Lee Moore reviews Luo Guanzhong’s Quelling the Demons’ Revolt
Full of blood-thirsty demons, corrupt officials, and doe-eyed beauties popping out of paintings, Patrick Hanan’s posthumously-released translation of Luo Guanzhong’s 14th century novel, Quelling the Demons’ Revolt, is arguably a novel in name only, at times feeling more like a collection of short stories that have been strung together. Unlike later Ming novels, such as the Plum in the Golden Vase, Quelling the Demons’ Revolt lacks the narrative tightness that modern readers have come to expect. But, setting aside the lack of a cohesive ending, the novel remains a rollicking ride through the weird and wacky world of the early modern Chinese supernatural.
Some historical context is warranted. Quelling the Demons’ Revolt is one of the earlier Chinese novels, written in the fifteenth or sixteenth century. At the time, the novel genre was going through the literary equivalent of a teen-aged growth spurt, followed by a sudden voice change. These early growing pains are evident in this novel. While this might turn off some modern readers, the story’s lack of cohesion is part of the fun. Once the reader abandons their expectations and learns to enjoy the ride, there is a real joy in watching the author try (and sometimes, succeed) in stitching together the seemingly random strands into a single narrative.
The earliest, twenty-chapters long version of Quelling the Demons’ Revolt is attributed to Luo Guanzhong. It had enough plot holes that the famous short story writer, Feng Menglong, later decided to rewrite it to iron out some of the problems. Hanan made the right choice, though, when he chose to translate the original version of the novel rather than this later version. Rather than using Feng Menglong’s sanitized version, the reader gets to see the Chinese novel as it is developing. Hanan, who worked at first at Stanford and later at Harvard, is an expert on the period. Even as he struggles to make sense of the narrative non-sequiturs, his translation remains both highly readable and admirably true to the original version.
Taking place during the Renzong Era of the Song Dynasty (circa 1050), Quelling the Demons’ Revolt is loosely based on the historical events surrounding the Wang Ze rebellion, which took place in Hebei, near modern-day Beijing. Most of the characters who join Wang Ze in the novel are also real, but the novel invests them with magical abilities, turning the rebels into hellish creatures bent on overthrowing the celestial empire.
The novel opens with a merchant receiving what turns out to be a magical painting. Upon hanging it up in his room, the beautiful woman in the painting comes to life, leaves the painting and greets the merchant. Smitten, the merchant lies to his wife, telling her he is working through his account books at night when actually he is spending time with the woman from the painting. When his wife discovers what her husband means when he said he was “checking his accounts,” she sets the painting on fire, magically impregnating herself with the spirit of the woman in the painting in the process.
The girl born of this unholy union is Eterna, one of the novel’s central and most interesting characters. After the merchant’s shop burns down, Eterna magics up a bag of money to keep the family from starving. Eventually, she is able to create enough money to return them to the gravy days. But her father, worried that her magical abilities will cause trouble, repays the favor by marrying Eterna off to the dumbest, ugliest man he can find, hoping that the appropriately named ‘Daffy’ will not notice Eterna’s magic. Fortunately, Eterna escapes the marriage and then (less fortunately for the reader) largely disappears from the novel, until the end.
After Eterna’s disappearance, a series of other characters appear and disappear, though it does not become clear what they all have to do with each other — until the end of the novel, that is. Zhang Luan and Bu Ji, real historical persons who were involved in Wang Ze’s revolt, end up being given magical powers: Bu while rescuing someone in a magical well, and Zhang while rescuing Bu Ji from an enchanted woods. These are followed by the adventures of a lame priest who works as a trickster, swindling government officials out of their money.
The misdeeds of the priest eventually anger the government enough to issue an order to have him arrested, and this leads all of the earlier characters to combine their magical powers and join forces with Wang Ze, at the time a humble local military official. Having combined their powers, they begin ridding the local area of corrupt officials, forcing the government to issue an order to all officials to arrest the band of demons. Around this time, Eterna resurfaces and marries Wang Ze, using her magic to help as he begins to turn his group of demons, now a devilish rebel army, against the imperial forces. Spoiler alert: the emperor’s forces win and Eterna, Wang Ze and their band of merry demons are tortured to death.
If the story sounds confusing, that’s because it is. But that is the point, and that is what makes Hanan’s decision to translate this version rather than the later version spot on. In the first half of Quelling the Demons’ Revolt, Eterna is the hero, saving her father with her magic only to be punished for it. The reader sympathizes with her. But when she returns, she is maligned as a witch leading a demonic revolt against a legitimate emperor. Why does Eterna change from one of the good guys to one of the bad guys? While the novel offers no explanation for the switch, one likely explanation is that Luo wanted to make the story politically — or dynastically — correct, by making sure that the rebels lose and the emperor wins. But, honestly, who cares? Abandon, oh ye Reader, your modern preoccupation with linear storytelling, and verily, just roll with it.
But the story is more than just a rowdy jaunt through a world of Chinese demons and officials. From an academic perspective, Quelling the Demons’ Revolt is interesting because it provides a snapshot at the incipient stage of the Chinese novel, the novel is not as tight in terms of plot as later novels would be. But for everyday readers and academics alike, the novel is a quirky puzzle where the fun of it is that the pieces do not always fit together perfectly. ∎