Translations of Chinese Literature

A while back I was contacted through this blog by a reader asking if I could recommend the English translation of Fengshen yanyi 封神演義 (Creation of the Gods, by Gu Zhizhong), especially considering that it is a bit pricey. After answering them via email, I also want to share my recommendation on Sino Literature and give some context to translations of Chinese classics into other languages. I’ll mostly stick to translations of Fengshen yanyi and Xiyou ji 西遊記 (Journey to the West), because I have the most experience with them.

The publisher of Gu Zhizhong’s translation, the Foreign Language Press in Beijing, is actually responsible for some pretty solid English translations to Chinese classical novels. See below for the covers for the editions of their translations of the Four Masterpieces: Three Kingdoms (a translation of Sanguo yanyi 三國演義 by Moss Roberts), A Dream of Red Mansions (a translation of Honglou meng 紅樓夢 by Gladys Yang and Yang Xianyi 楊憲益), Journey to the West (a translation of Xiyou ji 西遊記 by W.J.F. Jenner), and Outlaws of the Marsh (a translation of Shuihu zhuan 水滸傳 by Sindey Shapiro).

The way in which the Foreign Laguage Press commissioned translations was quite interesting, as Jenner’s recollection of the translation process in Journey to the East, “Journey to the West”  in the LA Review of Books reveals. I had no idea how much events in China in the 20th c. affected Jenner’s work as a translator until I read this article. But because of this, his translation ended up being published in 1983-1984, shortly after Anthony C. Yu 余國藩 published the first unabridged translation in the USA between 1977 and 1983. Which is good news for readers, because it means you have two very different translations to choose from!

Anthony C. Yu’s scholarly translation is of course very famous. But personally, I found it hard to read compared to Jenner’s style. This might be owing to the fact that Yu was not a native speaker of English, but I rather think it was because this Professor of Religion and Literature was more interested in scholarly correctness than readability. I often use his work as a reference during my research, but I was glad that my first exposure to the novel was through Jenner’s work, who did a great job in capturing the spirit of the original, which had been a stated aim of his:

My aim in doing Journey to the West was to make it as much fun in English as it is in the original. I also wanted it complete and uncut.

An excerpt of Jenner’s translation on Read Paper Rebublic. I personally really enjoyed his style and I would definitely recommend this translation to any casual reader.

The same publishers that commissioned Jenner and other English native speakers to translate a bunch of significant Chinese novels also asked Gu Zhizhong, who I assume to be a Chinese native speaker, to translate Fengshen yanyi. The translation was first published in 1992 as Creation of the Gods. Unfortunately I can only partially recommend Gu Zhizhong’s translation, and I will give you my reasons to let you decide for yourself: 

The positive: It is the only complete translation of Fengshen yanyi into a Western language that I am aware of. The edition I read (from 1992 I think), was also nicely done with interesting woodcut illustrations throughout the novel. 

The negative: Firstly, it is not a very faithful translation. Poems are generally left untranslated and sentences often paraphrased. I think, when ever the translator found something difficult, he just skipped it. Secondly, I think Gu Zhizhong was not an English native speaker and not very familiar with Western mythology and some of his translations are really off. For example Taiyi zhenren 太乙真人 (“True Man Primordial”) a powerful Daoist immortal, becomes “Fairy Primordial” in his translation, which conjures up a very different image. 

Nevertheless, this translation is good to get a general feel for the novel. As for the price: maybe you can find a copy at a university library near you, so you don’t need to buy it? Especially if you have universities with Sinology/Chinese Studies departments near you, you might find it there. I also always recommend checking to see, if the book is available anywhere near you. Lastly, there seems to be a PDF version of a bilingual edition of Fengshen yanyi floating around the internet. But I don’t think this can actually legally be bought anywhere, unfortunately. 

For anyone reading German: there is an incomplete translation of Fengshen yanyi by Wilhem Grube, which I wrote about in this post.

There is also an excellent German translation of Xiyouji out now: Die Reise in den Westen, by Eva Lüdi Kong. This translation conveys both the fun and the religious and cultural background of the novel.

For more info on Xiyouji, check out the excellent Journey to the West Research blog by Jim R. McClanahan.

Gu Zhizhong, Creation of the Gods, 1992, on

Anthony C. Yu, Journey to the West, 1977-1983, on

WJF Jenner, Journey to the West, 1982-84, on

Eva Lüdi Kong, Die Reise in den Westen. Ein klassischer chinesischer Roman, 2017, on

Grube, Wilhelm, Metamorphosen der Götter: Historisch-mythologischer Roman aus dem Chinesischen, 1912. Facsimile on part 1, part 2

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 (, 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

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

Journey to the West, translated by WJF Jenner, on

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

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 (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.

How To Escape Mould And Dust Through Digitization

In my study of traditional Chinese literature I often deal with old books. Not only were my novels published quite a while ago, a lot of research that is still relevant today was done in the last century. Take the case of Fengshen yanyi 封神演義: before the increase in secondary literature since the 1990s, there was a partial German translation in 1912, an article in 1958, a book in 1962 and another in 1987. While containing brilliant research, it is sometimes difficult dealing with the shape in which they were published.

The 1987 work is a thesis by Pin Pin Wan that is available digitally at ProQuest, a depository for many doctoral theses from the USA. By the looks of it, it was written on a typewriter, which was standard for theses at the time, but unfortunately never makes for a pleasant reading. The improvement of word processors for personal use is especially good news for scholars of Sinology (or any other subject invovling non-Latin scripts), since scholars formerly had to leave blanks in his text and then fill in the Chinese characters by hand. That can’t have been fun.

The other publications were by the famous scholar Liu Ts’un-yan 柳存仁 (yes, that’s how he transcribed his name) and had nice type-face, but came with other challenges: the pages of the 1958 article started falling apart (as in: little pieces broke off) when I went to photocopy them. The translation and the 1962 book are hardcover and in this weird format that books from this time often have which makes it hard to hold them comfortably, meaning that you are always bound to sit at a desk reading it and that you naturally limit your time carrying it around. This is especially annoying for the novel, since I do a lot of my reading when I’m commuting on public transport or sitting comfortably on a couch. This made me spend less time with this particular translation than I did with the English translation published in 1992 that was printed in a much nicer format. I feel like this should not be something that influcences my research, but sadly it seems to have quite the impact on how I engage with texts.

On the whole though, I guess I still got of relatively lightly, since none of the books I had to consult regularly were significantly damaged, overly dusty or even mouldy. Only rarely I had the impulse to immediately go to wash my hands after dealing with some of the books in our library’s collection, because I felt like my hands were covered in icky particles that I didn’t want to transfer to my pens, notebook or computer.

There are various reasons why libraries hold onto books that are in less than perfect condition. Because of tight library budgets, institutes hang on the their first purchase of a book, even if newer editions are available and only the disappearance (either through theft or forgetful borrowers) of a book merits another purchase. Plus, a lot of academic books get discontinued very soon and a lot of the old publications are simply out of print. Unfortunately, copyright restrictions make it impossible for libraries to simply stock photocopies of important books. Libraries’ printing services are moreover forbidden from copying or scanning more than 10% of a book for scholarly research.

Thankfully, there are initiatives to digitize books where copyright has ended. Some of these are even free to use, if sometimes a little complicated to navigate. One such example is the, where I found my 1912 Fengshen yanyi translation again and was able to read it outside of its impractical oversized format and without the whiff of dust that always surrounded the book in our library. It even gave me a much higher appreciation for the translation itself. This is a very powerful demonstration of the power of the paratext as defined by Gérard Genette: the elements added to the main text that – though not part of the text itself – can change the reception thereof. Though this concept is often used to discuss matters such as title page, preface, illustrations etc., the overall appearance of the book definitely also falls into this category.

But even though the move towards digitization worked wonders for the Fengshen yanyi translation, sometimes I still long for a physical book to work with. That is why I recently was on the lookout for a copy of the out-of-print Qing dynasty novel Lin Lan Xiang 林蘭香 (first published in 1838). I could find a full text version on and download an html version onto my phone for offline use. This would have been absolutely adequate for me in this stage of my research, where the main thing is reading the 64 chapter novel in its entirety. But I still felt that I would prefer an actual physical copy of the novel to work with, leaf through and put sticky notes in.

A friend was kind enough to look for the book on second-hand online book market 孔夫子旧书网 when he was in China and bring back a copy that was published in 1985. Unfortunately, the book is only in ok condition. Mostly, it smells. And it keeps me from wanting to work with the hard copy. However, I don’t only read for personal pleasure, but as part of my academic work. As such I appreciate the fact, that I now own a published book version that I can quote from, while I continue reading the online version.

Going forward, I certainly look forward to an increased digitization of old books relevant to my studies. But I would also very much hope for new ways to obtain hard copies of out-of-print books. Maybe modern printing technology will allow publishing houses to increase their backlist and allow them to print individual copies upon request? Maybe they can offer e-book versions of their out-of-print books?

If anyone has tips on how to remove smell from an old book, please share them in the comments.

Grube, Wilhelm: Metamorphosen der Götter: Historisch-mythologischer Roman aus dem Chinesischen, 1912. Facsimile on part 1, part 2

Gu Zhizhong: Creation of the Gods, 1992. On

柳存仁: 毘沙門天王父子與中國小說之關係, 新亞學報, 3:2 (1958), find the journal on

Liu Ts’un-yan: Buddhist and Taoist Influences on Chinese Novels: The Authorship of the Feng shen Yen I, 1962. On

Wan, Pin Pin: Investiture of the Gods (“Fengshen yanyi”): Sources, Narrative Structure, and Mythical Significance, 1987. On (check your library for access to ProQuest dissertations & theses)

Science and Civilization

This Saturday I joined the Science March in Munich to show support for scientific research and decision-making based scientific evidence. As a Sinologist I am no scientist in the strictest sense, but that is partly just a language problem: in German “sciences of spirit” (Geisteswissenschaften), i.e. Humanities, are a legitimate subset of sciences alongside “natural sciences”, “social sciences”, “economic sciences” or “legal sciences”.

Apart from a sense of belonging between me and sciences that the German language creates, I actually believe that scholars in the humanities should have some knowledge of basic scientific principles. Even though I focus on Chinese literature now, I was first attracted to Chinese Studies, because un Germany it forms part of Cultural Studies and as such combines such diverse fields of research as Literature, History, Philosophy and many more. Though I mostly read novels now, I still have frequent contact with other areas of Chinese studies: religious and philosophical thought, religious iconography, the technicalities of book printing and distribution, or literacy levels in society, to name just a few.

People are at the center of all these fields, and just like people today, they did not exist in a bubble of pure and disinterested “culture”, but were in a world shaped by scientific principles. Those in turn heavily influenced culture and arts, social structures and policies. In fact, most popular uprisings in Chinese history can be traced back to climatic and geological changes that let do crop failures. Therefore, effective flood control and the storage of grain became standard policies for famine prevention. Governments were supposed to provide people with the means to provide for themselves. The great tyrants of Chinese history as presented in historiography, philosophical treatises and popular literature, were therefore not only charged with excessive cruelty and moral transgression, but also with neglected towards their people. 民不聊生, “the people had no way to make a living” is an idiom 成語 from the Shiji 史記 (94 BCE) that found its way into many later texts.

But not every encounter with science is a life and death situation. On a smaller scale, it might be interesting to explore the natural phenomena behind popular religion and its iconography. One example might be the light observed on ships towards the end of storms at sea: This phenomenon is named St-Elmo’s-fire, after a Christian saint, in Western languages, but used to be called Mazu’s fire 媽祖火 (after the sea goddess), by Chinese sailors. As someone studying popular cults, I do not need to know the exact science behind this phenomenon, but it helps to know that I’m dealing with something that actually exists in the real world.

For Chinese literature, often a good knowledge of China’s geography is really helpful. Even fiction is usually set in places that actually exists and understanding the space often helps understanding the story. This is still true even today. China is also a massive and diverse country, and it makes all the difference to the feeling of a scene, if we are in humid marshland, on snowy forests or on sandy beaches. How people travel is also affected by this: In the Jiangnan 江南 region around Nanjing 南京 and Suzhou 蘇州 you travel by boat; on the plains and in the forests you might ride or walk; and if you want to cross mountains you do it during the day and in groups, otherwise you might fall prey to tigers, as people do regularly in Shuihu zhuan 水滸傳 (Water Margin). These are recurrent motifs in Chinese literature, and they are not purely symbolic, but very much a result of nature shaping culture.

A basic grasp for science and technology is also necessary to understand the views and discussions of leading Chinese thinkers. For reformers at the end of the 20th c. who saw China lose to Western colonizers in the Opium Wars (1839-1842, 1856-1869), technological advancement and education were the only way to bring the nation forward. Their world view already was global: many of them studied or visited (or went into exile) abroad, in nearby Japan and Southeast Asia, but also in North America or Europe. They wanted to abolish the examination system that required prospective officials to be knowledgable in Confucian morals instead of modern politics. The wanted to establish and strengthen high-schools and universities. They also sought to teach scientific principles to the masses through science fiction novels, which lead to a first wave of Chinese science fiction around the year 1900. These reformers were not immediately successful, but they certainly helped push China forward. Also, they did not give up when faced with an inflexible state apparatus still living in the past.

I personally certainly don’t know as much science (other than “sciences of the spirit” of course) as I’d like to, but China’s scientific knowledge has already somewhat been studied in the West, especially in the book series Science and Civilization in China (1954-2015) that was initiated and largely edited by Jospeh Needham (1900-1995) and so far comprises 27 books in 7 volumes. While this book is a good start, there is definitely still room for further research into the history of science and technology in China and the interplay of technological progress and society. Let’s get to it!

Joseph Needham: Sience and Civilization in China in 7 volumes, check it out on Wikipedia.

CHANG Man-Chuan’s 張曼娟 Updates of Classical Stories

When I was in highschool we read Angela Carter’s “The Werewolf” from the collection The Bloody Chamber, a rewrite of Grimm’s Little Red Riding Hood. The story stuck with me, despite the fact that I forgot both the title and the name of the author almost immediately and had to weirdly google “Little Red Riding Hood+Fairy Tales+Rewrites” years later. I think I was particularly fascinated by the combination of a familiar childhood story, unexpected turns, a self-confident protagonist and a matter-of-fact description of life-turning events.

Turning my eye on Chinese “classical” stories, stories as familiar as Grimm’s Fairy Tales, I was excited to see that one Taiwanese author in particular had devoted several books to updating traditional Chinese literature: Chang Man-Chuan 張曼娟 (Pinyin: Zhang Manjuan) has so far published four children’s books based on the late imperial novels Fengshen yanyi 封神演義, Xiyou ji 西遊記 and Jinghua yuan 鏡花緣, and the Tang chuanqi 傳奇 “Du Zichun” 杜子春, as well as a short story collection on various “demons” 妖.

Chang Man-chuan, as well as being a bestselling author, is a professor at the Department of Chinese Literature of Soochow University 東吳大學 in Taipei and specialises on classical novels, contemporary and mass literatures. It is therefore to be expected that she knows her source material very well, and indeed her familiarity with classical Chinese stories and monsters shines through her retellings. Interestingly, she (or the publisher) doesn’t quite trust her readers to be familiar in the same degree, that’s why we find “lessons” on the original novels at the end of her children’s books. The short story collection even includes reprints of the particular monster story that inspired her – in Classical Chinese straight from the 4-8th century zhiguai 志怪 original.

Zhiguai, literally “records of anomalies” were a popular genre during that time and told mostly stories of demons encounters or sightings. Chang is not the first author to be inspired by these fantastical tales. The Qing dynasty author Pu Songling 蒲松齡 (1640-1715) rose to posthumous fame with his massive collection Liaozhai zhiyi 聊齋誌異 (Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio).

The stories in Chang’s Yaowu zhi 妖物誌 (Chronicle of Demonic Matters) describe pig, snail, rainbow, bird, horse and fox spirits as well as mermaids in modern-day settings. I particularly liked, how the story of the water snail leaving her pool to prepare dinner for the homeowner was updated: in Chang’s version a negligent father simply accepts the woman who suddenly appears in his home as his son’s new nanny, without giving any thought to the newly set up aquarium.

There are even some instances, in which new monsters join the traditional Chinese ones. Here, the geography of contemporary Taiwan clearly left its mark: In Yaowu zhi we see the flower spirit of a tree prepare to battle a bird flu that deserted a whole city – the book was published in 2006, not long after East and Southeast Asia was hit by a bird flu pandemic in 2004 and SARS in 2003. Another great example is the Mould Monster 霉怪 that was added to Chang’s version of Journey to the West. Zhang Weizhong 張維中, her co-author for this book, explains that the inspiration for this character was his damp home during a rainy season.

Unfortunately, Chang doesn’t often indulge this kind of creativity; she approaches the stories too much like a scholar and teacher and her tendency to overexplain annoyed me after a while. What had excited me in Carter’s writing was her ability to strip the story down and evoke a whole world in a few sentences. Chang in turn takes slender zhiguai stories and spreads them out, delving into the minds of her characters and making sure the reader understands every aspect of the world that is described. I personally prefer literature that keeps things left unsaid. This sounds a lot like academic writing style, with its need to keep the reader absolutely informed of every possible implication.

Another problem is Chang’s take on romance and family dynamics which relies too much on stereotypes and a world view that was already outdated when the books were published a decade ago. In her children’s books you can clearly see her good intentions, but particularly Du Zichun’s story and the Fengshen yanyi rewrite lack insight into her characters’ psyche, leading to wooden, unconvincing interactions.

Overall, even if I didn’t always enjoy reading these books, I don’t regret that I did so. But I definitely I read them with scholarly interest, not necessarily for pleasure. And they definitely won’t stay with me the way Carter’s “The Werewolf” did.

Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber has its own Wikipedia page.

Pu Songling, Strange Tales from Liaozhai, translated by Sidney L Sondergard (This seems to be the only complete translation to date; translations of some selected stories are variously available.)

Zhang Manjuan: 張曼娟妖物誌

我家有個風火輪. 封神演義. 哪吒的故事, illustrated by 周瑞萍

水裡來, 火裡去. 唐傳奇. 杜子春的故事, with 高岱君, illustrated by 蘇子文

花開了. 鏡花緣. 唐小山的故事, with 孫梓評, illustrated by 潘昀珈

看我七十二變. 西遊記. 孫悟空的故事, with 張維中, illustrated by 王書曼

The Nezha Story in Fengshen yanyi: My Kaleidoscopic Research

Originally I wanted to give this post the title Why do PhD topics keep on changing? or, How my research mysteriously returned to my initial questions, but I was heavily influenced by Miriam Wharton on Thesiswhisperer who wrote about shifting research focus in Is your PhD like a kaleidoscope?. Wharton argues that PhD research is not like using a telescope to zeroing in on your research question, but rather like trying to identify patterns in a kaleidoscope which keeps on shifting with every movement you make. This image resonated strongly with me, since my own PhD dramatically changed its focus about halfway through.

I was always going to write about Nezha 哪吒, and Fengshen yanyi 封神演義 was set as a starting off point. In fact, I was already somewhat familiar with my intended topic, having read the novel during my Masters and written my M.A. thesis on Nezha in Fengshen yanyi, Xiyou ji 西遊記 and two earlier zaju 雜劇 scripts (Yuan and early Ming dynasty opera). I had looked a bit into earlier religious sources to understand the development of the deity’s characterization and the novels brought me to around 1600 (presumably 1620s for Fengshen yanyi) in the history of Nezha in China. I had also looked into some contemporary movies and TV shows. Those pretty much followed the story of the novel versions, but were significantly different in their portrayal of the main characters. This is where my PhD was supposed to come in.

Obviously, the story in its Fengshen yanyi version was convincing enough to survive largely intact for 400 years, but some important details were changed to subtly create different character relations. I planned to look through different collections of Qing dynasty (1644-1911) theater and storyteller scripts for different versions of Fengshen yanyi adaptations to trace changes to the story there and see, whether a direct line could be drawn from these Qing dynasty to different contemporary versions.

As my research got underway and I started to collect all kinds of materials that even remotely mentioned Nezha, I found myself returning to one particular question: what are these adaptations changing from? The story told in Fengshen yanyi had a complexity that did not carry over into the shorter Qing dynasty scripts, and I felt that this was something never really explored in secondary literature. Here, all representations of Nezha were discussed as equal or even the same. I sometimes found myself yelling at books that gave a summary of Nezha’s story, thinking “That wasn’t in the book that I read!” It took me ages to realize that often scholars would merge Fengshen yanyi and Xiyou ji storylines to construct a “master narrative” that never existed in writing in late imperial China.

The things I was most interested in – why is he born from a flesh ball 肉球, why does he fight the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea or how can I understand the attempt at patricide and the superficial reconciliation – either were ignored as “just part of Nezha’s story, duh” or disappeared within a larger interpretation – mostly derived from psychoanalysis. So, since no one was likely to answer my questions, I decided to do so myself. At first, my goal was only to prepare the ground for a later analysis of adaptations, then, it became the main focus of my work and finally, I decided to let go of the adaptations altogether, because they wouldn’t fit in with the rest of the argument.

While it’s a bit of a shame that the Qing dynasty sources are still waiting for a proper read through, I am overall quite satisfied with the way my thesis turned out. I spend a good amount of time contextualizing Nezha’s story and digging through novels like Nanyou ji 南遊記, Beiyou ji 北遊記, Dongyou ji 東遊記, Xiyang ji 西洋記 and Pingyao zhuan 平妖傳, or local gazetteers 地方志. Most importantly though, I think I answered a lot of the questions I had when I first read Fengshen yanyi during my Masters; I very much remember being absolutely fascinated by this fantasy novel that followed none of the genre conventions I was familiar with. My overall feeling during the chapters about Nezha was “what is going on? what is happening? why did they just do that?”

I believe that to be a good scholar you need to be passionate about the things you research. And I definitely was (and still am) passionate about Nezha and Fengshen yanyi. I guess that’s why I am totally ok with the fact that my PhD journey was a much of a kaleidoscope as Wharton described. Because somehow I never lost sight of my objective, but rather found my way to the precise question that had been bugging me all along.

To everyone still staring through the kaleidoscope: I wish you all the best.