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.

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