The Crane Startles Kunlun, Foreword

The Crane Startles Kunlun, Foreword.
from Wang Dulu's He Jing Kunlun.
Xu Sinian's Searching for Wang Dulu Laoshi.


[Note: The word laoshi means teacher.]

My chosen topic of study is popular literature. This subject was listed as an important "7-5" national social science case, and before long, a few of my fellow researchers of popular literature sent me letters about the "Four Great Wuxia Writers of the Northern School." People already know a lot about the life stories of Gong Baiyu, Li Shoumin (Huanzhu Louzhu) and Zheng Zhengyin, but up until now there is very little known about Wang Dulu. They asked me if I had any clues about this. Via their reminding me, I suddenly remembered a teacher named Wang Dulu (1909-1977) at my alma mater. He was the father of one of my high school classmates, Wang Ying. He hadn't taught any of my classes, and I'd never heard that he had written wuxia novels, but the names were exactly the same, so for the moment I thought I'd ask around. Very quickly I received a letter back from my alma mater and found out that he'd already passed away. However through this, I was able to find Wang laoshi's wife, Ms. Li Danquan, one of our dorm advisors at the time. Moreover, I was able to confirm that the nationally famous "Master of Wuxia Romance" of the 1940s was indeed Wang Ying's dad. It truly was finding something with no effort after looking so hard for it.

Wang laoshi was introverted and reticent. Outside of listening to him give a report during an extracurricular "literature club," and hearing that he was a "teacher's teacher" who had extensive knowledge, I knew nothing about him. So the process of studying his works was also the process by which I gradually came to understand him.

The evaluation of Wang laoshi among domestic and overseas scholars who research popular literature is extremely high, and they say that in the history of Chinese literature, he is "the esteemed scholar of an entire generation who has paved a new way" and also "perfected the form of wuxia romance," but at the time, outside of the Taiwanese scholar Ye Hongsheng's detailed assessments of Wang laoshi's works, I have yet to see anyone else carry out a more systematic study. The representative works of Wang laoshi's wuxia-romance novels are the five parts of the "Crane-Iron series": The Crane Startles Kunlun, Treasured Sword and Golden Hairpin, Sword's Glimmer and Pearl's Luster, Crouching Tiger and Hidden Dragon, and Armored Steed and Silver Vase. These works hadn't yet been reprinted in the mainland then and the Hong Kong and Taiwanese editions were hard to come by. I ran all over to the libraries of Suzhou, Shanghai, Tianjin and Beijing with the additional help of friends before I could find them all.

These five works tell the love stories of four generations of valiant men and women, and they were completely unlike any wuxia novel that came before them. Wang laoshi wrote about xia who are heroes, and yet not quite like heroes. I don't think he intended to bestow upon them the highest roles of fighting the world, saving the country from calamity and liberating the people from hardship. Their actions are concentrated around one purpose—fighting to defend their right to love—yet the responsibilities of love frequently cause them trouble, because everything they do for those they love, even to the point of sacrifice, is oftentimes unable to bring the other happiness. While part of the tragedy in their love is no doubt the making of outside factors such as the influence of feudal principles, that also isn't entirely the case. The intelligent xia whose martial arts are highly regarded are usually able to triumph against the struggle of outside influences, but once they are forced to face the weaknesses in their own personality and psychology (including their deeply-rooted traditional beliefs), it is hard for them to avoid a "losing battle." We can then say from this implication that their enemies are themselves. In regard to the depth of these works, not only does Wang laoshi successfully write about the complexity of his characters' personalities, but he also brought their struggles with the external into a profound part of their souls. This kind of tragedy is representative of the "tragedy of personality."

Middle antiquity has been called the "heroic" era, but the consciousness of the modern era clearly has a "hero-less" or "anti-hero" characteristic. With antiquity being the setting of his stories and wuxia the genre in which he was writing, Wang laoshi naturally had to sketch out "heroes." However, as mentioned above, his wuxia-romance novels also carry an obvious "hero-less aspect" and an inclination towards the ideas of individualism (corresponding to this, the Jianghu society of his writing is strongly populist). Up until the beginning of the 1940s, a great many of China's wuxia novels had yet to break through the conceptual pattern of the "plot center," yet Wang laoshi's ideas were directed toward people's internal conflicts and the complicated subtexts of human nature. That is to say, not only did it cause the realization of a shift in the conceptual pattern of the wuxia novel toward a "psychological center," but it also shattered the traditional cliché of the surface-layer struggle between the good and the bad, the righteous and the wicked. Thus, I feel that Wang laoshi's works contain a very strong modern sensibility.

In works of tragedy, the spirit of tragedy always erupts from "extreme circumstances"; but in the works of Wang laoshi, the spirit of tragedy often overflow outside of "extreme circumstances": when those valiant men and women triumph over enemies from without, they frequently regard their surroundings brutally as if at a loss; or when they retire from Jianghu, under their peaceful façade there's really buried an infinite sorrow. This brings to mind one of Freud's discussions regarding "psychological drama." He said, in psychological dramas "the struggle that creates anguish proceeds from the character's mind. This struggle is amid those of a different impulse, and the conclusion of this struggle isn't the death of the character, but the death of his impulses. That is to say, the struggle must be concluded in controlling his ego." The ripples, deep in the minds of the valiant men and women drawn by Wang laoshi, after the realization of "controlling their egos," still do not stop for a long time. Thus, not only are his works tragedies of personality, but they also distinctly possess the aforementioned artistic characteristics of the psychological tragedy. (Li Danquan laoshi later informed me that in the 30s and 40s, Wang laoshi had indeed read through works by Freud and Kuriyagawa Hakuson.) This then made me think that though Wang laoshi wrote traditionally-structured wuxia novels, he was completely different from most other authors of popular literature. His ideas weren't the least bit old-fashioned; not only had he accepted the thoughts of the May Fourth and New Culture movements, but he'd also accepted the views of modern Western culture. Furthermore, he deftly applied it to his works, and that makes him extremely valuable among the authors of modern Chinese popular literature.

In the process of exploring Wang laoshi's "Crane-Iron quintet," not only did I read his other wuxia-romance novels, but I knew he had also written many social romance novels. I thought to myself that if I researched these social romance novels, it would surely help advance my understanding of his thoughts and works. Li laoshi told me that Wang laoshi had written most of his major works in Qingdao, and that she hadn't been back there for many years but would like to go again. Therefore, I decided to take five graduate students with me to Qingdao in order to look for source materials, and at the same time meet with Li laoshi there.

The May weather in Qingdao was agreeable and the scenery was beautiful. We didn't have the leisure time to appreciate the seaside views though, as we bore into the city archives, looking up relevant materials from the Qingdao New People newspaper between 1938 and 1949. Time was pressing, and though the old papers were incomplete, there was still an extremely high number of them. Thus, it was decided that each person was responsible for a portion. We examined every single daily newspaper with an emphasis on reading Wang laoshi's social romance novels published within. After we got back to the school, we took turns telling parts of the stories and recorded it on audio tapes, and then based on those tapes, we laid out the plots of each novel.

When the archives were closed to the public, we interviewed Li laoshi and others in the know. Li laoshi presented to us the lonely and bitter hardships of Wang laoshi's entire life (for details, see my work, The Trail of the Valiant: Discussions on the History of Chinese Wuxia Fiction, pp. 127-130, The People's Literature Publishing House, 1995). When she spoke of how Wang laoshi very much liked Nalan Xingde's "Drinking Water," it was as if I discovered another path that came close to the emotional world of Wang laoshi. Though Nalan Xingde was a part of the prominent Manchu family that founded the Qing (Wang laoshi himself was born into a poor banner family), his poem is recited with a mournful bluster, and his frontier poem is permeated with the desolate resentment found in the midst of warfare. This passes right through the emotional tone of Wang laoshi's wuxia-romance novels. In the 1930s, Wang laoshi suffered deprivations as a drifter in Shanxi, Henan, Shaanxi and Gansu. His life of poverty, loneliness and introversion blended with the landscape of the vast yellow plains, intensifying the aesthetic appeal of the Nalan Xingde style that had taken form ever since he was little. This aesthetic appeal and the disposition created by his novels—in the plots of psychological tragedy complementary to each other—radiate a drearily forlorn tone that gushes forth and multiplies continuously from his works.

In Qingdao, we gathered information on six of Wang laoshi's social romance novels (later on, Li laoshi mailed us a few photocopied books, and I also discovered another few in a district library in Tianjin). These works were mostly about modern, young, tragic love. In the history of popular literature, early romance novels expressed ethical tragedies, tragedies arising from the conflict between "father and son," but in Wang laoshi's social romance novels, this conflict had settled into a secondary spot. What he displayed powerfully were tragedies brought about by the conflict between "objects" and "people," such as the destructive and corrosive effect that money has on human nature and love. Not only did his works mark a new era for romance novels in the history of popular literature, but they also identified with the post-May Fourth New literature. Chivalric characters did appear frequently in these works, but their gallant conduct received even more restrictions than that of the protagonists in Wang laoshi's wuxia-romance novels. This was a reflection of the author's sober recognition of modern life.

Hegel wrote that if we say that the heroes of antiquity could "shoulder and complete all of their own affairs based on the independent self-reliance of their own personalities," then this kind of independent self-reliance has been reduced to nothing in modernity, because "there is an immovable might in that arrangement of urban society behind modern people, and they simply have no way of opposing it." In one of his social novels Wang laoshi has appeared in the first person to discuss: in the end, xia have already become "pitiable historical characters renounced by the times." That is to say, as a writer living in the modern era, not only did he understand deeply on a rational level that the era of the xia has left us, never to return, but he also knew very well that even in the "heroic era," they possessed insurmountable limitations. This clear-headed recognition was the source of the "anti-hero" inclination in his wuxia-romance novels, and was also the motivation that spurred him to write with a critical and Realist viewpoint a series of social romance novels. However, the social romance novel wasn't enough to adequately reveal the resentment that had accumulated to fill his chest through "tasting the bitterness of the world by means of relentless frustrations," nor was it enough to consign away his unrelenting pursuit of an ideal. Thus, he placed these tendencies into his own wuxia-romance novels, because in essence, wuxia novels are Romantic. Therefore, from a systematic examination of the structure of the thoughts behind his creations, we can see that his social romance novels laid the foundation for his wuxia-romance novels; and from an observation of the relationship between his works and reality, we can tell that his social romance novels were an obvious comparison to reality, while his wuxia-romance novels were a obscured comparison to reality (the "reality" used here is the broad definition of it, including the author's own thoughts and emotions).

After I obtained the basic comprehension expounded above, I likewise had a definite understanding of Wang laoshi's place in the history of modern Chinese popular literature. There is a difference between modern Chinese popular fiction and the New literature of the May Fourth Movement, and that is that modern Chinese popular fiction basically abides by the artistic tradition of the ancient Chinese novel wherein form comes from "speaking" (while the New literature of the May Fourth Movement basically adheres to the Western artistic tradition). After the New literature movement of May Fourth, the spearhead of criticism was directed at the kind of popular literature epitomize by that of the "school of Mandarin Ducks and Butterflies" (it must be noted that some materials have named him as belonging to the school of Mandarin Ducks and Butterflies; this isn't scientific enough, since there existed no connection between Wang laoshi and that school of writing). At the same time they were condemning the banality of the ideas behind the Mandarin Ducks and Butterflies school, they also denied the vitality of the Chinese narrative tradition and its reality. This was a reflection of the radical face of the May Fourth Movement. Despite there being a gradual shift, starting from the discussions in the 1930s on "popularization," in the viewpoints of the intellectuals of the New literature camp in respect to the Chinese artistic tradition and popular literature, the collective rejection of the Mandarin Ducks and Butterflies school extended until after 1949. Up until the beginning of the 1980s, other than a denial in literature textbooks of the Mandarin Ducks and Butterflies school, there still wasn't any place for modern popular literature. The influence of this sort of "leftist" perspective was so profound that before his death, Wang laoshi maintained a stance of self-rejection when it came to his experiences in creating his own popular literature.

Another aspect we might see is the problem of how the certain existence of Chinese modern popular literature adapts to the changes of the era. Liu Xie wrote, "Adapting to change is a long process." A people or a country cannot lose its traditions; history can't be severed, but at the same time there's no future in being mired in old traditions. The course of Chinese modern popular fiction's development is also the process by which the Chinese narrative tradition has adapted to change. In the sphere of popular literature theory, it is believed that there are three main causes that facilitate the development of its transformation: first, the change in outside factors such as society, readership, the cultural marketplace, the news publication industry, etc. causes unavoidable change in popular fiction; second, many authors of popular literature themselves possess modern qualities, and these qualities are naturally reflected in their creations, spurring change in the Chinese narrative tradition; and third, some extraordinary authors of popular literature have consciously absorbed the nourishment of New literature and Western literature, and then through this, consciously impel change in the Chinese narrative tradition. The third cause is obviously the least blind and most important. In modern Chinese history, these extraordinary authors of popular literature total no more than five or six, and Wang laoshi is one of them. Just as a 1940s critic remarked, their works "have undoubtedly broken through the standard levels of popular fiction, and penetrated the realm of literary creation. The literary hearts inside of them contain the 'originality' and 'heat' of creation."

Arriving here, I feel I've taken the first step in finding Wang laoshi's "literary heart."

Ms. Wang Ying (Wang laoshi's daughter) informed me that the Vista Publishing Group was to publish a collection of Wang laoshi's works, and that she wanted to use this essay of mine as a foreword. Vista has contributed much to the accumulation and expansion of Chinese culture; to be able to introduce through them Wang laoshi and his works to readers overseas is worth rejoicing. How could I possibly preface his words? I have no choice but to respectfully entrust it to the admiration and remembrance I have for my late teacher.

February 2001,
Suzhou University.

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1 comment:

Andy said...

This essay about the author Wang Dulu by pop lit scholar Xu Sinian serves as a foreword to the Vista-published Taiwanese editions of the books in the Crane-Iron series. It's a critical look at the works of Wang Dulu, and is completely non-essential to their enjoyment, but I thought those who wanted to know more about the author and his place in the history of Chinese pop lit, or more specifically wuxia fiction, might find it interesting. There are other great essays and articles written about Wang Dulu and his Crane-Iron series (by other imminent scholars), and I may translate those at some later date. It seemed like Wang Dulu had been all but forgotten by the public until Ang Lee adapted Wohu Canglong into a fantastic film. Hopefully the wuxia genre of fiction isn't dead yet.