Category Archives: Chinese

Some strange tales from Pu Songling

More strange tales from Pu Songling

By way of followup to my post discussing Pu Songling’s Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio here’s three examples of the tales, with the accompanying commentaries set out at the bottom of the post. If you like these I really do suggest buying the entire collection, which is excellent.



Yang Tianyi told this story.
Once he saw two mice come out into his room. One of them was swallowed by a snake. The other mouse glared angrily from a safe distance, its little eyes like two round peppercorns. The snake, its belly full of mouse, went slithering back to its hole and was more than halfway in when the second mouse dashed forward and bit it hard on the tail. Furiously the snake backed out of the hole, and the mouse darted once more to safety. The snake gave chase but was unable to catch the mouse, and returned to its hole. As it entered the hole a second time, the mouse seized it by the tail again, exactly as before. Each time the snake went crawling in, the mouse struck; and each time it emerged, the mouse ran for cover. And so it continued for quite some time, until finally the snake came right out and spat the dead mouse on to the ground. The second mouse approached, sniffed at the corpse and began crying over its friend. Then, squeaking dolefully, it picked it up in its mouth and left.
My friend Mr Zhang Duqing wrote a poem on this subject, entitled ‘The Ballad of the Devoted Mouse’.



In Yidu County, there lived a young man by the name of Yu Jing. He had taken his books with him to lodgings at the Temple of Sweet Springs, and one night he was sitting there chanting a text when he heard a woman’s voice at his window.

‘Oh Mr Yu, what a very serious student you are!’

He was still wondering what a woman could possibly be doing up there in the hills, when in she came, pushing the door open with a disarming smile.

‘So very serious!’

He jumped up in alarm, and found himself standing before a young lady of the most incomparable delicacy and the most exquisite beauty, clad in a green tunic and a long skirt. He knew at once that this was no ordinary mortal and asked her, perhaps a trifle emphatically, where she was from.

‘I’m hardly going to bite you!’ she replied. ‘Why the inquisition?’

He was instantly captivated, and they shared his bed that very night. When he came to loosen her silken tunic, it revealed a waist so slender that his hands could encircle it with ease.

The last watch sounded and she slipped away, returning to him the following, and every subsequent, night. On one such night, they were drinking together when she made a remark which betrayed an unusual understanding of music.

‘I love the sound of your voice,’ he said. ‘It is so fine and soft. Sing me a song. I am sure it will quite carry my soul away…’

‘I’d rather not,’ she replied, smiling as ever. ‘I wouldn’t want to carry you too far away…’

He pleaded with her all the more.

‘I am not trying to be unkind,’ she said. ‘It is just that I do not want others to hear. Oh, if you really insist, I’ll sing a song. But quietly, just for you.’

She tapped her ‘Golden Lotuses’, her tiny bound feet, lightly on the edge of the bed and began to sing:

Jackdaw singing in the tree
Tricks me away before the light;
I’ll gladly wet my pretty shoes,
If I can stay with you tonight.

Her voice was light as silk, and barely audible. Yu Jing listened intently, and his whole being vibrated to the haunting, lilting melody.

The song ended. She opened the door and peeped outside.

‘I must make sure there is no one at the window.’

She searched the whole length of the building.

‘You seem so frightened. What is the matter?’ asked Yu Jing, when she returned.

‘There is an old saying,’ replied the girl, with her ever-present smile. ‘A ghost that steals life must forever live in fear. Such is my fate.’

She lay down to sleep, but she seemed restless and ill at ease.

‘This idyll of ours is fated to end,’ she finally said to Yu Jing. He begged her to explain.

‘My heart beats strangely. I know my end is close at hand.’

‘Strange movements of the heart, flutterings of the eyes, such things happen to us all from time to time,’ he protested. ‘You must not be so gloomy!’

She seemed a little comforted by this, and they united once more in tender passion. As the last watch of the night came to an end, she threw on her dress, descended from the bed, and walked as far as the door. There, instead of undoing the bolt, she began pacing back and forth.

‘I do not know why, but something fills me with dread. Come outside with me, I beseech you.’

Yu rose and went out with her.

‘Stay there and watch me,’ she said. ‘Do not go in again until I am beyond that wall.’ ‘Very well,’ said Yu, and he watched her walk silently down the outer wall of the cloister and round the corner, until she was out of sight. He had already turned and was on his way back to bed, when he heard a desperate cry for help. It was her voice. He hurried out again, but though he gazed all around him he could see no trace of her. The voice was still audible and seemed to be coming from up above him, from the eaves over the door. Looking up he saw a huge spider, like a big black bolus, holding in its clutches a little creature that was making the most pitiful noise: it was a green hornet, in the throes of death. He carefully disentangled it and carried it back to his room, where he placed it on the table. Soon it recovered sufficient strength to move, crawled slowly up on to his inkstone and down into the ink. Presently it emerged again, clambered down from the inkstone and began dragging itself across the table, tracing the words

thank you

on the wooden surface. Then it shook its wings several times and flew out of the window. He never saw it again.

A certain man bought a new house, only to discover that it was haunted by fox-spirits, who constantly spoiled his clothes and other belongings and dropped dirt into his noodles.

One day, one of this gentleman’s friends dropped by to visit him. Unfortunately he was not at home, and that evening, since her husband had still not returned, his wife prepared dinner for the guest, before eating separately with her maid.

Now, her husband was a somewhat dissolute character who made a hobby of collecting aphrodisiacs of one sort or another. At some time or other that day the resident fox-spirits had secretly slipped one of the drugs from his collection into the congee. While the wife was eating her dinner she noticed a strange taste that resembled camphor and musk and asked her maid what it might be, but the maid said she knew of nothing. After dinner, the wife began to experience an overwhelming feeling of sexual arousal, and the more she tried to suppress it, the stronger and the more urgent it became. There was no available man in the house other than the guest, her husband’s friend, and so she made her way to the guest-room and knocked at the door.

The guest asked who it was, and the woman gave her name. He asked her what she wanted, and when she remained silent, he guessed her intentions.

‘Your husband and I are friends and treat one another decently. I could never behave in such a bestial manner with my friend’s wife.’

The wife remained there standing at the door and refused to leave. ‘Your husband,’ he protested angrily, ‘is a man with a reputation in the community! Are you determined to destroy it?’

With these words he spat at her through the window-lattice, and finally in great embarrassment she left. As she went she began asking herself how she could have done such a thing. Then she recalled the strange taste in her congee bowl at dinner. It entered her mind that it might have been caused by one of the aphrodisiacs from her husband’s collection, and when she went to look, she found that one of the packages had indeed been tampered with, and the contents scattered all over the cups and bowls on the kitchen table. She remembered having once heard that cold water acted as an antidote in such cases, so she drank some water immediately and soon came round. She awoke from her state of drugged confusion to a feeling of intense remorse and shame. All that night she lay there brooding restlessly, and as dawn was almost breaking, unable to face the world, she threw her sash over a beam and hanged herself. Her maid found her and untied her in the nick of time. Although by this time she was all but dead, she gradually recovered consciousness.

The guest meanwhile had left during the night. The following day at dawn, the master of the house returned to find his wife in bed and plainly unwell. No matter how many times he asked her what the matter was, she lay there in complete silence and would do nothing but weep. When the maid informed her master that her mistress had tried to hang herself in the early hours, he pressed his wife with more and more questions, and finally she sent her maid away and told him the whole story.

The husband heaved a sigh. ‘It is my lust that is being punished! This is no fault of yours. Fortunately, this friend of mine is a good man, or I would never be able to hold my head up in the world again.’

After this experience, he became a reformed character, and the foxes disappeared completely.

Commentaries (not all tales come with commentaries, but the majority do):

42 THE DEVOTED MOUSE Zhang Duqing: (1642–?1716), a poet-friend of Pu Songling’s, who like Pu was never appointed to an official position. His ballad, a poem in thirty-six lines, is extant. The contemporary poet and novelist Vikram Seth has retold this tale in verse in his collection Beastly Tales from Here and There (London, 1992).

83 THE GIRL IN GREEN light as silk: Some texts have ‘light as a fly’.

88 LUST PUNISHED BY FOXES The Chronicler of the Strange points out that whereas most people are aware of the danger involved in storing ordinary poisons (such as arsenic) in the house, few appreciate the havoc that can be caused by leaving aphrodisiacs lying around the place. Men have a healthy fear of the dangers of the military battlefield, but are blissfully unaware of the far greater dangers lurking in the bedchamber. For a glimpse of the type of thing our gentleman may have been collecting, the reader is directed to Robert van Gulik’s excellent study Sexual Life in Ancient China (Leiden, 1961), especially pp. 133–4, where the author describes various potions listed in the ancient sex handbook of Master Dong Xuan, such as ‘Bald Chicken Potion’ (‘if taken for sixty days one will be able to copulate with forty women’ – this drug was apparently so named after an unfortunate cock who ate it by mistake when it had been thrown out in the courtyard, and copulated with a single hen for several days without dismounting, pecking her head bald); ‘Deer Horn Potion’ (to cure impotence and involuntary emission); a potion for enlargement of the penis (a mixture of broomrape and seaweed); and a potion for shrinking the vagina (made up of four ingredients, including sulphur and birthwort root). The same text is translated by Douglas Wile in Art of the Bedchamber, pp. 112–13.


Filed under 18th Century, Chinese, Short stories

Ox-ghosts and serpent spirits

Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, by Pu Songling and translated by John Minford

Over 600 pages of 17th/18th Century Chinese ghost stories and accompanying commentary. Does that sound tempting? Probably not, but it should because Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio is quite wonderful and quite unlike almost anything else I’ve read.

Pu Songling was a mediocre scholar, but a gifted author. He wrote  one of the most comprehensive collections of Chinese fantastic fiction to reach us today. He told tales of ghosts and fox spirits, of odd encounters and peculiar visions. His work was playful, allusive and frequently erotic. He wrote for men like himself, Chinese gentlemen who would read the stories by lamp or candle light in their scholar’s studios which looked out on carefully crafted views of sculpted gardens and artfully placed rocks which brought distant mountains within their walls.

The Penguin Classics edition contains over a 100 of these stories. They’re short, never more than a few pages and many only a page or so long. They come with quite beautiful illustrations in classical Chinese style (and which I wish I could reproduce here for you). On their surface these are tales of the supernatural, of encounters with ghosts (who are often quite unlike our Western ghosts) and fox spirits (a sort of mischievous faery race, foxes who can change shape into human form and are capable of all sorts of mystical trickery). Underneath that there are all sorts of contemporary political and philosophical references that a lay reader like me can’t hope to catch, but doesn’t need to because the endnotes explain many of them and anyway the stories are a joy even at the shallow surface level I read them at.

In Chinese folklore there is no clear demarcation between ghost and fox spirit, both are liminal entities, ambiguous beings that interact with us mortals for their own ends. They are physical entities, save when they don’t wish to be, capable of being mistaken for human and even of becoming human in the right circumstances. They are transgressive, breaking the rules of the carefully codified society of civil service examinations and scholarly pursuits that the human characters here are part of, and which Pu Songling and his audience were of course part of.

In a typical tale (except that there is no such thing, which is why this review is so hard to write), a scholarly youth is visited by a beautiful maiden (or in one a beautiful boy). He falls in love, and is seduced by this vision. He grows weaker, his essential strength being drained by intimacy with the occult. Or perhaps not, perhaps the spirit wishes to protect the man but he insists on seducing it, spending his own life to possess that which wishes to protect him but which cannot resist his insistent charms.

Others are more redolent of Western folklore and experience. In one story “Tiles, pebbles and brick shards […] fly around the house like hailstones at any moment,” as classic a description of poltergeist phenomena as one could hope to find. In another a sleeping man is frozen in his bed as a bloated hag enters his room and squats upon his chest (google night terrors for that one, it’s actually a surprisingly widely reported form of hallucination).

In one absolutely charming tale a magistrate named Ding Chenghe (Crane Rider) befriends a failed scholar named Ye. Ding helps Ye with his examinations, but despite Ye’s talent Ye still fails and so his career in China’s intricate bureaucracy is stillborn. Ye sets off for home broken-hearted, but becomes ill on the way. Meanwhile Ding is dismissed when he causes offence to a superior, and so retires to the country where he sends for Ye to act as tutor to his son.

Ding’s son flourishes under Ye’s tutelage, and passes his own exams with ease. Ye is consoled that his worldly failure has at least been recompensed by being able to help the son of the man who sought to help him. Time passes and Ding is restored to a position of importance, and so uses it to reward Ye who finally returns home to his own wife and son to show them that he is now a person of rank. When he arrives though his wife is astonished to see him, for Ye has been dead for many years and is buried in a pauper’s grave.

Realising he is dead Ye vanishes, but on hearing what has happened Ding pays for his funeral and for Ye’s son to be properly tutored. When Ye’s son time comes for his own exams, he passes them and so the karmic debt owed by Ding to Ye is repaid.

It’s a beautiful story, and the summary above of course totally lacks the grace of Pu Songling’s language as translated by John Minford. It’s a useful illustration though of how permeable the divide between living and dead, natural and supernatural is. At the same time, the commentary on the tale brings out how it is a parable about a friendship so deep that one friend did not even realise he was dead so keen was he to repay the kindness done to him. “How deep it is, the friendship, the predestined affinity between men of letters who spin out their very hearts in intricate webs of words, how deep the friendship between artists and musicians who share inner visions of mountain peaks and rolling streams?”

Bloggers are of course in their own way our version of friends who spin out their hearts in intricate webs of words.

The immediately following tale is a sadder one, of a scholar who dreams he owes a debt of forty strings of cash and realises it is money owed from a previous life. His wife gives birth to a son. When the boy reaches nearly four years old the scholar’s own fortune of nearly forty strings of cash is almost exhausted. The boy dies, and the scholar uses the remaining funds to pay for the funeral. The commentary makes clear that virtue can be accumulated, as can debts. Virtuous children are the sign of past lives well spent. A childhood death may be the settling of a debt long overdue.

As Pu Songling says elsewhere”A good son is the repayment of a debt due to his parents, the result of good karma; a bad, wilful child is a creditor come for his money, a bad karmic debt. The birth of a child should not be cause for joy, nor should the death of a child be cause for sorrow.” Hard counsel, but perhaps a comfort in a society where death in childhood would have been all too common.

John Minford is a marvellous companion for these tales. He wears his evidently deep understanding lightly, showing how much is buried within them without discouraging the lay reader in the process. His introduction is well worth reading, ideally before reading the tales themselves as he sets the context which here is useful to know, and he includes in a small number of tales notes to show how they would have been read by contemporaries of Pu Songling. Italics in the following quote are mine, to make clear where the commentaries start and end.

Translator’s note: In this longer story, I have incorporated some of the commentaries into the text, to show how this was normally done in the old Chinese editions of Strange Tales. The commentators were constantly at one’s side.
When he asked her where she hailed from, she replied that her name was Lotus Fragrance, and that she was a sing-song girl from the Western District. Dan Minglun: Game Two – enter the fox, as a consequence of Game One. Sang was aware that there were quite a number of houses of pleasure in Saffron Bank, and he believed her tale. The lamp was soon extinguished, and the two of them climbed into bed, where they enjoyed to the full the sweet pleasures of love. From that day on, Lotus Fragrance returned to visit him every few nights. Dan Minglun: The ‘real’ sing-song girl has prepared us for Lotus Fragrance [the false sing-song girl]. What subtlety, what skill! Li’s subsequent appearance is linked to that of Lotus Fragrance. The whole story repeatedly links ghost and fox. They appear together, and the whole is in jest, it happens naturally, without the slightest trace of artifice. This scintillating text, with its strange transformations, grows entirely out of this word ‘jest’. The essence of the writer’s art lies in the playfulness of his conception.

‘Someone’s been saying that you’re a fox-spirit. I don’t believe it myself, but…’ ‘Who’s been saying so?’ snapped Lotus Fragrance, and pressed him for an answer. Sang laughed awkwardly. ‘Oh, I was only teasing…’ ‘And anyway, what makes fox-spirits so different from humans?’ she asked. ‘They cast spells on men, they make them fall ill, even die. That’s why we are so frightened of them.’ ‘No!’ protested Lotus Fragrance. ‘It’s not like that at all! A strong young man such as yourself can restore his vital energy three days after the act of love. Even a fox-spirit can do you no harm. But if you go indulging yourself day after day, then a human lover can do you more harm than a fox. Feng Zhenluan: Wise counsel! Young people, take heed of this!

In the afterword Minton is also excellent at bringing out the plays on words and images which can be difficult to translate (a character says to a fox-spirit girl “It wasn’t your face… It was your tail”, it’s fair to say that tail is meant to make the reader think of certain other lower parts of the woman’s anatomy). He brings out too the Taoist and other philosophical underpinnings of the stories, the obsession with the concept that ejaculation could lead to a loss of spiritual and physical strength, the analogisation of detumescence with death which is quite alien to most Western symbolism.

In the foreword Minton quotes a 19th Century Chinese scholar of the tales, who wrote a guide on how to read them. Two of that scholar’s maxims in particular are worth quoting. “If one reads the Strange Tales just for the plot, and not for the style, one is a fool.” “Every time one thinks a situation weird, it is in fact very real and true to human nature. It contains both pure sense and pure sensibility.”

He’s right. So, when a tale starts “In the southern region of China known anciently as Chu, there lived a merchant who was often away from home on business, leaving his wife much on her own.” one knows the woman will be visited by some ghost or mischievous spirit intent on her virtue, but one knows too that in our own world in which neither ghosts nor fox-spirits appear it’s still not wise to neglect those you love.

These are wise and human stories, rich and strange and quite beautiful. I’ll follow up this post in a day or so by quoting a couple of the smaller ones to give a greater idea of Pu Songling’s style, but in the meantime all I can say is that this is absolutely worth buying and reading. Take the stories as I did, one here, one there, spread over weeks and months as a small comfort to return to that is a joy with every visit.

I’ll end this post with a couple of pictures of a scholar’s garden, the garden of the Master of Nets. I’ve seen this in real life, if anything the pictures struggle to do it justice.


Filed under 18th Century, Chinese, Short stories

The Romance of the Rice porridge.

Six Records of a Floating Life, by Shen Fu

Six Records is a classic of Chinese literature. Written in 1809 it’s the memoir of an unsuccessful private secretary. He wrote six short volumes, chapters really, setting out his thoughts on his life, on aesthetics, on how to live. Only four of those volumes remain. They’re an invaluable resource for those wishing to understand 18th and early 19th Century Chinese scholastic life. That’s not why most people read them though. That’s not why I read them.

Six Records of a Floating Life is a deeply personal document. Shen Fu examines his life from different perspectives in each chapter, but in each he returns to the centre of that life – his wife and their love for each other. That makes Six Records something very unusual indeed. It’s an account of a love affair, within marriage, that’s both true and intensely affecting.

Shen Fu married a woman named Yün.

Yün had delicate shoulders and a stately neck, and her figure was slim. Her brows arched over beautiful, lively eyes. Her only blemish was two slightly protruding front teeth, the sign of a lack of good fortune. But her manner was altogether charming, and she captivated all who saw her.

The marriage was arranged when they were both just thirteen years old. They married at seventeen. Shen Fu did not do well enough in his exams to become a magistrate himself and so was reduced to being a private secretary to magistrates – a difficult and often uncertain position. Worse yet Shen Fu’s family fell out with Yün over various misunderstandings leading to him being caught between the two and for a while being estranged from his father.

All this is in 18th Century China, but apart from the marriage being arranged these are problems that could afflict most modern relationships. Career troubles, money problems, difficulties with in-laws. These are all profoundly ordinary concerns. It’s that ordinariness coupled with the openness and honesty of Shen Fu’s description of them that makes this so remarkable a book.

Here is Shen Fu and Yün’s wedding night:

We sat up making jokes, like two close friends meeting after a long separation. I playfully felt her breast and found her heart was beating as fast as mine. I pulled her to me and whispered in her ear, ‘Why is your heart beating so fast?’ She answered with a bewitching smile that made me feel a love so endless it shook my soul. I held her close as I parted the curtains and led her into bed. We never noticed what time the sun rose in the morning.

The tragedy of Six Records is that Yün died in 1803, six years before it was written. That makes this work an act of memory. Yün had health problems throughout the marriage and it was difficult for Shen Fu to afford the medicine she needed on his meagre salary.

I’ll come back to that. Tragic as Shen Fu’s story ultimately is though it’s tragic because of what went before, because of what was lost. Shen Fu and Yün face many problems, but through it all they stay together even though in material terms that often makes things worse. Yün’s health problems are expensive, and the loss of Shen Fu’s father’s approval has real financial consequences. Still, for all they live a hand-to-mouth existence which neither of them is well prepared for by upbringing they live it together.

When lotus flowers bloom in the summer, they close up at night but open again in the morning. Yün used to put a few tea leaves in a gauze bag and put it inside a lotus flower before it closed in the evening. The next morning she would take out the tea and boil it with natural spring water. It had a wonderful and unique fragrance.

Shen Fu is not from a modern perspective (and probably not from the perspective of his time either) a wholly blameless character. He and Yün both are fond of good living and both at times pursue a lifestyle beyond their means. Shen Fu blows a fairly large amount of money on a business trip drinking and sleeping with prostitutes. They are both on occasion unfaithful (interestingly both of them with women and sometimes the same women). Neither of them comes across as particularly wise.

For all that it’s hard not to like Shen Fu. It’s true that it doesn’t seem to occur to him to seek work outside his class if that’s what’s necessary to get money for the medicine Yün needs. It’s true that he’s wasteful, idealistic and impractical. There’s a joy here though which for all his failings, and Yün’s too, made me wish them well even though they really existed and therefore we already know that things didn’t work out for the best.

Here’s Shen Fu on a brief period in his life when he and Yün lived in a sort of artist’s retreat, with little money but fewer responsibilities:

Among my friends were Yang Pu-fan, whose courtesy name was Chang-hsü and who was a talented portrait painter; Yüan Shao-yü, whose courtesy name was Pai and who was adept at painting mountains and rivers, and Wang Hsing-lan, whose courtesy name was Yen and who did skilful paintings of flowers and birds. They all liked the refined atmosphere at the Villa of Serenity, so they brought along their painting things and I studied with them. I would paint characters and carve chops, sell them, and give Yün the money so she could prepare tea and wine for our guests. We would spend the whole day doing nothing but criticizing poetry and talking about painting.

I said above that I read Six Records for the story of Shen Fu and Yün’s love affair. I also mentioned though how much other material is in these memoirs. Shen Fu shares his views on morality, art, even flower arranging. The following passage was, for me anyway, rather dry. I include it because the book’s not just romance and amusement. I think it’s important to read these passages, but I won’t pretend some of them aren’t a little abstract to a modern reader lacking a specialist interest in the period.

When putting chrysanthemums in a vase one should select an odd number of flowers, not an even number. Each vase should contain flowers of only a single colour. The mouths of the vases should be wide so that the flowers can spread out naturally. Whether one is displaying five or seven flowers, or thirty or forty flowers, they should rise straight from the mouth of the vase in one mass, neither crowded together nor falling around loosely and leaning against the mouth of the vase. This technique is called ‘rising tightly’. Some of the flowers should stand up gracefully, while others spread out at angles. Some should be high and some low, with a few buds in between, to keep the arrangement from looking stiff and unnatural. The leaves should not be disorderly and the stems should not be stiff. If one uses pins to hold the flowers in position they should be hidden, the long pins cut off so that none protrude from the stems. This technique is called ‘clearing the mouth of the vase’. From three to seven vases can be arranged on a table, depending on its size. No more than seven vases should be set out on one table, or it will not be possible to tell the eyes from the eyebrows, and the arrangement will look just like the cheap chrysanthemum screens sold in the markets. The stands should be from three or four inches to two feet and five or six inches tall. They should be different in height, but should be in proportion to one another so that there is an attractive relationship between the appearance of them all. If there is a tall stand in the centre with two low ones at the sides, or if the ones at the back are tall and the ones in front are low, or if they are set out in pairs, they will look like what people call a ‘beautiful pile of trash’. Whether the flowers should be dense or spread out, whether they should lean towards the viewer or away, all depends on the sense of pictorial composition of someone who knows how to appreciate them.

Shen Fu has a number of themes that he wishes to explore. Key among them is the transitory nature of life, love and pleasure. Shen Fu recollects how at one moment he and Yün “felt as if we were floating off to the land of the Immortals.” Imagery like that runs through the book, but of course they’re not immortal and in writing this after his wife’s death Shen Fu was only too aware of that. This is a book suffused with past remembered joys each of which is not to return.

Yün’s death is particularly sad, and in places difficult to read. She feels tremendous guilt at leaving Shen Fu. She feels that by dying she is letting him down.

Later she sobbed and spoke again. ‘Even someone who lives a hundred years must still die one day. I am only sorry at having to leave you so suddenly and for so long, halfway through our journey. I will not be able to serve you for all your life, or to see Fengsen’s [their young son’s] wedding with my own eyes.’ When she finished, she wept great tears.

Even writing that now I find it heartbreaking. Here is Shen Fu on the aftermath of her death:

When it happened there was a solitary lamp burning in the room. I looked up but saw nothing, there was nothing for my two hands to hold, and my heart felt as if it would shatter. How can there be anything greater than my everlasting grief?

When I was younger I didn’t understand death, even though two of my grandparents died during my adolescence. I knew what it meant, that I wouldn’t see them again, but somehow the finality didn’t impact emotionally in the way it did intellectually. In recent years though my other grandparents, my mother’s mother and father’s father, each died. I miss those who died earlier, but I didn’t understand then the terrible absence that I feel as an adult. There is a gap in the world where they were. Shen Fu lost his wife who he had loved since childhood. I would rather not imagine that.

Shen Fu wrote six records at the age of 46 (“I am now six and forty years old, adrift in the vast ocean of life.”). Nothing is known of his life thereafter. Perhaps he found love again. Perhaps he found a more fulfilling career better suited to his nature. Perhaps he died of some random infection a few months later. We don’t and likely never shall know.

All we have then is this magnificent tribute and act of memory, except magnificent is the wrong word for something so domestic and so personal. Yes at times it’s a little dull as Shen Fu expounds on an aesthetic principle that is of only academic interest today. Yes it’s at times exasperating as he enjoys himself on pleasure barges spending money his family could better use. Yes it’s incomplete and yes the structure makes it at times repetitive. For all that though it is profoundly human and that for me makes it literature, even if literature hampered by the limits of truth.

This is a modest book, and in many ways a wistful one. Shen Fu knew he was not a success, and he knew that the greatest passion of his life was likely already behind him. Even so he left us this, and the irony is that this failure of a man (on his and his society’s terms) left one of the very few books I’ve ever read that brought me close to crying as I read it. Even so I didn’t find it depressing. It’s tragic to lose someone loved and Shen Fu, long dead as he is, has my every sympathy. For twenty three years though he knew love, and so did Yün. That’s no small thing.

I read the Penguin Classics edition of Six Records (on my kindle but there are some lovely illustrations so a hardcopy would here be the better choice). I’m sure free versions exist, but the Penguin edition came with some extremely helpful essays and footnotes which helped me understand the social and political contexts of Shen Fu’s life and which are well worth paying a little extra for.


Filed under Chinese

It is only when you take control of your life that you know you are alive.

Red Dust, by Ma Jian

The line between novel and memoir can be a tricky one. As I write this, Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Rcoom is shortlisted for the Booker. It’s been argued that it shouldn’t be eligible for that prize, and that it’s not a novel at all but simply a travelogue or memoir.

I’ve not read In a Strange Room yet, though I plan to. It’s not the only book though where that issue arises. Red Dust is a book by Chinese writer and dissident Ma Jian. Like In a Strange Room it’s a travel memoir that reads like a novel, which raises the question of which exactly it is. In a sense it’s both. Memory after all is unreliable and only Ma Jian knows how much of what he wrote is true.

In 1983 Ma Jian set out on a road trip across China. He spent three years travelling, frequently destitute and carrying with him only his forged papers, his camera and a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. This book is his account of those years.

My description above makes Red Dust sound like a more recent On the Road (or Down and Out in Beijing and Xian), but it’s much darker than that. Jian goes on a search for spiritual fulfilment, but what he finds only challenges his faith. What drives him out isn’t existential angst, but political pressure. This is not Eat, Pray, Love territory.

Jian is a painter and a propaganda worker (nobody in 1980s China lives by art alone). His social circle in Beijing consists of other painters, writers and poets but the social climate has turned against them and a new campaign against “Spiritual Pollution” has been launched. Jian is out of touch with the times, his paintings do not show “the joy and excitement of life under the Four Modernisations”.

Jian’s book is unsparing about the brutalities of what he refers to openly as “communist tyranny”. There is a chilling early section where he is instructed to attend a “self-criticism” session at work. It goes poorly, and soon after he is interviewed by the police:

After lunch, as I sit at my desk reading my post, Director Zhang walks in and says, ‘You are wanted at the Public Security Bureau.’ I look round and see two policemen standing in the doorway. It is dawn three days later before I am finally released from the Western District Public Security Bureau. The officer who walks me to the gates says, ‘Don’t look so pleased with yourself. If we want to, we can make you slowly disappear.’

China then, and I believe now, has no freedom of internal travel. To leave Beijing Jian needs introduction papers that he can show to party officials as he travels. He forges some himself (he is after all an artist) and leaves Beijing. Soon after his wife denounces him as a political criminal and denies him access to his only child.

Jian’s journey takes him across China. He visits other artists and writers, stays with them and exchanges letters with friends back home. This is where the book’s key problem lies. There is a certain repetition in Jian arriving somewhere completely broke; getting put up by a friend; observing their domestic arrangements and the compromises they’ve each reached between their art and the state; and then heading on.

That repetitive element meant that there were times reading Red Dust when I quite simply got bored. As a rule, I have no stronger criticism of a book than that it bored me. Even so, I finished Red Dust and I’m glad I did. I think it’s worth reading, and with the caveat that at times it needs a bit of a push to get through I’d recommend it to others.

The reason that I’d recommend it is because it is utterly unsparing in its depiction of China. It captures a street-level ugliness and squalor that makes for difficult reading but at the same time it shows too the beauty of much of China. There is a contrast here between the country itself as a physical place, the character of some of its ordinary people, and against both the intolerance of the state and its officials.

There is sand in the air but the sky is still blue. In the middle of the traffic island a statue of a flying apsara plays a lute behind her back. She twists round with a beatific smile, one leg in the air, as horse-drawn carts, bicycles and buses circle around her. Apsaras are Buddhist nymphs who float through the air trailing garlands of diaphanous silk. Unlike Christian angels, they do not need wings to fly. The bright banner suspended between two telegraph poles behind her says FIRST CHILD: COIL, SECOND CHILD: ABORTION, THIRD CHILD: HYSTERECTOMY. The blood-red characters turn my stomach.

Ma Jian is not a wise traveller. More than once he sets out across a mountain pass or a desert without making remotely sensible preparations, and more than once he comes very close to dying. He runs out of money and ends up doing whatever work he can find, cutting hair in the street or labouring. He has occasional success with women, but his need to keep moving means that he has little by way of solid relationships.

Against this background Jian seeks to find some kind of meaning to his life. He is a Buddhist, and seeks out sacred sites in the hope of finding some kind of inspiration. Mostly he finds priests who charge for photos and either neglected sites or ones overrun with tourists. At one point he comments “When you work for the Party, you have to learn to falsify reality.” He looks for that reality in the wilderness, but finds it is merely uncomfortable, dangerous and lonely.

Jian leaves a Beijing which is a mix of unhappy memories, artistic frustrations and official repression. The desert is filled only with ghosts and fragments of sacred history that he keeps not quite being able to reach or see. He is tormented by the loss of access to his daughter and as his journey continues his friends’ back in Beijing’s lives move on so that he becomes increasingly distant from them. How can you travel like this for so long and remain able to connect with those you left behind?

Ma Jian is a talented writer, and his partner Flora Drew has produced an excellent translation. There are some fine descriptive passages and as I read the book the bad breath, foul odours, filth and squalor were all too easy to picture. It’s not just grime and misery though, there are passages also describing mountains, deserts and also ordinary life which are a pleasure to read.

On the third day I reach Luqu, a small village consisting of a few mud houses scattered along a straight stretch of road. There are trucks parked on the verge and horses tied to posts. I step into the village shop, buy a fizzy orange and sit drinking it on a large sack of flour by the doorway. Tibetan herders stream in to buy chillies, tea, oil, cigarettes. When it comes to settling the bill they empty their money onto the counter, let the shopkeeper take what he needs, then stuff the remainder into their pockets.

In the end though, it is not the description of Tibetan herders that stays with me. When Jian reaches Tibet he finds it ruled by a priest class filled with illiterates many of whom seem to have little interest beyond filling their bellies. He expects something better there than what he left in mainland China, but in both places everyday life is subject to the whims of a self-appointed group that seems both out of touch and profoundly ignorant.

There is one other challenge in reading Red Dust that is worth mentioning, besides the occasional feel of repetition I referred to earlier. As discussed above, Jian is very good at description. The problem is that often what he has to describe is horrific. I can’t speak to how true any of the book’s contents remain, well over thirty years have passed since this journey after all. That said, some parts definitely remain distinctly relevant today:

Public executions take place throughout China in the run-up to National Day. I have grown up reading these death notices and have attended several executions. I once watched an army truck stop, a young man called Lu Zhongjian come out, handcuffed, and two soldiers escort him away. When he started to scream, they slung a metal wire over his mouth and tugged it back, slicing through his face. Then they kicked him to the ground and shot three bullets into his head. His legs flailed and his shoe flew into the air. A year later I married his girlfriend. I only found out they had been lovers when I discovered his death notice hidden at the back of Guoping’s drawer.

I’ve omitted quotes about flies crawling from food served in a restaurant, or worst of all about the truly horrific abortion procedures for unmarried mothers.

Even with those omissions, I’ve quoted a lot from this one. That’s partly because of the breadth of territory it covers, partly because I read it on a Kindle and it was a bit too easy to select quotes, and partly because I’m blogging it over a fortnight after finishing it (I find it harder to concisely capture a book if time has passed).

I’m going to end though on one final quote, which I think sums up Jian’s journey. In a Western book of this kind we would expect Jian to have some sort of personal revelation, some spiritual reward. Jian is searching for reality, and so feels no need to provide the reader with any such comforting myth.

‘Sorry, which way is the bathroom?’ I push the table towards Wu Jian and squeeze out. The elderly neighbours are chatting in the cool of the dark corridor. I find a relatively clean corner of the latrines, pull down my trousers and scratch my thighs. A lump of someone’s fresh turd steams by my feet. I look at the city through the cracked window pane, and know that every room is crammed with bodies and each body is dripping with sweat. I feel a longing for the empty grasslands and the cruel deserts. At least the air was clean there. Now that I have sunk into this steaming city, everything seems familiar and ordinary.

Red Dust. While writing this I also found an interesting interview with Ma Jian, which is here.


Filed under Chinese, Jian, Ma, Travel writing

an expensive gray suit with an imported label still attached to the sleeve

Death of a Red Heroine, by Qiu Xiaolong

I love crime fiction, but I despair sometimes of how formulaic a lot of it is.

Sometimes it seems like there’s a checklist to be adhered to. I’ve lost track of how often I’ve encountered literary detectives with most of these traits: drinking problem; workaholic; loner who doesn’t get along with his superiors; marital problems or problems with ex-wife; unorthodox crime-solving technique (possibly based on intuition); prosaic-minded assistant; personal interests ostensibly unusual in a police officer; either highly attractive to women (despite not being classically handsome) or scruffily unattractive; I could go on…

Death of a Red Heroine is the first novel of the Inspector Cao (pronounced Tsao, I’ll come back to that) novels by Qiu Xialong. It’s set in Shanghai in 1990, and it comes with a fair few of the clichés mentioned above. It also though paints a convincing picture of Shanghai and China during the transition from communism to capitalism and while I was initially sceptical of the book I was won over by it. By the time I finished I’d decided at some point to read the next in the series.

Inspector Cao is a Chief Inspector in the Shanghai police force. He’s also a published poet and something of an intellectual (he is prone to quoting TS Elliot), which is unusual for a cop. He has no wife and is considered a workaholic by his peers, but there is the possibility of romance with a beautiful journalist he knows.

Cao heads up a special crimes unit. Crimes are special because they are political, and so when the body of a young woman turns up in a canal he only takes on the case initially for want of anything better to do. As time passes, his superiors wonder why he’s bothering, but he pushes on regardless because his intuition tells him there’s something more to it than the prevailing theory that she was killed by a random taxi driver.

Cao’s intuition is soon proven right. When the woman is identified it turns out that she was a “National Model Worker” and had been held up by the Party as an example of Communist diligence. That makes the case distinctly political, with some of his superiors now concerned that she might have been murdered as part of some kind of attack on the Party. Cao thinks not, but his investigation soon throws up political links all the same and ones that possibly his superiors would prefer left uncovered.

Did that sound original? I suspect not. Death of a Red Heroine is not an original book. Originality though isn’t everything and it shines in other ways.

Qiu Xialong was born and grew up in China, but relocated to the US and wrote the novel in English. Arguably, it’s US rather than Chinese literature. For all that, the depiction of China as it goes through a radical economic transformation is convincing and well communicated.

As the novel opens, Cao has been assigned his own apartment. He’s been jumped up the queue for housing despite having no family of his own. Many of Cao’s colleagues need an apartment much more than he does and have been waiting longer, but Cao has political connections and that’s what counts. Here’s the description of this prize that marks Cao out as a man on the fast track:

It was not luxurious. There was no real kitchen, only a narrow corridor containing a couple of gas burners tucked into the corner, with a small cabinet hanging on the wall above. No real bathroom either: a cubicle large enough for just a toilet seat and a cement square with a stainless-steel shower head. Hot water was out of the question. There was, however, a balcony that might serve as a storeroom for wicker trunks, repairable umbrellas, rusted brass spittoons, or whatever could not be decently squeezed inside the room. But he did not have such things, so he had put only a plastic folding chair and a few bookshelf boards on the balcony.

In this short passage Xialong makes apparent to his most likely readers how different Cao’s ideas of prosperity are to theirs and also of course quite how cramped life in China is. Xialong’s prose isn’t particularly subtle, but he does bring 1990s Shanghai to cramped and sweaty life and it’s extremely easy to visualise the locations and scenes in the novel.

It’s common for crime fiction to not really be about crime at all. Here the murder is primarily a vehicle for exploring a time and place. Under the communist regime the victim was a celebrity, but with capitalism now starting to flourish she’s obsolete. Once she was held up as being what communism was all about, now she’s cast aside on a piece of derelict land. Her life and death are a microcosm of what is happening to the communist system more generally.

As the novel continues some of the more hackneyed elements of Cao’s character are explained, and how they are explained is interesting. By way of example, Cao is a poet-policeman not because he’s an intellectual who went into policework but because in the China he grew up in jobs were assigned by the state, not chosen.

Cao was not sent to the countryside to learn from the peasants during the cultural revolution, and so graduated from university with an education far superior to most of his peers. The skills and grades this gave him led to his being assigned a high-flying position in a prestigious government ministry. Later security checks revealed that he had a relative who had been convicted of crimes against the state, and so he ceased to be eligible for his new post. Accordingly, he was reassigned within the ministry and so found himself with “a job in the Shanghai Police Bureau”.

Xiaolong achieves two things with Cao’s character background. Firstly, he gives a good reason for his detective to be an intellectual as well as a police officer, so meeting crime procedural fans’ genre expectations. Secondly though he says a lot about how the Chinese system worked and about how a man who by all accounts is a gifted poet could end up doing something so utterly disparate.

I’ll soon be blogging a book by a Chinese writer named Ma Jian, which features a great many Chinese artists and intellectuals. Every one of them has a day job, often one quite at odds with their identity as a poet or painter. Xialong has shown the same thing in his crime novel, and in a very digestible way.

Cao’s career path is typical of how the book illustrates life in China in this period. Although there are one or two infodumps, mostly things are explained via the characters’ situations and assumptions. Even the clues they discover say something about their society. When it looks like the dead woman was dumped from a private car, a policeman comments:

“Well, not too many people have their own cars-except high cadres, and they would not have their chauffeurs drive them around on such an errand.”

If she was dumped from a car then either she was killed by a taxi driver or by someone politically connected. There just aren’t enough cars in private hands for other possiblities to be at all likely.

Similarly, many of the characters make frequent use of classical quotations in their everyday speech. That sounds unlikely, but my wife has studied Mandarin and had previously mentioned that it was much more common than one would imagine. It’s another small way of showing how things differ from how one might expect.

Cao comes of course with a sidekick, here an older but low ranked policeman by the name of Yu. Initially Yu is suspicious of his unpolicemanlike boss, but as time goes on they develop a mutual respect. Again, it’s not original, but again it’s reasonably well executed:

That was just like Chief Inspector Chen, rhapsodizing about a Tang dynasty poem in the middle of a murder investigation. Perhaps Chen had had too much beer. A month earlier, Detective Yu would have taken it as an instance of his boss’s romantic eccentricity. But he found it acceptable today.

If Death of a Red Heroine were just a series of disguised essays on Chinese politics and society I wouldn’t have enjoyed it. Fortunately, it also works as a straightforward crime novel. Cao and Yu have no great intuitive leaps (Cao’s intuition tells him to pursue the case, but doesn’t help him solve it). They get few lucky breaks. Mostly here the policework is a matter of questioning witnesses, searching locations, comparing statements with each other and with the available physical facts and going over it all again whenever discrepancies arise. It’s solid, methodical policework that solves the case here, and I was pleased that Xialong at least avoided the genius cop cliché.

Cao makes for an enjoyable protagonist. He’s patriotic and dedicated, and he believes in the system even though he knows perfectly well that it’s ridden with corruption. He’s an honest man who does his best to help realise a vision of a society that by and large he believes in, and while I first noticed his obstructive superiors over time I noticed too that he wasn’t alone in being essentially honest. The book is full with people who are blinkered, prejudiced or corrupt but that’s not the whole story.

In a way that’s another comment on the society. It’s not just hard working communists working for a better tomorrow, but nor is it entirely venal party officials and grasping functionaries. It’s all those things and just as there are the crooked and the power-hungry so too there are people who are trying in small ways to look out for each other and do what’s right. It’s a subtler portrait than it could easily have been, and improves the book.

Death of a Red Heroine is not a literary novel. It is though good genre fiction. Xialong has a prose style which is clean and fast reading and I read the nearly 500 pages of this book without finding it overlong. I don’t as a rule read police procedurals, but I wasn’t sorry to make an exception here and given I read it between novels written by authors who were Chinese nationals and whilst travelling in China I can say it’s much more authentic than one might imagine.

On a final note, the common method of transliterating Chinese characters into English today is called Pinyin. It’s incredibly unintuitive. Cao as noted above is actually pronounced Tsao. That’s typical. There’s almost no relationship between how a word is spelled and how it’s pronounced.

The pronunciation rules for Pinyin are consistent, so once you know them you can read Pinyin and pronounce the word in a way someone Chinese might understand. If you read a Pinyin word as written without knowing the rules though nobody Chinese would have the faintest idea what you were saying.

Death of a Red Heroine comes without a guide to pronunciation, leading to the slight oddity that unless you do your own research you’ll be mentally mispronouncing every name in the book. It’s a small point, but it did rather irritate me. Having now read several Chinese books though I can honestly say that Pinyin generally rather irritates me.

I’ll close with one last quote, which I can’t resist as I think it sums up the point of the book rather well:

“Historically, a transitional period is short,” she said, in her turn surprised, but animated for the first time in the course of their conversation, “but existentially, not so short for the individual.”

Death of a Red Heroine


Filed under Chinese, Crime, Xiaolong, Qiu

To get rich is glorious

I Love Dollars and other stories, by Zhu Wen

Nowadays Zhu Wen is an acclaimed film director. He has a Venice Grand Jury Prize to his credit among many other accolades. Before that though he was an author and in 1994 he published a novella that satirised the new China he saw around him. That novella was called I Love Dollars and it featured as a protagonist a modern man who was thoroughly in tune with the edicts of Deng Xiaoping’s China – a place in which all that matters is money.

As that protagonist says:

Dollars—they have this intoxicating, exotic generosity of spirit.

The protagonist of I Love Dollars is a writer but not a successful one. His fiction is about sex, which obsesses him. He believes his father is similarly obsessed and so when his father comes briefly to stay with him he sees it as his duty as a faithful son to help him get laid (a complete perversion of traditional Confucian values).

The result is blackly funny. The narrator constantly describes what he and his father are thinking and celebrates how much they are of one mind. As the novella progressed though I started to question that and to wonder if his father’s thoughts were anything like what his son assumed them to be.

Father and I started arguing about whether prostitution was women’s natural vocation. In fact, we held identical opinions on the subject, it was just that he felt there were some things we needed to debate.

When I first read that paragraph I accepted it as written. Later though the narrator argues:

We know sex isn’t a bad or a good thing; all we know is we need it. If we’re not getting any otherwise and it’s being sold on the market, why shouldn’t we go and buy some? As long as we’re paying for the genuine article, at a fair price, into the shopping cart it goes, just like everything else; no need to waste any more mental energy on it. It’s like eating meat: open your mouth and swallow it down, just don’t choke. And sure, you want to eat well, with as much dignity, in as much comfort as you can, to get variety in your diet. Nothing complicated about it, nothing worth engaging with emotionally or intellectually. Sex is the same: you eat, and you’re done.

[to which his father replies:]

Father had soon had enough of my analogy: All right then, he said, I’ll put it in your terms this time. Sex is only the meat in your diet, it can’t be your staple, your rice or flour. But why am I bothering? he went on. Time will teach you these things.

I Love Dollars is savage and nihilistic. The society it depicts is one in which everything is for sale. At one point the father drops some litter accidentally into a shop doorway. The result is a screaming row as the shopkeeper tries to extort a pointlessly trivial fine and the father resists. They meet women almost all of whom are potentially available for the right price. Nothing has a value except in Yuan or Dollars.

The father is an old revolutionary. He argues for something better and asks his son why his writing is about nothing other than sex. The son though thinks sex and money is all there is. Reflecting on his father at one point he muses:

In his day, libido wasn’t called libido, it was called idealism.

In this story it no longer matters what colour the cat is. It’s far from clear though whether it catches mice.

I Love Dollars is only one of six stories present in this collection. The next, A Boat Crossing, is a Kafkaesque tale of a man who takes a night ferry ride which becomes an absurdist vision of menace and paranoia. The third, A Hospital Night, is about a man who ends up spending the night as a hospital visitor looking after his girlfriend’s father who is recovering from a major operation. The ward becomes a sort of hell as a ludicrously epic battle between the protagonist and the old man erupts over the need to help the old man pee.

Kafka is a major influence generally on these stories (as apparently is Borges but I can’t speak to that). For me the strongest were the second and third, both briefly described above, but all six have power. They depict a China which is ruthless, venal and brutal.

In one story criminal gangs have grown rich and those who fall foul of them have no safety net. The police don’t care and contacting them would just annoy the gangs further. In another men work on half pay on a construction project that never ends, but the law does not permit them to resign and seek other jobs. Those who leave without permission however are fired. It sounds nonsensical, but the real horror is that I understand it’s actually fairly accurate to the problems of its day.

All the stories have an autobiographical element. The character in each seems possibly the same man, possibly not, and the jobs they hold are all jobs Zhu Wen had in real life himself (some characters are engineers, which Zhu Wen was before becoming a writer).

The collection is frequently extremely funny. It’s laughter through gritted teeth though. The epic struggle in A Hospital Night is hilarious but by the end of the story it’s apparent that the nurses are only kind to those who pay bribes and that the terminally ill are treated with contempt because there’s no prospect for further profit from them. In the end, only the narrator acts with any humanity, but it’s a dim light in a very black night.

The horrors of this collection are quotidian ones, exaggerated but real. In A Boat Crossing as the narrator waits for the ferry he wants some brief time alone:

I just wanted to find somewhere quiet, deserted, out of the way, somewhere I could relieve my problem. But there was nowhere, the entire length of the two jetties. From one angle or another, I was always visible to other people.

The parallel with life in China generally is obvious. Here there is no escape from other people, but nor is there any comfort in their presence. In another story a character at one point sees someone being brutally beaten. The scene is set up so that I as reader expected him to intervene. He watches until he can stand it no longer:

I’d seen more than enough, so pushed my bike unsteadily over the road, got on, and pedaled desperately away, not stopping until I was back in my room.

It’s not his business. Why should he help? Where’s the profit in that?

There are some oddities in the texts. At times Zhu Wen makes comments such as “we Chinese” or explains how the Chinese language and script give rise to a large number of plays on words. That’s fine, but it made me wonder who the intended audience was. A Chinese reader after all would already know about the way a different pronunciation of a common name could turn it into an insult. Zhu Wen the writer clearly had a foreign readership in mind at times and I would have appreciated a better understanding of the circumstances of the works’ publication.

That criticism aside, this is an excellent translation (by Julia Lovell who also translated my copy of Eileen Chang’s Lust, Caution) and it comes with an equally excellent foreword that I’d strongly recommend reading (after reading the stories though as it contains spoilers). That foreword shed real light for me on some of the themes and references contained in the stories and is a pleasure to read in its own right.

Zhu Wen’s China is a place filled with motiveless acts that take place in an atomistic and materalist culture. The prevailing emotions are dread, anomie and anxiety. This is China in transition and it is not a sympathetic place. All too many novels set in China are designed to play to existing Western expectations. They are reassuring. I Love Dollars never reassures.

I Love Dollars. I’ve linked to a paperback edition but I read it on my Kindle. There’s another review which may be of interest here.


Filed under Chinese, Lovell. Julia (translator), Novellas, Short stories, Wen, Zhu

The fallen angel of Chinese literature

Lust, Caution is the title both of a short story collection by Eileen Chang, and of the first story in that collection. It is also, of course, a recent film by Ang Lee (one I haven’t seen as yet, my views on Ang Lee’s work are mixed though I understand this one is pretty good). Eileen Chang was a 20th Century Shanghainese author, who lived in Shanghai until the 1950s and then moved to the US to avoid increasing problems with the Maoist regime.

The collection includes five stories (of between 20 and 40 pages apiece), each set during the Japanese occupation of China, and each an examination of love, sorrow, disappointment, compromise and the tension between tradition and the new. These are, other than the title story, small tales of ordinary people and the quiet concerns of their lives. It is also a collection which mostly puts the perspectives of female characters to the fore, in a period in which women’s choices were often circumscribed by tradition and relatively inflexible gender roles.

Oddly, each story has a different translator, though there is one overall editor happily it did not feel that style was varying too wildly one to the next. That editor, and translator of the title story, is Julia Lovell who I note also translated I Love Dollars by Zhu Wen which I hope to read at some point.

Other than in Lust, Caution itself, these stories use the occupation, war and the dramatic events of early 20th Century China as backdrop, a cause of increasing food shortages or rising cloth prices. Characters are impacted by great events, but they do not as a rule participate in them, they simply carry on and are concerned with work and weddings and making do.

Which makes it all sound pretty dull, and indeed Chang was heavily criticised at times for writing works which were essentially quotidian in scope and for ignoring the wider dramas of wartime China. This is, in my view, a quite misguided criticism, as what Chang does do which I think is far more interesting is show how people continue to live in interesting times and how the personal details of our lives ultimately are of more meaning to us than the grand events which may occur around us.

Of the stories, one deals with a young student who has been infiltrated into the bed of an occupation government official in order to betray him to his assassins, one the conversations of women sitting in a massage clinic’s waiting room, one preparations for a wedding between a young woman of good birth and a groom from a nouveau riche family, another an evening in a domestic servant’s life and her difficult relations with her young son, the final the strained relationship between a younger (though still middle aged) woman and her older and richer husband. Other than the first then, these are characters which Chang’s original readers would instantly have recognised from their own lives, people of a type that her readers might well themselves know or be related to.

As Chang is not a plot driven author (even Lust, Caution is more about the student spy protagonist’s internal debate about whether to betray her lover to his assassins or not), her work stands or falls on her prose and the skill of her characterisation, and it is here that she shines. Chang is a master of brief but telling description, of packing a wealth of information about a person into a sentence or two. In the opening story, Jiazhi is a pretty young student radical who has become involved with a group of fellow students intent on resisting the Japanese occupation. She is chosen to become the lover of an official in the collaborationist government, but when she successfully makes contact with him and goes back to celebrate with her fellow conspirators they realise a key problem in their plan:

“Instead, a quiet gradually fell over the assembled company. There was whispering in a couple of corners, and secretive, tittering laughter; laughter she had heard before. They had been talking it over behind her back for some time, she realised.

‘Apparently, Liang Runsheng is the only one who has any experience,’ Lai Xiujin, the only other girl in the group, told her.

Liang Runsheng.

Of course, he was the only one who had ever been inside a brothel.”

And so we see how young they are, how inexperienced, how amateurish. They have planned a honey trap, but they are all virgins save one and his experience is born simply of a trip or two to a brothel.

Jiazhi is a romantic, she finds herself part of the world of the government elite, with their flashing diamond rings, heavy gold chains fashionable due to their great expense in wartime, among mature women who endlessly play mahjong with clacking tiles and biting gossip. She finds herself attracted to Mr Yi, the official she seduces, and she is caught between her desire to fulfil her mission, her loyalty to her group, and the emotion she finds herself feeling for the vastly more experienced Mr Yi.

Like much Chinese fiction, Lust, Caution is not a happy tale. Jiazhi for all her status as a spy and seducer is an innocent, caught in a world much more sophisticated than her own. The observation of her moods is cool and precise, the description of the languorous air in a downmarket jewellers to which she lures Mr Yi to planned ambush is beautifully drawn as is the light it sheds on the relationship between adulterer and lover, the rules of seduction and the gifts it is appropriate for Mr Yi to give and when it is appropriate to give them. This is a world in which assignations are known and accepted, in which a lover will be bought jewellery while the affair is in bloom and given an apartment by way of parting gift, a world in which lust and caution may each play a part but in which love is not expected to.

My personal favourite story of the collection was not, however, Lust, Caution itself. I preferred the second and third tales, In the Waiting Room and Great Felicity. In the Waiting Room simply records the passing conversation of women awaiting their appointments in a massage clinic, one seeking to jump the queue, another complaining of her many problems in life, ordinary women having an ordinary conversation of a sort that could happen in almost any queue in almost any place or time.

Again, descriptions are brief but beautifully telling, the daughter of the couple who run the clinic wears every day the same dress of red and black checked imitation wool:

“so big it was baggy on her, and a pair of homemade, grey cloth shoes. She had a lot of siblings, so she wouldn’t get any pretty clothes until she had a likely match – but since she didn’t have anything pretty to wear, she couldn’t get a match. She was trapped in a vicious circle, doomed to spend her blooming years in wistful longing: no young woman, no matter how clever, could break her way out of a dress like that.”

That last line there, “no young woman, no matter how clever, could break her way out of a dress like that.” is I think marvellous, pitiless yet sympathetic, capturing the quiet despair of a live absent meaningful choices or opportunities, a life determined by society and tradition within certain tightly bound constraints.

Similarly, Chang’s description of the masseur and his wife is skilful, as this little vignette shows:
“Pang Songling came out and washed his hands at the washstand near the door. He was wearing a jacket and pants made of soft silk, dull blue in colour. He propped one foot on his daughter’s chair, picked up the soup plate, took his cigarette from his mouth, handed it to his wife, and started to eat. Mrs Pang smoked the cigarette and then, when he had finished eating, returned it to him. Neither one said a word.”

We see the relationship between the couple, long established and passionless, we note Pang Songling’s clothes as opposed to those of his unfortunate daughter, whose chair he uses to rest his foot on. In that one paragraph we have nested relationships, a whole story of a family caught in one moment.

Chang is tremendous at portraying frustration, petty injustice, the chafing of a life which is not happy but in which the disappointments are too small for it to be tragic. In Great Felicity, the mother of the groom (Mrs Lou) is a woman of humble origins whose lack of social graces constantly undermines her and whose family all in different ways mock and belittle her. Chang shows how her characters betray themselves, how the narratives they tell themselves may not quite reflect the realities they inhabit. At one point Mrs Lou wants to answer her husband back for an unfair accusation:

“Suddenly it all welled up within her and she wanted to answer back: ‘if we have been treating you badly here at home, then don’t come back! I’m sure you have another woman outside. That’s why you keep finding fault with things at home – this won’t do, that won’t do.’ Then she remembered that she was going to be a mother-in-law soon and swallowed her words. She put her shoulders back and clattered to the bathroom where she gargled noisily, swishing the water around in her mouth, then spitting it out with a vengeance. Whenever Mrs Lou was angry and wanted to cry, she always channelled her impulse into bluff and hearty action – letting it all out.”

The evident irony being of course that Mrs Lou has not acted at all and has let nothing out, she has simply swallowed her anger and disappointment as one feels she must have many times before. Later in the same scene:

“She gazed at herself, at her pale, stolid, spreading cheeks – she couldn’t even articulate to herself her own misery. The eyebrows were drawn together, always frowning, but her expression said only, ‘Oh bother! Bother!’ and said nothing of her misery.”

Chang’s stories do not have a sole narrative perspective, we see overlapping lives which impact each other but which fail to really communicate. The young couple are modern and manipulate their parents into buying them better wedding gifts by using their own traditional views against them, the husband pursues his social advancement, Mrs Lou muddles along laughing at jokes she doesn’t understand. Again, Chang is pitiless yet sympathetic, exposing Mrs Lou’s foibles and failings, but showing compassion for her at the same time.

Chang has a talent for capturing uncomfortable conversations, unspoken family resentments, incomprehension between generations, the different pulls of modernity (much of it in the form of Western influences) and tradition (concubinage for example), the constant tension between materialism and sentiment. In a sense, as an author she is a miniaturist, capturing the everyday in small scenes or brief descriptions, working on a tiny canvass but with telling detail.

At times, particularly in Lust, Caution itself, I did struggle to differentiate some characters (which may have been intentional in that case) as different women of similar classes came to merge together somewhat. A curious failing given how accomplished the characterisation was generally. However, overall I found this a rewarding and interesting read, and more importantly for my own tastes I found it true at a level that much fiction struggles to achieve in its depiction of ordinary people facing ordinary challenges. Penguin have also published a collection entitled Love in a Fallen City (a tremendously Changian title in my view) which I intend to pick up and a full novel is promised. Having read Lust, Caution, I have every intention of reading as much of Chang’s work as Penguin cares to translate and publish. (though note the cover on the copy I have is taken from Ang Lee’s film, bit of a shame really as I prefer the black and white shot on the cover I link to here).


Filed under Chang, Eileen, Chinese, Lovell. Julia (translator), Short stories