Ever since I read about freedom of navigation operations, the nine dash line, and island building in the South China Sea, I’ve been fascinated by Chinese culture specifically and Eastern culture generally, or perhaps more specifically how it differs and compares to Western culture. While I realize that these are very broad brushstrokes to paint, the anthropological evolution of what is commonly called Western Civilization is substantially different from the course followed by Eastern Civilization. Understanding the origins of, reasons for, and modern implications of those differences (and similarities, for that matter), is fascinating to me, and a large part of why I found Great State: China and the World to be such an interesting book.
It’s also why I picked up Twelve Towers. If there is any truth to the postulate that a culture is reflected in its art, then I thought surely a collection of Chinese “fairy tales” would offer some fascinating insights into Chinese culture. It’s true that I learned something from this collection of short stories, but I’m not sure what it is yet.
Written in the seventeenth century, Twelve Towers was introduced to me as, more or less, a collection of children’s stories, sort of like the Chinese equivalent of the Grimm fairy tales. I was warned that the particular translation I found took liberties, and I ought to have taken those cautions more seriously. The translators explicitly state that they left parts out that they deemed “irrelevant or uninteresting,” and that they simplified the language and made the text more straightforward, rather than attempting a more linear conversion from the original language. Had I enjoyed the stories more, or derived more valuable insight from this translation, I would be interested in finding a more faithful translation.
The translational liberties left me with a question at the end of the collection: how much was my confusion, and impression of poor storytelling, a result of the translation, versus my alien perspective on seventeenth century Chinese literature, versus these just being poorly constructed stories in the original form? While the Grimm fairy tales, if we wish to use those as our Western analogue, are dark, and in some places morally questionable, they are good storytelling, a sense I did not have about any of the stories in Twelve Towers. To me, the resolutions fell flat and improbable on my senses.
To illustrate what I mean, I will provide an example. Most of the stories in the collection revolve around love, or at least matchmaking. In one story, a boy buys a telescope, and uses it to spy on all of the girls in town to find the one he wants to marry. When he finds her, he uses the telescope to spy on her, so that he knows the contents of her private writings, and convinces her that he is actually an immortal. With this in mind, she convinces her parents, with the help of more “divine” espionage, that she must marry this supposed immortal. Of course, on her wedding night, she finds that telescope-boy does not behave at all like an immortal ought to behave, and he confesses that he is just a disturbed voyeur with a telescope. All of this would be fine storytelling, except for how it ends. Instead of calling the boy out for deceiving her, and being a disturbed voyeur, the girl loves him all the more, and they decide that they should worship the telescope, and they live happily ever after.
That’s representative of the way most of these stories ended, with a resolution that seems counterintuitive to what I understand of human nature, and conveniently makes everything wrap up neatly and concisely. The latter is not so much a problem for this style of storytelling, but the former is a problem for me. It led me to wonder whether this was a result of my Western viewpoint, and the resolutions would not seem so counterintuitive to a Chinese reader, or if perhaps these “classics” are just not as good as they are purported to be.
The latter would not surprise me, given the biography of the author included at the beginning of the translation I read. For all the intervening time and the difference in culture, Li Yu seemed the picture of a modern Hollywood diva. Despite having a wife and several concubines, he claims that he has never seen a beautiful woman, or even an ordinary one. He wrote an essay claiming that the stomach is the most useless human organ, that the Creator must have made a terrible mistake in including it, and that it is only laziness that has prevented the Creator from fixing this grievous error in judgement. He lived lavishly on the generosity of his patrons, and frequently complained about his financial straits – he would refuse to budget, because after all it wasn’t his money, and he would then complain about how the arts were terribly underappreciated whenever he needed more money (probably to finance his ugly concubines).
While these stories provided a fair amount of amusement, mostly because of the outlandish premises and conclusions of most of the stories, I did not feel that I gained any new or interesting insights on Eastern culture or the Chinese psyche. Whatever I may have learned from the questionable stories was undermined by the liberties taken in translation, but I did not enjoy the stories sufficiently to seek out a more reliable and honest version. If you decide to read these, I hope that you will at least find a better translation than I did, and perhaps you will derive some insight that I did not.