A wuxia parody by Pan Haitian – translated by Nick Stember
Translator’s note: To celebrate Lu Xun’s 136th birthday here at the China Channel, we wanted to introduce not only the author’s work, but also something of his legacy in China today, and as a source of humor as well as inspiration. As part of our ‘Lu Xun week’, this story by sci-fi author Pan Haitian provides an irreverent new twist to origin story of one of China’s most celebrated authors of the 20th century.
In this parody, astute readers might recognize tropes from classic wuxia films like Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Zhang Yimou’s Hero. Wuxia, or ‘martial hero’ tales, are sword-and-magic adventure stories generally set in ancient China. They have a long history, dating back to ‘knight errant’ tales in the Tang dynasy and centuries before. Yet they are still wildly popular today , both in China and abroad, with fan translation sites like Wuxiaworld reaching an audience of over two million visitors a month. Hoping for box office success, studios have begun building portfolios of net novels, much of it in fantasy and science fiction built on the traditions of wuxia fiction dating back some two millennia.
This is a state of affairs that Lu Xun might have had a few things to say about, if he’d lived a little bit longer. In his 1924 book A Brief History of Chinese Fiction, Lu Xun spends a chapter discussing the differences between literati wuxia and folk wuxia, writing that “When the literati lost interest in Dream of Red Mansions, a new type of novel appeared, represented by Moral Heroes and Heroines; and when people could no longer understand the spirit of The Water Margin, tales like The Three Heroes and Five Sworn Brothers appeared”.
Lu Xun’s own distaste for the genre notwithstanding, in the spirit of literary parodies Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, here Pan Haitian has some fun with the genre, and with anyone who takes Lu Xun too seriously. Credit is due to Joel Martinsen, who first translated this piece for a live performance with Pan at the Get It Louder Festival in Beijing in 2010, an experience he wrote about for Paper Republic. Below is my translation of the opening chapter of the story, possibly to be continued. – Nick Stember
Lu Xun, Demon Hunter
by Pan Haitian 潘海天
Night of the full moon, Peking.
The Shaoxing Hostel lays just outside the Gate of Military Might.
Three rooms and a courtyard, where a crooked locust tree stands, haunted by the ghost of a hanged woman. There are few guests, until the second year of the Republic, when a man in a long-sleeved gown arrives, carrying a collection of rubbings from ancient tablets. His hair is like steel needles, and a thick mustache graces his upper lip.
He spends his days copying out the rubbings.
On the hottest days of the summer, he moves a low stool out under the shade of locust tree to sip tea. Looking up, he can see the sky through the patchwork of leaves, each no larger than the pad of his thumb. From time to time, grubs fall out of the tree. Bent over his work, one lands in the collar of his gown. He doesn’t seem to notice.
Several years pass like this, the notes from his rubbings collecting around him like leaves from the locust tree. Some are carted off by printers, and books begin to pile up, soon growing dusty. Evidently, there isn’t much interest in his work. Perhaps he grinds the ink darker and thicker than before, perhaps his brow furrows more deeply, but the face behind the mustache remains impassive, his eyes as melancholy as ever.
In the spring of the ninth year of the Republic, the political situation grows dire. Students make impassioned speeches on the street. The platoons of military police are never far behind. At night, there is only dust and the biting cold of the wind. The whole city is like a sobbing refugee, seeking warmth in rags.
The spartan rooms of the hostel are barely heated. It’s so cold, the ink freezes in his inkstone. He shoves his frozen fingers deep into his sleeves and looks out the window where the branches of the locust tree hang, wraith-like. He sighs.
My days of as a scribe, it seems, will soon come to an end –
Before he can finish the thought, he is interrupted by mournful wail of a dog out in the lane, followed by a quick rapping on the door.
“Ah, I thought it might be you,” he says as he opens the door to see an old friend, the publisher Jin Xinyi.
Jin places a worn leather wallet on the table. Taking off his coat, he sits opposite, pulse racing. He’s always been afraid of dogs. Looking around at the four walls, he says, finally, “This is … nice. Quiet.”
After a pause he says, “They almost got me this time.”
The man with the mustache raises his eyebrows. “Oh?”
His eyes flash like a dagger blade, before going back to their normal shade.
“Hungry bastards, all teeth and no brains,” Jin Xinyi mutters, flipping through the stack of thin calligraphy paper on the table. “The whole of the North is overrun with demons. Who has time to write, let alone bother copying out this nonsense?” He gestures at the rubbings.
“I’d hardly call it nonsense,” the man with the mustache replies, his voice steady. He reaches out with a thin but firm hand to rifle through his papers. When he finds what he was looking for, he reads the lines inscribed in thick black ink:
“And so the great cook Soft Tooth, knowing his lords had tried a great many delicacies, offered up the steamed head of his own son to the tyrants Jie and Zhou of Shang. You ask how long have we’ve been eating the flesh man, and I say to you: Since the giant Pangu opened up the heavens and created the world. After Soft Tooth’s son there was Xu Xilin, and Wolf Cub Village. Just last year, a criminal was shot in the square, and a woman suffering from tuberculosis went out to sop up the blood…” 1
He hands Jin Xinyi the paper. “What you were looking for?”
The younger man takes it, bringing it close in to his coke-bottle glasses.
Suddenly, just outside there is a crash as the rammed earth wall of the courtyard collapses in on itself.
In the stunned silence, the notes of a pipa waft through the air.
The man with the mustache shakes his head and sighs, taking a black leather box scabbard out from under the table.
Brushing the scabbard with one hand, a cloud of dust momentarily fills the room. Lu Xun draws a gleaming short sword. The blade is engraved with strange markings, and it catches in the moonlight, dancing through the air like liquid mercury.
He takes the hem of his gown, and shoves it into his sash. Turning to Jin, he says, “I’ll be back.” Before the words are out of his mouth, he’s already through the window, springing nimbly from a thin branch of the locust tree up towards the roof the hostel.
Row upon row of black tiles glisten darkly in the night, the moonlight like frost.
Lu Xun stands on the roof, frozen in anticipation. The darkness beyond the wall teems with movement. Rats perhaps, or stray cats, or something worse.
He listens for a moment, trying to discern the source of the disturbance, before lunging forward like some great bird of prey. From behind a toppled over stone lion, a figure emerges, still hidden in shadow. Lu Xun spins, silently, clawing at the shoulder of the shadow with his left hand, the sword in his right.
The shadow seems to tense for an attack, before falling back to slip out of Lu Xun’s grasp as easily as a fish in water.
Lu Xun lunges a second time, this time taking a firm hold on the man’s shoulder to wrench him out into the light.
“I should have known it was you!” he shouts. “Liang Shiqiu!”
Liang Shiqiu glares at the man with the mustache, straightening his collar and feeling on the ground for his glasses. He brushes the dust from his gown.
“Lu Xun,” he says, looking grim. “I come on a mission from the Brotherhood…” ∎
The image for this post was generated using the Photofunia Retrowave effect
A passage from Lu Xun’s infamous 1918 short story ‘Diary of a Madman’, recording a young man’s descent into madness after studying the Confucian canon. In the story, the eponymous madman becomes convinced that the words ‘eat people’ appear between the lines of the text, concluding that his fellow villagers are secretly cannibals who are plotting to eat him.