Pearl Buck and the Chinese Novel, 3

Here’s where we left off yesterday in our meandering discussion of early Chinese fiction: The supernatural can intervene at any time in much the way fate appears to intervene in human life. The effect of THAT is one of bewildering realism. 


In *Shui Hu Chuan (The Water Margin, translated by Pearl Buck as All Men Are Brothers), was written in the 14th century. The story opens with a somewhat rash Imperial Commander who has been sent to a sacred mountain in search of a Taoist master who has the ability to cure the entire nation which is, at that moment, suffering from a terrible plague. The commander succeeds in his question, having unknowingly spoken directly to the master who was disguised as a small boy on a buffalo. On his way down the mountain, the commander finds a small temple that has been sealed with paper. He questions the monks about why the temple is sealed. The monk replies that 108 demons are sealed inside. Curiosity gets the better of the commander who commands that that the temple be opened. Against the protests of the monk, the temple — a Pandora’s Box — is opened freeing the 108 demons to roam the world creating havoc. These 108 demons are the bandits and robbers who populate the Shui Hu Chuan.

Hong Loui Meng, written in the 18th century, is probably the most famous and most studied of the older Chinese novels. It opens with the story of Pao Yu, the main character. Pao Yu is not actually a mortal but the human incarnation of a piece of jade which was rejected when the sky was completed. Depressed over his rejection, Pao Yu is noticed by wandering Buddhist and Taoist monks who give him the opportunity to exist in the world of men, the “Red Dust.” Because he is not an ordinary mortal, he cannot be expected to act like one. This the reader knows, but, of course, the other characters in the novel can only guess Pao Yu’s destiny. In this way, the author is able to tie all of the episodes in the story together to make his statement at the end, that, essentially, while the Red Dust and its ways are all-right for mortals, it’s no place for gods. 

*Chin Ping Mei, a “spin-off” of the Shui Hu Chuan, was written in the 16th century. It begins with a Confucian exhortation against dealing with women (!), and, finally, as the ultimate example, the author launches into Chin Ping Mei itself:

Let us then purify our senses, and put upon us the garment of repentance, that so contemplating the emptiness and illusion of this world, we may free ourselves from the gate of birth and death and falling not into the straits of adversity, advance towards perfection. Thus only may we enjoy leisure and good living and still escape the fires of Hell. I am brought to these reflections upon the true significance of wine and women, wealth and ambition, remembering a family which, while flourishing, sank at length into a state of deepest misery. Then neither worldly wisdom nor ingenuity could save it and not a single relative or friend would put forth a hand to help. For a few brief years the master of this household enjoyed his wealth, and then he died, leaving behind a reputation which none would want. 


And THAT folks seems to be a wrap — that’s page 5 and there is no page 6! There is a page 7, 8, 9 etc. but I cannot see from this how younger Martha got to page 7. I’ve looked everywhere, even to the point of finding yet ANOTHER version. It seems that 36 year old Martha Kennedy was seriously into revision. As I typed this it struck me that it just rambles with no direction, and I wonder if that’s not something “she” noticed and that’s why I have three versions of this? NO idea — but I may jump straight to the twentieth century. We’ll see. What appears to be the newest revision of this tome IS the most engaging so maybe I’ll just go there? It’s better… Oh Martha, Martha, no wonder you didn’t finish this. 🙂

* The Shui Hu Chuan is still incredibly popular in Asia — cartoons, feature films, Kung-fu versions. It’s a wonderful adventure story — or compilation of stories. To me, it’s like an Icelandic saga, and I love Icelandic sagas.

** The Chin Ping Mei is a notorious book. An unexpurgated version has come out in English, but the one I read, translated in the 30s, had all the juicy bits translated into Latin. I could expend a lot of energy decoding it or move on. All this righteous stuff is really just a way to turn this extremely racy book into a moral lesson. Pearl Buck included the Chin Ping Mei in her novel, Pavilion of Women with the story that originally it had had poison on the corner of each page so that the evil magistrate (if I remember right) would die when he finished reading it, and, of course, he had to read it. Poisoned books are legendary across cultures — there is another more well known in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. It really discourages a person from reading.

I scored a copy of Clement Edgerton’s 1939 translation of Chin Ping Mei at a used book store. It’s the same version I read so long ago while working on the Pearl Buck project. Used books are great. In this case because someone else would have gotten the poison ( ha ha) and because the person who had this book apparently loved it. He inscribed it with his name in English and in Chinese. The featured photo is one of the new editions and my old books. You’d think the BIGGER book has more in it, but the old book is printed on very thin paper and the type is set close together. I don’t think there’s much difference in quantity of content, but in the new edition the juicy bits are in English.

On the subject of translation, I’m with Goethe. He wrote a very nice poem (which I can’t find now) about this and there’s also the story of how his secretary read to him a story written in French. Goethe said, “That’s a good story.” His secretary laughed and said, “That’s the French translation of your story.” I think it’s better to read a translation than not read the stories at all. Sure, maybe something — maybe a lot — is lost, but not everything. I have two translations of Hong Lou Meng. One is the translation officially sanctioned by the CCP published in an incredibly beautifully illustrated two volume set. The other is a much longer, more complete, less censored and didactic translation put out by the Oxford University Press. The both tell the story, and the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) version says in the illustrations much of what is left out in the words. There is also — in China — a whole field of scholarship over Hong Lou Meng. I like best the writer’s explanation for why he wrote it. Basically because he had nothing to do, was very poor, and writing it was a way to entertain himself and his friends. I feel that with all my heart. There is contention about who wrote it, but generally it is believed to be Cao Xuexin, the impoverished son of a disgraced official. It’s a wonderful book. It’s something I wish I could experience for the first time — again. ❤

I listened to this song all the time back in the day because I was getting sick of “sitting around here trying to write [that] book.”

18 thoughts on “Pearl Buck and the Chinese Novel, 3

  1. I read a translation of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot in HS and was unimpressed, then read a different translation as part of a Russian history class and the difference was night and day! I can only imagine the differences between the censored and uncensored translations….

    • Yep — mostly style. The people who translated the official version weren’t really good writers. The Oxford University Press translators were good writers and loved the book and had no political head breathing down their necks.

  2. I have to admit I’m lost in translation. Yet, have more understanding and interest, too. The 36 year old Martha is as interesting to me as what I’ve learned. I’m glad you bought used, too. Did your experience in China produce similar thoughts or connections to Pearl Buck? You are a good translator of her! ❤️

    • I had never read Pearl Buck when I went to China. I read her first a couple years after I came back and started this project. Im glad I hadn’t read her. I was really lucky to have gone with no ideas of what I would find other than I’d need a year’s supply of tampons and a toaster oven. 😀

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