Depending on who you ask, there are either four or six so-called “Classic” Chinese novels. I strongly doubt that canon formation works any better in China than it does here and that the Eastern Canon is any more reliable than the Western one, so there are likely a considerable number of less famous novels which are at least as good as those four or six – but for someone who has only a very superficial knowledge of China and almost no experience of Chinese literature, those four or six are probably a good place to start.
The Scholars by Wu Jingzi (which I read in the German translation where it is charmingly but somewhat enigmatically named “The Path to the White Clouds. Stories from the Forest of Scholars”) is among the six but (for whatever reason) not the four. It was written early in the 18th century but is set during the Ming period (1368-1644). Supposedly it is a satire, but to be honest I would never have guessed that if it hadn’t said so on the book cover. There are some funny (sometimes very funny) moments in the novel’s almost 1,000 pages but the comic aspect is only a comparatively small part of the whole and while there certainly is some ongoing criticism of the Chinese scholar class and the examination system which produces it, the overall tone did not strike me as very satirical. The reason for this may very well be the distance in space and time a 21st century Western reader will invariably have to the world of the novel – viewed from afar, the exaggeration which is constitutive for satire shrinks and dwindles until it becomes unrecognisable.
Now, you’d expect that satire stripped of its satirical subject and impetus would become pure Fantasy (Gulliver’s Travels would be an excellent example for how that happens) but weirdly, with The Scholars something quite the opposite occurred and I found myself perusing – to my not inconsiderable surprise, as this was not at all what I had been expecting – a book which for all purposes read like a realistic novel.
Not your run-of-the mill realistic novel, however, because probably the first thing to strike any reader of The Scholars is that it is a novel without a main protagonist. There is no “hero” or “heroine” here at all, instead the novel follows a character for a number of chapters (the numbers of which can vary quite a bit), then moves on to the next. The transitions are handled very deftly, one often notices only belatedly that the focus of narrative attention has shifted to a different person; and this seamlessness is one of the reasons why I’d still consider this a novel rather than a collection of stories. The other one is the degree to which this tapestry of narratives is woven together tightly – characters we have read about are mentioned or appear again, characters that are mentioned become the protagonist of their own narrative, and the whole multitude of stories is firmly held together by the common theme of the feudal examination system (which in turn serves to throw light on a variety of human vices and the occasional virtue).
And maybe it is not quite correct to say that The Scholars has no main protagonist – maybe it is closer to the truth that it does not have an individual protagonist but rather a collective one, namely Chinese society as a whole. And the novel’s scope really is vast, even encyclopedic – it ranges from the most refined strata of society to the coarsest ones, from palaces to brothels, features nobles and peasants, city and country dwellers, and really pretty much everything you could imagine and then some. And while there is no continuous plot there always is something happening on every single page, no single thread but many stitches, a mosaic rather than an oil painting. Psychology is pretty much absent in this novel, its characters have no interiority to speak of and are presented only through their words and deeds – the narrator’s gaze always remains firmly fixed on the outside, on what is observable. And for the most part, the novel’s language is quite terse – I say for the most part, because time and again there are brief descriptions, mostly of scenery, which while still simple and unadorned are also strikingly beautiful. Those moments however are fairly rare, and I think are supposed to be – the view on a lake, a sunset in the mountains, a boat moving down a river: they are quite fleeting, but there always is a certain quiet serenity about those moments which sets them apart from the frenzied hunt for fame and posts which most of the novel’s characters pursue.
So – considering its not inconsiderable length and the laconic tone of its prose, considering the novel is mostly a very matter-of-fact narration of various events, you can probably imagine just how large a number of stories are being told here: the number may very well be somewhere in the hundreds. And what is probably most astonishing about The Scholars is that it miraculously manages to never repeat itself, but that each of the many, many stories is different from the others. The sheer inventiveness of this novel is staggering and its author Wu Jingzi must have been in possession of a truly inexhaustible imagination to have come up with all of this. And while it builds a vast story palace in front of our eyes, it fills it with all kinds of bits and pieces about life in China during the Ming period – the clothes, the buildings, the customs, what people ate, how they treated each other. Wu Jingzi goes into considerable detail about everyday life, possibly more detail than some readers will be prepared to swallow. For my part, I found it extremely fascinating; even though I was sadly lacking in context to place most of those details in, I came away with a vivid, if somewhat vague, picture of everyday life in ancient China.
I admit that I had some concerns when I started with The Scholars and was not sure it would be at all readable for a contemporary Western reader with no previous knowledge of Chinese culture; but in the end I ended up enjoying it much more than I expected to – enjoying it so much, in fact, that I’m planning to tackle the other five “Classic Chinese novels,” too. I am not at all sure how this is going to work out, but right now I am very much looking forward to the next one.