Chinese Fiction and Scarlet Emperor Beans?

It wasn’t junk, and I wouldn’t have thrown it out, but somehow Pearl Buck’s translation of Shui Hu Chuan has vanished from my library. I hope it hasn’t really vanished, but instead that in the rush to move books from one place to another when I got my Chinese cabinets a month or so ago, I just didn’t move it. Shui Hu Chuan or The Water Margin or The Men of the Marshes or All Men Are Brothers (Pearl Bucks title of the book) was written in the 14th century but if you were to google it, you’d find films, TV series, comic books pretty much every pop culture genre reflecting that title.

The author is Shi Nai An, but the book was added to by other writers over the course of time. Generally, Chinese writers of the old days didn’t care about authorship with the ferocity writers in the West have/do, possibly because, much of the time, it was illegal to write novels.

Shui Hu Chuan has been called “a Chinese Robinhood” but it really isn’t. Very, very, very generally it’s about a gang of insurrectionists who fight the corruption of the government.

As the Scarlet Emperor Beans continue to raise their heads to the light, I have thought about naming them for the heroes in Shui Hu Chuan which would mean reading it again. It really has everything. Magic, mystery, derring-do, cannibalism, tigers, seduction, idealism — it’s really the ultimate book which is one reason it’s more popular now than ever. Chairman Mao (bless his heart) used it as a propaganda tool, a way to enforce the idea that popular revolt could (once more) cleanse China of corruption. Eerily resonant now, but the difference between Song Jiang (the leader of the Men of the Marshes) and anyone attempting an insurrection in the US is that he was intelligent, a good leader, and could write wonderful poetry.

The ability to write poetry was a serious thing in Chinese culture.

One of the cool things about Chinese fiction is that a story in one novel can lead to a whole ‘nother novel and one of the stories in Shui Hu Chuan led to another novel, a pornographic novel, Chin Ping Mei. Sadly, no translation I found in English renders the juicy parts readable to me. They are all in Latin. The Chin Ping Mei has the reputation of being deadly to whomever reads it because once, allegedly, the corners of the pages were poisoned and the man who read the book licked his finger to make turning the pages easier. Definitely a cautionary tale.

I wrote this post some time ago, but it’s a fit addition to this one. A Confucian Parable

16 thoughts on “Chinese Fiction and Scarlet Emperor Beans?

  1. I didn’t realize you had thievery as part of your resume! I hope you name at least one of the beans after the only woman Chinese poet that was on my radar… Seems there ought to be some gender equality among the bean plants! Also I do hope the translation surfaces soon.

    • When I was in China, I edited a Chinese colleague’s translation the work of of a 20th century Chinese woman poet, Chen Jingrong. I’m not interested in the gender thing at all. I’m interested in poetry. As for the gender of bean plants, each plant is well equipped, but dependent on bees. Human preoccupations with this stuff are, thankfully, not part of the bean world.

  2. I do hope your book is just misplaced Victoria. I have had many a book vanish only to find my ex lent them to people, some were reference books that I sadly would like to have again.
    I have only read a small amount of Chinese works and one I thought would be a good read turned out to be quite erotic, something I didn’t expect but it was an eye opener to Chinese practices. Thanks for joining in 🙂 🙂

  3. I love to hear your tales of your days in the Far East. (Is that still okay to say, by the way? I’m not up on what is and isn’t P.C. any longer. I believe ‘Orient’ is out in the common vernacular. Or at least, calling things “Oriental” isn’t done.) It is entirely possible I have missed the point of your lovely post in my efforts not to offend.

    The loss of a book is grave occurrence and I will agree most sincerely with the above wishers who are hoping it turns up before long.

    Lastly, I know I’ve heard of the use of poisoned page edges from a movie I watched: The Name of the Rose based on a book by the same title. I wonder if the author, Umberto Ecco, was a devotee of the Chin Ping Mei novel of illustrious, if deadly, fame? Perhaps it is not just Chinese writers who ‘borrow’ a great idea here or there?

    • I think that poisoned books were either a real (I suspect) problem or a fantastical idea in those days when people really did go around with poison. (Ah the Borgias…) I found my book. It was exactly where it was supposed to be, I just didn’t see it. I don’t understand why “orient” isn’t ok, it just means “east”. Oriental just means “from the east” but it is based on the whole western frame of reference, and east of Hong Kong we find San Francisco. That damned sphere really messes up our search for absolutes… 😉

  4. I haven’t read this, so thanks for enriching my future. I find it interesting that Chinese history is replete with peasant revolts, and the violent overthrow of central governments. Such a clear indication that for millennia civilization has not been equally beneficial to all.

    • That kind of violence was always the way a new emperor was “chosen.” Warlords battling each other and the suffering of the people until someone won the Mandate of Heaven. I really loved this book.

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