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A Stream of Humanity

ISSUE:  Winter 1934

All Men Are Brothers (Shui Hu Chuan). Translated from the Chinese by Pearl S. Buck. New York: The John Day Company. Two volumes. $6.50.

For out of olde feldes, as men seith, Cometh al this newe corn fro yeer to yere; And out of olde bokes, in good feith, Cometh al this newe science that men lere.

When Chaucer’s lines, still found apt for bookplate mottoes and inscriptions on library walls, were themselves “newe,” there was an excellent example, unkenned by the Western poet, in the Chinese novel, “Shui Hu Chuan,” or “Tales of the Water Borders.” This novel had appeared in written form at some time during the century before Chaucer. About its authorship there is uncertainty. The writer’s name has been recorded as Shih Nai-an, though that may possibly have been a pseudonym. But the novel itself was based on a cycle of story-tellers’ yarns and of incidents referred to in poems or incorporated in plays, which looked back for setting to the eleventh-century decadence of the Sung Dynasty, before the emergence into Eastern history of Genghis and Kublai Khan. This harvest of old tales was skillfully gathered by the compiler into a pageant of the life in the central China area that lies north of the Yangtze River. It included all classes, scholars, officials, priests, farmers, merchants, fishermen, courtesans, soldiers, bandits; it was replete with adventure and intrigue and highway robbery and prison escapes ; it depicted the filial bonds of the Chinese family, the loyalties of friendship, the etiquette of hospitality, life in town and country, the traveller at his inn, the prisoner in his dungeon, with ever and anon a dash of Rabelaisian humour and debauchery; and behind its direct and matter-of-fact narrative there was more than a suggestion of political satire.

All of these diverse elements were fused together by a compiler gifted with a glowing imagination into a tale of the gathering of a band of outlaws. He used the obvious arts of the story-teller. “If nothing happens, the story is short; if events come, the story is long.” The chief characters appear singly or in small groups. One by one and in various ways they fall afoul of entrenched officialdom, and are off on a course of picaresque adventures. Their paths cross and recross, but gradually converge. Midway of the novel a group of about thirty unite to save from execution a friend of the oppressed, one Sung Chiang, widely and favourably known as “the Opportune Rain.” Thereafter the tale is of companies rather than individuals. Campaigns are waged, walled cities are captured, and, incidentally, an early use of gunpowder in warfare is recorded. In general, good fortune attends the outlaws of the mountain lair of Liang Shan P’o. In their victories mercy is shown to the common people. More than a few of the hostile leaders are won over, and the band grows until there are over a hundred chiefs. Of this rather democratic aggregation, Sung Chiang becomes in time the supreme leader. The novel concludes, in the original version of seventy chapters, in a triumphant brotherhood of the victorious outlaws, bound together by fervent pledges of loy-alty. “All Men are Brothers”—a quotation from a familiar Chinese saying, and not a rendering of “Shui Hu Chuan” —is thus a not unfitting title for the translation into English.

This old novel has had remarkable vitality. The causes lie both in the skill of the compiler and in the character of his material. The tales are excellently told, they are leavened with humour, and they are full of action and variety. Even the omnivorous reader of modern detective stories is likely to find unhackneyed plots in “All Men are Brothers,” To the young Chinese the attraction of these stories was evidently irresistible. We know the appeal of Robin Hood or of Huckleberry Finn to the Western schoolboy in the season when the sweet showers of April have pierced the drought of his fancy; and we can understand why the youth of China have, through the centuries, devoured the tales of roving adventure in the “Shui Hu Chuan.” This eagerness was not quenched by sporadic attempts to suppress the reading of the novel; and once, during the Manchu Dynasty, it even had the advertisement of a denunciatory imperial edict. For this persistent popularity there has been another reason, which has attracted age as well as youth, and, by means of this translation into English, is likely to reach to the Occident. The novel is a stream of individualized humanity. As has been stated, the setting is nine centuries old. But the people in the story are curiously contemporary. They are not only like many of the inland Chinese of to-day, but in their essential human qualities they may be matched in any modern “Middletown.”

Thus, in a variety of versions, sometimes weakened by additional material, the “Shui Hu Chuan” has lived to the present day. Within very recent years, the novel has been newly published in three forms, for three different purposes.

Professor Hu Shih, the leader of the late literary renaissance in China, has edited the original version as an example of Chinese popular literature. The new Communist Party in China has meantime issued another edition as a communist document, in what seems to be a shrewd attempt to answer the accusation of propagating a foreign doctrine by linking communism with the intimate life of ancient China. On the other hand, Mrs. Buck’s translation into English is neither in the service of literary history nor of political propaganda. As in her own books, she is obviously bent on doing her part to open a way by which the Chinese can reveal themselves to foreigners. Her choice of the “Shui Hu Chuan” for this purpose was admirable. And so, with these new forms of the novel, the twentieth century brings fresh harvests from the fertile “olde feldes” of the Middle Kingdom.

Appreciation should be added for Mrs. Buck’s translation. It was a courageous undertaking, as anyone who has had adventures with the Chinese written language can vividly realize. Possibly Sinologues may raise an occasional eyebrow at scattered renderings. But for her purposes, Mrs. Buck’s attempt succeeds because it is not “a scholar’s effort, meticulous in explanation and documentation.” The translation does not intrude. Its simplicity and directness conceal the labour that must have been involved; and the matter-of-fact narrative so subtly preserves the delightful effects of the original that one is almost persuaded that one is reading Chinese. A strange and exotic quality pervades the story, but it arises from the setting, not from the diction. The average Westerner can take his ease and steep himself in the flavour of the Chinese story-teller’s art.


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