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Archive for the ‘Chinese Literature’ Category

The second part of ‘Outlaws of the Marsh‘ continues the story from where it left off in the first part. You can find my review of the first part here. The second part mostly focuses on two of the main characters, Song Jiang and Wu Song, and their friends and the people they meet on their adventures. I found the story flowing more smoothly in this part. But the lighthearted humour of the first part seemed to be missing (though it was still there in places). The second part was also dark and more violent. There were some graphic violent scenes which were hard to read. It was almost as if this part was written by a different writer.

There were three characters whose story I enjoyed reading very much. One of them is a young woman who is unhappy in marriage. Another is a young man, who bumps into this young woman, and there is mutual attraction and sparks fly. The third character is an older woman who is a matchmaker, whose help the young man requests to seduce the young woman. It is a wonderful, charming story and I loved it. Unfortunately, the happiness of new-found-love doesn’t last and things end badly for all the three characters. The story is very 21st century, with the attraction and the seduction, but the ending is very 14th century. It was heartbreaking to read.

Wu Song gets a lot of coverage – probably nearly half of the book. In the beginning he comes as a huge person who is typically drunk and adorable, but at some point his story becomes more serious and intense and tragic. The legendary incident featuring Wu Song and the tiger comes in this volume. Song Jiang is featured in most of the rest of the book. He is a kind person whom everyone loves and respects, but frequently finds himself in a tricky situation and someone has to save him. I still don’t know why people admire him. I’ll have to read more of the story and find out. There is a character called Hua Rong who comes in the second half of the book. He is cool and stylish, and there is one particular scene which goes like this –

“One of the lances was hung with the tail of a spotted leopard. From the other dangled a pennant marked with golden coins. In the heat of battle, the woollen tassels decorating the weapons had become entangled, and the lances couldn’t be pulled apart. Hua Rong immediately produced his bow from its “flying-fish” case with his left hand, snatched an arrow from its animal-shaped quiver with his right, notched the shaft to the string, pulled the bow to the full, and let fly at the tangle of leopard’s tail and strings of wool. The arrow clipped the wool neatly and the weapons came free. A mighty cheer welled from the throats of the two hundred watchers.”

After reading this, I screamed, “Take a bow, Hua Rong, you Chinese Arjuna!” 😊

There were many Chinese proverbs and ancient sayings which were strewn throughout the book like pearls. They were a pleasure to read and contemplate on. My favourite was this one, which many characters say – “I have eyes but I didn’t recognize Mount Taishan.” 😊 One of those sayings – “How true it is that ‘Luck comes but once, but trouble comes in droves’” – almost echoes the famous line from Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet‘ – “When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions.” Of course, ‘Outlaws of the Marsh’ predates ‘Hamlet’ by nearly two-and-a-half centuries.

I loved the mentions of some of my favourite Chinese poets, especially Bai Juyi and Su Shi. Some of Su Shi’s poems are even quoted.

The descriptions and mentions of food in the book were mouthwatering – some of my favourites were pepper stewed beancurd (tofu), pepper fish soup (which I’ve tried and which is delicious!) and carp steamed in wine and sliced and fried in batter (sounds so delicious! I want to try that!)

One of the things that I learnt from the book was this one –

“Reader please note…lamentations are of three kinds the world over: With both tears and sound it is called crying, with tears and without sound it is called weeping, without tears and with sound it is called wailing.”

I didn’t know this!

The descriptions of the legal system of the time are very interesting. I loved the parts which talked about what constitutes evidence, and what constitutes proof, with respect to a crime. It made me realize that our legal system is pretty old and it was very meticulous and precise even during ancient times.

I loved the way the passage of time is described in the story. For example, in this sentence – “A time long enough to drink a cup of tea passed” – and this sentence – “In less time than it takes to eat half a bowl of rice“.

Two more things I wanted to say, before I forget, are these.

One is a problematic thing, when we see it from a 21st century perspective. The women characters in the book are either nice and nameless (someone’s wife or sister, the woman who runs the tavern) or they are seductive, scheming, or just plain wicked. The second type of characters are the ones who are the most interesting – they have names, they get good story arcs, they defy social norms, break rules, do what they like, but unfortunately things end badly for them. At the end of the second part, I found that only one of these interesting characters was still alive. She runs a tavern with her husband and they drug and rob guests. She is cool and stylish and is a strong woman. Looking forward to finding out how her story progresses in the third part.

There are three male characters, who are very similar – Sagacious Lu, Wu Song and Li Kui. They are all big physically, they love getting drunk, they fight better when they are drunk (Sagacious Lu says these legendary words – “When I’m one-tenth drunk I can use only one-tenth of my skill, but when I’m ten-tenths drunk I’m at the top of my form” πŸ˜†), and they are all adorable. Wu Song is the nicest one of the three, while Li Kui is the craziest. Looking forward to finding out what happens when these three meet and how their stories progress further.

At the end of the second part, 29 of these rebels have joined together in the mountain fortress. Can’t wait to find out what happens in the third part!

Have you read ‘Outlaws of the Marsh‘? Who is your favourite character from the book?

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Outlaws of the Marsh‘ was first published probably at around 1350, and it is one of the oldest novels in the world. It is more popularly translated as ‘Water Margin‘. It was the first out of the four Chinese epics that I got. My reasoning while getting it was that while ‘Three Kingdoms‘ was about politics and war and statecraft, and ‘Dream of Red Mansions‘ was about family, and ‘Journey to the West‘ was fantasy, ‘Outlaws of the Marsh‘ was about a group of outlaws who defied the government and the army and the empire. The rebelliousness of the story appealed to my younger self very much. The edition I got was a five-volume edition. I finally got around to reading the first part.

Outlaws of the Marsh‘ is about a group of 108 outlaws who live in the mountains. They rob the rich and help the poor like Robinhood and his friends (not necessarily, always). They love the emperor, but they hate the government and the bureaucracy and the police and the army. The first part starts slowly introducing us to some of the characters when they were normal people leading normal lives and the story shows us how they were pushed to the edge by people in authority which led them to become outlaws.

One of my favourite characters in this volume was a monk called Sagacious Lu. Lu was an army officer, who liked enjoying life, especially eating and drinking well. One day he helps an innocent man against a bully. As they say, no good deed goes unpunished. Because of the good thing he did, Lu offends powerful people and the law turns its sights on him. As the first line of William Gaddis’A Frolic of His Own‘ says, “Justice?β€”You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law.” That law doesn’t touch the bad guys but turns its sights on Lu and pursues him. Lu becomes a fugitive, and before long, he listens to the advice of his benefactor, and becomes a monk, to escape the clutches of the law. When he becomes a monk, he is called Sagacious Lu. Unfortunately, Sagacious Lu is no monk. Or rather, he doesn’t have a monk’s temperament. Monks are forbidden to drink and to eat meat. Sagacious Lu loves these two. Monks are supposed to meditate. Sagacious Lu hates meditation. Before long Sagacious Lu is at odds with the other monks in the monastery and the abbot requests him to leave and sends him to another monastery. In the second monastery, Sagacious Lu is asked to take care of the garden. The abbot is wise in allocating this duty to him and he is soon vindicated. There are vagabonds who routinely raid the monastery garden and when they discover that a new monk is going to take care of the garden, they think they can bully him, like they did the previous monks. But when they try, Sagacious Lu, teaches them one or two things – especially the fact that you can’t poke a bear, or rather a monk like him 😊

This is one story. There are many others like this. As the book is epic, there are dozens of characters in it. The book is also episodic, because of which some of the characters make an appearance in just one chapter and then disappear, while others have longer story arcs. The blurb of the book says that Song Jiang is the head of the outlaws. But Song Jiang makes an appearance only towards the end of volume 1, and right now he is a clerk in the court and is an honest, law-abiding citizen. I can’t wait to find out how his story progresses in the second part.

I am glad I finally got started on ‘Outlaws of the Marsh‘. I can’t wait to read the second part now.

Have you read ‘Outlaws of the Marsh‘? What do you think about it? Which is your favourite Chinese epic out of the four?

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I’ve had Hong Sheng’sThe Palace of Eternal Youth‘ with me for a long time. It was one of the first books I ever bought, when I went to live in Shanghai. During my initial days there, the first thing I did was to find out where the best bookshop was, and started visiting it every Saturday evening. That bookshop was called ‘Shanghai Foreign Languages Bookstore‘ in Fuzhou road and for a long time it was the only bookshop in town selling English books. It had a huge collection of Chinese classics in beautiful hardback editions in English translation, and that is where I got ‘The Palace of Eternal Youth‘.

The Palace of Eternal Youth‘ is a classic Chinese opera. It was initially published and performed in 1688. It was probably inspired by the famous Tang Dynasty poet Bai Juyi’s long poem, ‘Song of Unending Sorrow‘. The opera tells the love story of the Tang emperor Ming Huang and Lady Yang. The emperor meets one of his palace maids one day and he falls in love with her. She soon becomes his favourite consort and is called Lady Yang. The two love birds spend beautiful days together. But such happiness cannot be everlasting. Trouble brews at the frontier and one of the generals rises in rebellion and raises an army and marches towards the capital. And all hell breaks loose. To find out what happened next, you have to read the book.

When I first discovered ‘The Palace of Eternal Youth‘, looking at the title, I thought it might be a combination of fairytale and fantasy and love story. Being a Chinese classic, the fairytale and fantasy elements are definitely there, and heavenly beings make their appearances in the story, but the core story is based on historical events. The emperor and Lady Yang are real historical characters. Lady Yang (also known as Yang Gufei) is regarded as one of the four great beauties of ancient China. The rebellion described in the story, called the ‘An Lushan’ rebellion was real. Sabina Knight in her ‘Chinese Literature : A Short Introduction‘ says that the death toll in the An Lushan rebellion was surpassed only during the Second World War. I was very surprised to discover the historical basis of the story.

As it is an opera, the dialogue is a combination of text and songs. The songs are beautiful and are filled with soft, delicate, poetic images which shine even in translation, and which are a delight to read. The romantic scenes, the scenes of longing and yearning, and the heartbreaking scenes of tragedy are some of the most beautiful in the book.

I loved most of the characters in the story. Lady Yang is beautiful and charming and complex. The emperor is a beautiful, romantic lover. But as an emperor he doesn’t show strength at important moments and slips, which leads to tragedy. I loved many of the minor characters too. There is an old farmer with snowy hair who appears in one scene and he brings the emperor a pot of oatmeal, and while the emperor is having his dinner, our old farmer tells the emperor what he thinks about his governance and tells him one or two things about how to run the country 😊 The emperor eats humble pie and listens to our old farmer. There is an assassin who comes in one scene, who is charming. There are two maids of Lady Yang who, after many tragic events have happened in the story, meet the former head of the imperial orchestra, who is now eking out a living as a travelling musician, playing his lute in taverns.Β  They look back on the past and share what happened in their lives since they last met, and it is one of my favourite scenes in the book.

Out of the heavenly beings who make an appearance in the story, my favourite was the Weaving Maid, who is a famous character in Chinese mythology. In one of my favourite scenes, she breathes fire and looks like a 21st century kick-ass woman, or the Amazon Queen Penthesilea, when she says – “Do you mean to say that the ruler of the whole empire could not protect one woman?” I loved the Weaving Maid, and looked forward to every scene in which she made an appearance. Her name seems to suggest that she is soft, gentle and kind, and she is all that, but she is also strong, breathes fire, and kicks ass. And the way she literally moves heaven and earth to get things done and bring back happiness into the lives of people is so beautiful to watch.

I read Bai Juyi’s poem, ‘Song of Unending Sorrow‘ after I read this book. I liked Bai Juyi’s poem. But it feels almost heretic to say this, but I have to – Hong Sheng’s opera is better, much better.

I read a bilingual edition of the book, which had Chinese on the left and English on the right. One of the interesting things I noticed in the edition I read was this. The Chinese text was nearly always half the length of the English one! So, while the English translation stretched for the whole page, the Chinese original occupied only half the page! (See the first page of the book in both the languages, below) Of course, if we give it some thought, there is a simple reason for that. A Chinese character don’t represent an English alphabet, but represents a part of a word or sometimes a whole word. So it is no wonder that a Chinese sentence occupies just half the space of an English sentence on the printed page. There is a general feeling these days, that an alphabet based language is superior in some ways to a character (ideogram) based language, and sometimes this is true. But in terms of the amount of information that can be packed into a page, a character based language like Chinese kicks ass. Every page of this book reminded me of that. It must have been a huge advantage in the pre-digital era, during the era of the printed word, when one can say the same thing in half the number of pages in a character-based language.

The first page in Chinese and English

I loved ‘The Palace of Eternal Youth‘. It took me so long to get to it, but I am glad I read it now. The edition I read was so beautiful (‘Library of Chinese Classics’ edition) and it was such a pleasure to read. I have three more books in this edition and I am looking forward to reading them soon.

Have you read ‘The Palace of Eternal Youth‘? Which is your favourite Chinese opera?

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While exploring classical Chinese literature, I’ve been dipping into the ‘Tao Te Ching‘ by Lao Tzu recently, marvelling at its beauty. The edition I dipped into, translated by Ralph Alan Dale, had Chinese calligraphy and beautiful, exquisite, black-and-white landscape pictures, which made the reading experience even more beautiful.

I thought I’ll share one of my favourite verses from the book, Verse 11. I read it for the first time in a footnote in the Korean classic ‘The Nine Cloud Dream’ by Kim Man-Jung. When I read it for the first time, it had a profound effect on me. I got goosebumps and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Such a simple thought but with such profound depth.

I thought I’ll share three of the translations of Verse 11 that I read. They are all beautiful, with subtle differences, especially in the last lines. Friends have told me that the three translations are like hearing the same story from three different points of view and how all of them together are required to savour the meaning of those lines.

Translation 1 – By Heinz Insu Fenkl

Thirty spokes share a central hub;
It is the hole that makes the wheel useful.

Mix water and clay into a vessel;
Its emptiness is what makes it useful.

Cut doors and windows for a room;
Their emptiness is what makes them useful.

Therefore consider: advantage comes from having things
And usefulness from having nothing.

Translation 2 – By D.C.Lau

Thirty spokes join at one hub;
emptiness makes the cart useful.

Cast clay into a pot;
the emptiness inside makes it useful.

Cut doors and windows to make a room;
emptiness makes the room useful.

Thus being is beneficial,
but usefulness comes from the void.

Translation 3 – By Ralph Alan Dale

We join thirty spokes
to the hub of a wheel,
yet it’s the center hole
that drives the chariot.

We shape clay
to birth a vessel,
yet it’s the hollow within
that makes it useful.

We chisel doors and windows
to construct a room,
yet it’s the inner space
that makes it livable.

Thus do we
create what is
to use what is not.

Did you like this verse? Which of the three translations is your favourite?

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After reading ‘Gateway to Chinese Classical Literature‘, I decided to read the Oxford VSI (Very Short Introduction) on the subject, ‘Chinese Literature : A Very Short Introduction‘ by Sabina Knight.

Sabina Knight’s book is divided into five chapters, each of which focuses on a different theme. The first one is on Chinese philosophical works, the second one is on poetry, the third one is on early prose works, the fourth one is on prose epics and drama, and the fifth one covers 20th and 21st century literature. The book starts slowly, and in the initial chapters the prose veers towards the academic, with sentences like this –

“Sensitivity to these dynamics fostered awe for the potentials underlying natural dispositions, plus profound faith in human capacities to navigate these propensities.”

But the pace picks up by the third chapter and the book kicks ass after that. The book is just 120 pages long and can be read in a few hours, but the amount of information it packs is amazing.

I loved most of the book, and the book’s coverage of the Chinese prose epics and its analysis of classical Chinese poetry is brilliant. One of my favourite lines in the book is this one –

“Scholars sometimes liken traditional novels to Chinese gardens and landscape painting, both of which encourage wandering rather than a single fixed perspective or presentation.”

It is a perfect depiction of all the major Chinese prose epics, which are complex and refuse to get pigeon-holed into restrictive themes and structures.

Sabina Knight says this in the chapter on poetry – “Du Fu, arguably China’s greatest poet…” It made me smile 😊 (I love Du Fu, but Li Bai was, is, and will always be, China’s greatest poet. Sorry Sabina 😊)

The last chapter in the book was fascinating, and was especially my favourite, because it featured many 20th and 21st century writers who were new to me. That is many exciting new writers waiting to be explored. I was disappointed that Jin Yong, the most popular Chinese writer of the 20th century, just gets a mention in one sentence, while ‘Fortress Besieged‘, one of the greatest Chinese novels of the 20th century, doesn’t even get a mention. But I was happy that two 20th century greats, Lu Xun and Ba Jin (both of whom should have won the Nobel Prize, in my opinion), both got good coverage. I was happy that Wei Hui and her controversial ‘Shanghai Baby‘ were featured, and I was also excited that the book introduced me to many wonderful women Chinese writers, including Wang Anyi, Dai Houying, Zhang Jie and Yang Mo.

This book is a great introduction to Chinese literature and a great companion read alongwith ‘Gateway to Chinese Classical Literature‘. These two books cover most of the same ground but in completely different styles and so they complement each other perfectly. Sabina Knight’s book is not always easy going, and it is a bit challenging initially, but if you are persistent, you’ll be richly rewarded.

Have you read this book? What do you think about it?

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There is a beautiful publisher in Singapore called Asiapac Books. They publish Chinese classics and books on Chinese history and culture in comic / graphic novel form. Their magnum opus is their 10-volume graphic novel adaptation of ‘Three Kingdoms‘. When I first discovered Asiapac Books, I was very excited and got a number of their books. One of the books I got was this one, ‘Gateway to Chinese Classical Literature‘. I thought I’ll read this today.

This book gives a beautiful overview of Chinese literature from the earliest times to the beginning of the 20th century. It features all the major poets, philosophers, historians, novelists, playwrights and gives a brief biography of them, describes an anecdote from their lives and shares excerpts from their work, either in text or in comic form. The book is just 158 pages long and it looks deceptively like a regular comic, but reading the book is like dipping into an infinite well, as it covers more than 3000 years of Chinese literary history. All my favourite Chinese poets – Li Bai, Bai Juyi, Wang Wei, Du Fu, Tao Yuanming – are featured here. So are Sima Qian, the grand historian, and Zhuangzi, he of the butterfly dream fame. The Tang Dynasty gets good detailed coverage – it is the longest chapter in the book. All the four major Chinese prose epics are featured in detail with excerpts from them. I was thinking that the fifth epic, the-book-that-shall-not-be-named, (also called ‘Jing Ping Mei‘) would be ignored, but even that got a mention. Many of the minor epics like ‘The Scholars‘ and ‘Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio‘, were featured, and I was surprised that even ‘Seven Heroes and Five Gallants‘ got a mention.

As you can see, the book is packed with information. It is hard for me to imagine how the authors managed to squeeze in so much content in so few pages.

I loved ‘Gateway to Chinese Classical Literature‘. If you are looking for an introduction to Chinese literature, this is a great place to start.

I’m sharing some of the pages below so that you can see what exactly is there inside.

Zhuangzi’s legendary butterfly dream
Sima Qian, the Grand Historian
The story of the legendary Peach Blossom Spring by Tao Yuanming, which inspired the legend of Shanghri-La
Li Bai, the deity of poetry
The famous haunting, heartbreaking scene from Bai Juyi’s ‘Song of Unending Sorrow’
The poet emperor Li Yu, China’s own Nero / Bahadur Shah Zafar
One of my favourite poems by the great Su Shi
Li Qingzhao, China’s greatest female poet

Have you read this book? Do you like reading literary history or nonfiction in comic form?

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