Jesus of Zhumadian

I’m a big fan of cross-cultural mashups of folktales, myths, and legends, and of creative misreadings that twist familiar tales into strange shapes. The ancient story in Liezi of the craftsman Master Yan who built an automaton for King Mu of Zhou has the compelling ingredients—a skilled engineer, a sophisticated mechanical man who seduces palace maidens, a jealous monarch—that make it ripe for reinterpretation by present-day science fiction and fantasy writers interested in exploring robots, love, and AI.

The following piece takes a more folkloric approach, concocting a wonderfully off-the-wall story (masquerading as a folktale from Zhumadian, Henan) out of a blend of Liezi’s account and several other well-known elements. The story diverges from Liezi right from the start by reanalyzing “Master Yan” 偃师 as the ancient settlement of Yanshi, now a district of Luoyang. This story hit a sweet spot for me when I first read it on Christmas, 2017, and I’ve pulled the translation out every Easter and Christmas since then to tackle the bilingual puns. It’s coming up on Easter again and I’ve finally accepted the fact that I won’t ever crack them.

This translation is posted with permission from the author, a folklore scholar who posts on Douban under the name Misandao 蜜三刀.

A Story of the Birth of Christ

by Misandao

Liezi tells the story of the wooden puppet of Yanshi. It describes how King Mu of Zhou passed through Yanshi in Henan on an inspection tour and was introduced to a carpenter, Yuese [“Joseph”] by name, from the Western Regions. This carpenter made for the king a mechanical man that could talk, sing, dance, and make all manner of expressions. Delighted, the king brought his beloved concubine Sheng Ji to see the curio, but to everyone’s surprise, when the wooden puppet saw how beautiful she was, it made a pass at her. The king was incensed and ordered the carpenter killed. Yuese was forced to flee that night with his wife Ma Liya [“Maria”]. The torrential Yellow River lay to the north of Yanshi, so they had to flee south, traveling in such haste that they had made no arrangements for lodging along the way but could only find refuge for the night in the stable of a large inn.

Upon waking up the next morning, Yuese the carpenter saw the inn’s name on the sign hanging outside: Zhumadian, “Horse Garrison Inn.” He knew this was a sign from heaven, for his wife’s surname was Ma [“horse”]. And so he settled there under the assumed name “Lu Ban” and made a living building houses and tool handles. Lu Ban’s superb carpentry skills and attractive, sturdy handles made his work popular with the locals. The couple bought a house and property and lived a decent life with just one imperfection to speak of: hunted as they were by the king’s army, the carpenter’s wife had lost a child well into a pregnancy and was never able to conceive again.

Lu Ban’s wife wanted children, and Lu Ban hoped for issue to carry on his craft. Every night after work, the two of them would lie in bed and sigh in despair. One day, Lu Ban’s wife said to him, “With all your skill at woodworking, why not make us a child?” Inspired, Lu Ban went into a frenzy of work shut up inside his shop where no one could see what he was making.

On the sixth day, which happened to coincide with the winter solstice, Lu Ban proclaimed, “Woman, come quickly and take a look. We have a child!” His wife hurried over but saw nothing but her husband lying exhausted on the floor of a workshop covered in sawdust and paint (this is why all carpenters thereafter have rested one day of every seven). She was just about to help him to his feet when all of a sudden a plump, naked baby tumbled into her arms with a cry of “Mama!” She looked closer: Oh! What an adorable child. She was beside herself with joy.

When the people of Zhumadian heard that Lu Ban had a child at long last, they came to offer their congratulations, and the village head even brought gifts of eggs, millet, and solstice dumplings fresh from the pot so the carpenter’s wife could take her month’s rest. However, a few gossipy married ladies kept talking behind her back about how they’d never seen her pregnant, so how had she given birth to such a big baby all of a sudden?

Rumors and gossip spread, and it was even suggested that the carpenter’s wife had gotten involved with a monk at the temple. Naturally, Lu Ban couldn’t reveal that their son was the work of his hands in wood rather than his wife’s biological child, so he simply told people that on one occasion when he had been asked to craft a statue of Guanyin for the local temple, the very night the statue was finished the two of them had dreamed an identical dream of Lady Guanyin saying that she would send a child from heaven as their reward.

When the carpenter’s son grew up, he followed in his dad’s footsteps as a skilled woodworker, building homes and making furniture for people of all parts. The lack of clocks in ancient times was a major inconvenience, but the young carpenter rose early for work and returned home late, giving him time to observe the heavens and granting him the knowledge of the changing of days. And so at the gate of every town and village he erected a crossbar to mark the time by reckoning the sun’s shadow. He made them tall and sturdy enough to withstand the wind and rain, and over time these crosses became the emblem of Zhumadian’s carpenters.

Since the crosses were used as a standard basis (“jīzhǔn”) for inspecting and monitoring (“dūchá”) the passage of time, they were known by the abbreviated term “jī-dū crosses,” but as the years passed and the story was handed down, people ended up calling the carpenter who invented the crosses “Jīdū” [“Christ”] and his original name was all but forgotten.

From A Collection of Folk Stories, Songs, and Proverbs from Zhumadian, mimeographed edition

Source: 蜜三刀《基督诞生的故事》,豆瓣,2017.12.25.


The spurious citation provided in the story is to a nonexistent edition of an actual collection, part of a series devoted to local folk tales and songs throughout China.

The story of Master Yan and King Mu of Zhou is found in the “Questions of Tang” 汤问 chapter of Liezi 列子, a 4th century Daoist text. The 1912 translation by Lionel Giles is a popular one, but Graham’s 1960 translation doesn’t appear to be online. Lu Ban 鲁班 was a craftsman in the Zhou dynasty who lived around five centuries after King Mu, and was the legendary inventor of several carpentry tools and a cloud ladder for siege warfare, among other devices. Notably, Liezi’s account of Master Yan concludes with a mention of Lu Ban, declaring that his cloud ladder and Mozi’s wooden kite both pale in comparison to the automaton.

The author informs me that after he wrote this story, he discovered that according to the scholar Feng Shi 冯时, there is indeed a connection between the oracle bone character for 督 “monitor” and the sun’s shadow.

Dress-up officials

The 1915 edition of 戏迷传 “Opera Fanatics” by 海上漱石生 “Hermit of Shanghai” (Sun Yusheng 孙玉声 1862–1939) has some of my all-time favorite cover art: colorful, lively poses that turn ridiculous the moment you discover the novel has nothing to do with opera.

It’s actually a satire of corrupt officials into which Sun, a huge opera fan, embeds more than 700 opera titles as names for characters, places, and scenarios, “Because bureaucracy is like theater. Officials seem like they’re play acting rather than serving their office.” There’s a similar show-offy cleverness in Sun’s 1927 wuxia novel 嵩山拳叟 “The Old Fighter of Mt. Song”, whose chapter titles are apt lines from Tang poems. A storyteller’s trick, rather than the sort of plot device Jin Yong 金庸 would later use in 连城诀 “A Deadly Secret”.

戏迷传 was first published in 1903 under a different acting-related title, 优孟衣冠传 “In Costume” or “Playing Dress-Up”; a reprint in the ’20s used the more direct 如此官场 “Officialdom!”

There’s no signature visible, but an advert in Sun’s magazine 繁华杂志 “Prosperity” promises “two comic watercolor covers by Shen Bochen 沈泊忱.” Shen (沈泊尘, 1889–1920) was a prolific political cartoonist also known for illustrations of actors and modern women.

The official singing while playing a tennis racquet like a pipa reminds me of one particular Thangka image of Dhṛtarāṣṭra 持国天王. Would that make the hatless, bearded official Virūḍhaka 增长天王? A mustache comb for a sword, sure, but is he ever shown with a mirror?

It’s probably just fanciful thinking, but I do like the possibility of an additional layer of symbolism: actors playing officials who are themselves just sham guardians of the realm.

Originally posted to Twitter, 2021.09.18.

When editors lash out

There’s a scene in Chapter 4 of Zeng Pu’s A Flower in a Sinful Sea 孽海花 where Gong Xiaoqi is editing the unpublished work of his late father and strikes the man’s funerary tablet whenever he corrects an error, in repayment for the blows he suffered in childhood.[1]

Gong Xiaoqi is a fictionalized version of Gong Cheng, an eccentric scholar of the late Qing who apparently disliked his father (and who is infamous in popular history for allegedly suggesting to the Anglo-French Expeditionary Force that they torch Yuan Ming Yuan[2]).

In his comment on the line in Gossip About a Flower in a Sinful Sea 孽海花闲话, Mao Heting 冒鹤亭 can’t confirm that Gong Cheng actually struck the tablet of his father Gong Zizhen, but does offer two anecdotes about editors taking out their frustrations with Zhu Xi 朱熹:

When Mao Qiling was writing Corrections to the Four Books, he carved a wooden figurine that he labeled “Zhu Xi,” and whenever he corrected an error, he would strike the figurine and say, “A-Xi, you’re wrong!”

When Dai Wang was at Jinling Press writing The Correct Meaning of the Analects,[3] whenever he came up with a new meaning, he would go to the Confucian Academy and urinate on Zhu Xi’s tablet. Hong Rukui, the press supervisor, hated him and complained to Ma Xinyi, Viceroy of Liangjiang, and he was let go. Upon Ma’s assassination, Zeng Guofan returned as viceroy and inquired after Dai Wang, only to be told of Dai’s dismissal and its circumstances. He said, “That poor scholar,” and rehired him. (Hong Rukui was not at all pleased when Dai returned to the press. One day, looking over a new cut of Mencius that Dai had proofread, in which “As if a cup of water could put out the fire of a wagon-load of wood” was rendered “…put out the water of a wagon-load of wood,” he said he had salary (薪水) on the brain and docked him a month’s pay, leaving him strapped. When Zeng Guofan passed away, Dai prepared to go pay his respects, informing Hong, “Today you should treat me as a guest and see me off.” So Hong got up to see him off. When they reached the stairs, Dai said loudly, “Stop here. Wait while I go take a piss.” Out in public view, there was nothing Hong could do about it.)

It is unknown whether Gong Cheng struck his father’s tablet, but it is a fact that he wrote pointedly in a commemorative biography of his late mother: no mother was more loving than his, but no father was more evil. My maternal grandfather Zhou Jikuang saw this in person.

Mao’s Gossip mostly consists of notes on the historical figures and situations that the author fictionalized in the novel, but relates amusing stories only occasionally. Slightly earlier in the same chapter, the characters come across John Fryer, a foreigner who speaks excellent Chinese. Mao remarks, “The funny thing is that foreigners saw the great accomplishments of Zeng Guofan, Zuo Zongtang, and Li Hongzhang, and noticed that they all came out of the imperial examination system, so many of them asked to read their examination papers. After a while, they’d say they couldn’t find anything militarily significant in them, not realizing that eight-legged essays were merely a way to get in the door.”

  1. [1]A translation by Rafe de Crespigny and Liu Ts’un-yan of the first five chapters of that novel appears in the special issue of Renditions devoted to middlebrow fiction (Nos. 17 & 18, Spring & Autumn 1982).
  2. [2]See Geremie Barmé’s essay, Gong Xiaogong and the Sacking of the Garden of Perfect Brightness, in China Heritage Quarterly, December 2006
  3. [3]Perhaps Mao means Annotations to The Analects 论语注, since Correct Meaning 论语正义 is a work by Liu Baonan 刘宝楠?

Some notes on General Nian’s Conquest of the West

I was tagged a while back by @davesgonechina at the end of a Twitter exchange he had with Jess Nevins about the late Qing magical war novel The Pacification of Jinchuan 平金川 (also known as General Nian’s Conquest of the West 年大将军平西传), written by Zhang Xiaoshan 张小山 and published in 1899. So I went and read the book, and then wrote up a reply. I’ve reposted it here, lightly edited from the Facebook comment version, with a few additional notes.


First chapter of an illustrated edition of Ping Jinchuan published in 1900. The sketch is of the monk 更生童子 and his whip. (Source: 99ys)

Here’s the original Twitter conversation, concatenated:

@davesgonechina: Hey @jessnevins, did you once write about early Chinese pulp where the Roman pope fought a Chinese sorcerer on a mountaintop? Can’t find.

@jessnevins: Nan Guotai appeared in Nian Dajiangjun Pingxizhuan (1899). Nan Guotai is the son of the Jesuit missionary Nan Huairen, a.k.a. Ferdinand Verbiest (1623-1688). Nan is also an inventor of military technology–the 17th century Chinese version of SCIENCE!–and during a Tibetan rebellion. Nan offers his newest weapons, including the shengtian qiu (aerial balloon) and dixing chuan (underground ship), to the Chinese Imperial Army. But the conflict spreads, and Nan’s weapons go up against traditional Chinese magic weapons. Chinese yanzhi jin (“rouge garments,” or tampons) are used to absorb the electricity of dianqi bian (electric whips) and and the Master of the Snowy Mountain and the Pope engage in mortal combat.

The summary suggests a steampunk-style clash between reason and mysticism that’s quite different from the book’s full-on magical warfare, where even the modern technology is treated as little more than a tech-flavored form of sorcery (at least in the first half; magic recedes later in the book as the war becomes more grounded in late 19th Century reality). The actual science isn’t a focus, and the inventions are pulled in when the plot requires it and then forgotten. The development of the subterranean vehicles, for example, is literally sparked by someone asking, “Hey, your balloons are pretty impressive. Have you ever considered making ones that go underground?” and the inventor replying, “No, but I’ll get right on it,” and then ten days later, he’s got a couple hundred ready for launch.

I find that brief summaries of popular literature (Qing, Republican, 1990s pulp explosion, Chinese SF, edgy satire) tend to emphasize the novelty or boundary-pushing qualities of the work, giving you room to imagine all manner of crazy possibilities that seldom play out in the full version. You’re invariably left disappointed over what might have been. It’s an understandable approach in a historical overview of a particular field, but I still can’t help feeling betrayed when a promising premise is overhyped. Still, while Ping Jinchuan might not be accurately summarized as “that novel where the Pope fights for the Qing army,” that’s not to say it isn’t an entertaining read—it’s at least a fun story competently told, which is more than can be said for a lot of other seductively summarized slogs. It’s just that the pope episode barely fills one of the book’s 32 chapters, and he doesn’t engage anyone in mortal combat so much as temporarily neutralize all other magic and convince the enemy to go home.

With the Master of the Snowy Mountain, a Muslim patriarch who reluctantly threw in with Galdan at the urging of his wife, Lady Anu, holed up behind an icy death trap keeping the imperial army from reaching him, the pope is fetched by balloon from Rome. Upon arrival he marvels at the might of the Chinese army (so different from the stories he’s heard), declares his supreme authority over the European powers, and then leads his twelve disciples, crucifixes held high, through the icy mountain defenses that have no hold over them. With the pope unwilling to do violence, the crucifix isn’t really a weapon, but it does render the enemy’s guns inoperative and turns enchanted enemy soldiers back into the domestic beasts they were created from. The pope then orders one of the Master’s remaining disciples to carry back a message: Go home, or Islam will be wiped out. He goes home, since he’s fundamentally a wise man who was temporarily misled, and drops out of the story altogether.

The electric whip vs. tampon bit is less science vs. magic than powerful magic vs. rustic magic. As is typical in this sort of tale, the named warriors fighting out in front of faceless troops each has a unique fighting style and impressively-named weapon. In a bit of low comedy, the grand weapons of the six female disciples of the Master of the Snowy Mountain—Spirit-Binding Rope, Stupefying Kerchief, Spirit-Tying Belt, Rouge Towel, Mandarin Duck Silk, and Coiling Phoenix—are actually repurposed from ordinary items of clothing: topknot band, undergarment, belt, “unclean cloth” (I’d probably read this as some sort of menstrual belt, rather than David Der-wei Wang’s “tampon”), sandal lacing, and embroidered shoes. They (and the six male disciples) are formidable enough that the imperial army calls upon a 14-year-old monk (who’s the reincarnation of a holy man murdered by Galdan) for assistance. The monk’s electric whip, which he obtained from a Swiss mentor during a trip to Europe (don’t get any ideas—-the trip is dispensed with in half a line), makes short work of the enemy, except that as a virgin and former top monk he’s forbidden from coming into contact with unclean objects and doesn’t even attempt to fight the Rouge Towel. I’m not sure it’s even meant to absorb electricity, since when the monk does eventually get mad enough to attack its wielder, she dies and her weapon disappears, just like everyone else. His whip does malfunction, but the plotline’s not followed up on and it’s likely meant to be due to the sacred/profane interaction rather than a blown fuse.

A follow-up note:

The author throws together key individuals from various stages of the Dzungar-Qing War, making deliberate hash of history to generate a more richly populated setting. Nian Gengyao’s campaign to suppress an uprising by Lobsang Tendzin, a Dzungar prince, took place in 1723. Galdan Boshugtu Khan, ruler of the Dzungars in the late 17th Century, and his wife and counsellor Lady Anu fought against Qing troops personally commanded by the Kangxi Emperor in the 1690s; Lady Anu was killed in battle in 1696 and Galdan the next year. The Galdan of the novel, in addition to being mighty warrior, is a skilled inventor given the nickname “Zhuge Liang of the West.” The Dzungar tribe he leads is subordinate to Lobsang Tendzin, who is the “King of Qinghai” here; Galdan is made general of the Qinghai forces.

It’s not a period of history I’m familiar with, and in trying to make sense of the chronologies, I ran across a very useful digital version of A Connoisseur’s Dictionary of Chinese Popular Fiction 中国通俗小说鉴赏辞典 (1993), edited by Zhou Juntao 周钧韬, Ouyang Jian 欧阳健, and Xiao Xiangkai 潇相恺. The entry for the novel breaks down the historical, magical, and scientific elements of the narrative in a way that portrays it like the entertaining pulpy adventure story it is. Lots of fun, but not the blow-your-mind lost classic I’d been sold.

Capitalist lobsters!

Lobsters 龙虾 is a 1959 stop-motion short directed by Jin Xi 靳夕, adapted from a play by Lu Dan 芦丹. A restaurant proprietor attempts to dispose of his stock of spoiled lobsters by placing an ad for a dinner conference on Marxism.

I first saw this aired on TV back in 2002 or 2003, and have been trying to locate a copy ever since. Now thanks to the CCTV6/SAPPRFT venture M1905, it’s available online at last.[1] It’s a short and hilarious satire, so I won’t spoil it with a plot summary — just watch it:

The action takes place in an unidentified country sometime in the 1950s, with advertisements and newspapers that contribute an international flavor. On closer inspection the text is Romanized Chinese.

"Foreign" newspaper from "Lobsters"

“Foreign” newspaper from Lobsters

  1. [1]Note: I started this post in May 2014. This blog’s been dormant for a while.