Note: this review is for the entire three-volume novel.
What I learned from this book (in no particular order):
1.“They are the cauldron and we are theNote: this review is for the entire three-volume novel.
What I learned from this book (in no particular order):
1.“They are the cauldron and we are the deer”. For the common people, the subjects of Empire, their role is to be the deer. If the Emperor doesn’t like somebody, he is going to be put in the cauldron and boiled, just like a deer that is caught in a hunt. This is the meaning of the book’s title.
2. “Extreme confinement since infancy for Emperors surely led to many of the hideous excesses perpetrated by tyrants down the ages.” As imperial subjects, you are extremely lucky to get a monarch who is not merely sane but is also intelligent and capable.
3. Death by a Thousand Cut, or Lingering Death, is the worst way to die in Qing Dynasty China. You are not immune from it, even if you are a Jesuit priest. Better whip up that canon-making skills, Father.
4. ‘Losha’, otherwise known as Russia, is a huge empire to the north of China with a pesky habit of creating trouble at the border. It is a primitive country, inhabited by wild Cossacks and boorish foreign devils, but it needs to be placated, as it possesses muskets and cannons.
5. Russian Orthodox priests are equally adept at writing erotic love letters and Letters of State. When the Russian sovereign is also your lover, both types of communication can be conveniently merged in a single letter.
6. Russian women are beautiful, except for their noses, which stand up far too prominently from their faces. The blonde ones also have bodies that are disgustingly covered with yellow down.
7. Indecent assault is a legitimate Kungfu move, especially if you are too lazy to learn proper martial art.
8. “All emperors had sisters who were a bit crazy”. For ‘crazy’ read ‘nymphomaniac’. The great empires of Russia and China both have at least one of them.
9. All languages except Chinese is gobbledygook and every alien script is nothing but squiggly lines. Of course it doesn’t help if your good self is illiterate in any language.
10. “The tendency to insult the virtue of an adversary’s mother is more or less universal”. ‘Tamardy’ is an abuse, and NEVER call a Chinese person ‘turtle’ --- it is a grave insult.
11. Outlandish praises and idiotic slogans (such as ‘Long Live to Our Leader’ and ‘Victory to Our Great Leader’, etc.) are music to tyrants and cult leaders. Run-of-the-mill flattery will do for lesser personages.
12. Simultaneously impersonating a palace eunuch AND a Shaolin monk is surely no fun for a red-blooded teenage male, but it doesn’t matter if you can slip into a whorehouse for some serious romp. Get rid of that monkish habit first, though.
In his last novel Jin Yong (Louis Cha), the undisputed master of wuxia (Chinese martial art fiction) brilliantly subverts the conventions of the genre that he had done so much to popularize with his previous 14 novels. For a start, the protagonist of the story, Wei Xiaobao (‘Trinket’ in this English translation --- huh?!), is nothing like the typical wuxia hero. He is no patriotic Guo Jing who defends Song China from the Mongol hordes, or Yang Guo, the great xia (knight-errant) from The Return of the Condor Heroes (Shen Diao Xia Lu). Nor is he Zhang Wuji, the hero of Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre, who led a successful rebellion against the Yuan Dynasty. Trinket is a bastard born and bred in a Yangzhou brothel. He is illiterate, foul-mouthed --- and too lazy to learn any kungfu, despite having the opportunity of learning from the best masters. He is also an inveterate gambler, a habitual liar, and a lecher who managed to marry seven (!) beautiful women. In another word, he is a lovable rascal.
Accidentally brought to the Forbidden City at the age of thirteen, Trinket impersonates a palace eunuch and strikes an unlikely friendship with the boy-emperor Kang xi. Aided by his natural cunning, he rapidly rises through the ranks to become Kang xi’s right-hand man, traveling all over China, Manchuria and Russia as His Majesty’s secret agent. In the process he gets himself tangled up with the Triads (in its incarnation as an anti-Qing resistance movement), the Mystic Dragon Cult, Mongolian lamas, Jesuit priests and Russian spies. At one point, he is simultaneously a top Qing mandarin, the master of a Triad lodge, the marshall of the Mystic Dragons and a Shaolin monk. Trinket has to use every guile and dirty trick in the book to manage his increasingly complex allegiances. For a while he manages to play his various patrons against each other to his personal advantage, and we are alternately appalled by his misdeeds, laugh out loud at his antics and marvel at his astonishing ability to bullshit his way of (almost) any situation. However, his high-wire act eventually fails and Trinket, a man with multiple, often conflicting identities, is forced to choose sides. Through the choices that he makes, Jin Yong questions the values of patriotism, primordial allegiances and conventional morality.
This novel was written during the height of the Cultural Revolution, and it is not difficult to detect allusions to the political situation in Mainland China at that time. The persecution of the dissident scholars involved in the writing of Ming history at the beginning of the book has an all too familiar ring. The leader of the Mystic Dragon Cult, with his outsized personality cult and fanatical, brainwashed young followers, bears a certain resemblance to Mao and his Red Guards. The story itself can be enjoyed on several different levels: as a rousing martial art romp, hilarious farce, historical fantasy, or cynical satire. Or you can just read it for pure narrative enjoyment. Hundreds of millions of Chinese readers can’t be all wrong. You will not be disappointed.
"Old longings nomadic leap, Chafing at custom's chain; Again from its brumal sleep Wakens the ferine strain."
The Wolf Totem, like The Call of the Wild, a"Old longings nomadic leap, Chafing at custom's chain; Again from its brumal sleep Wakens the ferine strain."
The Wolf Totem, like The Call of the Wild, a book that it is often compared to, calls for a return to unfettered nature, with its individualism and harsh, but utterly logical values. The wolves don’t kill because they are cruel, but because, like all other living creatures, they need to eat to sustain themselves. The beautiful Inner Mongolian grassland which serves as the setting for this novel is not a peaceful Eden; it is a fiercely contested battleground where humans, wolves and other animals have been waging war against each other since time immemorial. Nature has its own system, in which the constant warfare serves as a balancing measure that guarantees the survival of the grassland and all the species that depend on it. The traditional Mongolian herdsmen understand this and strive to maintain the delicate ecological balance on which their livelihoods depend. However, when ignorant outsiders (agriculturalists, mostly Han Chinese, with no regard for sustainable grazing) impose their production quotas and machine-gunned the wolves to virtual extinction, the ecosystem collapses and the grassland slowly turns into desert. An already familiar and distressingly common scenario all over the world, but which is perhaps even more pertinent for China, a nation that has suffered extreme environmental degradation in the name of progress.
But Wolf Totem is not just a stinging, yet well-meaning ecological fable --- it is also a strident call for Chinese nationalism. The Chinese, the author believes, has become a “sheep-like” race, the antithesis of the more dynamic wolf-like nomadic races. The sheep-like characteristics of the Chinese, particularly their lack of assertive individualism, had resulted in China’s humiliation before foreign powers, and allowed atrocities such as the Tiananmen Square massacre to be perpetrated against them. “There’d be hope for China if our national character could be rebuilt by cutting away the decaying parts of Confucianism and grafting a wolf totem sapling onto it. It could be combined with such Confucian traditions as pacifism, an emphasis on education, and devotion to study.” Jiang Rong, an academic who was jailed for his involvement in the 1989 Tiananmen student movement, apparently sees no contradiction whatsoever between wolfish qualities and pacifism. He ardently believes that this is China’s way out of its current malaise and constantly preaches it through his characters. It becomes rather tiresome after a while, and one inadvertently begins to think of counter arguments. Didn’t the Chinese eventually assimilate the conquering nomadic races? How come China has endured for almost five millennia as a major power while the proud descendants of Genghis Khan are now merely one of its minorities? Haven’t the Chinese proven themselves to be adept at lupine tactics by becoming an economic juggernaut in less than a generation?
And what is the appeal of this novel, if it is merely an ideological tract disguised as fiction? It is surely not its (debatable) ideological message. Nor is it the human characters, which for the most part are merely mouthpieces for the author’s theories. It is the vivid, cinematic evocation of nature, red in tooth and claw that had me reading into the wee hours. The bone-chilling description of how a wolf pack traps and devours a herd of warhorses. The blood-curling account of an epic wolf hunt under the moonlight, with hundreds of riders with flaming torches and baying dogs. The harsh lives of the nomadic herders and their animals, told with convincing details and understanding that could only come from long familiarity. Oh, and the story of Chen Zhen and the wolf cub, both endearing and tragic. These are the meat of the story and they are substantial enough to outweigh the obvious flaws. For several days, I was transported into the distant Mongolian steppes, riding against the wind with a pack of hounds, scanning the endless horizon for sheep and wolves --- and that should be reason enough to pick this book up. ...more
Jin Yong's first wuxia novel is set in the reign of the Qian Long Emperor, when the Qing dynasty was expanding its realm through the Uighur lands in CJin Yong's first wuxia novel is set in the reign of the Qian Long Emperor, when the Qing dynasty was expanding its realm through the Uighur lands in China's far west. The main protagonist, Chen Jialuo, is the young helmsman of the Red Flower Society, a secret organization dedicated to the restoration of Han Chinese sovereignty, which they wish to accomplish through the secret tie between their helmsman and the Emperor. The plot is woven around two stories that date from this period in Chinese history: the rumor that Qian Long is in fact Chinese by birth, not Manchu, and the legend of the Fragrant Princess, a Muslim beauty who Qian Long took as his concubine. There is martial art fighting galore, especially in the earlier part of the book ---which could have been trimmed a bit --- and other exciting episodes: wolf packs, war scenes and a lost city in the desert. There are also poetic moonlit boat rides on the West Lake and a romantic journey through the Edenic grassland of Xinjiang. The characters are ably rendered, although not with as much depth as in Jin Yong's later works. The story is relatively brief at around 500 pages (an effect of the English editing?) and somewhat realistic for this genre, except for the tragic end with its echo of the Legend of the Butterfly Lovers (Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai), China's Romeo and Juliet. It is interesting to compare this book with The Deer and The Cauldron, Jin Yong's last novel, which also takes place during the Qing dynasty and deals with similar issues of loyalty and patriotism.
been married off to your first cousin at seventeen?
been thrown out of the house for "mishandling arrangements to obtain a concubine" fHave you ever...
been married off to your first cousin at seventeen?
been thrown out of the house for "mishandling arrangements to obtain a concubine" for your father-in-law?
been obsessed with the idea of finding a concubine for your husband?
tried to purchase an underage singsong girl to be a concubine to both yourself and your husband?
wasted to death because you failed to arrange for a live-in threesome relationship with your husband and his concubine?
If you answer “yes” to any of these questions then you might have been a protagonist in this book, one of imperial China's most romantic love story, an 18th century memoir written by Shen Fu about his wife, Yun. The circumstances might seem odd to us, but it’s not difficult to understand why generations of Chinese, repressed by thousands of years of paternalistic culture, consider it to be romantic. Shen, an itinerant scholar who was chronically unemployed for much of his working life, wrote about his conjugal life with an intimate candor that was rare for his times. No, he didn’t write about that kinky threesome with the underage concubine --- it was a scheme that never came through, though I wonder whether Yun really wanted it, since we only see her through her husband’s perspective. Instead, there are scenes of him and Yun whiling away a moonlit night by drinking wine and reciting Tang poetry. Chrysanthemums bloomed around their modest, economy-sized cottage, and the ever resourceful Yun, an orphan who raised herself and her brother by taking in needlework, contrived to make movable screens out of live flowers. Shen himself is an aesthete who could devote pages on the correct way to display flowers (“When putting chrysanthemums in a vase one should select an odd number of flowers…”) and burning incense (“Buddha’s Hands should not be smelled by someone who is drunk, or they will spoil”). These scenes are among the most charming of this occasionally disjointed, rambling memoir, though I also find it rather disturbing that Shen managed to devote so much more pages to these pursuits than to their young children (who, due to their parents’ poverty and outcast status, had to be taken away to be raised by others). Shen and Yun’s lives are tragic, and their idea of marital happiness is at odds with our modern notions, yet ultimately it is their upbringing that is the strangest thing of all. The Chinese were determined that government officials should be scholars first and bureaucrats second. One of the largest empires in the history of the world was administered by a small group of men, who had not the slightest training in administration, and who knew more about the poetry of a thousand years before than they did about tax law. Imagine the government being ran by a bunch of English majors! This idea seems to me both daft and endearing at the same time --- and the real tragedy of Shen’s life (and others like him, and ultimately imperial China itself) is that at the end this is simply just not enough. ...more
Jin Yong's novels are fascinating on several different levels. John Hamm, the author of this book, the only in-depth study of the “Jin Yong PhenomenonJin Yong's novels are fascinating on several different levels. John Hamm, the author of this book, the only in-depth study of the “Jin Yong Phenomenon” in English, enumerates some of the qualities that make Jin Yong’s fiction appealing to its audience and particularly interesting as a subject:
"Jin Yong’s work is lauded for its panoramic and emotionally charged engagement with Chinese history; its seemingly inexhaustible inventiveness and the dazzling complexity of its plotting; its range of vivid, multifaceted characters and psychologically adventurous exploration of human relationships; its integration of modern sensibility and Western literary techniques with the inherited material of the martial arts genre; its reinvention, through the rejection of Europeanized elements, of Chinese vernacular prose; its ability to wed a breadth of learning and profound insights on life with the most crowd-pleasing action and melodrama; and its effectiveness in accessibly introducing Chinese culture and values to a socially, geographically, and generationally diverse readership, including such a “disadvantaged” elements as the younger generation of Chinese overseas."
Hamm uses media studies approach to investigate how Jin Yong's intertwined roles as both author and publisher, as well as owner and chief editor of the Ming Pao Daily, where the stories were initially serialized, impacted the dissemination of the novels and the propagation of the ideas therein. Apparently, Jin Yong was also a canny newspaperman/businessman who was able to use the enormous popularity of his serialized fiction as a financial leverage to establish a publishing empire, which in turn he used to promote not just the novels, but also the films, TV serials, comic books and other products based on them. But this was not Jin Yong's sole agenda. Hamm argues that from the earliest days of Ming Pao in the late 1950s, Jin Yong had "used his unique role as both author and publisher to shape the conceptual contexts for the acceptance of the martial arts fiction and to open the possibility of his own work's serving as a bearer of literary and cultural capital." This is remarkable as Ming Pao Daily began its life as a tabloid in which "extracts from the international wire services jostle for attention with photographs of bathing beauties and sensationalistic reports of car wrecks, abductions and crimes of passion." Hardly a promising platform for the promotion of works projected to bear literary and cultural capital. Not to mention that the Chinese literary establishment and the communist government had both declared martial arts fiction to be "poisonous weeds" steeped in the feudal past. Indeed, Hamm later points out that many of the decisions taken by Ming Pao's founders in its early days were made in response to changing social circumstances and market opportunities rather than according to any preexisting vision. However, Ming Pao subsequently evolved into a prestigious paper, largely thanks to Jin Yong's influential editorials on mainland politics and its staunch opposition to the Maoist regime. Jin Yong began to position his publications, including his martial arts fiction, as a repository of traditional Chinese values and culture --- "a Chinese cultural nationalism that defined itself in large measure against the excesses of the mainland's Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution." Perhaps it is more plausible to regard this era as the starting point for Jin Yong's didactic project, when the urgency of preserving traditional Chinese culture and values became more pressing under the pressure of attacks against them in the mainland.
The continuous revisions of the novels through the following decades (there were three major revisions, the last finished in the 90s) were aimed at consolidating their position as literary classics, with further polishing of the prose, more refined characterizations and the inclusion of additional cultural and historical allusions. This "canonization" process, actively encouraged by Jin Yong and his publishers, reached new heights in the 80s and 90s with the publication of the Collected Works of Jin Yong both in Taiwan and the mainland, whose governments had previously banned the novels for various ideological reasons. In the mainland, this process was not entirely free of controversy, as evidenced by the "Wang Shuo incident" in the late 90s, in which China's literary enfant terrible, famous for his profanity-laced "hoodlum literature", declared that Jin Yong's fiction is one of the "four great vulgarities of our time" (the other three "vulgarities" are the "Four Heavenly Kings" of Canto-pop music, Jacky Chan's action films and Qiong Yao soap operas). Hamm thinks that Wang Shuo's criticism stemmed from the North/South geocultural division that runs through China --- "It is their identity both as southerners and as products of the foreign-tainted periphery that condemns Jin Yong and his peers to the category of the "four great vulgarities." Despite the very public run-in with Wang Shuo, the general trajectory of the "canonization" process in the mainland seems to have been largely positive, with the acceptance of the works and the author himself into prestigious academic and literary cycles, albeit with some qualifications. Hamm suggests that this might have something to do with Jin Yong's rapprochement with the post Deng Xiaoping (“I have read your novels.”) mainland regime, but he admits that the Jin Yong phenomenon was "no longer nourished principally by the Ming Pao and Yuanliu conglomerates and other institutions with direct commercial interest, but riding free and evidently self-sustaining on the seas of media attention."
Besides looking at the Jin Yong phenomenon through the media studies angle, Hamm also analyzes six major novels, including the patriotic epics The Eagle-Shooting Heroes (Shediao yingxiong zhuan) and its sequel, The Giant Eagle and its Companion (Shendiao xialu) --- these are official, but what awkwardly translated titles! --- and two fascinating late novels, The Smiling, Proud Wanderer (Xiaoao jianghu) and The Duke of Mount Deer (Luding ji).
Hamm interprets these novels as literature of exile and displacement, largely set in pivotal moments in Chinese history, usually during a dynastic crisis, which eventually ended in foreign subjugation. In a sense, these stories are attempts to make sense of China's long and complex history, in which a proud nation is more often than not had to endure humiliating colonization by non-Han "barbarians". Hamm traces the evolution of Jin Yong's ideological stance through these novels, from his initial position on "Han self-determination" through political/military struggle, as reflected in the earlier novels, including Heroes and Companions, to skepticism toward politics as a means to achieve this aim, as reflected in Wanderer, and finally to a pragmatic accommodation of colonization and pan-ethnic solidarity in Mount Deer. This reading is quite obvious, considering Jin Yong's personal history as a mainlander who fled to Hong Kong soon after the Communist takeover, which came on the heel of the Japanese occupation and civil war that wracked the mainland during his formative years. It is illustrative to compare the various exit strategies that his heroes used to deal with the political crisis in the mainland: Guo Jing, the epitome of Confucian patriotism, sacrificed his life in the eventually futile defense of the city of Xiangyang against the Mongol invasion; Yuan Chengzhi, escaping the imminent Manchu victory, left China for the peaceful Nanyang island of Borneo --- like so many overseas Chinese over the centuries; Linghu Chong, disgusted with the "dystopia of political life", retreated into reclusion "of individual liberty given solace and substance by romantic fulfillment on the one hand and transmitted cultural practices on the other"; Wei Xiaobao, who in contrast to any of these other protagonists, was pragmatic to a fault and probably had no single patriotic bone in his body, took himself and his seven wives to the remote province of Yunnan, fleeing from "the knot of conflicting loyalties in which he had become enmeshed" --- instead of from foreign occupation or immoral politicking like his predecessors.
His last two books, in which Jin Yong gradually subverted the paradigms of the genre that he had done so much to advance, are the most interesting. In Wanderer, the martial arts that in the earlier novels empowered their heroes to uphold justice and fight foreign invaders is represented as "not merely a tool for the ambitions of the ruthless and hypocritical, and not merely as inhumanely savage in the most significant instances of its deployment, but also structured around an intrinsic perversity that comes to symbolize the violence and unnaturalness of the quest for power." Likewise, where Heroes "envisions China's martial (wu) and cultural (wen) arts as complementary and mutually fulfilling, Wanderer suggests that for all their structural and stylistic affinities, their fundamental aims are incompatible."
The last book, Mount Deer, is even more radical: Wei Xiaobao, the protagonist of the novel is the antithesis of Jin Yong's previous heroes: not only that he didn't know any martial arts, he was also largely amoral. After spending his entire literary career writing about heroes who represent cherished traditional Chinese values, Jin Yong created a character that reflects the other side of the national characteristics. According to the author, Wei Xiaobao's two most distinct traits, namely his capacity to adapt to his environment and his loyalty to friends, are among the major reasons for the Chinese people's survival and historically unique resilience. However, "the lying and scheming to which Wei Xiaobao's 'adaptability' led him should be understood as revealing the weaknesses of the Qing society in which he lived, and would properly disappear under more enlightened social condition; indeed the prevalence of the 'Wei Xiaobao style' of cronyism, self-interest and disregard for the law has a great deal to do with the Chinese government's continued failure to get on the right track." The Han nationalism that was so prevalent in the earlier novels has been replaced by a sort of a compromise: a non-Chinese emperor like Kangxi could be a legitimate ruler, as long as he fulfills the essential requirement for enlightened rulership according to the Chinese classics, which is to display benevolence toward his subjects. Surely, living under the “benevolent” British colonial government in Hong Kong is much preferable to living under the tyranny of the Han Chinese Maoist regime on the mainland, even if the price is the "bastardization" of one's cultural identity, as reflected by Wei Xiaobao's ethnically uncertain patrimony:
"Wei Xiaobao, with no further ado, drew her aside into her chamber and asked her a question he'd been saving for a very long time, a question that had been brought again to the forefront of his mind as he had stood watching the burning boat near Siyang. The old Triad's words were still ringing in his ears, “A man can only be who he is." And who was Wei Xiaobao? "Mum, tell me, who really was my dad?" Spring Fragrance Wei looked him straight in the eye. "How the hell should I know?" Wei Xiaobao frowned. "No seriously, I mean, when I was in your belly --- who had you been doing it with?" "I was a beautiful woman in those days, my boy. I had lots of different customers everyday --- I couldn't possible worked out who it was!" "Were they all of them Chinese?" "Well, let me see now, I had Chinese, I had Manchus, Mongols ---." "No, I mean, did you ever have any foreign devils?" "What kind of shameless slut do you take me for!" came the angry retort. "Do it with one of them! With a big nose. Not on your life! Hot piece popping tamardy! If a single one of those great hairy Russians, or red-haired Dutch devils, had ever tried sneaking in here, I'd have booted them straight out the door!"
Wei Xiaobao heaved a sigh of relief. At least that possibility had been ruled out. His mother looked up. There was a twinkle in her eye. She seemed to have remembered something. "Wait a minute, though. I do recall, around that time, having a regular who was a Muslim. Very good-looking fellow he was, too. I sometimes used to say to myself, now my Xiaobao's got a fine nose, just like his." "So you had Chinese, Manchus, Mongols, Muslims --- what about Tibetans. Did you ever have a Tibetan?" asked Wei Xiaobao. A glow of pleasurable recollection lit up his mother's face. "Why, now that you mention it, yes, of course I did! There was this Tibetan Lama. Every time he came to bed he'd start chanting his sutra. And all the time he chanted he'd stare at me with this really dirty look. His eyes'd be just about popping out of his head. Saucy pair of eyes they were too --- just like yours!""*
For all its worth, the continuing popularity of Jin Yong, "the single most widely read of all twentieth century writers in the Chinese language", suggests that somehow his stories have struck a deep chord within the Chinese mind. It is surely worth reading, and translating, as literature and also a means to understand contemporary Chinese culture. It surely adds another perspective to the ones suggested by the 'big bad China' cottage industry, the foot binding fetishist fiction, and the Gao Xingjian Nobel-prize winning novels. And they're immensely more enjoyable, too.