In Love with the Chinese Novel (2009)

Michael Arnold, ed.: brief 37 - the exotic (April 2009)

In Love with the Chinese Novel:
A Voyage around the Hung Lou Meng

Tsao Hsueh-Chin: A Dream of Red Mansions (1978)

I have some understanding of labyrinths: not for nothing am I the great grandson of that Ts’ui Pên who was governor of Yunnan and who renounced worldly power in order to write a novel that might be even more populous than the Hung Lu Meng and to construct a labyrinth in which all men would become lost.
– Jorge Luis Borges, “The Garden of Forking Paths,” pp. 47-48.[1]

I guess my love affair with the Chinese novel began the day I bought the first volume of A Dream of Red Mansions in a little junk shop a few doors down from my parents’ house in Mairangi Bay. The date on the flyleaf tells me that it was a few days before my seventeenth birthday.

It was always a depressing place to visit. The owner, a thin, nervous, middle-aged man, would spring up and ask you what you were looking for. Each time I’d reply that I’d come to check out the books. Each time he’d ask, “Any particular one?” even though his whole stock couldn’t have exceeded twenty or thirty titles, most of them Readers’ Digest Condensed Books and suchlike dross. Each time I’d respond, “Just browsing, thanks,” and he would subside.

I felt very sorry for him. A lot of businesses had started up on that particular site, only to go under a few months later, dashing some poor sod’s hope of worldly independence. This man’s struggle was so desperate and prolonged, though, that one could only speculate what demons had driven him to invest his all in this sub-fusc bric-à-brac shop. It was blindingly obvious that he’d never make a go of it. And yet, having started, he had to persist.

Anyway, on this particular occasion there actually was a book which looked interesting on his single set of shelves. It was priced at thirty cents, I recall – hardly a fortune to me even in those days. The cover was blue and red, with a Chinese character inscribed on it, and it had the most beautifully luminous pictures of Chinese ladies and gentlemen tipped into the text. Not exactly a bargain, though – the introduction made it plain that this was the first of three volumes.

I took it home and started to read.
Tsao Hsueh-Chin & Kao Ngo. A Dream of Red Mansions. Trans. Yang Hsien-Yi & Gladys Yang. 3 vols. Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1978.

… he saw a dozen or more large cupboards with paper strips pasted on their doors on which were written the names of different provinces. He was careful to look out for the one belonging to his own area and presently found one on which the paper strip said ‘Jinling, Twelve Beauties of, Main Register’. Bao-yu asked Disenchantment what this meant, and she explained that it was a register of the twelve most outstanding girls of his home province.
– Cao Xueqin, The Story of the Stone, Vol. 1, p.132.

Explaining the significance of the Hung Lou Meng in Chinese culture (or the Red Chamber Dream, The Dream of the Red Chamber, A Dream of Red Mansions, or even The Story of the Stone, to list a few of the titles English translators have given it), is a bit like trying to convey the weightiness of names like Dickens, Kafka or Tolstoy to someone completely unfamiliar with European literature.

It’s a romance, yes – the hero Bao-yu must decide between the competing charms of the petulant but ethereal Dai-yu and the cheerful, practical Bao-chai – but it’s also a detailed analysis of the decline and fall of a great Chinese family, in its turn a mirror for the whole of Manchu culture. It was composed in the late 18th century – no-one is entirely sure by whom – and issued in a number of truncated and re-edited manuscripts and editions (the 80-chapter and 120-chapter versions being the two main subdivisions).

What is certain is that the novel conceived by Cao Xueqin – the most probable candidate for authorship – was never published in the form he first conceived it. If he completed it at all, that original conclusion is lost. The first eighty chapters of the text we have are thought to be mostly by him, the last forty may or may not be based on the notes and drafts he left behind – though many would prefer to attribute them to the novel’s editor Gao E.

Strangely enough, it hardly seems to matter. So compelling is the world this master-novelist conjured up (principally as a tribute to the twelve beautiful women he most loved in his youth, as he himself tells us in the crucial fifth chapter of his story), that even the tamperings of over-zealous relatives, terrified by the story’s subversive tone, cannot dull its effect.

I was interested, a few years ago, glancing down the list of titles in a book of essays by the Chinese poet Gu Cheng (so tragically celebrated for his own murder-suicide on Waiheke in 1993), to see that one of them was an attempt to contrast the relative “purity” of the novel’s two heroines Dai-yu and Bao-chai. Like Anna Karenina or Emma Bovary, the Hung Lou Meng’s characters have a tendency to arouse strong (and not exclusively literary) feelings in both students and casual readers.

But I’m running ahead of my story.
Kuhn, Franz, ed. Hung Lou Meng: The Dream of the Red Chamber – A Chinese Novel of the Early Ching Period. Trans. Isabel and Florence McHugh. 1958. New York: Grosset & Dunlop, 1968.

Tsao Hsueh-Chin. Dream of the Red Chamber. Trans. Chi-chen Wang. 1929. London: Vision Press, 1959.

In all fictional works, each time a man is confronted with several alternatives, he chooses one and eliminates the others; in the fiction of Ts’ui Pên, he chooses – simultaneously – all of them. He creates, in this way, diverse futures, diverse times which themselves also proliferate and fork.
– Jorge Luis Borges, “The Garden of Forking Paths,” p. 51.

As I leafed through the exquisitely beautiful pages of this product of the master printers of the People’s Republic of China (who could issue even a cheap foreign-language edition of a classic with all the trappings of a deluxe edition: dust-jacket, sewn-in bookmark, and protective cardboard case), I realised that there was something a little familiar about some of these names: Pao-yu, Tai-yu, Pao-chai …

For years I’d been simultaneously drawn to, and daunted by, a thick Penguin Classic entitled The Story of the Stone. It had a picture of a reedy-looking girl on the cover, playing a flute. The fact that it was announced as the first volume of five hardly inspired one to buy it.

Now, when I picked it up, I found that the character’s names all matched – albeit in the Pinyin transliteration, rather than the more outdated Wade-Giles system still (then) in use in Mainland China. It was, in fact, another version of the novel I was already reading under the title A Dream of Red Mansions. Rather fuller and more fluently translated, it has to be said, but perhaps lacking just a little of the incommunicable mystique of the Chinese edition.

Shortly afterwards I located the second volume of the Penguin translation, the Crab-Flower Club, which takes us to the heart of the childish, innocent world of the capricious, unworldly Bao-yu and his exquisite cousins and other female playmates. I was thus forced to make my way through the narrative in graduated leaps and bounds. Volume One of the Beijing version had taken me to chapter 40. This was now complemented by the 53 chapters in these two Penguin books: The Golden Age and The Crab-Flower Club.

Then, one day, in a little shop off Lorne Street run by the China-New Zealand friendship society, I found all three volumes of the Yang translation and was able to complete my set. Joy! Now I would be able to find out the upshot of Wang Xi-Feng’s political machinations, the fate of Bao-yu’s favourite maid Aroma, and the dénouements of a dozen other plotlines.

The result was, I have to say, somewhat disappointing. As a non-expert and a non-Chinese speaker, of course I have no right to intervene in the debate, but all I can say is that if the last forty chapters of the Red Chamber Dream are by the same hand as the first eighty, then I’m a monkey’s uncle. There’s a pompous, perfunctory tone to them, a resolute refusal to fulfil earlier hints (notably in the music drama “A Dream of Golden Days” in chapter five) at the character’s eventual fates.

There’s some powerful writing too, mind you – Dai-yu’s tearful, frustrating last days, for example, or the marital frustrations of Bao-chai – but they read to me more like a sequel than a piecing together of the original author’s drafts. I feel sure that his poetic soul would have conjured up something more transcendent as the conclusion to the great operatic structure of his life work.

The appearance of volume three of David Hawke’s translation, The Warning Voice, came accordingly as a bit of an anticlimax. Most frustrating of all, though, was the long wait for volume four, issued eventually in a translation by John Minford, who completed this Penguin Classics edition of the whole novel in 1986.

By then, however, my interests had moved on.
Cao Xueqin. The Story of the Stone: A Chinese Novel by Cao Xueqin in Five Volumes. Trans. David Hawkes. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973-80.
  • Vol. 1: The Golden Days (1973)
  • Vol. 2: The Crab-Flower Club (1977)
  • Vol. 3: The Warning Voice (1980)

Cao Xueqin. The Story of the Stone (Also Known as The Dream of the Red Chamber): A Chinese Novel by Cao Xueqin in Five Volumes, edited by Gao E. Trans. John Minford. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982-86.
  • Vol. 4: The Debt of Tears (1982)
  • Vol. 5: The Dreamer Wakes (1986)

Since great vessels take years to produce, this earthenware pot of mine still serves some purpose; but though this fact has prolonged the life of my book, I am disheartened by this dearth of new writing. In a melancholy mood I have gone through these proofs, hoping that better scholars will soon produce a more authoritative book … [Night of November 25, 1930].
– Lu Hsun, A Brief History of Chinese Fiction, pp. ix-x.

My eldest brother Jim studied Chinese at Auckland University in the early 80s – until he chose to go off to Otago instead to do medicine.
On the negative side, this gave him a pretext to pressure me into giving up my second-hand copy of Feng Meng-lung’s Stories from a Ming Collection, which he claimed was a set text for one of his courses (I still feel disgruntled every time I see it sitting on his shelves).

On the positive side, though, it meant that he had a large number of interesting books on Chinese literature. The most valuable of these, from my point of view, was C. T. Hsia’s The Classic Chinese Novel. I read and reread this, and for the first time got some sense of an agreed-upon canon for the traditional Chinese novel.

Hsia confined his discussion to the following six representative works:
  1. The Three Kingdoms [San-kuo-chih-yen-i] – c.1400
  2. The Water Margin [Shui Hu Chuan] – late 14th century
  3. The Golden Lotus [Chin P’ing Mei] – late 16th century
  4. Journey to the West [Hsi-yu Chi] – c. 1592
  5. The Scholars [Ju-lin wai-shih] – mid 18th century
  6. The Red Chamber Dream [Hung Lou Meng] – late 18th century

Now, rereading his book, I bristle slightly at Hsia’s denigrations of the Chinese authors’ “deficiencies” by comparison with the more dominant European novel tradition, but I can see that such a pioneering effort required him not to make too great claims for them.

Besides, the critical conventions of the Modernist literary establishment he was addressing, still struggling to come to terms with Proust and Woolf – let alone James Joyce – would soon be exploded by the game-playing fictions of John Barth and Donald Barthelme (on the Anglo-Saxon side), Jorge Luis Borges and the nouveau roman (on the continental).

His book was published in 1968. In our own era of genre-bending, postmodernist fiction, the self-conscious artificialities of the Classical Chinese novel look curiously prescient.

The really frustrating thing about Hsia’s work, though, was the shortage of reliable translations of the works he analysed in such tantalising detail. Short of devoting ten years of my life to mastering Chinese, how could I succeed in reading even these six masterworks in their complete form? Hsia listed as many translations (alas, generally also abridgements) as he could, but even now not all of them are available in satisfactory English versions.

The Scholars was. I dutifully read it, but couldn’t really empathise with its satire on the Confucian examination system. Also, it lacked the features which attracted me most in these exotic, non-European fictions: the inordinate length, requiring volumes of translation and commentary (like a roman-fleuve), the hugely–detailed anatomies of a whole society (anticipating, if not outdoing, Zola and the Naturalists), the strange blend of supernatural and quotidian events (prefiguring Latin-American Magic Realism).

But, then, of course, there was Monkey.
Feng Meng-lung, ed. Stories from A Ming Collection. Trans. Cyril Birch. 1959. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1979.

Yang, Shuhui & Yunqin, trans. Stories Old and New: A Ming Dynasty Collection, compiled by Feng Menglong. Seattle & London: University of Washington Press, 2000.

Hsia, C. T. The Classic Chinese Novel: A Critical Introduction. 1968. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980.

Lu Hsun. A Brief History of Chinese Fiction. 1923-24. Trans. Yang Hsien-Yi & Gladys Yang. 1957. Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1982.

Wu Ching-Tzu. The Scholars. Trans. Yang Hsien-Yi & Gladys Yang. 1957. Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1973.

In the world before Monkey, primal chaos reigned. Heaven sought order, but the phoenix can fly only when its feathers are grown. The four worlds formed again and yet again, as endless aeons wheeled and passed. Time and the pure essences of Heaven all worked upon a certain rock, old as creation. It became magically fertile. The first egg was named "Thought". Tathagata Buddha, the Father Buddha said "With our thoughts, we make the world". Elemental forces caused the egg to hatch. From it came a stone monkey.
Saiyūki [“Monkey”] – starring Masaaki Sakai, Toshiyuki Nishida, Shiro Kishibe, & Masako Natsume – (Japan: Nippon TV, 1978-80)

“The nature of Monkey was irrepressible!”

Every Sunday we used to hurry home from our ritual family picnic to watch the latest installment in this absurd, intriguing, infuriating drama. It was never quite as good as it should have been (or as it one remembers it to have been), but the sheer oddity of that opening invocation, that little glimpse of the immense fecundity and inventiveness of Buddhist tradition, somehow made it add up to more than the sum of its parts.

I think I knew that it was based on a novel. I may even already have read my brother’s copy of Arthur Waley’s 1942 abridgement. It was a attractive little Penguin classic, with an ivory sculpture of intertwined monkeys on the cover.

Then, in Hong Kong in 1981, while visiting the garish Tiger Balm gardens. I saw the four travellers – Tripitaka and Monkey, Pigsy and Sandy – sculpted in bas-relief on one of the walls, and began to get some intimation of the immense pervasiveness of the legend (not just Wu Cheng-en’s novel) in Eastern culture: like a Chinese Pilgrim’s Progress, available in myriad forms for all levels of comprehension.

Later still, I acquired copies of the two complete English translations of Journey to the West: by W. J. F. Jenner (another of those evocative, beautifully illustrated Beijing Foreign Languages Press editions) in three volumes; and by Anthony C. Yu (more scholarly, with very full notes) in four, and began to see just how much one missed by reading an abridgement.

It wasn’t that it was a good novel, exactly. Or not in conventional terms. Chapter after chapter repeated essentially the same scenario, with minimal variations in personnel: monster, victim, villagers, and so on. And yet that repetitiveness seemed to contribute something – and in a far more considered way than could be said of the equally episodic but frustratingly inconclusive TV series.

Tripitaka’s journey to India to find the missing Buddhist scriptures could not be made to seem too easy. One of the points of the book (besides its light-hearted satire on religious shibboleths), I came to realise, was to put the reader through a similar ordeal. Only then could even the possibility of enlightenment be entertained.

Not a good novel, then, but very possibly a great one.
Wu Ch’êng-Ên. Monkey. Trans. Arthur Waley. 1942. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973.

Wu Cheng’en. Journey to the West. Trans. W. J. F. Jenner. 1982. 3 vols. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1990.

The Journey to the West. Trans. Anthony C. Yu. 4 vols. 1977-1983. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980, 1982, 1980, 1984.

Bao-yu, who was still bemused after his dream and not yet in full possession of his faculties, got out of bed and started to stretch himself and to adjust his clothes, assisted by Aroma. As she was doing up his trousers, her hand, chancing to stray over his thigh, came into contact with something cold and sticky which caused her to draw it back in alarm and ask him if he was all right. Instead of answering, he suddenly reddened and gave the hand a squeeze.
– Cao Xueqin, The Story of the Stone, Vol. 1, p.149.

Visiting my brother in Dunedin one summer holidays meant that I got to meet his two flatmates Isaac and Julie, a Chinese couple from Singapore, who had come to New Zealand to study business. Julie told me how interested she’d been to see my brother’s copy of The Scholars. “No ‘Before Midnight’,” she specified, covering that part of the title of my latest purchase with her hand.

I’d been trying to conceal the book from her in any case, as even a cursory examination would probably have revealed it to be extremely pornographic, albeit in a lighthearted, intentionally exaggerated way (the hero, a young libertine, is persuaded to undergo an operation which supplements his own manly appendage with that of a dog, thereby better equipping himself to satisfy the numerous ladies he encounters).

The Before Midnight Scholar (also translated as The Carnal Prayer Mat, or Prayer-mat of Flesh) provided me with my first insights into the frank, yet still intensely moralistic world of Chinese sensuality.

Julie’s self-confident, openhearted ways were pretty beguiling anyway. Later that summer, when my brother locked his keys in our rental car’s boot up by Mt Cook, I remember her enlisting half the people in the Motor camp to help us out, while Jim and I sulked in the background. Finally a couple of the middle-aged men she’d recruited succeeded in prising up the backseat, allowing us to retrieve the keyring with a coathanger.

Later still, when I visited Isaac and Julie in Singapore on my way to the UK, I was surprised to see her so subservient to her husband. All practical decisions seemed to be his department, despite her obviously (to me) greater intelligence and charm. Ah me. Their daughter Denise – known as “girr” – took up most of their attention by then, anyway.

Which brings me to the Chin P’ing Mei.
Li Yu. Jou Pu Tuan: The Before Midnight Scholar, or The Prayer-mat of Flesh. Ed. Franz Kuhn. 1959. Trans. Richard Martin. 1963. London: Corgi Books, 1974.

Li Yu. The Carnal Prayer Mat. Trans. Patrick Hanan. 1990. Honolulu: University of Hawaí’i Press, 1996.

Bao-yu had long been attracted by Aroma’s somewhat coquettish charms and tugged at her purposefully; anxious to share with her the lesson he had learnt from Disenchantment. Aroma knew that when Grandmother Jia gave her to Bao-yu she had intended her to belong to him in the fullest possible sense, and so, having no good reason for refusing him, she allowed him, after a certain amount of coy resistance, to have his way with her.
– Cao Xueqin, The Story of the Stone, Vol. 1, p.150.

It was a pretty exciting day for me when I found a copy of Clement Egerton’s complete, four-volume translation of the Golden Lotus, reputed to be the longest and most detailed work of pornography in world literature, in a small bookshop in Lorne Street. The woman who owned the shop wanted $120 for it, which seemed a lot to me at the time, but I think I only ended up paying $60, as the shop was in the process of closing down.

Egerton’s translation had first appeared in the 1930s, when publishers were more prudish than now, so his versions of the novel’s numerous sex scenes were printed in Latin. My copy of the 1972 reprint, however, translated all of these passages into English.

So far so good, but the book’s immense, gloomy realism almost defeated me. Its effect, it has to be said, was more emetic than aphrodisiac. It wasn’t until years later, when I encountered David Tod Roy’s epic retranslation, The Plum in the Golden Vase, that I began at last to understand the book’s true greatness.

Roy, alas, died last year, with his task unachieved. He specialised in the Academic study of the book, apparently, and waited too long before beginning his actual translation. We’re left with the hope that someone else will take it up – a John Minford to his David Hawkes. In the case of the Penguin Story of the Stone, though, there was the logic of a book which feel naturally into two halves. With the Chin P’ing Mei we’re dealing with a single, albeit anonymous, master-craftsman.

The starting point of the novel is an incident from an earlier vernacular novel, The Water Margin, which describes the adultery of a young man-about-town, Hsi-men Ching, with Golden Lotus, the wife of a crippled tradesman. The two lovers conspire to poison her husband, but the murder is avenged by the cripple’s stalwart brother, who slices them into little pieces in his rage.

The Water Margin’s two, rather crude, chapters devoted to this story have been expanded by this later master into an immense saga of a Chinese household’s rise and fall. Pornographic, to be sure – at any rate in European terms – but mainly just stunningly realistic. It’s easy to see how this book inspired the circumstantial detail of the Hung Lou Meng’s picture of everyday life in a great family, as well as the sardonic satire of Wu Ching-Tzu’s Scholars.

Though it’s always been difficult to obtain in China, the Chin P’ing Mei is undoubtedly one of the world’s landmark works of fiction, especially given the fact that it was composed in the late 16th century, at around the same time as Cervantes’ Don Quixote. It will be nothing short of a scandal if Princeton University Press’s sumptuous complete version is allowed to remain a magnificent fragment.[2]
Egerton, Clement, trans. The Golden Lotus: A Translation, from the Chinese Original, of the Novel Chin P’ing Mei. 1939. 4 vols. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972.

Kuhn, Franz, ed. Chin P’ing Mei: The Adventurous History of Hsi Men and his Six Wives. Trans. Bernard Miall. 1939. London: John Lane The Bodley Head, 1952.

Roy, David Tod, trans. The Plum in the Golden Vase or, Chin P’ing Mei. 5 vols. Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press, 1993-?.
  • Vol. 1: The Gathering (1993)
  • Vol. 2: The Rivals (2001)
  • Vol. 3: The Aphrodisiac (2006)

He read with slow precision two versions of the same epic chapter. In the first, an army marches to a battle across a lonely mountain; the horror of the rocks and shadows makes the men undervalue their lives and they gain an easy victory. In the second, the same army traverses a palace where a great festival is taking place; the resplendent battle seems to them a continuation of the celebration and they win the victory. I listened with proper veneration to these ancient narratives, perhaps less admirable in themselves than the fact that they had been created by my blood and were being restored to me by a man of a remote empire ...
– Jorge Luis Borges, “The Garden of Forking Paths.” p. 52.

Love. magic, fantasy – and war. Even though the Shui Hu Chuan is probably the most celebrated of the classic Chinese novels, translated by Nobel-prize-winner Pearl Buck as early as the 1930s (All Men are Brothers), and the inspiration for films and TV series in both English and Chinese, it took a long time to nerve myself to read it.

Which version to start with, for one thing? Pearl Buck’s seemed rather difficult to follow, and the crabbed red volumes of J. H. Jackson’s Hong Kong version looked even more outdated.

Once again, the Beijing Foreign Languages Press came to the rescue. It is, after all, the most “proletarian” of the classic Chinese novels, and was therefore held up for admiration even when the others were in eclipse during Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

Sydney Shapiro’s translation is competent and full. It’s a repetitive, picaresque tale, somewhat reminiscent of the Robin Hood stories in England. The band of revolutionaries living in the Marshlands (though bloodthirsty and warlike) are made to seem more and more admirable as the narrative proceeds and the extent of the courtly corruption they’re fighting against is revealed.

After their surrender and pardon by a well-meaning but ineffectual Emperor, the callous way these peerless warriors are wasted in pointless colonial campaigns shows, once again, the characteristic attitudes of authority towards the powerless.

The Water Margin, then, can be legitimately be called a classic – not so much because of the elegance of its composition, but because of the universality of its message.
Buck, Pearl, trans. All Men are Brothers [Shui Hu Chuan]. New York: The John Day Company, 1933.

Shih Nai-an. Water Margin. Trans. J. H. Jackson. 2 vols. Hong Kong: The Commercial Press, 1963.

Shi Nai’an & Luo Guanzhong. Outlaws of the Marsh. Trans. Sidney Shapiro. 3 vols. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1980.

Weir, David. The Water Margin. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1978. [based on the BBC TV series]

No other work of this genre, in past times or present, has had such a deep and wide-ranging impact on Chinese society … The various episodes have been transmitted to every nook and cranny of Chinese society, either directly or indirectly by means of the theatre, songs and other channels of popular culture, and are known in every household in the land.
– Shi Changyu, “Introduction.” In Luo Guanzhong. Three Kingdoms, vol. 1, p.1.

If you took a poll of Chinese readers to find out which of the six traditional novels held most significance for them, many more (we’re told) would single out the Sanguo Yanyi, or Romance of the Three Kingdoms, than the Hung Lou Meng. Why?

In his introduction to the recent complete English translation by Moss Roberts, Professor Shi Changyu fails to make the book seem particularly attractive:
The heroic sweep of the novel, fixated as it is on describing the great events of history, leaves no room for descriptions of daily life not connected directly with the main action. Love and marriage, insofar as they are not tied in with political intrigues, are also outside the scope of the novel, as are detailed descriptions of physical surroundings and psychological motivations. [vol. 1, p. 16.]

No love, no physical descriptions, no psychology – it sounds like a definition of how not to write an effective, engaging novel.

Should Three Kingdoms even be called a novel? Most of its subject matter is factual (or at any rate repeated from earlier histories). It’s no accident that its first English translator, C. H. Brewitt-Taylor, described it as a “Romance.” I imagine the analogy he had in mind was with writers such as Geoffrey of Monmouth or Sir Thomas Malory, who turned the extravagant fictions of the French Arthurian prose tradition into more-or-less sober chronicles.

Three Kingdoms is certainly as fascinating to read as Malory. It’s far less mystical, though – more of a robust analysis of a fragmenting imperial system. Perhaps a better comparison might be with the Icelandic Family Sagas, those extraordinary evocations of daily life in a barbarous backwater of Europe, combining careful detail with unflinching realism.

“The style of Three Kingdoms, like that of its historical subject matter, is vigorous, robust, and tragic,” continues Professor Shi in the passage from his introduction quoted above. Certainly the subject matter of the novel is violence and disorder, but the pillars of its narrative turn out to be loyalty and wisdom.

The three warriors who take the Peach Garden oath in the first chapter have their faith in one another tested in every conceivable way. Their arch-enemy Cao Cao takes a more realpolitik approach to the acquisition of power, and arguably achieves greater success.

War and Peace is certainly a “novel” in a very different sense from Three Kingdoms. But the difference in genre should not blind one to the equally immense ambition, and achievement, of the earlier work.

It’s the last of the six classic novels I read, the one I embarked on with most reluctance (Moss Robert’s translation runs to 2340 pages, in four paperback volumes), but also – in a sense – the most disarmingly modern.

I can understand better now why the implications of its portrayal of the roots of power and stability in society have been debated for so many centuries, and why it’s hardly ever been out of print in all that time.
Lo Kuan-Chung. San Kuo, or Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Trans. C. H. Brewitt-Taylor. 2 vols. Shanghai: Kelly & Walsh, 1925.

Luo Guanzhong. Three Kingdoms. Trans. Moss Roberts. 1995. 4 vols. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 2001.

… my purpose is merely to record true feelings and actual events. Criticism of my writing will be like the shining of a bright light into a dirty mirror.
– Shen Fu, Six Records of a Floating Life, p.25.

Shen Fu’s poetic memoir, composed in the early nineteenth century, of his various lives as a magistrate’s secretary, a loving husband, a painter, and an unsuccessful tradesman, opens with a chapter entitled “The Joys of the Wedding Chamber.” In it he gives a bittersweet account of the vagaries of his courtship and marriage.

The two young people begin with halting conversations about literature:
One day Yün asked me, “Of all the ancient literary masters, who do you think is the best?”
“… I could never give a complete list of all the talented writers there have been. Besides, which one you like depends upon which one you feel in sympathy with.”
“It takes great knowledge and a heroic spirit to appreciate ancient literature,” said Yün. ”I fear a woman’s learning is not enough to master it. The only way we have of understanding it is through poetry, and I understand but a bit of that.” [p. 31]

Like Shen Fu, I’m forced to confess the pointlessness of compiling endless lists of Chinese novels and other prose works. There are, of course, a lot of them. Lu Hsun discusses far more than Hsia’s classic six in his Brief History of Chinese Fiction (though he includes short stories and myths as well).

Like Yün, I also have to acknowledge my lack of learning and (no doubt) “heroic spirit.” Perhaps it’s that which has led me to concentrate, in this account of my own thirty-year love affair with that extraordinary phenomenon called the Chinese novel, on the romantic Red Chamber Dream rather than the swashbuckling Water Margin or Three Kingdoms.

“Which one you like depends upon which one you feel in sympathy with.”

I think it’s safe to say that if you don’t find yourself moved by any of Hsia’s classic six, then there’s little prospect of finding a Chinese novel that suits you better.

To mention just two of the others I’ve come across personally, the 16th-century Creation of the Gods is a blend of the historical realism of Three Kingdoms with the fantastic realism of Journey to the West. It may lack the analytical gravity of the first or the dreamlike inventiveness of the second, but it’s still an amusing read (especially in the half-text, half-cartoon form of the Singaporean version – entitled, somewhat bafflingly, The Canonisation of Deities – which I bought on sale from the Auckland University Bookshop sometime in the early eighties).

Flowers in the Mirror, an early nineteenth-century allegory a little in the sprit of Gulliver’s Travels (though fortunately it lacks Swift’s lacerating contempt for mankind), has its charms too, but its fields of warring flowers do tend to pale beside the depth and originality of the Hung Lou Meng.
Gu Zhizhong, trans. Creation of the Gods. 2 vols. 1992. Beijing: New World Press, 1996.

Low, C. C. & Associates, trans. Pictorial Stories of Chinese Classics: Canonization of Deities. 3 vols. Singapore: Canfonian Pte Ltd., 1989.

Li Ju-Chen. Flowers in the Mirror. Trans. Lin Tai-Yi. London: Peter Owen, 1965.

Shen Fu. Six Records of a Floating Life. Trans. Leonard Pratt & Chiang Su-Hui. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983. p.25.

Which of us cares to hear the cuckoo’s sorry
For waking us before the dawn's first red?
“Today perhaps the winter's come,” you said,
Wrapped-up and warm against the season’s flurry.

– Jack Ross, “Life in a Chinese Novel”[3]

For years, as each new class joined the Language School, I would try to talk to any Chinese students I had about their classic novels. A few of them had read the books at school, but I suspect that to most it was the equivalent of asking an average English-speaking adolescent their opinion of The Canterbury Tales or The Faerie Queene.

Yet I don’t regret it. Perhaps the thing I really hoped to convey was respect: respect for a tradition which wasn’t (and could never be) mine, but which had given me so much.

Perverse Bao-yu, with his contempt for all things masculine; delicate, peevish Dai-yu; lovely Bao-Chai – these names have meaning for me: they constitute complex lessons in how to live.

That isn’t all, of course. Whether or not you’d classify yourself as particularly spiritual, Monkey (aka “Great Sage Equal of Heaven”) and his eccentric companions on the Journey to the West will do their best to set you on the road to Enlightenment. Three Kingdom’s Cao Cao and his opponents of the Peach Orchard Oath have a good deal to tell us all about the world of politics. Hsi Men and his harem of seductive, intriguing women will demonstrate the pitfalls (and attractions) of unbridled sensuality.

I’ve never been very impressed by those critics who assume as a given the superiority of the European novel. True – like the nicotine in cigarettes – it’s never been successfully eradicated from a country once it’s taken hold. Wherever it goes, it tends to swallow up indigenous fictional forms. But what riches have been lost in the process?

The Chinese novel is our chief witness to the fecundity of these might-have-beens.

I’m the last one to underrate the Icelandic Sagas, the Monogatari of Japan (including the incomparable Genji), the frame-story collections of Persia and India, or the Classical Romance (Apuleius, Petronius and the Greeks). Over the years, I’ve taken pleasure in each of these complex literary traditions. But I still believe that the only group of fictions which can rival those produced during the great age of the European novel, the 19th Century of Balzac and Dostoyevsky, remain these six amazing Chinese works of genius.

They seized hold of me when I was seventeen – at once and at first sight. Like Jean Genet with the Palestinians (as he tells it in his 1986 memoir Un Captif amoureux), what else can I call myself but a prisoner of love?


1. Jorge Luis Borges, 'The Garden of Forking Paths.' In Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings. Ed. Donald A. Yates & James E. Irby. 1964 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979), pp. 44-54.

2. Fortunately, the then current internet rumours of David Tod Roy's death proved to be greatly exaggerated, and he has in fact gone on to complete his translation in two further instalments: Vol. 4: The Climax (2011) & Vol. 5: The Dissolution (2013).

3. Jack Ross, City of Strange Brunettes (Auckland: Pohutukawa Press, 1998), p. 86.

Cao Xue Qin: Hung Lou Meng


brief 37 (2009): 10-28.
[Available at: Titus Open Access essays online]

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Bill Direen, ed.: Open Access Essays

brief 37 (2009)


  1. As far as I know, David Tod Roy isn't dead, and he completed his translation of JIN PING MEI ("The Plum in the Golden Vase") last year. (I'm currently struggling to reach the end of volume 2.)

  2. Dear Jos,

    You are, of course, absolutely right about David Tod Roy, but in reprinting the piece it was hard to know what to do about this absurd error. I settled for correcting it in a footnote (no. 2, above), but of course that still retains the risk that people won't actually check the footnotes …

    best, jack