Pearl Buck and the Chinese Novel: Part 7

Where we left off yesterday: Fiction seemed to open doors to the future. Like fiction everywhere, Chinese fiction provided a mirror of human experience, and may have played a part in bringing about the end of Confucian dialectics, especially works such as The Scholars and Hong Lou Meng.


Chinese fiction has particular heroes/protagonists. There is the Confucian rebel, a muscle-man, who might also be a scholar. Such a hero is Song Jiang in the Shui Hu Chuan. Song is the model of filial piety, risking his life to see that his father is well and supplied with all the things he needs. In spite of his disappointment in government and its officials, when the emperor asks Song Jiang to lead his gang against the enemies of China, the Tartars, Song Jiang does what he emperor requests. This kind of hero is the kind of hero Western readers can understand and appreciate.

Bao-yu, the hero in Hong Lou Meng, is a different type, but such characters do exist in the western tradition. He is an intelligent, pleasant, interesting man who sees nothing of value in what society thinks is important. He is “disillusioned” in the Buddhist/Taoist sense of the word. Bao-yu is, in fact, an immortal and knows nothing on the earth is permanent, that all things pass away, which makes it difficult for him to adapt even though he doesn’t remember his origins as an unneeded piece of jade used to build the sky. All he knows is that what everyone wants him to do seems stupid and futile. His actions look like rebellion against the family system and Confucian scholarship. To Jia-Zheng, Bao-yu’s father and honorable official, and to the rest of his human family, Bao-yu seems lazy because he doesn’t apply himself to studying the things he should. In hopes that Bao-yu’s life won’t be a total disgrace, Jia-Zheng takes him to the schoolmaster:

I have come here today,” he [Bao-yu’s father] began, “because I felt the need to entrust my son to you personally, and with a few words of instruction. He is no longer a child, and if he is to shoulder his responsibilities and earn a place in the world, it is high time he applied himself conscientiously to preparing for his exams. At home, he spends all his time idling about in the company of children. His verses, the only field in which he has acquired any competence, are for the most part turgid juvenilia at their best, romantic trifles, devoid of substance… For the present I would humbly suggest a course of reading and exegesis of primary scriptural texts, and plenty of compositions. If he should show the least sign of being a recalcitrant pupil, I earnestly beseech you to take him in hand and in so doing to save him from a shallow and wasted life.

On this note he rose, and with a bow and a few parting remarks, took his leave… when [the teacher] returned to the classroom, Bao-yu was already sitting at a small rosewood desk in the southwest corner of the room, by the window. He had two sets of texts and a meagre-looking volume of model compositions stacked in a pile on his right… “We must see to it that you apply yourself with zeal from now on.” (Cao Xueqin, Hong Lou Meng)

What does Bao-yu really think of all this? Well, considering that Bao-yu is essentially a piece of jade, not a mortal, his feeling that the whole thing is stupid seems reasonable. But, unlike the reader, the other characters in the story don’t know Bao-yu’s true identity. This creates an interesting tension within the story. The family’s reactions illustrate an idea which had long existed in Chinese life and is one of the reasons for the schism between fiction and “literature.” Important things are serious; anything that is not serious cannot be important. 

Bao-yu, a being outside the “red dust” (the transient reality in which sentient beings live), is able to see, with the eyes of an immortal, what is and what is not important. The scholarly life is not important. What’s important is the here and now and doing what he likes. He knows that the people he knows and loves are fated to pass out of his life soon and forever which it’s important for him to spend every possible moment with them.

Carved onto the rejected jade from which Bao-yu originally came is this verse:

Unfit to mend the azure sky,
I passed some years on earth to no avail;
My life in both worlds is recorded here;
Whom can I ask to pass on this romantic tale?

Hong Lou Meng (trans. Gladys Yang)

The wonder of it is that now Hong Lou Meng is, itself, an object of intense scholarship. My favorite in this short and random list is, “Towards a New Paradigm of Redology.”


I’m kind of sorry younger Martha didn’t finish this project, but I can see why. It’s huge and her credibility was/is questionable.

I’m stopping here. Looking forward at the last two pages of this thing, I see it just peters out. I wonder where it all went. I remember writing about the anti-Japanese war and the May Fourth Movement and the struggle to create a written Chinese language that could be taught more easily to people, but it’s no where to be found. Could I start writing it now? I don’t know. The world has moved on and I have moved on, too. The only thing from this I understand better than I did at 36 is that Bao-yu was right, but so were a lot of other guys all around the world from many generations… “Drink! for you know not whence you came nor why: drink! for you know not why you go, nor where…” The Rubaiyatt of Omar Khayyam.

The jade pendant in the featured photo was a gift from a student in San Diego, the first student from the PRC that I taught in the US. The words are, “Bamboo whispers peace.” I felt very guilty about this gift and gave her a Navajo pendant made of Montana moss agate. There’s nothing kenspeckle about any of this, I’m afraid.


And now I’ve found more… Women in Chinese fiction and Pearl Buck. Shui Hu Chuan. More. I think it can all wait forever or until I get interested again.

9 thoughts on “Pearl Buck and the Chinese Novel: Part 7

  1. And this is exactly why I veered away from English as a major. People took perfectly good stories and dissected them until there was nothing left but smudges of ink on paper. It is very interesting though to hear what younger Martha had to say on the subject!!

    • Some of that analysts is good and meaningful. I’m glad studied this- in so many ways it enlarged my life and gave me many keys to realms that would have been closed to me otherwise. There is a limit though. When critics become more important than actual art then it’s a — pardon me here — circle jerk and yields nothing that’s any good to anyone.

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