Channeling the Ming: Feng Menglong’s Short Story Collections

by Lorri Hagman, Executive Editor, University of Washington Press
A Books That Matter Essay

Stories Old and New: A Ming Dynasty Collection, Vol. 1, compiled by Feng Menglong, translated by Shuhui Yang and Yunqin Yang (University of Washington Press, 2000)
Stories to Caution the World: A Ming Dynasty Collection, Vol. 2, compiled by Feng Menglong, translated by Shuhui Yang and Yunqin Yang (University of Washington Press, 2007)
Stories to Awaken the World: A Ming Dynasty Collection, Vol. 3, compiled by Feng Menglong, translated by Shuhui Yang and Yunqin Yang (University of Washington Press, 2009)

Book Cover: Stories Old and New
Stories Old and New: A Ming Dynasty Collection (ISBN: 9780295978444)

Some people spend thousands of dollars and endure hours of exhausting air travel to vacation in exotic places. But among the perks of my editorial job at the University of Washington Press in the summer of 1998 was being paid to boat down rivers and trek through mist-shrouded mountains in southeast China and to tiptoe into ancient monasteries and palaces, with eloquent and entertaining locals as my guides. This travel was, alas, only in the mind, but I relished it every day—an eight-hour minivacation in both space and time. My purported task was to copyedit the 1,270 manuscript pages of the English translation of Stories Old and New, a set of forty vernacular short stories collected in the late Ming dynasty (1368-1644) by the most knowledgeable connoisseur of popular Chinese literature of his time, Feng Menglong. My true mission, however, was deeper and more subversive: to undermine cultural stereotypes by providing the English-reading world with an unmediated view of Chinese culture and society.

Back then, I still was doing occasional copyediting in addition to acquiring books in Asian studies and various other fields. At its best, copyediting can be like tackling a cleverly constructed crossword puzzle, a self-contained and satisfying task—not something I care to do full-time, but an entertaining diversion. Normally, it’s preferable to have a new set of eyes for copyediting, to spot things that the author and acquiring editor no longer have the objectivity to see, but Stories Old and New required a copy editor with Chinese-language training, and I was the only such person available. So I both acquired and copyedited the manuscript.

Pausing in front of the text and multipage style sheet (one for each story, as well as a list of recurring terms) and shifting my gaze out the office window westward toward Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains, I would sometimes reflect that I had just surfaced from a time in which China was already an old and marvelously complex civilization, but the city of Seattle would not be founded for another two and a half centuries. The stories were so rich, so varied, that collectively they illustrated just about everything one needed to know about late imperial China—from history to religion to family structure. When the first Chinese edition was published in 1620, compiler and editor Feng Menglong wrote in the preface of the power of fiction:

Just ask the storytellers to demonstrate in public their art of description: they will gladden you, astonish you, move you to sad tears, rouse you to song and dance; they will prompt you to draw a sword, bow in reverence, cut off a head, or donate money. The faint-hearted will be made brave, the debauched chaste, the unkind compassionate, the obtuse ashamed. One may recite the Classic of Filial Piety and the Analects of Confucius every day, yet he will not be moved so quickly nor so profoundly as by these storytellers. (p. 6)

Shuhui Yang, a professor of Chinese language and literature at Bates College, had first written to us in 1996 about the translation of Stories Old and New that he and his wife, Yunqin Yang, a simultaneous translator at the UN, were completing. I had long been familiar with Feng Menglong’s work, and in my student days had even presented a paper comparing a courtesan in one of the stories to a famous courtesan in Sanskrit literature, a paper that was eventually published in the Journal of South Asian Literature. But the Yangs didn’t know that; our collaboration on this project seemed pure serendipity.

Cover Image: Stories to Caution
Stories to Caution the World: A Ming Dynasty Collection, Volume 2 (ISBN: 9780295985688)

After the publication of Stories Old and New, I was surprised but delighted to learn that the Yangs were forging on with translation of the two remaining volumes in Feng Menglong’s trilogy of collected short stories, known collectively as the Sanyan: Stories to Caution the World and Stories to Awaken the World. Like Stories Old and New, each volume contained forty stories. Translating the three volumes—a total of 120 stories in 4,300 manuscript pages—was a labor of love on their part, as neither received professional credit or pay (beyond very modest royalties) for this work. My colleagues were understandably concerned about the difficulty and expense of producing these oversize volumes, but with generous title subsidies from the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation and Bates College, along with creative typography and thin paper, we were able to publish all three.

Although English translations of a handful of the stories had been published in various anthologies, these were always abridged, omitting the many snippets of verse that are strewn throughout the stories, counterposed with the text, such as this one from “Chen Congshan Loses His Wife on Mei Ridge” (Stories Old and New, p. 342”):

Upon returning to his own yamen, the inspector held a banquet to celebrate the victory. With the slaying of Tiger of the Mountain, indeed,

 His fame spread throughout the Nanxiong region;
His skills in the martial arts won praise from all.

Also omitted were Feng’s interlinear and marginal notes, often deliciously irreverent, such as the following (in italic) from “The Courtesans Mourn Liu the Seventh in the Spring Breeze” (Stories Old and New, p. 219):

From that time on, he grew more dissolute in his ways and went so far as to take up residence in the courtesans’ quarters. On a tablet of the kind that was held by officials, he wrote, “Liu of Three Changes, Imperial Poet Designate.” Before he called on a courtesan, he would first send over this tablet and she would then prepare wine and dishes and bedding for the night. (What a carefree life! This is better than serving as an official.)

Even Chinese editions of the stories have omitted elements of the original, such as sexually explicit passages, which the Yangs translate in full. Their translation of the three-volume collection is the first—and probably will be the only—complete, unabridged English translation of this milestone work in world literature. An important editorial feature that is apparent only when the stories are seen in Feng’s original arrangement is their thematic pairing.

The flavor of the Yangs’ translation is captivating. Feng Menglong had collected stories hither and yon, modifying and even, perhaps, freshly composing some of them himself (much as the Grimm Brothers had done in Europe). The language of the stories is not classical but vernacular Chinese, a form that reflected the grammar and usage of common speech. Although easier for those of us who are not Confucian scholars to understand, Feng’s Ming-dynasty common speech is several centuries old. One of the things I love about the Yangs’ translation is the slightly old-fashioned cadence of the English phrasing, which reflects Feng’s language: things happen “in a trice,” or to “all and sundry” (as in the extract above). Although the Yangs’ command of English is among the best I’ve ever observed in non-native speakers, I wondered how they had been able to capture that subtly old-fashioned tone. When I asked about this, Yunqin’s response was, “Dickens, of course!”

After immersing myself so deeply in his world through the course of three volumes and 120 stories, I felt that I knew Feng Menglong personally and, curiously, that, were he to time-travel to my world as I had to his, he would not be perplexed or intimidated by twenty-first century culture. With his broad mind and deep curiosity, he would have eagerly engaged with the contemporary intellectual and social scene, recognizing new and fascinating variations on the same old stories.

Cover Image: Stories to Awaken
Stories to Awaken the World: A Ming Dynasty Collection, Volume 3 (ISBN: 9780295989037)

Helping to bring this trove of cultural gems to the English-speaking world was a privilege and a delight. Translators Shuhui Yang and Yunqin Yang were model “authors,” and we were assisted generously in the multivolume project by scholars such as Bob Hegel (Washington University), Wilt Idema (Harvard), and Andrew Plaks (Princeton). Bob wrote a capstone foreword for the final volume, and he also organized an Association for Asian Studies roundtable discussion in 2009 celebrating the completion of the set. The Yangs spoke on the process of translation; I contributed an editor/publisher’s perspective on the challenge of editing, producing, and financing such a large project; and several professors of Chinese literature discussed the use of the Sanyan stories in the classroom. The following year, another AAS panel focused on the content and style of the stories. Participants uniformly agreed that the rich content of these stories augment teaching on any aspect of traditional Chinese society. As rare, unofficial records of popular culture, they are priceless.

Sadly, despite its importance, literary translation is not adequately encouraged or rewarded. Academic departments do not count it toward promotion and tenure; publication subsidies and book prizes usually exclude it; and, with rare exceptions, translated literature does not sell well. Yet, I believe that, over time, books like our Ming Dynasty Collection trilogy, which enable readers to experience another culture directly, through native eyes, will matter more in advancing cultural understanding than will analytical works. Good translations allow readers to connect deeply with other times and places; to observe them first-hand; to experience amazement at both differences from and similarities to one’s own culture; to, for a moment, forget self and place and time.

While reading a chunk of the first draft of volume 3 on my commute to work one morning back in 2006, I was so mesmerized by “The Grateful Tiger” that I missed my bus stop:

But they had hardly gone a few paces when a sudden strong gust of wind blew out all the lanterns and torches. A yellow-striped tiger with bulging eyes and a white forehead was seen leaping down from midair. The crowd shrieked and ran pell-mell in all directions.

They thought their lives were in danger;
Their souls took flight in fear.

When the wind died down and the tiger was gone, everyone cried out, “Thank heaven!” They relit the lanterns and the torches, and as they were preparing to go on with their journey, the sedan-chair carriers exclaimed, “Oh no!” Of the two sedan-chairs, one was now empty. A look with a torch confirmed that the bride had disappeared. . . .

Reluctantly, I disembarked at the next stop and trudged uphill to the office, wistful for the Ming.

6 thoughts on “Channeling the Ming: Feng Menglong’s Short Story Collections

  1. Excellent. A clearly and beautifully expressed journey of the daunting efforts of all who participated in this venture to bring the fascinating, centuries-old stories of Feng Menglong to our modern English-speaking world—to my world.

    Reading this article, I feel compelled to read these translations, and I congratulate all who made this possible.

  2. Great translations require the discerning eye and the devoted attention of the professional editor as well as countless hours of labor on the part of the translators; without Lorri Hagman’s faith in the importance of the project and her persistence in finding initial funding for it, the Ming Dynasty Collection would have remained an enormous but unappreciated manuscript. Translations like this will be important for decades at least, perhaps centuries; the names of Yang Shuhui and Yang Yunqin will be known by generations of readers to come. And all because of an extraordinary editor! We are all tremendously grateful to you, Lorri!

  3. I very much interested the books : Feng Nenglong’s Short Stories Collection Vol 1 of books . Particulerly Courtesans story for my recheare work. I Santosh Ghosh of Kolkata INDIA a auther of many book. Now I request you in favoure me if possible kindly send me above text material through email or in outher way for that I oblige you. With best regard / Santoshghosh My mail ID

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