Dowager Jia and Granny Liu

Today’s look at the two grand old ladies of Honglou meng 紅樓夢 was first conceived of and published as a shorter post for the “Older Women in Translation” month on the Global Literature in Translation Initiative blog, curated by Caroline Lodge of book word. I am very thankful to Caroline for accepting my submission. Make sure to check out her fascinating series!

There aren’t many interesting older women in traditional Chinese novel, apart from the stereotypical “70-year-old widowed mother” that is rhetorically invoked by characters as a person they need to take care of. This makes the meeting of Dowager Jia 賈母 (also Grandmother Jia) and Granny Liu 劉姥姥 in Dream of the Red Chamber 紅樓夢 (first print 1791) by Cao Xueqin 曹雪芹 (1715 or 1724 – 1763 or 1764) so fascinating.

This book is one of the most famous Chinese novels and describes the life in an elite household of late imperial China. It is mostly focused on the day to day life of the youngest generation, a group of cousins – all female except for the protagonist Jia Baoyu 賈寶玉 – and in some part on the squabble and intrigues of their parents and married relatives. Only occasionally their routines are punctuated by receptions in the living quarters of the revered Dowager Jia and by visits from outsiders such as the peasant woman Granny Liu in chapter 40 of the 120 chapter novel. 

The Jia family is, however, in general decline due to changing circumstances and the ineptitude of its male descendants, culminating in an imperial raid of the clan’s premises that makes it necessary for Dowager Jia to use her jewelry and valuables to bail out her children and grandchildren. Not soon after she passes away with the knowledge of the clan’s imminent ruin, that is described in the remaining chapters.

Cao Xueqin wrote Honglou meng to commemorate the talented young women he had met in his youth, before the decline of his own clan’s fortunes. His melancholy view on women is reflected in Jia Baoyu’s famous assessment that, while young girls are pure creatures, marriage irrevocably corrupts them. Even though the narrative follows its teenage protagonist into a world of brilliant female youth, it treats its side characters with the same care. Consequently, both “old ladies” are portrayed as realistic and interesting characters during their appearances.

Dowager Jia surrounded by her grandchildren. Illustration by Sun Wen 孫溫 (1818-1904), via Wikimedia Commons.

Throughout most of the novel, the Dowager Jia is presented as a respected yet distant authority figure, sometimes receiving family members in audience in her living quarters and joining them on special occasions. She has long since retired from her duties as a household manager, handing over management of the vast family compound to her daughters- and granddaughters-in-law, enjoying the spoils of decades of hard work in the clan of her husband, whom she outlived. She demands respect from all other household members and holds onto what she believes her due, even in instances when this goes against the wishes and interests – both reasonable and not – of her two sons.

Despite the demands of patriarchy that would see her living for the Jia clan alone, she shows attachment to both her birth family and her deceased daughter by allowing her neglected grandniece Shi Xiangyun 史湘雲 and her orphaned granddaughter Lin Daiyu 林黛玉 to stay in the Jia family household and receive similar treatment to the Jia patrilineal offspring. She is no just authority figure either, having clear favorites among the Jia clan, such as her talented yet spoilt grandson Jia Baoyu and granddaughter-in-law Wang Xifeng 王熙鳳, whose astute (and sometimes aggressive) management of the household reminds her of her own youth.

It is through the latter that she is introduced to Granny Liu, a peasant woman whose whose son-in-law had a superficial connection to the Wang clan. When lack of money to support themselves prompts her son-in-law to take out his frustration on his wife, Granny Liu decides to take matters into her own hand: To protect her daughter from further abuse, she intends to procure funds from the Jia family by paying a visit to Wang Xifeng with her small grandson in tow for extra sympathy points. Xifeng, always eager to please the Dowager and remains in her good graces, sees some entertainment value in the simple country woman and invites her inside for a meeting. Her instincts prove right and Dowager Jia not only gives Granny Liu the much needed handouts, but also a tour of the spectacular garden that the novel centers around.

The Garden. Illustration by Sun Wen, via Wikimedia Commons.

While both woman live in vastly different circumstances and even though Granny Liu expertly plays the part of bumbling country fool for the Dowager’s amusement throughout her visit, a brief moment of kinship shines through in the meeting of these two old women. Both have presumably lived a live full of hardship, though of different kind, one living in poverty, one standing her ground against the jealousy of other household members. Both have outlived their husbands and are spectators for the lives of their children and grandchildren. Both in very different ways defy the stereotype of the helpless “70-year-old mother” utterly dependent on her children for her own livelihood.

Their circumstances and actions might at times feel strange to 21st c. readers, especially those unfamiliar with Chinese literature and its female characters. Nevertheless, their characters are quite rounded and realistic, even if their ways of managing things doesn’t always make them likable. Their meeting is a high-point in this novel about a group of young people.

Seeing that Dream of the Red Chamber is very much a story of youth, you shouldn’t turn to it to read about older women (or even middle aged ones for that matter). But if you come across this novel as part of a quest for world literature, genre-defining masterworks, or even just to check out the book all the Chinese readers rave about, you might want to pay some special attention to those two remarkable women.

The Story of the Stone, translated by David Hawkes and John Minford, 1973-1980, on

A Dream of Red Mansions, translated by Glady Yang and Yang Hsien-yi, 1978-1980, on

Der Traum der roten Kammer oder die Geschichte vom Stein, translated into German by Rainer Schwarz and Martin Woesler, 2006-2009, on

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

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

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

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

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

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?

Smallpox in 19th c. China

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

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

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





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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Please vaccinate your children.

Ming Qing Women’s Writing Database at McGill University

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

Happy New Year!

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

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

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

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


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

Thanks everyone and a Happy New Year!

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.