The Chinese Classic Novel in Translation

The Art of Magnanimity


Grove Press has just issued Pearl Buck’s classic translation, All Men Are Brothers. They also import Clement Egerton’s translation of The Golden Lotus. This is the Chin P’ing Mei which is in print in another, somewhat more abridged translation, published by Putnam’s. World is reputedly thinking about reprinting the excessively scarce Brewitt-Taylor translation of San Kuo: The Romance of Three Kingdoms. Lin Yutang’s translation of Six Chapters of a Floating Life is available in the Modern Library Giant, The Wisdom of China and India (perhaps the best book bargain in America, as this story is certainly Lin Yutang’s best work). I hope Arthur Waley’s Monkey is still in print. Now Pantheon is bringing out the greatest of all Chinese novels, The Dream of the Red Chamber, early next year. This takes care of all the major works of Chinese fiction except Herbert Giles’s Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio and Jackson’s translation of All Men Are Brothers, which he titled The Water Margin. (This is close to the Chinese title; Pearl Buck’s was her own idea.)

There are a few other odds and ends. Various Chinese erotic tales are available in pocket books and fugitive “esoteric press” editions. The fiction volume of the two-volume Chinese Prose Literature of the Tang Period, translated by E. D. Edwards and published by Probsthain in London, might well be dressed up more attractively, given a new introduction, and imported into America. H. Bedford Jones, of all people, once translated from the French of George Soulié de Morant three Chinese novels, The Claws of the Dragon, The Passion of Yang Kuei Fei, and The Breeze in the Moonlight. They could all bear reissue, the last especially. Anyway, within the year, anybody who wants to bother can get himself a pretty good picture of Chinese classical fiction.

And what sort of picture is this? What kind of novels are they? To borrow the critical techniques of my colleague, Mr. Yvor Winters, for a moment, they are great novels, very great novels. In fact I would say that The Dream of the Red Chamber and the Japanese Tale of Genji are the two greatest works of prose fiction in all the history of literature, and that all the others belong on anybody’s list of 100 Best Books. That they are not on the Hutchins-Adler list is an excellent indicator of the Western, Thomism-cum-Whiggery parochialism of Mr. Hutchins and Mr. Adler. I am not trying to be odd or annoying. I am not saying something like “Sturge Moore is the greatest poet of the twentieth century.” I really do believe that these are the two best novels in the world. Furthermore, there are not many people who are familiar with them who do not agree with me. The Tale of Genji is worth a long essay in itself, and besides, its virtues are curiously almost the exact opposite of those characteristic of the greatest Chinese fiction.

What are these virtues? First, an absolute mastery of pure narrative. Second, humanity. Third, as the synthesis of virtues one and two, a whole group of qualities that should have some one name — reticence, artistic humility, maturity, objectivity, total sympathy, the ability to reveal the macrocosm in the microcosm, the moral universe in the physical act, the depths of psychological insight in the trivia of happenstance, without ever saying anything about it, or them — the “big” things, that is. This is a quality of style. It is the fundamental quality of the greatest style. It does have a name, although it is not a term we usually think of as part of the jargon of literary criticism. The word is magnanimity.

The antonym, I guess, is self-indulgence. Surely one of the characteristics of our naughty age is the self-indulgence of our artists, and none more so than our novelists. “Modern classic” or vulgar trash, my usual reaction to a novel full of cocktail party psychoanalysis and indigestible recipes from the latest stylistic cookbooks is, “Oh, for God’s sake, come off it. Grown men don’t behave this way.” And who isn’t self-indulgent? Proust? Henry James? The author of Finnegans Wake? Jack Kerouac? Jean Stafford? To ask the question, as they say in speeches, is to answer it. I know of only one completely adult major novel of my time, Ford Madox Ford’s Tietjens series, reissued a couple of years ago by Knopf with the title Parade’s End. It is significant that it was badly reviewed and then remaindered, partly because the introduction by an American professor and the publicity by the Knopf staff demonstrated a one hundred percent incomprehension of its significance. Nobody realized that it was the most important twentieth-century “war novel” in any language; nobody even knew what it was about: that war is the hypertrophy and social proliferation of tiny, trivial, sordid, personal evil — what grandma used to call sin. Ford didn’t label his thesis; he probably didn’t know he had one in that sense. His characters didn’t philosophize about it. He didn’t snoop around in their minds with a lot of jargon. Nobody’s consciousness streamed. It all just happened, like it does, and you were left with that — the brutal and the silly and the beautiful facts. It is so easy to be artistic. It is so hard to be mature. This is not a digression. This is the very essence of the Chinese novel. Magnanimity.

During the Second World War I knew a little old Quaker from a farm in Indiana who traveled around the country at his own expense and got up in First Day meetings to recite Webster’s definition of magnanimity. He had “come with this concern to thee, because thee might find it helpful.” This is the definition:

magnanimity, n.; pl. —ties. (F. magnanimité, L. magnanimitas.) 1. Quality of being magnanimous; that quality or combination of qualities in character enabling one to encounter danger and trouble with tranquility and firmness, to disdain injustice, meanness, and revenge, and to act and sacrifice for noble objects. 2. A deed or a disposition characterized by magnanimity. 3. Grandiose temperament; extravagance of soul. Rare.”

Having said that the little old Quaker sat down and next week appeared at another meeting. It certainly did help me, probably more than any other words in those hideous years.

No artist belongs in the very first rank who is the victim of his creations. Only this special kind of nobility guaranteed the independence of the primary creators. Homer has it, but Dante does not. It is a kind of courage, like Johnson’s famous “Courage, Sir, is the first of virtues, because without it, it is sometimes difficult to exercise the others.”

To a degree, no one, in the classic days of Far Eastern civilization, even tried to become an artist of any kind unless he had a little of this magnanimity, this courage. The whole pattern of the culture, the definition and discipline of “human heartedness,” was set to produce this kind of character above all others. It is the rarest trait in a predatory, commercial society of human self-alienation, where indeed, covetousness is number one in the decalogue of social virtues, not number ten of the Ten Commandments, and courage — well, it certainly increases sales resistance.

Narrative integrity means that the meanings of a major Chinese novel emerge as revelations, as the meaning of a Sung vase is revealed. Coming on a book like All Men Are Brothers for the first time, the unprepared Western reader may think he has wandered into a sort of Chinese “Dick Tracy” or “Terry and the Pirates.” In the first place, what’s wrong with Dick Tracy? To ape Mr. Winters again, he is certainly “better” than Françoise Sagan, he may even be better than much bigger reputations. And who is so hard-hearted that he did not weep over the death of the Dragon Lady? And who so soft-headed that he wept over the troubles of Albertine? There is only one trouble with Dick Tracy — no important revelation emerges. There is nothing wrong with the novels of Ernest Haycox. This is the best way to write, but something more important emerges from Homer or The Red and the Black or War and Peace or Robinson Crusoe or Huckleberry Finn — something false emerges from most twentieth-century novels.

Alex Comfort compares the style of the Chin P’ing Mei to Pepys — “a perfectly translucent medium through which we see the characters in all their moral nudity.”

All Men Are Brothers is the story of the adventures of a gang of quasi-revolutionary brigands of the type who have flourished during all the many periods when Chinese civilization fell on evil days. While they were out, the book was very popular with the Chinese Reds. After they came to power it was frowned on for a while. It is dangerous to an extreme. It is at least as episodic as the funny papers. In fact, the first “comic books” in history are precisely children’s picture books of the San Kuo and All Men Are Brothers. You can buy them in Chinatown and illustrate your own copies. It is chock full of ghosts, innkeepers who make hamburgers of their guests, giants of superhuman strength, beautiful women in distress, wily intellectuals, crafty merchants, tireless lechers, heroic gluttons, sensitive scholars, arson, rape, murder, hairbreadth escapes, pitiful deaths. It is like life, but many times as large. Out of it have grown whole Chinese novels, each as long again. The Chin P’ing Mei is simply the elaboration of one episode from All Men Are Brothers. From it, as from the San Kuo, in fact from all these novels, have been drawn innumerable plays, the favorites of the Chinese theater. Dozens of Western novels could vanish in it without leaving a trace. To produce something like it would require the collaboration of Rabelais, Petronius, Defoe, and Dickens, with, I suppose, details from Isaac Babel. I do not mean that the author of All Men Are Brothers was a “greater” writer than these great Western writers in a qualitative sense, but he certainly was in a quantitative one.

At first maybe it all seems just episodes, something for children, and then slowly the terrific bulk of its humanity begins to creep up on you — that immense Chinese humanity that would never stop coming if it marched past you ten abreast. It is like something in modern astronomy with its multitudes of universes stretching on and on forever. What was it Kant said about the moral law within and the starry heavens without? Here they are, combined, extension and intension, the incredible bulk of the whole human heart. It is like a total recall of your ancestry back to Pekin Man.

When I was a kid, I used to read novels by sets: Tolstoy, Conrad, James, Dostoevski, Turgenev, Zola, Flaubert. They weren’t one book at a time, but a whole world that would envelop me for months and from which I would emerge into real life with the strange outlandish feeling of someone back from years abroad. One Chinese novel can do this to you, sweep you away out of sight of home and self, and lose you for a week or more in its own pullulating verisimilitude.

It is this total verisimilitude which differentiates the greatest Chinese novels from the Japanese and puts The Dream of the Red Chamber in a nobler class than Genji. The Japanese novel is a universe of exquisite sensibility. It is concerned with the most profound moral issues ever undertaken in any work of fiction, and implicitly with philosophical issues utterly beyond the grasp of any European novelist. It handles all this with breathtaking skill. But it is possible, immediately, to say these things about it. They are patent. You are unaware of anything like this in The Dream of the Red Chamber until the week after you have laid it down. You are always aware of the vertiginously beautiful style of Lady Murasaki. In The Dream of the Red Chamber, you are unaware you are reading, and nobody remembers who the author was. It is the difference, on a much lesser plane, between Walter Pater and Theodore Dreiser. Dreiser is horribly crude, but Pater is barbarous. I am afraid Dreiser is the better stylist. In Genji they eat but seldom, drink a little, but never move their bowels. In the Chinese novel, as in the gardens of Italy where the nightingale sings in the blooming pomegranate, the odor of the night soil of ten thousand years is never out of your nose.

Although they are not so fractious and colorful, there are almost as many characters in The Dream of the Red Chamber as there are in All Men Are Brothers, and since the Red Chamber is not at all episodic, really, but as carefully structured as Remembrance of Things Past or Genji, it is easy at first to get lost. But again, in that Chinese way, all these people slowly envelop you with their significance.

What is it all about? It is the story of an idle scholar and gentleman and his women. It is the Chinese plot of plots: “When women rule, the house decays.” Again, it is exactly the opposite: a glorification of the hidden matriarchy at the heart of Chinese society. It is the story, I suppose in some sense the plot of all great fiction, of the slow, hard achievement of personal integrity. It is the story of a “Precious Stone,” a Taoist saint who doesn’t know he is one and doesn’t want to be one. There is a distinct resemblance to Genji, but a resemblance distinguished by two basically unlike philosophies. Prince Genji (the Shining One) is a hidden Bodhisattva. Now a Bodhisattva is a Buddha who, on the verge of Nirvana, turns away with a vow that he will not enter peace until all sentient creatures have been helped by him to salvation. The Shingon Buddhist doctrine is that he is “indifferent” to this vow. All things are alike to him — but still he does turn away to save others. (This is the explanation for that sort of man-about-town expression on the faces of Japanese statues which looks so unreligious to Westerners.) Lady Murasaki’s special contribution was the idea that Genji is not only indifferent, but that he is ignorant of his cosmic role, and furthermore that this love always struggles with an active, embodied hate, and what is really salvation often looks very much like its opposite. Curiously, since neither novelist knew of the other and they are separated by almost seven hundred years, this could be said to be the plot of The Red Chamber. Except The Red Chamber is a Taoist work. Salvation lies in the quiet power of the stone in the arch, in the action of letting all things find their own level, like water wandering among mountains. Today people would say, “It is impossible to make value judgments of philosophical systems, let alone religious attitudes; they are aesthetic constructs and so, value neuter.” This is a lot of hooey. The Dream of the Red Chamber is the better novel because it is the truer, the more profoundly humane. Genji is true and profound and humane and beautiful, too, but we are not all able to identify ourselves with the insouciant demigod who dips souls from Hell through ten million reincarnations, just, as it were, for fun. On the other hand, there is no question but that we too are part of that astronomical mass of living human beings made of real flesh, sweeping past forever like stardust, and that if we are wise, we will take it easy, like the resting stone and the falling stream.

As a footnote: this Pantheon edition of the Red Chamber is not a reprint of either of the two previous translations of the Hung Lou Meng, both of which were decided abridgements. It is over twice as long as one, and four times the length of the other, and can be said to be, although somewhat abridged, about as adequate a presentation of the monumental structure of The Dream of the Red Chamber as the Western reader is likely to accept. A good deal of care has been taken by the translators to avoid unnecessary exoticism — a comparison of the rendering of proper names in the three versions shows this instantly, and in every way more of the slow, massive lyricism of the original comes through as it never has before. Pearl Buck’s rendering of All Men Are Brothers is, of course, her finest work and a classic of American prose.



NOTE: Quite a few new translations have appeared in the sixty-five years since this essay was written. What are generally considered the five greatest Chinese novels are now each available in both abridged and complete translations (titles within parentheses are complete versions): Outlaws of the Marsh (The Water Margin or All Men Are Brothers), a larger-than-life series of picaresque adventures; Monkey (The Journey to the West), a satirical Buddhist fantasy; Three Kingdoms (The Romance of the Three Kingdoms), a historical novel full of military strategy and political intrigue; Chin P’ing Mei (The Golden Lotus or The Plum in the Golden Vase), the erotic adventures of a man and his six wives; and what Rexroth is surely right in considering one of the world’s greatest novels, The Dream of the Red Chamber, now available in a complete 5-volume translation under the alternative title The Story of the Stone.

This 1958 book review was reprinted in Bird in the Bush (New Directions, 1959). Copyright 1958. Reproduced by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

See also Rexroth’s Classics Revisited essay on The Dream of the Red Chamber.