Category Archives: Readings

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There’s a scene in Chapter 4 of Zeng Pu’s A Flower in a Sinful Sea 孽海花 where Gong Xiaoqi is editing the unpublished work of his late father and strikes the man’s funerary tablet whenever he corrects an error, in repayment for the blows he suffered in childhood.[1]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

Sherlock Holmes and the adventure of the stolen annotations

The Complete Sherlock Holmes, Illustrated and Annotated (via Douban)

New Star Press has released a new edition of the complete Sherlock Holmes stories. Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective made his first appearance in Chinese in 1896 (the year after John Fryer’s fiction contest), and the first complete translation was published in 1916.

This new edition, published in nine hardcover volumes with a list price of 580 RMB, boasts more than 2,000 annotations and an array of essays introducing Holmes and his world. But according to a devastating review of the collection in the Shanghai Review of Books, the vast majority of those annotations were copied without attribution from other sources, largely from Leslie S. Klinger’s The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, but also from The Annotated Sherlock HolmesEncyclopaedia Sherlockiana, and Canonical Compendium.

The author of the piece, Chen Yibai (陈一白)[1], accuses Liu Zhen (刘臻) of plagiarism and proceeds to mock him throughout the article, beginning with his identification in the publisher’s promotional copy as “the country’s foremost Holmes scholar.” Chen quotes this title several times in the piece, and notes dismissively that Holmes studies has never been a particularly hot field in China.

As for the text itself, Chen’s approach is simple: he pairs Liu’s annotations to “A Scandal in Bohemia” (which he says are representative of the quality of the work as a whole) with nearly identical notes from English-language editions. In a few especially damning examples, Liu has apparently reproduced mistakes made by the original annotators. Nor is Chen pleased with Liu’s original annotations; he calls him out for exaggerating the extent of his research. In one note, Liu asserts, “This sentence was not in the author’s earliest manuscript, but was added later to the proof copy.” Chen retorts,


Conan Doyle’s manuscript for “A Scandal in Bohemia” is held by the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, but a facsimile edition has been published. Mr. Liu Zhen may have read the “earliest manuscript” in that facsimile edition, but how would he have read the “proof copy”? Does the reader believe that a proof copy of an English magazine from over a hundred years ago was read by a modern-day Chinese? Whether you believe it or not, at any rate I don’t believe it.[2]

Chen’s article rocked the mystery community, sparking a spirited debate on Douban that resulted in a rash of thread deletions by a New Star Press editor who moderated a mystery discussion group.

According to a follow-up report that ran in this week’s SRB, one Douban commenter asked whether New Star Press had obtained translation rights from Leslie S. Klinger, and Chu Meng (褚盟), deputy editor in charge of the Midnight Library series that includes the Holmes collection, replied, “Definitely not….I was never aware that this edition would have this kind of connection to something else!”

Then Chu struck out at the annotator:


An article in the contract…roughly states, “The annotator must possess all rights to the annotations; in any dispute, the annotator assumes responsibility.” –Just like millions of author contracts out there! I and the editor in charge have not seen the foreign edition, and have not attempted to establish any “relationship” with that edition.

Liu Zhen (known online as ellry or 老埃) shot back:


First, the manuscript contained a preface and a reference list. The preface clearly explained that the annotations were based upon four annotated editions: (1) Baring-Gould’s annotated edition; (2) The Oxford annotated edition; (3) Klinger’s annotated edition; (4) Klinger’s Sherlock Holmes Reference Library. The reference list contained many more reference works. However, neither piece was included at publication time. Second, in regards to “The annotator must possess all rights to the annotations; in any dispute, the annotator assumes responsibility,” the contract does not contain that article.

Chu Meng then deleted the discussion threads and eventually shut down his account.

From the limited information available, it is hard to say who is at fault. Surely the publisher should have been aware of the existing English-language annotated editions, particularly if the annotator provided a reference list, and ought to have checked for any infringement. Still, it strikes me as foolhardy for an annotator to rely so heavily upon translated material, trusting that the publisher will be able to work out the rights issues prior to publication.

  1. [1]This is apparently a pseudonym for translator Li Jihong (李继宏), of The Kite Runner fame. The Chen Yibai byline has appeared on other articles that pick at nits in translations, including a take-down of Yu Guangzhong’s revised translation of Old Man and the Sea and a critical review of Zhang Hua and Zou Ya’s translation of Stephen King’s Lisey’s Story (that article drew a strong response here).
  2. [2]This meme is quickly approaching geilivable levels of annoyance. In this same issue, Xiao Bao’s column runs under the title “At any rate, I believe it,” although the offense is mitigated somewhat by the fact that the column’s content actually involves belief, in the context of a discussion of Micheal Shermer and the Skeptics Society.

Chinese fiction contest ’95

Last week’s Shanghai Review of Books featured a fascinating essay by Qu Muyang on the beginnings of modern Chinese fiction sparked by the publication of A Collection of New Novels from the Late Qing (清末时新小说集), which reproduces manuscripts submitted to a 1895 fiction contest.

The contest was run by John Fryer, an Englishman who headed the translation department of the Jiangnan Arsenal and established the Chinese Scientific Book Depot in Shanghai. Patrick Hanan’s essay, “The New Novel Before the New Novel — John Fryer’s Fiction Contest,”[1] is an engaging account of Fryer’s activities in China, the contest itself, and the effect that it had on the development of fiction in China.

Social criticism was the explicit aim of the contest, as Hanan explains:

It was as owner of the bookstore that he briefly involved himself in the development of Chinese fiction. In May 1895, seven years before the publication of Liang Qichao’s Xin xiaoshuo, he announced a public contest for new fiction and advertised it in the press. The seven leading contestants were to receive prizes, and their work was to be considered for publication. Fryer also held out to prizewinners the possibility of long-term employment as writers. What he was seeking was fiction with a social purpose; it had to attack, as well as suggest remedies for, what he saw as the three great afflictions of Chinese society: opium, the examination essay, and foot-binding.[125]

Fryer ran advertisements in two languages, the Chinese versions emphasizing  patriotism, the English, Christian ethics. He received 162 entries, the vast majority of which he called “rubbish.” In the SRB, Qu Muyang concurs: “The vast majority of these ‘new novels’ exhibit little technique, flat characters, bland plots, and many of them are hardly even novels at all.”

In his essay, Hanan argues that Fryer’s contest pushes back the generally-accepted date for the beginnings of new fiction in China (Xin xiaoshuo in 1902), and speculates on how the stories may have influenced other late-Qing writers. Perhaps those influences can be tracked down, now that the stories themselves are available. Qu notes that vast majority of submissions were from writers with backgrounds in missionary schools, and thus whatever their literary merit, the stories may be a valuable source of information about institutional Christianity in China in the 1890s.

Hanan wrote his essay relying on news reports, Fryer’s advertisements, and two novels directly inspired by the contest, but the entries themselves were thought to be lost forever. However, in 2006, as UC-Berkeley’s East Asian Library was preparing to move to a new facility, they were rediscovered, more than a century after they were written. They have now been reprinted in a 14-volume collection which can be yours for just 1,680 RMB.

  1. [1]This essay is included in Chinese fiction of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: essays (2004), which is available on Google books.

Who makes money off digital publishing?

As recounted in this week’s edition of the Southern Metropolis Daily book review, Murong Xuecun posted an “Open Letter to Shanda Literature” on his blog complaining that he had received no royalties whatsoever during the three years he granted the netlit giant exclusive digital rights to his book Dancing Through Red Dust (原谅我红尘颠倒 , 2008).

Shanda was supposed to share revenue with the author at a 7:3 split (in the author’s favor), to paid out quarterly. In his open letter, Murong declared his intention to terminate the agreement if his revenue was truly zero. He retracted the open letter when Shanda representatives called him and gave him a full royalty statement, which if anything was more of an insult: the company explained that it only issued royalty statements in amounts greater than 500 RMB, and Murong’s novel had only accumulated 300 RMB in royalties over three years.

That sum represents his share of income from 5.5 million clicks, serializations rights in Singapore, and an e-book.

Murong Xuecun shot to fame with Leave Me Alone, Chengdu (成都,今夜请将我遗忘, 2002), which was posted to the Tianya BBS before making the jump to print. His recent novels have appeared in print first, which may account for their poor performance in the online marketplace.

However, the Shanghai Morning Post adds a wrinkle that suggests there’s more to this than simple reading habits:


Murong Xuecun said, “I asked once in 2009 and they said then that my share was more than 1,400 RMB. More than a year later, that’s become a bit more than 300 RMB. I don’t know how the books are being kept.”

Regardless of how the royalties ended up so low, Murong’s experience will likely lead other print-based authors to think twice about signing e-publishing contracts. Shanghai-based author Chen Cun concludes:


Murong Xuecun’s Red Dust is market-tested and sold quite well. On Shanda Literature it made 100 smackers a year. Who wants partner up with a 100-a-year company?