Vanessa Hua: On the Banned Chinese Novel My Father Loved in His Youth
Inside the Rollicking, Political World of The Water Margin
The last time I sat down to dinner with my father, we ate Chinese take-out: fish simmered in rice wine, and mala beef, swimming in an oily, numbing and spicy sauce. He told me about his favorite book from childhood, The Water Margin: Outlaws of the Marsh.
“The stories turned us wild,” he said, his matter-of-fact tone belying this intriguing hint of his past. After the book was banned by his teachers, he and his friends had secretly passed around the offending tales, sharing a single ragged copy of a novel. Considered one of the four great classic novels of Chinese literature, I’d heard about The Water Margin before, but had never read it.
After our trip, I picked up a copy of The Water Margin, thick as a brick, and discovered a bandit world, gory and compelling. Sword-fighting! Bodies ground into meat buns! Oaths! The author of The Water Margin drew upon folk tales about a 12th-century band of brothers who stand up against a corrupt government. I discovered that The Water Margin was as timeless as political and social turmoil in the Middle Kingdom, providing insight into Chinese culture and history. But it’s also entertaining, rollicking and fast-paced, heavy on plot and light on interiority. There were no MFA moments, no meditations on sunshine or flashbacks to trauma from childhood. Instead, I galloped along with the fat, drunken monk Lu Da, who protects the honor of women; Grandma Wang who arranges an affair between a married beauty and a wealthy playboy; and the hero Wu Song, who wrestles a tiger terrorizing the local populace. Chairman Mao, who also loved The Water Margin, must have fancied himself a rebel sprung from its pages, and maybe, so too, my father.
While reading, I tried to imagine my father and his wide-eye friends, each taking a turn at the page, at a chapter, while the others impatiently waited. The stories seeping into their games and into their dreams.
Did these tales explain in part why my father sailed on a cargo ship, bound for America to attend graduate school and make his fortune? Why he taught himself how to cross-country ski, once gliding off the front step of the apartment building in Chicago after a heavy storm? Why he sailed on the San Francisco Bay on his boat that he dubbed the Six Happiness, in honor of the members of our family? Why he loved the open road, and all the possibilities it offered?
At 63, my father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. In the decade that followed, his world closed in. His gait turned slow and uncertain and when his medication wore off every few hours, his speech slurred and his legs froze. Sometimes he ate meals in silence, weary and hunched over his bowl.
But on our last night together, he was expansive. I knew him as my earnest father, a structural engineer who designed our house in the suburbs east of San Francisco, patient and meticulous, whose confidence in me encouraged me to pursue the most impossible dreams—but I wanted to learn about his youth, when the world had beckoned with promise.
Did he first read the novel as a child during the war in China, when his family moved every few months ahead of the Japanese invader? Or as a teenager, after his family fled to Taiwan—forced into exile like the novel’s bandits—when the Communists came to power in 1949? The more I read, the more my questions multiplied. Who were your favorite characters? What kind of pranks did you pull, inspired by this band of rebels?“After the book was banned by his teachers, he and his friends had secretly passed around the offending tales, sharing a single ragged copy of a novel.
I never had a chance to ask. A week after our dinner, my father fell and hit his head. Within hours, he slipped unconscious and died three days later. So many questions, I’d never be able to ask. So many stories, he could never tell me or my twin sons.
At the time of his death, I had only read a few chapters of The Water Margin, and then I put the novel away, haunted by the loss of my father. A year and a half passed, and as my debut novel, A River of Stars, started taking shape, I returned to The Water Margin for inspiration.
Like me, my father must have been captivated by the tales of heroism, gasping with laughter at the earthy humor. “What a nice piece of meat has fallen into a dog’s mouth”—to describe a village belle married to an ugly man—or the fate of a bullying butcher beaten to death. “The people tried to revive the body for half a day without success—for alas he was quite dead.”
In my grief, I found comfort in the pages, which felt akin to returning to the streets where my father had once been. I listened for the echoes of his footsteps and searched for what might have stirred his boyish imagination and shaped what followed in his life, and mine.
I’ll never know for certain what influence The Water Margin had on him. But in my fiction, The Water Margin led me to experiment with exaggeration, with the fantastic and with saucy humor. I’ve revived ancient archetypes and made the characters my own: feisty Scarlett Chen, barters and schemes to make a life herself, her baby, and her makeshift family in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Mama Fang, the wheeler dealer and entrepreneur, always knows how to take a cut of her own.
In the charming forward of The Water Margin, the author, Shi Nai’an, tells us that he wrote the novel for his own pleasure, while sitting outside near a bamboo fence or at dawn on his couch. “Alas! Life is so short I do not even know what the reader thinks about it, but I still shall be satisfied if a few of my friends will read it and be interested.”
Writers today still grapple with questions of audience and of posterity, though nowadays, we must also contend with likes and retweets and shares, online reviews, and other ways in which readers can tell us exactly what they think.
But it’s my father’s opinion—my father’s pride—I ache for most. We’ll never have a one-on-one book club, but I might with my twins. In my son born first, my father’s broad smile and Buddha’s ears have been reborn. The twin who arrived 26 minutes later, shares my father’s tinkering engineer’s mind.
My husband and I have read to them, ever since they were squirming infants, and in time, they began to flip the pages by themselves. Now they spend hours at the library, carrying over books that we take turns reading aloud. They love to read about colossal squid, about the planets, and anything to do with fighting, the adventures of Pokémon, the latter-day descendants of the bandit-heroes of yore.
The twins, who are entering the second grade this fall, aren’t ready yet for The Water Margin, but someday after Harry Potter, after The Hobbit, we’ll begin the novel that inspired their grandfather, peasant uprisings, student rebellions, and generations of readers to come.