THE NOVEL - The Mongol dynasty (A.D. 1200-1368)

A History of Chinese Literature - Herbert Allen Giles 1973

The Mongol dynasty (A.D. 1200-1368)

TURNING now to the second literary achievement of the Mongols, the introduction of the Novel, we find ourselves face to face with the same mystery as that which shrouds the birth of the Drama. The origin of the Chinese novel is unknown. It probably came from Central Asia, the paradise of story-tellers, in the wake of the Mongol conquest. Three centuries had then to elapse before the highest point of development was reached. Fables, anecdotes, and even short stories had already been familiar to the Chinese for many centuries, but between these and the novel proper there is a wide gulf which so far had not been satisfactorily bridged. Some, indeed, have maintained that the novel was developed from the play, pointing in corroboration of their theory to the Hsi Hsiang Chi, or Story of the Western Pavilion, described in the preceding chapter. This, however, simply means that the Hsi Hsiang Chi is more suited for private reading than for public representation, as is the case with many Western plays.

The Chinese range their novels under four heads, as dealing (1) with usurpation and plotting, (2) with love and intrigue, (3) with superstition, and (4) with brigandage or lawless characters generally. Examples of each class will be given.

The San kuo chih yen i, attributed to one Lo KUAN-CHUNG, is an historical novel based upon the wars of the Three Kingdoms which fought for supremacy at the beginning of the third century A.D. It consists mainly of stirring scenes of warfare, of cunning plans by skilful generals, and of doughty deeds by blood - stained warriors. Armies and fleets of countless myriads are from time to time annihilated by one side or another,— all this in an easy and fascinating style, which makes the book an endless joy to old and young alike. If a vote were taken among the people of China as to the greatest among their countless novels, the Story of the Three Kingdoms would indubitably come out first.

This is how the great commander Chu-ko Liang is said to have replenished his failing stock of arrows. He sent a force of some twenty or more ships to feign an attack on the fleet of his powerful rival, Tsao Ts'ao. The decks of the ships were apparently covered with large numbers of fighting men, but these were in reality nothing more than straw figures dressed up in soldiers' clothes. On each ship there were only a few sailors and some real soldiers with gongs and other noisy instruments. Reaching their destination, as had been carefully calculated beforehand, in the middle of a dense fog, the soldiers at once began to beat on their gongs as if about to go into action; whereupon Ts'ao Ts'ao, who could just make out the outlines of vessels densely packed with fighting mon bearing down upon him, gave orders to his archers to begin shooting. The latter did so, and kept on for an hour and more, until Chu-ko Liang was satisfied with what he had got, and passed the order to retreat.

Elsewhere we read of an archery competition which recalls the Homeric games. A target is set up, and the prize, a robe, is hung upon a twig just above. From a distance of one hundred paces the heroes begin to shoot. Of course each competitor hits the bull's-eye, one, Parthian-like, with his back to the target, another shooting over his own head; and equally of course the favoured hero shoots at the twig, severs it, and carries off the robe.

The following extract will perhaps be interesting, dealing as it does with the use of anæsthetics long before they were dreamt of in this country. Ts'ao Ts'ao had been struck on the head with a sword by the spirit of a pear-tree which he had attempted to cut down. He suffered such agony that one of his staff recommended a certain doctor who was then very much in vogue:—

"'Dr. Hua,' explained the officer, 'is a mighty skilful physician, and such a one as is not often to be found. His administration of drugs, and his use of acupuncture and counter-irritants are always followed by the speedy recovery of the patient. If the sick man is suffering from some internal complaint and medicines produce no satisfactory result, then Dr. Hua will administer a close of hashish, under the influence of which the patient becomes as it were intoxicated with wine. He now takes a sharp knife and opens the abdomen, proceeding to wash the patient's viscera with medicinal liquids, but without causing him the slightest pain. The washing finished, he sews up the wound with medicated thread and puts over it a plaster, and by the end of a month or twenty days the place has healed up. Such is his extraordinary skill. One day, for instance, as he was walking along a road, he heard some one groaning deeply, and at once declared that the cause was indigestion. On inquiry, this turned out to be the case; and accordingly, Dr. Hua ordered the sufferer to drink three pints of a decoction of garlic and leeks, which he did, and vomited forth a snake between two and three feet in length, after which he could digest food as before. On another occasion, the Governor of Kuang-ling was very much depressed in his mind, besides being troubled with a flushing of the face and total loss of appetite. He consulted Dr. Hua, and the effect of some medicine administered by him was to cause the invalid to throw up a quantity of red-headed wriggling tadpoles, which the doctor told him had been generated in his system by too great indulgence in fish, and which, although temporarily expelled, would reappear after an interval of three years, when nothing could save him. And sure enough, he died three years afterwards. In a further instance, a man had a tumour growing between his eyebrows, the itching of which was insupportable. When Dr. Hua saw it, he said, 'There is a bird inside,' at which everybody laughed. However, he took a knife and opened the tumour, and out flew a canary, the patient beginning to recover from that hour. Again, another man had had his toes bitten by a dog, the consequence being that two lumps of flesh grew up from the wound, one of which was very painful while the other itched unbearably. 'There are ten needles,' said Dr. Hua, 'in the sore lump, and two black and white wei-ch'i pips in the other.' No one believed this until Dr. Hua opened them with a knife and showed that it was so. Truly he is of the same strain as Pien Ch'iao and Ts'ang Kung of old; and as he is now living not very far from this, I wonder your Highness does not summon him.'

"At this, Ts'ao Ts'ao sent away messengers who were to travel Day and night until they had brought Dr. Hua before him; and when he arrived, Ts'ao Ts'ao held out his pulse and desired him to diagnose his case.

"'The pain in your Highness's head,' said Dr. Hua, 'arises from wind, and the seat of the disease is the brain, where the wind is collected, unable to get out. Drugs are of no avail in your present condition, for which there is but one remedy. You must first swallow a dose of hashish, and then with a sharp axe I will split open the back of your head and let the wind out. Thus the disease will be exterminated.'

"Ts'ao Ts'ao here flew into a great rage, and declared that it was a plot aimed at his life; to which Dr. Hua replied, 'Has not your Highness heard of Kuan Yü's wound in the right shoulder? I scraped the bone and removed the poison for him without a single sign of fear on his part. Your Highness's disease is but a trifling affair; why, then, so much suspicion?'

"'You may scrape a sore shoulder-bone,' said Ts'ao Ts'ao, 'without much risk; but to split open my skull is quite another matter. It strikes me now that you are here simply to avenge your friend Kuan Yü upon this opportunity.' He thereupon gave orders that the doctor should be seized and cast into prison."

There the unfortunate doctor soon afterwards died, and before very long Ts'ao Ts'ao himself succumbed.

The Shui Hu Chuan is said to have been written by SHIH NAI-AN of the thirteenth century; but this name does not appear in any biographical collection, and nothing seems to be known either of the man or of his authorship. The story is based upon the doings of an historical band of brigands, who had actually terrorised a couple of provinces, until they were finally put down, early in the twelfth century. Some of it is very laughable, and all of it valuable for the insight given into Chinese manners and customs. There is a ludicrous episode of a huge swashbuckler who took refuge in a Buddhist temple and became a priest. After a while he reverted to less ascetic habits of life, and returned one day to the temple, in Chinese phraseology, as drunk as a clod, making a great riot and causing much scandal. He did this on a second occasion; and when shut out by the gatekeeper, he tried to burst in, and in his drunken fury knocked to pieces a huge idol at the entrance for not stepping down to his assistance. Then, when he succeeded by a threat of fire in getting the monks to open the gate, "through which no wine or meat may pass," he fell down in the courtyard, and out of his robe tumbled a half-eaten dog's leg, which he had carried away with him from the restaurant where he had drunk himself tipsy. This he amused himself by tearing to pieces and forcing into the mouth of one of his fellow-priests.

The graphic and picturesque style in which this book is written, though approaching the colloquial, has secured for it a position rather beyond its real merits.

The Hsi Yu Chi, or Record of Travels in the West, is a favourite novel written in a popular and easy style. It is based upon the journey of Hsüan Tsang to India in search of books, images, and relics to illustrate the Buddhist religion; but beyond the fact that the chief personage is called by Hsüan Tsang's posthumous title, and that he travels in search of Buddhist books, the journey and the novel have positively nothing in common. The latter is a good sample of the fiction in which the Chinese people delight, and may be allowed to detain us awhile.

A stone monkey is born on a mysterious mountain from a stone egg, and is soon elected to be king of the monkeys. He then determines to travel in search of wisdom, and accordingly sets forth. His first step is to gain a knowledge of the black art from a magician, after which he becomes Master of the Horse to God, that is, to the supreme deity in the Taoist Pantheon. Throwing up his post in disgust, he carries on a series of disturbances in the world generally, until at length God is obliged to interfere, and sends various heavenly generals to coerce him. These he easily puts to flight, only returning to his allegiance on being appointed the Great Holy One of All the Heavens. He is soon at his old tricks again, stealing the peaches of immortality from a legendary being known as the Royal Mother in the West, and also some elixir of life, both of which he consumes.

All the minor deities now complain to God of his many misdeeds, and heavenly armies are despatched against him, but in vain. Even God's nephew cannot prevail against him until Lao Tzŭ throws a magic ring at him and knocks him down. He is then carried captive to heaven, but as he is immortal, no harm can be inflicted on him.

At this juncture God places the matter in the hands of Buddha, who is presently informed by the monkey that God must be deposed and that he, the monkey, must for the future reign in his stead. The text now runs as follows:—

"When Buddha heard these words, he smiled scornfully and said, 'What! a devil-monkey like you to seize the throne of God, who from his earliest years has been trained to rule, and has lived 1750 aeons, each of 129,600 years' duration! Think what ages of apprenticeship he had to serve before he could reach this state of perfect wisdom. You are only a brute beast; what mean these boastful words? Be off, and utter no more such, lest evil befall, and your very existence be imperilled.'

"'Although he is older than I am,' cried the monkey, 'that is no reason why he should always have the post. Tell him to get out and give up his place to me, or I will know the reason why.'

'"What abilities have you,' asked Buddha, 'that you should claim the divine palace?'

"'Plenty,' replied the monkey. 'I can change myself into seventy-two shapes; I am immortal; and I can turn a somersault to a distance of 18,000 li (=6000 miles). Am I not fit to occupy the throne of heaven?'

"'Well,' answered Buddha, 'I will make a wager with you. If you can jump out of my hand, I will request God to depart to the West and leave heaven to you; but if you fail, you will go down again to earth and be a devil for another few æons to come.'

"The monkey readily agreed to this, pointing out that he could easily jump 18,000 li, and that Buddha's hand was not even a foot long. So after making Buddha promise to carry out the agreement, he grasped his sceptre and diminished in size until he could stand in the hand, which was stretched out for him like a lotus-leaf. 'I'm off!' he cried, and in a moment he was gone. But Buddha's enlightened gaze was ever upon him, though he turned with the speed of a whirligig.

"In a brief space the monkey had reached a place where there were five red pillars, and there he decided to stop. Reflecting, however, that he had better leave some trace as a proof of his visit, he plucked out a hair, and changing it into a pencil, wrote with it on the middle pillar in large characters, The Great Holy One of All the Heavens reached this point. The next moment he was back again in Buddha's hand, describing his jump, and claiming his reward.

"'Ah!' said Buddha, 'I knew you couldn't do it.'

"'Why,' said the monkey, 'I have been to the very confines of the universe, and have left a mark there which I challenge you to inspect.'

"'There is no need to go so far,' replied Buddha. 'Just bend your head and look here.'

"The monkey bent down his head, and there, on Buddha's middle finger, he read the following inscription: The Great Holy One of All the Heavens reached this point!'

Ultimately, the monkey is converted to the true faith, and undertakes to escort Hsüan Tsang on his journey to the West. In his turn he helps to convert a pig-bogey, whom he first vanquishes by changing himself into a pill, which the pig-bogey unwittingly swallows, thereby giving its adversary a chance of attacking it from inside. These two are joined by a colourless individual, said to represent the passive side of man's nature, as the monkey and pig represent the active and animal sides respectively. The three of them conduct Hsüan Tsang through manifold dangers and hairbreadth escapes safe, until at length they receive final directions from an Immortal as to the position of the palace of Buddha, from which they hope to obtain the coveted books. The scene which follows almost recalls The Pilgrim's Progress:—

"Hsüan Tsang accordingly bade him farewell and proceeded on his way. But he had not gone more than a mile or two before he came to a stream of rushing water about a league in breadth, with not a trace of any living being in sight. At this he was somewhat startled, and turning to Wu-k'ung (the name of the monkey) said, 'Our guide must surely have misdirected us. Look at that broad and boiling river; how shall we ever get across without a boat?' 'There is a bridge over there,' cried Wu-k'ung, 'which you must cross over in order to complete your salvation.' At this Hsüan Tsang and the others advanced in the direction indicated, and saw by the side of the bridge a notice-board on which was written, 'The Heavenly Ford.' Now the bridge itself consisted of a simple plank; on which Hsüan Tsang remarked, 'I am not going to trust myself to that frail and slippery plank to cross that wide and rapid stream. Let us try somewhere else.' 'But this is the true path,' said Wu-k'ung; 'just wait a moment and see me go across.' Thereupon he jumped on to the bridge, and ran along the shaky vibrating plank until he reached the other side, where he stood shouting out to the rest to come on. But Hsüan Tsang waved his hand in the negative, while his companions stood by biting their lingers and crying out, 'We can't! we can't! we can't!' So Wu-k'ung ran back, and seizing Pa-chieh (the pig) by the arm, began dragging him to the bridge, all the time calling him a fool for his pains. Pa-chieh then threw himself on the ground, roaring out, 'It's too slippery—it's too slippery. I can't do it. Spare me! spare me!' 'You must cross by this bridge,' replied Wu-k'ung, 'if you want to become a Buddha;' at which Pa-chieh said, 'Then I can't be a Buddha, sir. I have done with it: I shall never get across that bridge.'

"While these two were in the middle of their dispute, lo and behold a boat appeared in sight, with a man punting it along, and calling out, 'The ferry! the ferry!' At this Hsüan Tsang was overjoyed, and shouted to his disciples that they would now be able to get across. By his fiery pupil and golden iris, Wu-k'ung knew that the ferryman was no other than Namo Pao-chang-kuang-wang Buddha; but he kept his knowledge to himself, and hailed the boat to take them on board. In a moment it was alongside the bank, when, to his unutterable horror, Hsüan Tsang discovered that the boat had no bottom, and at once asked the ferryman how he proposed to take them across. 'My boat,' replied the ferryman, 'has been famed since the resolution of chaos into order, and under my charge has known no change. Steady though storms may rage and seas may roll, there is no fear so long as the passenger is light. Free from the dust of mortality, the passage is easy enough. Ten thousand kalpas of human beings pass over in peace. A bottomless ship can hardly cross the great ocean; yet for ages past I have ferried over countless hosts of passengers.'

"When he heard these words Wu-k'ung cried out, 'Master, make haste on board. This boat, although bottomless, is safe enough, and no wind or sea could overset it.' And while Hsüan Tsang was still hesitating, Wu-k'ung pushed him forwards on to the bridge; but the former could not keep his feet, and fell head over heels into the water, from which he was immediately rescued by the ferryman, who dragged him on board the boat. The rest also managed, with the aid of Wu-k'ung, to scramble on board; and then, as the ferryman shoved off, lo! they beheld a dead body floating away down the stream. Hsüan Tsang was greatly alarmed at this; but Wu-k'ung laughed and said, 'Fear not, Master; that dead body is your old self!' And all the others joined in the chorus of 'It is you, sir, it is you;' and even the ferryman said, 'Yes, it is you; accept my best congratulations.'

"A few moments more and the stream was crossed, when they all jumped on shore; but before they could look round the boat and ferryman had disappeared."

The story ends with a list of the Buddhist sûtras and liturgies which the travellers were allowed to carry back with them to their own country.