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32: CLASSIC CHINESE FICTION: A FINDING MAP FOR THE CONFUSED

#32: CLASSIC CHINESE FICTION: A FINDING MAP FOR THE CONFUSED. I was at college during the early seventies, when Asian literature was first beginning to seep into the American curriculum; like many others, I put in my time puzzling out the oddities of Wade-Giles, the then-current system of transliterating Chinese. But in the eighties the academic world shifted to pinyin, a new system invented in a fit of mischief by a pair of crazed Romanians, leaving me with the expression of a man who’d spent a fortune on eight-track tapes. Peking became Beijing, the Tao Te Ching the Dao De Jing, or sometimes Daodejing; Tu Fu became Du Fu, Li Po Li Bo (or Li Pai, or Li Bai). My personal favorite was watching Tsao Hsueh Chin, the novelist, become Cao Xueqin. This doesn’t even get into multiple names, as when T’ao Yuan-ming is the same poet as T’ao Ch’ien, or Su Shih, who is also Su T’ung-po. (I think that’s right, but I’m sure they move the apostrophes when I’m sleeping.)

The problem is compounded when you attempt to read the five official biggies of Chinese fiction, because they change the titles from version to version, as well as practicing violent and promiscuous abridgement. And the versions may differ based on which original edition or manuscript they’re translating from, always assuming they’re translating from Chinese rather than cribbing from a French or German version. All of this makes any attempt to become familiar with the Chinese classics like dealing with a field of moving targets. If they weren’t so good—so massive, so absorbing, so enveloping—I wouldn’t tell you to bother, but they are, so you should. Alas, some of the good scholarly editions are nastily expensive; you might want to try your local college library. Several of these editions are being picked up in paperback by the Foreign Languages Press at reasonable prices. Check on the secondhand websites and you may run across them cheaply.

San Kuo and Shui Hu Chuan are swordfight-and-adventure novels: they have long been part of the Chinese popular memory, and have reincarnated innumerable times in varied retellings, as graphic novels (which, in their headlong narrative style, they closely resemble), and, most recently, in John Woo’s splendid five-hour pop epic film, “Red Cliff,” a dramatization of the most famous battle of the San Kuo. This novel, translated as The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, is attributed to Lo Kuan-chung, and exists as a two- volume edition from Charles E. Tuttle, 1959, in a decent translation by C. H. Brewitt-Taylor. As Three Kingdoms, there is a drastic one-volume abridgement by Moss Roberts (Pantheon, 1976) and a full edition, also by Roberts, in one volume from University of California Press (Berkeley, 1991). Shui Hu Chuan was translated by Pearl S. Buck as All Men Are Brothers, published by John Day in 1937 and reprinted recently by Moyer Bell. L. H. Jackson translated it as The Water Margin; it was done in two volumes by the Commercial Press in Hong Kong in 1963 and reprinted in a single volume by Paragon in 1968. The fullest versions, I believe, are Outlaws of the Marsh (Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1981, two volumes, reprinted in four volumes in paperback by the Foreign Languages Press) in a lively and readable modern translation by Sidney Shapiro., and The Marshes of Mount Liang, published in five hardcover volumes by the Chinese University Press, translated by John and Alex Dent-Young.

--Chin P'ing Mei: The Adventurous History of Hsi Men and his Six Wives first came into English in a two-volume anonymous translation from Putnam in 1940, often misattributed to Arthur Waley (who wrote the preface). Clement Egerton translated it as The Golden Lotus, published in four volumes by Routledge and Kegan Paul (London). As The Plum in the Golden Vase, or Chin P'ing Mei, there is a full scholarly, annotated translation now in print from the translator David Todd Roy and the Princeton University Press; it’s five volumes, the last of which was published in 2013. Like the later Jou Pu Tuan, this is a novel of sexual and marital misadventure, still remarkable for its sophistication and mordant observation.

--Hsi Yu Chi is a picaresque elaboration of folk legends about the travels of Hsuan-tsang (a.k.a. Tripitaka) and his journey to India in search of Buddhist scripture, accompanied by a host of fantastic creatures, including a mischievous and unpredictable monkey-god, who’s sort of a cross between a kung-fu master and Toad from Wind in the Willows. Its strongest resemblance in modern fiction is to Tolkien, if you can imagine Tolkien on some mild, Buddhist-flavored form of hallucinogen. The book, by Wu Ch’eng-en, first hit English as Monkey, a translation by the great Arthur Waley that itself became a kind of classic; it’s a severe abridgement—maybe a fourth of the original—but succeeds as later versions do not in capturing the story’s comedy and charm. But the two later versions, both titled Journey to the West, by W. F. Jenner for the Beijing Foreign Languages Press (available now in paper) and by Anthony C. Yu for the Indiana University Press, are very much worth reading. Each are four volumes, with the stuff Waley omitted: many chapters of adventure and the verse elaborations. The Monkey and the Monk, published by Chicago, is an abridgement of Anthony Yu’s translation.

-- Hung Lou Meng, commonly called The Dream of the Red Chamber, by Tsao Hsueh Chin (or Cao Xueqin) is the official masterpiece of Chinese fiction—their War and Peace, their Tale of Genji—and I’m not inclined to argue. Emerging from this vast tale of a family’s decline in fortunes, you feel you have been, as with all great fiction, in an utterly convincing realm that has somehow altered your sense of the world you live in. The still common Anchor paperback, translated by Chi-Chen Wang, is a severe abridgement which downplays the novel’s supernatural element. The Pantheon paperback, translated by Florence and Isabel McHugh from a German edition, is better, fuller, but still drastically shortened. A Dream of Red Mansions is a decent, full, illustrated translation from the Beijing Foreign Languages Press, 1978, translated by Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang, with a hilariously nervous, all’s-right-with-the- Revolution intro, a ripe little piece of Party-line prose. The best version by far is the five-volume Penguin edition translated by David Hawkes and John Minford, with author billing as Cao Xueqin and entitled The Story of the Stone (“also known as The Dream of the Red Chamber”, the smaller print assures us). With this edition one could feel that the Dream had arrived in its proper English form.

From here you can go on to the next rung of classics: Li Yu’s erotic novel Jou Pu Tuan (translated by Richard Martin for Grove Press, 1963, as Jou Pu Tuan: The Prayer Mat of Flesh, and by Patrick Hanan, for Ballantine, 1990, as The Carnal Prayer Mat) or Wu Ch’ing-tzu’s The Scholars (translated by Yang Hsien-Yi and Gladys Yang, Beijing Foreign Languages Press, 1937).

And leave us not forget Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, a seventeenth-century collection by Pu Songling. It’s considered one of the great accomplishments of Chinese classical prose, but in English it reads like a mix of Maupassant, Rod Serling and the giddiest kind of tabloid silliness. They’re like very good-natured predecessors of the horror genre—delicious creep-outs. John Minford’s nimble translation (from Penguin Books) of 104 of these short short stories, accompanied by some splendid period illustrations, is terrific fun—like a bag of the best salt-and-vinegar potato chips you’ve ever had. Finally, we come to one of the precious minor classics of Chinese prose: Shen Fu’s Six Chapters of a Floating Life. This is not a novel but a fragment of a memoir by a poor member of the clerkly caste, about his beloved wife and their sadly brief marriage, and his travels—a work of great pathos and charm. The translation by Leonard Pratt and Chiang Su-Hui, with notes and maps, was published by Penguin in 1983.

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