[REVIEW] “Canonical Stories, Replacement Texts: A Review of The Japanese Discovery of Chinese Fiction” by Tim Murphy

{Written by Tim Murphy, this review is part of Issue 46 of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

William C. Hedberg, The Japanese Discovery of Chinese Fiction: The Water Margin and the Making of a National Canon, Columbia University Press, 2019, 264 pgs.

Little is known about the 14th-century writer, Shi Nai’an (c.1296–1372), who is widely reputed to be the author of one of the Four Classic Novels of the Chinese literary tradition, namely Shuihu zhuan 水滸傳, known in English as The Water Margin. The story of the rebellion of 108 bandit gallants against the corrupt 12th-century Song imperial court begins in a time of plague during the previous century. While visiting a temple to seek assistance in controlling the plague, an arrogant court official forces open a sealed coffer, releasing 108 imprisoned spirits that are reincarnated as the outlaws. A masterpiece of characterisation, the narrative tells of the outlaws’ backstories and adventures before their gathering in the Liangshan marshes of north-eastern China in the 71st chapter of the book’s longer editions, which are 100 or 120 chapters long. These editions include an imperial pardon for the outlaws, after which they serve the emperor in military campaigns against invaders and other bandits. There is complexity and moral ambiguity in the details of how the bandits fare after their pardons and imperial service. The outlaw leader, “Timely Rain” Song Jiang, for example, is appointed a provincial governor but later poisoned at the behest of corrupt court officials. It is left to the dreaming emperor to acknowledge Song Jiang’s loyalty in the melancholy final chapter.

In The Loyal and Righteous Water Margin with Commentary by Mr. Li Zhuowu, the philosopher, Li Zhuowu (1527–1602), interpreted the outlaws’ rebellion sympathetically, given the background of imperial corruption and injustice. Yet The Water Margin has always been considered an unusual part of the classical Chinese canon because its subaltern focus challenges traditional Confucian ideas of duty and loyalty. Jin Shengtan’s (1608–1661) truncated 70-chapter version—titled The Fifth Book for Men of Genius: Shi Nai’an’s “The Water Margin”—is harsh in its judgement of the outlaws. Jin Shengtan eliminated the imperial pardon and instead had the narrative culminate with one outlaw, “Jade Unicorn” Lu Junyi, having a hideous dream of all 108 outlaws being executed in retribution for their rebellion against the imperial court.

Chinese editions of The Water Margin began to appear in Japan during the 17th century, when the port of Nagasaki acted as the focus for the importing of contemporary Chinese material and textual culture. Japanese translations appeared in the 18th century and William C. Hedberg’s academic monograph, The Japanese Discovery of Chinese Fiction: The Water Margin and the Making of a National Canon, brings to life the ways in which different versions of the classic text subsequently became part of Japanese literary culture. The extent of Japanese literary engagement with The Water Margin during the 18th and 19th century Edo period and the later Meiji and Taishō periods (c.1868–1926) was quite extraordinary, as is the extent of the book’s influence in Japan. Hedberg’s book addresses the formation of the Japanese literary canon, as well as the more general nature of texts, commentaries, and adaptations of various kinds. It is a scholarly work aimed at the specialist reader that makes an important contribution to the field of East Asian studies, and particularly to Japan’s literary history and historiography.

The Japanese Discovery of Chinese Fiction has four chapters. The first deals with vernacular philology: the early editions of The Water Margin in Japan were written in vernacular Chinese and the book acted as a catalyst for a shift away from the literary Sinitic and traditional moralism of Confucian scholarship found in other classical Chinese texts. Two of the other chapters deal with the literary and critical reception and regular re-shaping of The Water Margin in Japan. One chapter focuses on the ways in which the book’s narratological mode and moral themes became more significant in Japan during the 18th– and 19th-century Edo period, and another chapter surveys the book’s reception during the Meiji and Taishō periods (c.1868–1926). There is also a chapter on modern Japanese Chinese-literature historiography (Shina bungakushi).

The material is complex, but Hedberg’s style is lucid throughout, and the high quality of his research and analysis admirable. Two substantive points are addressed in this review. The first point concerns Hedberg’s preference for considering a canonical work like The Water Margin as prone to “replacement” rather than any kind of “reception”, an argument that he develops by drawing on Michael Emmerich’s 2013 book, The Tale of Genji: Translation, Canonization, and World Literature (Columbia University Press). The second point relates to Hedberg’s account of the interpretation of The Water Margin by the Japanese poet and critic, Masaoka Shiki (1867–1902).

Although popular lore places the book’s authorship in the 14th century with Shi Nai’an, Hedberg clarifies that the novel that we are familiar with today appears to be a product of 16th-century China. He rejects, however, the idea of a stable text of The Water Margin being transmitted intact from one reader to the next in China or in early modern Japan. Edo-period Japanese readers, Hedberg insists, did not read a novel called The Water Margin but rather variously titled versions with critical commentaries (pingdian) by Chinese scholars including, but by no means limited to, Li Zhuowu and Jin Shengtan. The multiple critical and commentarial editions of The Water Margin engendered divergent reading experiences, and these in turn became a perennial source of inspiration for translations, adaptations, pastiches, parodies, and commercial spin-offs of all kinds. Hedberg argues against the notion of the passive “reception” of canonical books and instead approves Emmerich’s view that it is better to think of these books being constantly subjected to “replacement” by new, different versions of themselves—indeed, Emmerich suggests that the production of these replacements leads to the canonisation of particular works, rather than vice versa.

One famous and notably broad interpretation of The Water Margin is the adaptation by Kyokutei Bakin (1767–1848), Nansō Satomi hakkenden [The Eight Dog Chronicles], or simply Hakkenden, which contributed to the Japanese “moral and cultural domestication” of The Water Margin. Hakkenden re-shapes ideas from the Chinese classic into a fantasy novel about eight young warriors or “dog-knights” in 16th-century Japan. Emmerich’s “replacement theory” gives significance not just to radical adaptations like Hakkenden but also to the production of derivative secondary works. These include the famous set of musha-e colour woodblock prints of the bandits prepared by Utagawa Kuniyoshi between 1827 and 1830—and beyond that to public works of art, stamps, lottery tickets, boardgames, and even advertising gimmicks. While these latter types of adaptation may seem trivial, the suggestion is that they nonetheless participate in textual transmission by expressing and replacing understandings about the canonical text that are handed down between generations. Given the many instances globally of half-remembered myths and folk tales in which characters or plot developments are widely identifiable only by some caricaturable trope or feature, this may not be as far-fetched as it sounds. Hedberg justifies his own use of Emmerich’s approach because it shifts the focus from non-existent “original urtexts”, and because it allows for a clearer view of the role of ideology in textual transmission, but not all readers will be convinced. There seems to be ambiguity in Emmerich’s perspective. When does an original canonical “urtext”, for example, become sufficiently identifiable for “reception”, rather than replacement, to be possible? Or is the suggestion that no work at all can become canonical without being first being “replaced”? It seems wise of Hedberg to express reservations about Emmerich’s more extreme idea that replacements are “vastly more important” than their referents.

When The Water Margin was imported originally into Japan, it was considered more a chronicle or account (zhizhuan) because the narrative has, loosely speaking, a verifiable historical source in early 12th-century Song history. But Japanese readers and critics of the Meiji and Taishō periods read The Water Margin as a novel and with the shared conviction that it offered “insight into a putative Chinese character that acted as both foil and supplement to Japanese modernity”. This sometimes involved acknowledging the vitality that Japan had jettisoned in its drive for Western-style modernity, but, given the “essence” of China depicted in The Water Margin was considered more backward than vital, Hedberg observes the stronger role of an “unmistakably racist discourse of Japanese spiritual sophistication”. Both trends are apparent in the perspective of the Japanese fiction writer and poet, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (1892–1927). Akutagawa thought that the outlaws were “just a bunch of hoodlums from start to finish”, and he interpreted their disregard for social order in terms of a quasi-Nietzschean supra-morality: the trampling underfoot of “mere questions of good and evil”, he wrote, “has always had a strong root in the Chinese mindset”. Hedberg remarks, however, that there was some “ambiguous admiration” on Akutagawa’s part for this alleged quality of Chinese thought.

Another Japanese commentator of this period was Masaoka Shiki, who published an essay in 1900 that compared The Water Margin and Hakkenden. Shiki emphasised “a feeling of fineness” (kanji no yoi) experienced by readers of The Water Margin. According to Hedberg, kanji no yoi denotes a work of art or literature that inspires, often by means of an unexpected juxtaposition of details, “a sudden, intuitive rush of joy”—a response that Shiki associated with The Water Margin and contrasted with the cerebral, deliberative appreciation demanded by complex narratives like Bakin’s Hakkenden. Hedberg refers to Shiki’s discussion of kanji no yoi in the episode in The Water Margin concerning the outlaw nicknamed “The Tattooed Monk”, Lu Zhishen, who escapes from a monastery in search of a drink and finds a wine vendor singing war songs.

Hedberg suggests that Shiki’s perspective on The Water Margin situates the novel “in the discourse of haiku poetics developed by Shiki elsewhere”, which sounds intriguing given that Shiki is considered one of the four great Japanese haiku masters—after Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694), Yosa Buson (1716–1784), and Kobayashi Issa (1763–1828). Yet Shiki’s discussion of kanji no yoi in the episode involving “The Tattooed Monk”—the notion, for example, that the “disjuncture” between the monastery and the murderous monk is a special kind of “contrast”—seems a far cry from the ideas of juxtaposition in haiku poetry. Juxtaposition in a typical three-line haiku refers to the potential contrast between the single kigo (or “season word”) line and the other two lines, which is a sense of contrast grounded in the brevity and singularity of haiku. The idea of kanji no yoi is not commonly found in the discourse around haiku poetry, and it seems therefore that Shiki’s attempt to identify these kinds of instances in books like The Water Margin was to support his general (and still controversial) view that haiku should be considered a literary form like any other, including novels.

At any rate, these are just a couple of the many talking points raised by this impressive book. Hedberg has successfully built on existing research to construct an engaging account of The Water Margin’s significant influence on Japanese literary culture. The Japanese Discovery of Chinese Fiction is highly recommended to those with a special interest in the classic Chinese text as well as those engaged with Japanese literary history and historiography.

How to cite: Murphy, Tim. “Canonical Stories, Replacement Texts: A Review of The Japanese Discovery of Chinese Fiction. Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 05 Jul. 2021, chajournal.blog/2021/07/05/water-margin/.

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Tim Murphy is the author of two poetry chapbooks, Art Is the Answer (Yavanika Press, 2019) and The Cacti Do Not Move (SurVision Books, 2019). His poems have also appeared in FronteraMaintenantModern HaikuSnakeskinSnapdragon, and Sulfur, among other places. He has worked as a philosopher of law at universities in the UK, France, Ireland, Iceland, Malaysia, and Spain. His academic publications include Rethinking the War on Drugs in Ireland (Cork University Press, 1996) and Law and Justice in Community (with Garrett Barden; Oxford University Press, 2010). Originally from Cork in Ireland, he lives in Spain.  

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