Reading: Margaret B. Wan — Green Peony and the Rise of the Chinese Martial Arts Novel

It’s seldom this happens, but I have no idea where I first came across Margaret B. Wan’s Green Peony and the Rise of the Chinese Martial Arts Novel. I’m fairly sure it was either during my first reading of The Water Margin, or during the second, Dent-Young translation (still working on this one as it’s six volumes). There’s nothing in my reading archives which mentions it, nor anywhere on supernaut, nor even do any of the searches for her and this book bring up anything familiar. I’m fairly sure though it arrived on my reading list over a year ago. Wait! No! Found it! Paper Republic mentioned her some undated time in the past, and they’ve been in my Feed for ages. They linked to SUNY Press, and that was probably enough for me.

So it was on my reading list for quite some time until I bought it, and then more time until I began reading. Then it was put aside during my recent fantasy fiction binge, and currently is my Brussels book, beginning from the start. This is good, because I have no distractions to cause me to put it down in favour of something easier, and so, page by page I’m getting through it. As almost a quarter of the work is notes, there’s a lot of flipping back and forth.

I haven’t read Green Peony, nor was I familiar with it, though I have a passing vagueness for some of the other classics, Honglou Meng, Xiyou Ji, and have been fairly drenched in Hong Kong and Chinese martial arts movies, so the general tropes of the genre were not unfamiliar. Reading this was an attempt to put it in some kind of context, with The Water Margin being like a barbaric, drunken, brawling, feasting epic equal to The Canterbury Tales (I have no idea why I compare the two other than an approximate correlation of writing).

It’s often pretty dry, though by the fourth chapter had picked up, or perhaps I’d trained myself to focus on the page, not to say it’s not fascinating; Wan definitely knows what she’s writing about very well. Curiously, having read Susan Mann not so long ago, I find there’s something of an absence of feminist scholarship in this; two examples I can think of: The first being a detailed description of role and character reversals in Green Peony, and how this undermines and parodies these forms. What I thought was missing here was to continue this line of reading to how the form of the role reversal parody in turn reifies the original form itself. Perhaps to say, the parody laughs at the artifice of the form, but does not the social philosophy on which the form rests.

The other example, I read while on the tram in Brussels, Wan refers to the reader of Green Peony as ‘he’. Perhaps the intended audience in the Qing Dynasty was male, but if so this was not made explicit, and so felt like a strange throwback to the days when masculine gender denoted the entirety, something I’ve not seen in recent writing. And even if the audience was largely male, there were plenty of literate women at the time who would have read it, which thus far leaves unanswered and unasked the nature of the parodies in Green Peony if the intended audience was male. Or perhaps I see everything currently through a myopic feminist perspective, having been spoilt by a deluge of excellent writers.