Feng Menglong (Wade System Feng Meng-lung), 1574-1645, was a brilliant vernacular writer of late Ming times. He was a native of what was then known as Changzhou, now Wuxian, Jiangsu Province. He compiled and edited works of history, gazettes, poetry and prose, including novels, chiefly Ping Yao Zhuan and Qing Shi. He was also a philosophical proponent of the Wang Yangming "left" group ("eccentric" school founded by Li Zhi, (1527-1602 )epicurean/libertine advocate of openness and a critic of stoic/one-dimensional fiction that, he pointed out, disregarded the full range of human feelings and experience. Li, once magistrate of Yao An Fu, (Wang Yangming's home in Zhejiang) hated all sorts of taboos and wrote freely of tales of the supernatural and eventually his words and behavior got him thrown into prison where he took his own life. Feng Menglong carried on this tradition, concerned deeply with human feelings and behavior, and held a high regard for women, advocating their advancement. His sense of the tragic fleetingness of human happiness and the shortness of human life, as opposed to the boundless ambitions of the human spirit, is striking. In a way he confronts a very basic spiritual problem: are goodness and evil rewarded by God/Fate? And there is the timeless drive to achieve immortality by learning something really great, with the fatal link between idea and action. His poetry is rich in compressed imagery and rhyme and his prose is characterized by a richness of irony, character development and psychological insight striking at this period. The Ping Yao Zhuan as embellished with real humanity and imagination by Feng Menglong is one of the world's first psychological novels, attempting to explore the emotional process and the human experience. In his version of the Ping Yao Zhuan, developed from the 20 extant last chapters of the story attributed to Luo Guanzhong of the early Ming, free standing stories with their own internal plots and climaxes fit ingenuously into the well developed story line of the whole, showing a tremendous intensity of purpose and great sweep of imagination, and ending in the revolt of the usurper Wang Ze (killed 1047AD) against the Song Dynasty, in which all the characters' fates are fulfilled tragically or heroically. Satirical portrayals of the corrupt officials and social types of Ming times abound as well. There are broadsides against the male-bonding culture of hunters, greedy officials,and even a tongue in cheek criticism of traditional beliefs.
The main story is the way people let evil forces control their lives, the classic pact with the devil to be able to do some great work. And of the grip of violent curiosity about heresy, curiositas as medieval Europe knew it, a punishable offense. That has been studied extensively by my former teacher at the University of Pennsylvania, Ed Peters. In this case, the devil is the Queen of Hell, the ghost of the Empress Wu Zetian of the Restored Zhou, as she called her twenty-year period of rule in the early Tang; the story is a sort of Chinese Faust or Nosferatu. Throughout is a certain idea of Confucian high legitimacy, the notion of legitimate leadership and princliness versus upitty cleverness, true fame versus notoriety. The high Chinese state culture and Emperor as Son of Heaven is glorified quite directly. And it is on another level entertainment and education, rich in Chinese myth and legend. And it is full of admiration for the great poets and high culture of the Tang. Also notable in the somewhat bloody Ping Yao Zhuan is Feng's appreciation of the impact of death upon the survivors of the deceased. This is not a nihilistic "cut 'em up" like some other Chinese novels but a fully developed novel, rich in spiritual and psychological insight. Many of the deaths in the work are followed with discussions of funeral arrangements and the effects upon the living, including their tears and ways of coping with the finality of the loss; even the bodies of villains need to be disposed of before the story can move on. Perhaps Hollywood can learn something from this.
From the standpoint of language, this book is a very important photograph of the modern Chinese language at an important point in time. Its early spoken vernacular is rendered very realistically, imparting the laconic and somewhat elliptical nature of the spoken tongue, its aspectual dealing with time relations (for which I have used the English tense system, favoring pragmatics over syntax) and its rich classical enhancement. Feng's bianwen poems are brilliantly rythmical and work out surprisingly in English. The earlier chapters of Luo Guanzhongs provide a rich source for study of the language over time, as they were written two centuries before Feng's book. A comparitive study of the two versions was published by Beijing University press in 1983; it has the complete early book with some comparison to this later one. Before its publication in 1996 by in GB Chinese by Shanghai Guji Chubanshe, the 40 chapter book was very rare in China proper (a 1957 Shanghai edition having been basically suppressed due to the climate of the time) but quite common in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and of course Japan where at least one famous rare copy has been preserved. I have used the same Qing Daoguang period version, standard (non simplified) characters printed in Hong Kong in 1980. Some excellent new scholarship has recently appeared on Feng Menglong and other related topics; see my reading recommendations.(N. Sturman)