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?

Was Late Imperial Publishing Surprisingly Modern?

At the end of October I attended the yearly DVCS (Association of Chinese Studies in German Language) conference which was held in Vienna this year. The conference is mainly aimed at Sinologist, but sometimes there are people from another field or even outside academia in the audience. One such gentleman approached me after my presentation to ask some questions and in the short talk we had I was once more reminded why I love to share my research with the world.

My presentation was on the syncretistic world view of Fengshen yanyi 封神演義, how said world was constructed in the novel, and how the legitimacy of this view was discussed in the foreword. It was this foreword in particular that interested my questioner during the following coffee break: to him its line of argument seemed surprisingly modern for a novel published in the early 17th c. (I’ll leave aside the fact that the beginning of “modernity” in China is usually dated to the Song-dynasty (960-1279) and work with the common understanding of “modern” as something similar to todays practices.) I do understand what he means, but I think that the “modernity” of the late imperial book market in China shouldn’t really be that much of a surprise.

Reading up on the publishing industry and marketing strategies of late imperial authors and publishers was actually the funniest part of my dissertation. Especially the way the prefaces very bluntly tried to frame Fengshen yanyi as either historically valid, harmless entertainment, or profound Daoist metaphor made for a very interesting read. I knew about the merchantile side of Ming dynasty publishing before reading these forewords, and I also already wrote a blog post on some of my thoughts on this called Entrepreneural Publishers.

What surprised me though, was how different each preface was from the novel itself. This has partly to do with the fact that each preface was included in a different publication of the same, unchanged text. Their composition was therefore always shaped by the demands of publication. This seems to be especially true in the case of Fengshen yanyi, which was (and is) not considered to be one of the great novels. Chances are, whoever was asked to write the foreword to such a publication did so because of monetary compensation and not out of interest in the work itself.

Our view of looking at this as “modern” might stem from the fact that we look at literati from former times as scholars who lived solely for scholarship, culture and arts. In reality, those highly educated men (and a handful of women who very allowed the privilege of learning) were just as dependent on funds, patronage or commercial success as contemporary writers and artists are. Maybe even more so in the case of imperial China, where every literati faced his make-or-break moment in the imperial examinations. As they moved through the different ranks, the successful candidates were drastically reduced with each level. This left a great number of educated men with no hope for official careers in need of a job. They found them as teachers, private tutors, or as “freelancers” working for publishing houses. There is even a whole novel dedicated to these people: The Scholars 儒林外史 by Wu Jingzi 吳敬梓 (1701-1754).

I assume that China is not unique in this regard. I imagine the market for European chapbooks was equally  “modern”. After all, the earliest novels started life as popular entertainment and only evolved into a serious literary genre over the course of many centuries. It is just that we, the “modern” readers, tend to only read the best of them, those which have been around and were republished for many generations. But books of lesser quality (or popularity) that were published around the same time were not generally read later on. However, if you look at the novels of  a certain time in toto, naturally, the book market that supports them will start to look quite “modern” to you.

What’s interesting to me though, is that marketing for novels in 17th or 18th century China wasn’t quite as smooth as we are used to today. Sales pitches are often presented rather crudely and bold claims are made on book covers. Nevertheless, this early publishing industry laid the groundwork for todays book marketing. Similar strategies in late imperial and 20th/21st century publishing industry therefore don’t really point to a precociousness of 17th century publishers. Rather, it means we haven’t really come up with anything radically new since then.

Various prefaces to different editions of Fengshen yanyi and a whole range of other novels can be found in this helpful collection: 丁锡根,中国历代小说序跋集.

The Scholars, by Wu Jingzi, translated by Gladys Yang and Yang Xianyi (The first book on this worldcat list, published 2017, is actually a retelling of some episodes by Wang Guozhen. Scroll further down for several edition of the translation by the Yangs.)

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

Bookhopping Characters

One of the joys of reading shenmo xiaoshuo 神魔小說 (“hagiographical novels”) is the host of characters you encounter again and again. For example, Nezha 哪吒 is a major character in both the Xiyou 西遊 story cycle, the Fengshen yanyi 封神演義 and is also mentioned in Xiyang ji 西洋記, Pingyao zhuan 平妖傳 and Huliyuan quanzhuan 狐狸緣全傳. I’m sure there are plenty of other novels I’m not yet aware of that also feature this deity, mostly along his prominent father, the Heavenly King Pagoda-Bearer (Tuota tianwang 托塔天王). How did this happen? Where writers during the Ming dynasty too lazy to invent new characters? Not quite.

The reason for this kind of crossover can be found in the nature of hagiographic novels, since for audiences in Late Imperial China (i.e. the Ming and Qing dynasties, 1368-1911) they describe a real world, not a fictional one. Recurring characters are easily recognizable as one reads the novels, since they also feature heavily in Buddhism, Daoism and folk beliefs. For the author this might have facilitated descriptions of these characters since they had access to descriptive poems already in circulation and readers were in all likelihood already familiar with statues and paintings of these deities. A shared knowledge made their reading experience so much richer. A lack of this knowledge similarly greatly confuses our reading today and makes understanding frustratingly difficult.

So what are some of the common features of these novels? Firstly, this world is peopled with characters who are virtually immortal. The Jade Emperor (Yuhuang dadi 玉皇大帝) and most of his court, the Buddha (fo 佛) and his disciples, Guanyin 觀音 and her acolytes or the Queen Mother of the West (Xiwangmu 西王母) are fixtures of this world order. It does not matter what dynasty the story is set in, these deities are always understood to be present somewhere in this world, even if they do not appear in the narrative itself. They are also representatives of rather rigid hierarchies. Their acolytes and courtiers are held to high standards of conduct and transgressions are severely punished. These are not soft-spoken divinities but all-powerful rulers of their respective realms that need to be feared and respected.

It is within this seemingly inflexible world order that new heroes are presented and new deities made. The carve out their place in history and heaven by challenging the powers that be while at the same time bringing blessing to the common people. (Or striking fear in their hearts – whatever they like best…, sometimes both.) Examples for this kind of hero would be Sun Wukong 孫悟空 in Xiyou ji, Huaguang 華光 in Nanyou ji 南遊記 or the Eight Immortals 八仙 in Dongyou ji 東遊記. The shared cast of characters help readers to recognize both the struggle of the protagonist and understand the place they ultimately achieve within the Heavenly hierarchy.

Yet there is a perplexing exeption to this world-building that is shared by many authors: the crossover between Nanyou ji and Beiyou ji 北遊記. Huaguang and Zhenwu 真武 share an episode in their respective novels, in which Huaguang flees Heaven through the Northern Gate. Here he is apprehended by Zhenwu who defeats him only to send him back through Heaven and out of the Southern Gate. This episode that ultimately leads to nothing might have come about as an editorial decision: both novels were grouped (and renamed) as part of the Four Journeys 四遊記 by publisher and editor Yu Xiangdou 余象斗 who might have tried to create the appearance of coherence in his random assembly of a tetralogy. While the shared setting (i.e. the real world of deities as perceived by a Ming dynasty audience) certainly made this grouping possible, it was interestingly not a common way of publishing these hagiographic novels.

Lastly, what is rather frustrating in researching these “bookhopping characters” is the fact that there is almost no secondary literature on them. Sure, there are studies of the Jade Emperor through the ages, the Buddha in Chinese scriptures or discussions of artwork relating to the Queen Mother of the West. But what is sorely missing are comprehensive works focused on the role these deities play in different novels. There so much to be found in studying how they essentially fulfill exactly the same role in each novel, yet represent something different every time. This is achieved through subtle changes to the narrative or characterization associated with these deities.

I feel that when we look at these shared characters who happen to be also deities, we should not focus exclusively on the religious background. While it can still serve us as a point of reference for our research, we should really be concentrating on the different novels, many of which were also written around roughly the same time. Any changes present are therefore likely the result of a concious decision on part of the author. Comparing the same character in different novels may therefore inform us about the different views on those deities and the make-up of the world that were held at the time.

In my PhD thesis I tried something to that effect in looking at the role of the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea 東海龍王 and his role in Fengshen yanyi, Xiyou ji, Nanyou ji and Dongyou ji. While there is certainly still a lot to be learned about this particular character (and I am looking into this at the moment), the results already point to a very deliberate use of this figure in characterizing the protagonists of the respective storylines (Nezha, Sun Wukong, Huaguang and the Eight Immortals). A familiarity with the character of the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea is essentially indispensable for understanding the role of the protagonist of each particular novel. Not too bad for a minor character as far as impact factor is concerned.

This is also were the feeling of joy comes in that I mentioned at the beginning: the more I read these novels, the more familiar these bookhopping characters become – and the more I understand the novels I read. What’s more, this understanding also extends backwards to the novels I have read before that now appear in a whole new light. And as an added bonus, I also broaden my knowledge of possible world views in Late Imperial China.