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Literary Mind Melding

Active blogger Mi Meng breathes life into Jin Shengtan, a notorious literary critic of the Qing Dynasty

12·09·2012

Literary Mind Melding

Active blogger Mi Meng breathes life into Jin Shengtan, a notorious literary critic of the Qing Dynasty

12·09·2012

By day Mi Meng (咪蒙) is the editor of Southern Metropolis Daily, a Guangzhou-based newspaper, but by night she’s an active Sina blogger who breathes life into figures from China’s past. The key focus point of her blog, which is called “I Am the Most Powerful Woman” (女人乃最大 nǚrén nǎi zuìdà), is that the echoes of the past often contain messages relevant to contemporary Chinese society.

One of the articles most emblematic of her writing (which, though it never appeared in her blog, was published in Han Han’s Party magazine) covered Jin Shengtan (1608-1661), a distinctive literary critic of the early Qing Dynasty (1616-1911), best known for his unconventional commentary on the classic novel “Outlaws of the Marsh” (《水浒传》, Shuǐhǔ Zhuàn). Jin was executed along with a group of intellectual friends after publicly protesting against a local official who sold disaster relief crops to ordinary people at an inflated price.

The article’s title, “The Pained Jin Shengtan” (《好疼的金圣叹》), refers to an anecdote about Jin on the day of his execution. Mi writes: “Reluctant to see his friends die in front of him, Jin asks the executioner to kill him first. The request is rejected, so he pleads, ‘I have money with me. If you kill me first, you can take it.’ The executioner performs his duty, only to find two paper balls in the dead man’s ears. One says ‘very’ and the other says ‘painful’.”

We see more of Jin’s personality through an anecdote told by the prison guard. On the night before his execution, Jin calls the guard to “confess” something important. The latter brings him a brush pen and some ink, expecting the disclosure of a big secret. Instead, Jin writes, “If you eat pickles with dried bean curd, you get the flavor of walnut. If I can pass this discovery to later generations, I’ll die without regrets.”

To add depth to her profile of Jin Shengtan, Mi Meng brings other voices in on the narration, including Shi Nai’an (1296-1371), the author of “Outlaws.” In Mi Meng’s vision, Shi dismisses Jin as a rude commentator who willfully revised his masterpiece (Jin is famous for cutting “Outlaws” from its original 120 chapters to the now much more popular 70 chapters).

“Jin is shameless!” an outraged Shi says in an interview with the fictional Time Travel Weekly. “He disliked the last 50 chapters of my novel… so rudely deleted the rest of the book! He even conjured up a new ending then unblushingly claimed his version as the original. The pirate copy has suffocated the official one. How can I keep calm? The pretender completely ignores my copyright! …I have to say the copyright law in your dynasty is far from satisfactory.”

Jin’s multifaceted character is further revealed through the narrative voices of his old classmate, who sees him as a cynical examinee who playfully mocks imperial examinations, and Jin’s contemporary opponent, Gui Zhuang, who sees him as a dangerous reactionary who shamelessly corrupts social morality.

Mi herself advertises Jin as “a sober drunkard, a cynical talent, a Buddhist who loves dog meat, a fraud who has a profound knowledge of philosophy, a venom-tongued literary critic, a scholar who takes rules as shit, and a filial son and kind father who opposes feudal ethical codes.” Jin’s “pain,” as she concludes, results from his outrageous behavior, which was too excessive to be tolerated in his time.

To read more of Mi Meng’s historical-fiction blogs, just Google “Sina” and the blog name.