literature these days.

What are your experiences using open-lit.com? Do you know any other digital resources you would recommend?

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Pingyao zhuan 平妖傳

The Pingyao zhuan 平妖傳 (Pacifying the Demons’ Revolt) was the first traditional Chinese novel where I thoroughly enjoyed reading: it was funny, varied and centered around a fascinating female character. The translation I read, Aufstand der Zauberer by Manfred Porkert, did a lot to help that enjoyment. I especially liked Porkert’s language, which was playful and a little bit antiquated. Quite fitting for a comedic novel written in the 17th c.

The story is set much earlier though: it centers around a historical insurgency that happened in 1047-1048 in the Song dynasty. The novel greatly expands the duration and extension of the uprising, but mostly tells the stories of the people involved in the time leading up to it. Those characters roam both cities and the countryside in a manner similar to the heroes of Shuihu zhuan 水滸傳 (variously translated as Outlaws of the Marshes, Water Margin), but over the span of significantly fewer chapter. There are two versions of the novel, an earlier one attributed to Luo Guanzhong 羅貫中 (of Sanguo yanyi 三國演義 fame) in 20 chapters, and a later version by Feng Menglong (author of the three story collections known as Sanyan 三言) im 40 chapters. That of course doesn’t compare to any length of the Shuihu zhuan, which may actually vary between 70, 100, and 120. Therefore the cast of characters in Pingyao zhuan is naturally a lot more limited.

That’s why it’s even more exciting that there is a woman as one of the most prominent characters. Hu Yong’er 胡永兒 has quite an exciting life. She is born into the household of a wealthy merchant and (because she has no siblings) given a proper education. But soon her father’s wealth literally goes up in flames, as an old woman burns down his warehouses to make teenage Yong’er receptive to the study of forbidden magic, which the girl uses to help her family. The old woman becomes her teacher and guides her during the rest of the story as Yong’er adopts a vagrant lifestyle after flight from the authorities becomes necessary. The longer version adds complexity to the story by making Yong’er the reincarnation of the old woman’s daughter, Hu Mei’er 胡媚兒. Their story actually serves as an extensive prelude to the main part. Both women are fox spirits, making their surname Hu 胡 a nice pun on its homophone “fox” hu 狐. Female foxes in human form are of course one of the most prominent motifs in Chinese “fantasy” literature, and are often associated with seduction, subversion, and secrecy. Consequently, both Mei’er and later Yong’er are rather atypical female characters for Ming literature: active, self-confident and independent.

As the story goes on, we follow Yong’er as she roams the countryside and various market places, tricking people out of their money, punishing a guy who harasses her and recruiting people for her teacher/mother. When a situation gets sticky, she usually escapes on her paper tiger, transformed to look terrifyingly lifelike.

Over the course of the novel a group of men are recruited and taught in magical arts. Among them is Wang Ze 王則, a character that is based on the historical leader of the 1047/8 insurgency. Unlike the real uprising, our protagonists are rather successful and even proclaim their own dynasty within the territories they hold, with Wang Ze as emperor at the center and Hu Yong’er as his queen. The couple soon grows apart and when Wang Ze starts collecting women for the harem he deems necessary for an emperor, Hu Yong’er retaliates by collecting young men for her own amusement. This doesn’t go down too well with Wang Ze, who tries to get his mother-in-law on his side, but she sets him right by asking why his wife could not have what he has? Wang Ze gives up trying to control his wife and turns with renewed vigor towards collecting new women for his harem. In this endeavour he becomes more and more ruthless. In a parallel development, his ministers become increasingly corrupt and his court sinks into chaos. At this point the Song imperial troops attack the rebellion and defeat them with the help of three people whose names all include the character sui 遂, which is why the long title of the novel is The Three Sui Pacify the Demon’s Revolt. The story concludes with the death of all rebels.

Even though Hu Yong’er doesn’t get a “happy end” in the novel, her story is still remarkable. Especially considering the stereotypical portrayal of female characters in other novels of the time (and, let’s face it, some novels published these days). And we should keep in mind that  already died once in the course of the novel, and when Mei’er died she became Yong’er. In that sense nothing is ever over in Chinese literature and maybe Hu Yong’er is still being awesome in another incarnation.


Luo Guanzhong, Feng Menglong, Der Aufstand der Zauberer: ein Roman aus der Ming-Zeit, translated into German by Manfred Porkert, 1986.

Luo Guanzhong, The Three Sui Quash the Demons’ Revolt: A Comic Novel, translated by Lois Fusek, 2010.

Luo Guanzhong, Quelling the Demons’ Revolt: A Novel of Ming China, translated by Patrick Hanan, 2017.

What on Earth are “shenmo xiaoshuo” 神魔小說?

A term I have been using quite a lot in my posts is shenmo xiaoshuo 神魔小說, so I thought it might be about time to explain what that is supposed to be. The term, which is often translated to “Novels about Gods and Demons”, was first coined by Lu Xun 魯迅 in his Zhongguo xiaoshuo shilüe 中國小說史略 (A Brief History of Chinese Fiction). This book grew out of a series of lectures Lu Xun (sometimes written Lu Hsün; pen name of Zhou Shuren 周樹人, 1881-1936) gave in 1920 at the prestigious Peking University 北京大學, which was published as drafts during the 1920s and as a book in 1930. It has been republished multiple times and you will not have a problem finding a Chinese version in book shops today.

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The book was pretty groundbreaking, since Chinese scholars traditionally favoured genres like poetry, philosophy and historiography and had little interest in fiction. This is already obvious in the term xiaoshuo 小說 which nowadays refers exclusively to novels, but etymologically means “little talk” or “little narrative”, with “little” clearly meaning “inferior”. This lack of appreciation meant that there was also a lack of proper terminology for the various genres of prose fiction. Thus, Lu Xun does not only introduce and categorize a huge number of novels, he also invents names for these categories – names he bases on what he sees as defining features of these novels.

In the case of shenmo xiaoshuo these are the deities shen) and various “monstrous” or “demonic” characters (mo). While this name has not been unchallenged and despite several suggested alternatives, it is still widely used today. I personally also quite like the Chinese term shenmo xiaoshuo, but find the English translation “Novels about Gods and Demons” rather clunky. The same goes for the German translation “Romane über Götter und Dämonen”, which is why I took the liberty of shortening it to “Götterromane” (deity novels) in my PhD thesis. Apart from being shorter, I also find the term more fitting for reasons I will go into in a minute.

As the title suggests, these novels are full of supernatural elements. There are miraculous children, mysterious Buddhist or Daoist masters, fantastical fight scenes, magical objects, demons in human form, demons with monstrous appearance and so on. Yet besides the dazzling sub plots, the novels essentially tell the reader about the origins of and legends surrounding certain actual Chinese deities.

Therefore, I view shenmo xiaoshuo along the lines of “hagiographical” novels, novels that tell us about the origins of certain deities. Some novels, like Journey to the South (about Huaguang 華光),Journey to the North 北遊記 (about Zhenwu 真武), or The Story of Mother Heavenly Consort 天妃娘媽傳 (about Mazu 媽祖) are focused on particular deities, while others, like Journey to the East or Investiture of the Gods narrate the creation of pantheons. In this view I have been influenced by Mark Meulenbeld’s theories on “civilized demons” and “demonic warfare”, which helped me greatly in writing my PhD thesis.

Like me, Meulenbeld looked at Fengshen yanyi (which he translated as Canonization of the Gods), but his focus was a lot wider than mine: while I narrowed my research on the three chapters exclusively concerning Nezha 哪吒, he cast his net rather wider and compared the “cast” of Fengshen yanyi to deities discussed in various Daoist scriptures. Generally speaking, the “deity novels” introduce one or more deities and showcase their powers by letting them fight a range of demons and sometimes also other, mightier deities. Through this the readers can familiarize themselves with the characters, powers and “fields of expertise” (e.g. childbirth, merchants, warriors) of various gods. In this sense the novels are basically the narratives behind the liturgy. Their subjects may be Daoist (like in Fengshen yanyi), Buddhist (like in Xiyou ji, which tells the story of how the sutras came to China and Sun Wukong became a Bodhisattva), or focused on popular local deities (like The Story of the Mother Heavenly Consort).

I realize that this post turned rather more technical than I imagined and may not give anyone a good idea of what shenmo xiaoshuo actually are. So let me just say in conclusion that they are great fun to read and research. They are generally a synthesis of the legends surrounding the deity/deities at their center, told in a way that is meant to be entertaining. And I find that, overall, they generally are. Unfortunately, though Lu Xun’s efforts helped to raise the status of novels as a literary genre in China, shenmo xiaoshuo are as an object of serious study are still somewhat looked down upon.The current scholar favours literati novels with their subtle character portrayal. But I think that precisely because they are somewhat full of stereotypes and quite action packed, the more interesting aspects of shenmo xiaoshuo are regularly overlooked. Just because something is fun and accessible it doesn’t mean that it is not worth a serious look. So stay tuned for more shenmo xiaoshuo on this blog!


Lu Xun, A Brief History of Chinese Fiction, translated by Gladys Yang Yang Xianyi and Moss Roberts. On Worldcat.org

Mark Meulenbeld, Civilized Demons: Ming Thunder Gods From Ritual to Literature. On Worldcat.org

Mark Meulenbeld, Demonic Warfare: Daoism, Territorial Networks, and the History of a Ming Novel. On Worldcat.org

I have already introduced some shenmo xiaoshuo on this blog and will certainly continue to do so. See my earlier posts on Fengshen yanyi here and here. You may also want to read up on the novels Xiyang ji, Nanyou ji, or Dongyou ji here and here. Some general musings on shenmo xiaoshuo can be found in my post on Bookhopping Characters.

Dongyou ji 東遊記: Origins of the Eight Immortals

This is the second post on Journey to the East, read the first part here.

You might wonder, why I chose to dedicate my first post on Dongyou ji to the latter half of the novel and vise versa. The reason is, that I the “action” part of the novel is actually very straight forward and reminded me of a lot of the other novels I had read, so I thought it would work well in the context of a general introduction of the novel. The “origins” part is actually a lot more complex and its narrative meanders quite a bit between the various characters, therefore I thought it quite worthy of its own blog post. Plus, I had some reading up to do before I could produce a decent summary of this part. It is a good thing this blog makes me actually read texts that I would normally just skim over.

The story begins with an introduction to the life and teachings of Laozi 老子 (also transliterated as Lao-tze or Lao-tzu) and Daoist scriptures through the centuries. The first Immortal to enter the scene is Li Tieguai 李鐵拐 who takes up study with Laozi and learns how to let his soul leave his body to wander around. Unfortunately one time he returns to find his body destroyed whereupon he revives a crippled corpse. His name is actually derived from the iron crutch (tieguai 鐵拐) he starts using now.  Li Tieguai will go on to play a role in almost all the others’ stories.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/ac/Tieguai_Li.jpghttps://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a5/Zhongli_Quan.jpg

The novel then turns to Zhongli Quan 鐘離權, a military man who was marked for greatness from the moment of his birth. After defeat during an expedition against “barbarians” he finds enlightenment in a remote mountain area. After wandering the earth for a while he ascends to heaven.

The stories of the next three Immortals are unfortunately only glossed over, even though the characters themselves are very exiting and a lot more might have been said about them. Weet Lan Caihe 藍采和, whose gender remains unclear; who looks like a child and is known for drunken behaviour. Zhang Guo Lao 張果老 (Old Zhang Guo), who used to be a white bat, but – in the usual way for animals to become human – consumed the essences of sun and moon and took on human form. Becoming an advisor to various emperors through the ages, he went to meet them in style – on his donkey. He Xiangu 何仙姑, the only female Immortal, who has a dream when she is 14 or 15 and then starves herself to immortality. As a good female immortal (or a goddess for that matter) would do, she also refuses to marry.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/6d/Lan_Caihe.jpghttps://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/58/Zhang_Guo_Lao.jpghttps://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f4/He_Xiangu.jpg

After this very brief account we turn to the notorious Lü Dongbin 呂洞賓. A lot of familiar elements are thrown into the biography of the novels central character: miraculous birth, the “dream of golden millet” 黃粱夢 (where the dreamer lives a whole live in a dream that only last for the span of time the millet needs to cook) and ten tests of illusion. He becomes the desciple of Zhongli Quan, at which point a detailled conversation on the Daoist worldview follows. After this, Lü Dongbin takes to wandering the earth, helping or messing with people, but also enjoying life in non-Daoist ways.

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His penchant for drink and beautiful women makes him an object of mockery for his fellow Immortals. Somewhat nettled, he then decides to secretly help the Khitan empress Xiao 蕭后 against the Song 宋 dynasty. This puts him in direct opposition to his master Zhongli Quan, who supports the Chinese side. Lü puts up the Heavenly Gate Formations 天門陣, which is eventually defeated by the female general Mu Guiying 穆桂英, a heroine bettern known from the story cycles about the Generals of the Yang Family 楊家將. After the Chinese side emerges victorious from the fight, Lü Dongbin is confronted by his masters and eventually forgiven, after being yelled at big time.

This story is framed by the recruitmet of the final two Immortals: Han Xiangzi 韓湘子, nephew of Tang dynasty Confucian scholar Han Yu 韓愈 (768-824), who opposes his uncles wishes and refuses an official career. Han Xiangzi does not only feature in literature as one of the Eight Immortals, but has also a novel dedicated to him alone: Yang Erzeng’s 楊爾曾 Complete Story of Han Xangzi 韓湘子全傳. Unlike the Journey to the East, this novel has been translated to English. Finally, Cao Guojiu 曹國舅 is recruited as their eighth member. A brother of the Song empress (hence his title “imperial brother-in-law” 國舅), he decided to live in poverty away from the corruption and power abuse of court live.

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Thus the Eight Immortals are assembled and their origins all revealed. What follows is the Peach Banquett 蟠桃會 and the Crossing of the Sea 八仙過海 which I wrote about in my last post. The origins part of the novel does a good job of integrating the various stories and legends associated with the individual Immortals, which are told in much more detail elsewhere. I was, however, suprised, that such a long portion of the text was devoted to the battle of Mu Guiying against the Khitan, with the fight between Lü Dongbin and the others superimposed in it. This episode does not seem to be associated with the Immortals in any other version.

The Eight Immortals are still popular in China today. They are commonly associated with Penglai 蓬萊, a mythical island in the Eastern Sea and also a small town on the coast of Shandong province near Yantai 煙台, where you can find a scenic area dedicated to them. (Maybe not worth a trip of its own, but a nice destination should you find yourself in the area.)


Yang Erzeng, The Story of Han Xiangzi: the Alchemical Adventures of a Daoist Immortal, translated by Philip Clart.

Dongyou ji 東遊記: Crossing the Eastern Sea

After mentioning both the Journey to the West 西遊記 and the Journey to the South 南遊記 a couple of times on this blog we now turn to our third cardinal direction with the Journey to the East 東遊記. This novel was also part of the Four Journeys 四遊記 edited by Yu Xiangdou 余象斗 and tells the story of the Daoist deities known as Eight Immortals 八仙. Hence its full title, Baxian chuchu dongyou ji 八仙出處東遊記 (The Origin of the Eight Immortals and [Their] Eastward Journey). 

The deities and their story were probably well know to Chinese audiences before they were written down by the author Wu Yuantai 吳元泰 (fl. ca. 1566). The Eight Immortals were part of the Daoist pantheon since Yuan times (1279-1368) and it is very likely that a number of legends surrounded them and were most likely transmitted orally on market places and at temple fairs. One precoursor that we still have record of today is a play from the zaju 雑劇 genre (which flourished during the Yuan and early Ming dynasties and is usually seen as the origin of Chinese theater) called Zheng yuban Baxian guo canghai 爭玉板八仙過滄海 (Fighting over the Jade Tablet the Eight Immortals Cross the Ocean)

The content of this play and the second part of the novel share the same basic storyline about the “eastward journey” of the title, an action packed adventure that I will talk about in a minute. The first part, on the other hand, is a rather slow paced introduction to the eponymous Eight Immortals and the doctrine they stand for. Since this part is rather long, I will save the details for a later post, so stay tuned to this page.

Once the Eight are assembled, the action begins with a big party they all attend. This party is non other than the famous Peach Banquett (pantao hui 蟠桃會) held by the Queen Mother of the West 西王母). The Peach Banquet is also one of the places were the monkey king Sun Wukong 孫悟空 “wreaks havoc” in heaven in Journey to the West, but this particular meeting in the Journey to the East passes without incident. Trouble comes afterwards, when our eight heroes decide that instead of going home they would all take a tour over the eastern sea.

Eight Immortals Crossing the Sea
The Eight Immortals Crossing the Sea from Werner, Myths & Legends of China, p. 303.

Now the sea, just like any other body if water in Chinese mythology, is governed by dragons 龍. And because of the importance of the eastern sea, it is ruled by the head of the Dragon Kings of the Four Seas 四海龍王 (the other three dragon kings correspond – you guessed it – to the other cardinal directions). He is living in an underwater palace with his sons and supported in his duties by demonic yakṣas 夜叉. 

The trouble starts when the two eldest sons of the dragon king kidnap  Lan Caihe, because they covet his jade tablet. (The love for treasure is equally strong in Chinese dragon kings and European dragons.) When they only return Lan Caihe, but not the jade tablet, they are attacked by Lü Dongbin, who kills one and seriously wounds the other with his sword. This prompts the dragon king himself to join in the fighting. Subsequently both sides continually expand their retinue by recruiting other deities. The dragon king even secures the help of the heavenly troops, after lodging a formal complaint about the death of his sons with the Jade Emperor 玉皇大帝. 

But not even the heavenly troops are a match for the Eight Immortals and eventually the intervention of Guanyin 觀音, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, is needed to reconcile both sides. An agreement is reached and everybody goes home. The novel concludes by telling us that since this time, the Eight Immortals were regularly seen wandering the earth, unrecognized by ordinary people.

The fighting scenes in this novel, and especially the escalation of the conflict, are surprisingly similar to the some episodes from the Journeys West and South as well as Investiture of the Gods in that they involve a dragon king and heavenly troops sent by the Jade Emperor. They still have a very unique flavour though, partly because we have a group people fighting here instead of the solitary rebells of the other novels. I often find meaning in the ways a narrative diverges from an established storyline and therefore really appreachiated this novel. 

Stay tuned for the next post on this novel, where I will go into details about the origins of the Eight Immortals.


Zheng yuban Baxian guo canghai may be found in this zaju-collection:
Wang Jilie 王季烈: Guben Yuan Ming zaju 孤本元明雜劇, various publishers.

Dongyou ji on open-lit.com

Werner, E.T.C. Myths & Legens of China, London: Harper, 1922. (First publication.) Reprints by various publishing houses and on gutenberg.org

Why obscure books are more satisfying reads

I usually prefer reading books that are somewhat obscure – whether that means that not many people read them or that I had not really been aware of them before. With an obscure book you are left to discover so many things on your own: who are the main characters, which way will the plot go, where and when is the story set, and is the book even any good? I think I have been more disappointed by highly praised novels that did not live up to my unreasonable expectations than by sub par books I discovered on my own. On the other hand, I often feel that I have discovered hidden gems, when finishing a book that I had come across by coincidence. I simply like the excitement of not knowing what’s ahead of me when I open a new book and I like to find out myself. I also really hate spoilers.

An example of this is the first time I read Honglou meng 紅樓夢 (Dream of the Red Chamber). To many people this novel is the masterpiece of Chinese literature. Summaries usually tell you all about the ill-fated triangle of Jia Baoyu 賈寶玉 and his cousins Lin Daiyu 林黛玉 and Xue Baochai 薛寶釵. Yet when I first read the novel, the love story was the one I was most disappointed with: Baoyu and Daiyu are really awkward and immature (quite in keeping with their age) and basically every time Daiyu enters the scene, she cries. On top of that the story builds up slowly and for the longest part it remains in the background while other episodes take center stage.

Actually it was these other episodes that I found most interesting: descriptions of family life, interactions between the cousins, particulars of domestic management and the odd shrew story thrown into the mix. There is also a lot of poetry in the novel, but I found that I did not enjoy the poems that much either, mainly because I felt myself to be on a deadline to have read this really important book and all I could think was: THERE ARE 120 CHAPTERS AND I NEED TO READ THEM ALL, which is a state of mind that does not quite lend itself to the enjoyment of poetry.

I learned to appreciate the character constellation and the scenes between Baoyu and Daiyu at a much later time, when I had occasion to revisit the novel and read some of the articles that belong to “Redology” 紅學, the study of The Dream of the Red Chamber. But during that first reading I could not really enjoy them, because I expected them to be more central to each and every aspect of the novel and was disappointed when they where not. The novel is not at fault for this mismatch in expectation. Book summaries where, and all those people who recommend the novel because of that love story. So be warned: the relationship between Baoyu and Daiyu is important, touching and beautifully described, but it is only part of what is going on in this novel of epic proportions.

The same mismatch in expectations did not occur when I first picked up Fengshen yanyi 封神演義. So little is known about the book in Europe that I had not formed any expectation of what might be inside at all. And I liked it. The reading was still challenging at times because I needed to read it for my Master’s thesis and THERE ARE 100 CHAPTERS AND I NEED TO READ THEM ALL, but other than that I really enjoyed not knowing what was coming next and being surprised by situations and characters I did not anticipate.

If reading obscure books is like going into unchartered territory, reading books that are much discussed might be compared to navigating a city with the help of a distorted map: things are not where you expect them to be and landmarks that seem huge on the map may in fact just be regular sized or vice-versa. Identifying the route the book actually lays out a opposed to the one you expected is hard work. Unchartered territory on the other hand is fun.


Hongluo meng has been translated among others by:
David Hawkes and John Minford as The Story of the Stone: A Chinese Novel
Gladys Yang and Yang Xianyi as A Dream of Red Mansions

Rainer Schwarz and Martin Woesler as Der Traum der roten Kammer oder die Geschichte vom Stein

Fengshen yanyi has been translated into English by  Gu Zhizhong as Creation of the Gods.
See also my earlier posts about the novel: Fengshen yanyi 封神演義 and How Obscure Is Fengshen yanyi really?

Entrepreneural Publishers

When we talk about literature from the past we tend to focus a lot on the books and texts themselves and not so much on the questions of publication and dissemination. That way it often seems that writers of the past, especially those writing what we now consider “classics” were able to write and publish their works without giving a second thought about prospective readers. At least that’s the romantic notion I had about pre-modern literature, until I had occasion to look into the Late-Ming (late 16th to first half of 17th c.) book market. Today’s publishing industry has nothing on what I found here: influential publishing houses, profit-oriented editors, bold claims on book covers and writers defending themselves against possible criticism as early as in the preface of their works.

Yu Xiangdou 余象斗 (ca. 1548-1637) is a wonderful example of the state of Ming dynasty publishing, since he came from an important family of publishers and was known for his entrepreneurial spirit. He is also the man behind the publication of four rather unrelated novels, now collectively known as Siyou ji 四遊記, the Four Journeys.

As a member of the prominent Yu 余 family from Jianyang 建陽 in Fujian 福建, Yu Xiangdou has already been the subject of research by Lucille Chia into Printing for Profit: The Commercial Publishers of Jianyang, Fujian (11th-17th Centuries). This book is quite interesting, as it looks into different publishing centers, important families and publishing houses therein, as well as at book formats (positioning of texts and illustrations, commentaries etc.) and the quality of the prints. Among other things it also discusses an everyday-encyclopedia (riyong leishu 日用類書) called Santai wanyong zhengzong 三台萬用正宗 (Authentic Teaching for Every Occasion by Santai) published by Santai 三台, Yu Xiangdou’s publishing house.

This book also gives us an interesting insight into how Yu Xiangdou saw himself: An illustration after the title page shows the publisher in his study in a scenery reminiscent of scholars ( shi 士). This is rather remarkable, because as a publisher Yu Xiangdou would have been classed as a merchant (shang 商), traditionally the profession with the lowest social prestige in China (farmers, nong 農, and artisans, gong 工, make up the other two groups). Of course this evaluation doesn’t reflect actual social  power at all, with merchants being rather richer than farmers, artisans and occasionally also scholars. (Especially those who failed the imperial exams and were forced to work as school teachers or private tutors, often for the children of merchants.) And in line media tycoons nowadays, Yu Xiangdou apparently used his influence to present his customers with a proper image of himself.

Yu’s influence on literature may have been most prominent with the Four Journeys: He collected four unrelated novels of the shenmo xiaoshuo 神魔小說 genre and renamed them after the example of the famous Journey to the West (Xiyou ji 西遊記) according to the four directions North, East, South and West. His Journey to the West was written by Yang Zhihe 楊致和 (fl. ca. 1566) and is at 41 chapters a lot shorter than the famous 100 chapter version attributed to Wu Cheng’en 吳承恩. In Chinese it is commonly referred to as Xiyou jizhuan 西遊記傳. The other novels are The Legend of the Great Emperor Heavenly King Huaguang, Divine Official in Five Manifestations (Wuxian lingguan dadi Huaguan tianwang zhuan 五顯靈官大帝華光天王傳), renamed as Journey to the SouthComplete Legend of the Origin of the Northern Patriarch Zhenwu, Emperor Xuantian (Beifang Zhenwu zushi Xuantian shangdi chushen quanzhuan 北方真武祖師玄天上帝出身全傳), renamed as Journey to the North, both authored by Yu Xiangdou himself, and Origin of the Journey to the East of the Eight Immortals (Baxian chuchu dongyou ji 八仙出處東遊記), renamed as Journey to the East, by Wu Yuantai 吳元泰 (fl. ca. 1566).

There is a kind of elegance in this editorial decision, since the newly named Journeys to the North, East and South are all in some way related to those cardinal directions. Yet this decision was obviously market-oriented, which goes to show that special box-sets with catchy titles already were successful during the Ming dynasty. So while my romantic image of pre-modern Chinese readers as lofty intellectuals is somewhat damaged, it is nonetheless quite funny to see the same mechanisms at work in 16th and 17th c. China that are still around in todays publishing industry.


Lucille Chia: Printing for Profit: The Commercial Publishers of Jianyang, Fujian (11th-17th Centuries) on Worldcat