Shui Hu Chuan and the Scarlet Emperor Beans

In a little while my side kicks and I will head over the mountain to experience all the wonders of the civilized world. Huh?

The beans in the featured photo — all but one — came from Pearl Buck but one from Tu Fu. If you ever doubt that nature is a clock, think about this. I ate the first beans from my plants last year on exactly the same date.

Old printed version of the Shui Hu Chuan



Among Pearl Buck’s achievements was the translation of one of the all time great novels written anywhere, Shui Hu Chuan or The Water Margin which she translated and titled All Men Are Brothers (she hoped…) The novel — written in the 14th century — is said to have been written by Shi Nai An, but as Pearl Buck writes in her introduction, “Like many of the Chinese novels it developed rather than was written, and to this day the final author is unknown.” About Shi Nai An, “…little is known…” It’s almost like Shakespeare, the debate about who really wrote this monumental work. Pearl Buck writes, “One Chinese scholar at least gives as authority for Lo Kuan Chung’s (author of the Three Kingdoms) the fact that Shui Hu Chuan is so evil a book that the curse was laid upon the author that for three generations his descendants were to be deaf and dumb and sine for three generations Lo Kuan Chung’s descendants were deaf and dub therefore he must be the author.”

Shui Hu Chuan was banned. Booksellers who sold it had their businesses destroyed. Moral education has always (apparently) been a “thing” in China.

But it’s an amazing story. Some people say it’s the “Chinese Robinhood,” but I only see a very superficial similarity there. There are “robbers” and they are better men than the so-called “good” guys. Chinese authors in the olden times wrote for different reasons than we usually think of authors writing. They often wrote to entertain themselves (I get that) and may have read their stories to friends for their entertainment. Since fiction was forbidden, it couldn’t really have another purpose. Shi Nai An wrote in his preface (we’ll just go along with the idea that he wrote the book):

“In this book are seventy chapters. When my friends were gone and I sat alone under the lamp, I wrote in idleness. At time when the wind blew and the rains fell and no one came then also did I write.”

These old Chinese novels don’t follow a linear structure, but tend to be episodic in nature which, personally, I like a lot. Sometimes that line Western literature seems compelled to follow seems arbitrary. I don’t see my life as having been linear, but a string of episodes, many of which really were/are pretty random. The “story” of Shui Hu Chuan is difficult to summarize but basically it’s the story of a rebellion against a corrupt government, but the rebels are a pretty sketchy bunch themselves, though extremely lovable. Song Jiang, their leader, is a true hero. Among his many gifts is the ability to write good poetry.

One of the stories in Shui Hu Chuan — the story of Wu Song who was an amazing hero and compelling character — was taken as the beginning of another long novel, Chin Ping Mei, Plum Blossom in a Golden Vase, written in the 16th century. This book was also banned, but for obscenity. Pearl Buck alludes to this book in one of her novels, Pavilion of Women.

Shui Hu Chuan is still a best seller in China. It’s been made into movies, cartoons, comic books and a video game. When I was in China, it was sold on the street in what I guess we’d call graphic novels and the little kids LOVED the stories. I do too. There are tigers, halberds, horses, mountains, cudgels, poetry, beautiful (but evil) women, cannibalism, inescapable destiny, and magic. It’s probably the perfect story. πŸ˜‰

23 thoughts on “Shui Hu Chuan and the Scarlet Emperor Beans

  1. About 40 years ago we ran “Shui Hu Chuan” as a series on television. It was a cheap (Taiwanese) production, but it was something special to me because I watched it with a fellow student – and that led to a long, beautiful love affair. As for Jing Ping Mei: i read it again a couple of years ago and was as fascinated as the first time I read it. (It was a forbidden book in China then and I was so proud I managed to get it via Hong Kong. At that time I thought one day I would be able to read it in Chinese πŸ˜‰ )

    • I checked a translated Jing Ping Mei out of the library at the university where was teaching back in 1985. All the juicy bits were in Latin. It was published in 1939. Decoding the passages wasn’t worth the reward, so… But I own that translation now. Nothing like thrift stores for finding weird stuff. I just bought a couple of the volumes of the newly translated unexpurgated translation but some of the mystery is lost. πŸ™‚

      • When I first read the book I was young, so the erotic part was the more interesting. The last time I read it, the description of the society, the customs, the social connections were the more interesting. That’s when I realized that I am old πŸ™‚

        As for Latin: It reminds me of Robert van Gulik: Sexual life in ancient China. I still remember “mulieres cum carnem”.

        • Ha ha ha ha!

          One of my used bookstore finds a long time ago was the Jo Pu Tuan or “The Prayer Mat of Flesh”. That turned out to be the opposite of erotic (I don’t know if it was meant to be the opposite of erotic) but really really interesting. The underlying conceit (justification?) is that even total dissolution and amorality can lead to redemption. Of course, there was a great emphasis on feet. πŸ˜€

          • Definitely a fascinating book. After reading van Gulik I understood how important this topic must have been in ancient China. No wonder as the number of sons was so important. Since you spent so many years in China you sure remember the large number of stimulants you could find in drug stores, though daily life suggested hailing Mao was all one could long for.

            • I was only in China for a year. I remember being on a bus with a newlywed couple on the seat in front facing. They had a party sanctioned instruction book for their honeymoon. It was the one child policy times. Anyway it was a lovely scene. They were in love, excited at their future.

              I didn’t see aphrodisiacs in a Chinese drugstore until I got to San Diego. My neighborhood was full of Vietnamese immigrants and there were several Chinese drugstores. I sometimes went in one to buy gan mao ling or just to smell China which I missed very much. That’s where I learned about all those mysterious things. πŸ˜€

  2. You always pique my interest in Chinese literature. I really need to one day expand my reading. Or, sounded like a typical busy student, hope they at least make it into a movie. How cool about the beans. Nature keeps things right on time. They look wonderful!

  3. That has gone into my Kindle. Looking for it I felt very parochial. So much has been written around it, but I hadn’t even heard of the book. Also, thanks for the continuing introduction to Pearl Buck. I had lost interest in her from middle school to 2019, when I visited Nanjing.

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