Stories from Saturday:
Twentieth-Century Chinese Popular Fiction

By Timothy C. Wong

Reviewed by John Christopher Hamm
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright October 2004)

Wong, Timothy C., ed. and trans. Stories              from Saturday: Twentieth-Century Chinese Popular Fiction. Honolulu:              University of Hawai’i Press, 2003. x, 252 pp. ISBN 0824826248              (hardcover), 0824826906 (paperback)

Wong, Timothy C., ed. and trans. Stories
from Saturday: Twentieth-Century Chinese Popular Fiction
. Honolulu:
University of Hawai’i Press, 2003. x, 252 pp. ISBN 0824826248
(hardcover), 0824826906 (paperback)

With Stories for Saturday Timothy C. Wong makes an invaluable addition to the body of early twentieth-century Chinese fiction available in English: a selection of texts from the commercial periodical press unbeholden to May Fourth or post-May Fourth ideological and aesthetic programs and catering to an increasingly consumption- and leisure-oriented “middle-brow” readership in Shanghai and other urban centers from the 1920s through the 1940s. With the debatable exception of Zhang Ailing’s work—some of which first appeared in publications of this ilk, but which soon acquired a distinctive cachet and atypical status—one of the few examples of this fiction previously available to readers of English has been Zhang Henshui’s 1935 Shanghai Express in the translation by William A. Lyell (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1997). Prof. Wong now offers a rich and diverse collection of short fiction that will prove diverting for the general reader, useful to students and teachers of modern Chinese literature and social history, and eye-opening even for specialists in the field who may have done little reading in this particular corpus.

Stories for Saturday contains fifteen stories, evenly distributed by the translator among five thematic categories that will be as familiar to readers of contemporary English-language genre fiction as they are to students of Ma and Lau’s Traditional Chinese Stories: Themes and Variations or Sun Kaidi’s bibliographies of pre-modern fiction: Scandal, Love, Gallantry, Crime, and Satire. Two of the tales chosen date from the 1940s, and the remainder from the years 1921-1924; with a single exception drawn from a book-length collection, all saw first publication in the Shanghai periodical press. Hong zazhi and its successor Hong meigui are the periodicals most heavily represented, with a total of six stories, and Xiang Kairan, one of Hong’s mainstays, is the only one of the fourteen writers here represented by more than a single piece. Wong has supplemented his translations with brief introductions to each of the thematic categories; a preface and an afterword in which he outlines his view of this literature’s characteristics and position; publication notes for each story; and brief sketches of the individual authors.

Although the periodical Libai liu (The Saturday) supplies none of the texts selected, Wong draws on it for the title of his collection and the cover art as well. The afterword spells out his reasons. It was the seminal weekly Saturday, on the one hand, and the clichéd romantic imagery of “mandarin ducks and butterflies,” on the other hand, that provided the two appellations by which pre-war Shanghai’s commercial entertainment literature has been most commonly referred to. And though Wong at times employs the conjoint term “Butterfly-Saturday fiction,” it is the latter element that he views as more properly expressive of this literature’s essential character. As Saturday’s editor Wang Dungen testifies in his remarks for the journal’s inaugural issue, this is fiction designed to meet the requirements of a new definition of leisure—to provide the urban middle class with an affordable and salubrious choice for the relaxation, diversion, and companionship stipulated as normative constituents of the recently instituted concept of the weekend. The essence of Saturday fiction is thus, in Wong’s view, escape, a kind of escape inherent in the very mode of fictionalization, “the opportunity to fictionalize in the fundamental sense of removing oneself temporarily from the pressing concerns of life” (p. 237). Such fictionalization is at the same time made palatable and familiar by being cloaked in “factuality”—a term by which Wong indicates both the fiction’s persistent truth-claims and its deployment of the recognizable trappings of contemporary life (see pp. 238-240).

Thus far Wong elaborates on accounts of this fiction’s name and nature, which are familiar from the studies of Wei Shaochang, Fan Boqun, Perry Link, and their successors. Where he stakes a wider and more radical claim is in his assertion that Saturday fiction, in its allegiance to escapist fictionalization, represents the continuation of an authentic and native Chinese fiction tradition. Chinese fiction, xiaoshuo, has from its inception been viewed as xiao, inconsequential, unconcerned with the weighty agendas that burden other literary genres. It has happily embraced this inconsequentiality throughout the course of its development, from the ghost stories of the 4th century (p. vii), through the fiction that flourished more broadly beginning in the late Ming (p. 238), and up to and including such contemporary incarnations as “kung fu” fiction and film (p. 91). The notion that fiction might or should shoulder serious moral and political burdens is a modern and, in Wong’s view, alien development. “If only to understand China of the past and present, we need to understand not only the ‘new’ fiction literature it produced when, under great political stress, writers took on values once foreign to the genre; we need also to understand the fiction China enjoyed when it was culturally confident and secure, and what made this old fiction continue to appeal to its readers when it changed into modern dress” (p. 236).

Although I have characterized this claim as radical, there is of course a sense in which it is quite familiar. The argument that Saturday fiction is “trivial,” and through its triviality allied with the “old,” is the charge laid against it by progressive intellectuals of the May Fourth generation, who defined their own ambitions for a nation-building literature through the articulation of its nemeses, a corrupt tradition and a commercially debased present. Wong details the May Fourth critique, and notes that many Saturday writers were quite happy to accept the label of “old.” He joins these writers in conceding the May Fourth definition of the problem while countering, essentially, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that!” He goes beyond them (and this is the sense in which his claim is radical) in his more militant advocacy of the integrity and unique authenticity of a tradition of Chinese fiction defined precisely by its disavowal of any project beyond escapist entertainment.

I share Wong’s clear affection for his material, and admire his asserting an approach to this material that largely avoids the but marginally useful categories of “popular” and “elite.” I have several reservations, nonetheless, about the accuracy and utility of his adoption of a traditional-and-escapist vs. modern-and-serious dichotomy. A first question has to do with the identity of the posited tradition. Wong is entirely correct in pointing out that “when modern anti-Confucian intellectuals such as Lu Xun or Mao Dun or Zheng Zhenduo condemned Butterfly-Saturday xiaoshuo for its commercialized hedonism and noncommitment to morality and/or truth, they were taking exactly the same official position the Confucian literati of the past took toward xiaoshuo before the nineteenth-century entrance into China of Western ideas on fiction: They kept it outside the literary mainstream for being itself, for remaining minor when all literature was expected to deal with matters of major import” (p. 234). Even if the detractors of both new and old xiaoshuo shared the category by which they framed their censure, however, it by no means necessarily follows that the items they consigned to this common category were identical in nature and characteristics. To continue, as Wong does, that “even though Butterfly-Saturday stories have also been accused of being products of Shanghai’s ‘extended foreign mall [shili yangchang]’ and even though their plots refer overwhelmingly to their immediate present and not to their more distant past, their fundamental link is much more to China’s xiaoshuo tradition” (ibid.), is to nearly erase the significance of the dramatic innovations in Saturday fiction’s content, narrative form, and contexts of production and circulation.

A second concern has to do with the characterization of traditional Chinese xiaoshuo as congenitally averse to serious moral or political purpose [1]. Yes, some fiction, opera, and prosimetric performance literature (to include some of the genres understood in the pre-modern sense of the term) conducted its business blithely negligent of the ethical and social imperatives of more canonical literary forms. Perhaps a far greater portion of it announced explicit allegiance to social and moral norms; and the fact that its protestations often seem to us heavy-handed, superficial, or self-contradictory argues, I think, less for the simple dismissal of such assertions as window-dressing than for the need to recognize the persistence and complexity of xiaoshuo’s engagement with the problem of literature’s functions. Even apparent concessions to the critics’ charges against fiction need not be taken at face value. “My only wish,” declares one such apologist, “is that men in the world below may sometimes pick up this tale when they are recovering from sleep or drunkenness, or when they wish to escape from business worries or a fit of the dumps, and in doing so find not only mental refreshment but even perhaps, if they will heed its lesson and abandon their vain and frivolous pursuits, some small arrest in the deterioration of their vital forces” [2]. The modesty of the Brother Stone’s claims will dissuade few critics from acknowledging the sincerity, intensity, and sublimity of The Story of the Stone’s use of fiction to address the emotional, moral, and metaphysical core of human experience. Wong of course concedes the apparent presence of “serious personal visions” in some traditional fiction. But his suggestion that such instances reflect a minority literati hijacking of xiaoshuo, given disproportionate attention by well-meaning modern critics (see pp. 235, 237), may not adequately account for the “serious” strands that run through the tradition.

Perhaps more fundamental, in any event—and this is my last general concern with Wong’s model—is the question of whether fiction’s seriousness or import resides only in authorial intention. Granted that few works in the corpus of traditional xiaoshuo match the aspirations or artistic accomplishments of the small group of novels acknowledged as “masterworks;” granted that Saturday authors avowed, and their readers evidently welcomed, a devotion to entertainment and a disinterest in May Fourth nation-building and cultural critique. Fiction’s appeal lies nonetheless in the power with which it engages, consciously or subconsciously, issues (emotional, libidinal, spiritual, social, etc.) of genuine interest to its readers. Wong himself cites Liang Qichao and Xia Zengyou to this very effect (pp. 240-241). While it is the general reader’s privilege to give these dimensions of the fiction experience only as much conscious attention as he or she desires, surely it is a legitimate concern, perhaps even a responsibility, of the scholar to investigate both the formal and the contextual dimensions of a given body of literature. Wong’s characterization of Thomas Barthlein’s and Rey Chow’s studies of Saturday fiction as the attribution to it of “one sort of high purpose or another” (p. 235) seems to mistake the exploration of fiction’s social function and its representation of the individual and collective unconscious for the imputation of a programmatic instrumentality. The validation of fiction’s entertainment value is important and arguably overdue. But there is little to be gained from establishing “entertainment” as a reductive category that prevents further analysis.

Two fruitful alternatives to the demarcation of self-justifying conceptual categories are detailed research into the material, institutional, and social contexts of fiction’s (or any literature’s) production and circulation, and immersion in texts and inter-texts. The former approach is not Stories for Saturday’s concern [3]. For the latter it offers a treasure trove of material. The fifteen short stories are smoothly translated and well chosen, and present a rich variety not only in subject matter and thematic sub-genre but in structure, tone, and narrative approach as well. Through his choice of texts and introductory comments, Wong stages a certain number of explicit comparisons with the better-known works of canonical writers: between the comfortably manipulative protagonist and first-person narrator of Zhang Biwu’s “Rickshaw Man” and Lao She’s blindly struggling Camel Xiangzi; between the sympathetic but practical observer of human failure in Zhao Tiaokuang’s “In the Pawnshop” and the seemingly conscienceless narrator of Lu Xun’s “Kong Yiji.” Even the stories that evoke no such explicit parallels, however, invite favorable comparison and productive dialogue with the May Fourth school through the enthusiasm with which they explore formal alternatives, and through the eagerness with which they devise fictive rehearsals of issues of contemporary concern.

Such commonality of topical concern and technical repertoire suggests the limited analytical utility of the terms “old” and “new” as interpretive categories for Republican-era fiction. This is not to say that these categories are not relevant in other domains. On the level of content, the “old/new” dichotomy is a notably recurrent, even obsessive, theme. In Cheng Danlu’s “On the Road to Thistle Gate” (1924), for instance, a young student returning home to ransom his father, an upright official imprisoned by a rapacious warlord, is kidnapped by the minions of a young female bandit. In his first interview with his captor, he finds her “dressed like one of those fashionable models on a calendar, with a form-fitting embroidered jacket, a short skirt, and long silk stockings. She leaned back on the sofa with her legs crossed to one side; her patent-leather high-heels sparkled in the lamplight” (p. 96). She later challenges the young man on his obligations to his father:

“We now live in a modern world, where everyone has equal rights. If your dad’s done something wrong, you can always raise an army to try and rescue him….”

Gongmei [the student] became desperate. “Why be someone’s son when you won’t even try to help when he’s in trouble?” he said. “All my years of study have just taught me to sacrifice myself for my father. I know nothing about raising an army to rescue him.”

“The phrase ‘to rescue,’ as applied to one’s father, is an invention of you proponents of new learning. How can you be studying for so long without comprehending the new schools of thought?” The woman was chuckling again.

“In my heart, I only follow the old morality,” said Gongmei seriously. “I don’t recognize any ‘new schools of thought.’” (p. 101)

Her challenge turns out to be only a test. Moved by the young man’s sincerity, she uses her martial skills to win his father’s release, then disappears, first promising however to return to be his bride once she has settled her own mysterious personal scores.

Essential elements of this narrative—the characters of the unworldly, filial scholar and the warrior woman of mysterious origins, the scene of the midnight visit to the villainous general’s chambers—derive from a body of material whose circulation can be traced in pre-modern fiction from the Tang chuanqi through the Qing novel Ernü yingxiong zhuan (material soon to be recycled as well by Zhang Henshui in his 1929-1930 Tixiao yinyuan). But this genealogy does not necessarily constitute a “traditional” identity for the story. Neither, I would argue, does the rewarding of the student’s devotion to “old morality” over “new schools of thought” (jiu daode and xin chaoliu in the Chinese) with the promise of a bride who displays equal devotion and the glamour of the latest pin-up calendar. May Fourth critics would point to the evident endorsement of traditional values as an unproblematic admission of this fiction’s “feudal” allegiances—though what we see here at the very least, I think, is the simultaneous rewarding and undermining of ideological norms that some scholars define as a key characteristic of popular culture [4]. Wong, if I understand his position correctly, would argue that the question of the degree to which the text endorses the protagonist’s moral values is ultimately irrelevant, since the function of the story’s familiar and novel elements alike is to serve as spices to a dish of escapist entertainment. It is precisely the allegiance to escapism, and not the pedigree of particular narrative or ideological components, that for him identifies the story as (in a positive sense) “old.” What I would like to suggest is that any such relegation of the text to membership in a given category is less useful than a recognition of its staging, unprogrammatic and at some level unresolved, of the echoes and tensions among a variety of elements, the very notions of “old” and “new” among them.

The text of Xiang Kairan’s crime yarn “The Black Cat” (1924) engages some of these issues at an even more explicit (though not necessarily more transparent) level. The narrator opens his account with an overt challenge of the fiction of the past and the beliefs it assumes. The tales of Judge Bao and Judge Shi, he notes, contain stories in which karmic retribution is effected through the intervention of apparently supernatural agents. “Among the readers of such hogwash would be uneducated women and children intellectually incapable of discerning truth from falsehood… [and] traditionalists… who, their doubts notwithstanding, lack the courage to question the veracity of what they read. All others would object to the stories as preposterous in the extreme. They might very well ridicule the authors as deficient in knowledge concerning crime detection”(p. 147). The narrator goes on to explain that he himself held just such views until he happened to hear (from a reliable source, of course) about a case which demonstrates that such events are by no means merely the willful fabrications of fictioneers:

My intention here is not to advocate superstition. But during these times of loss of personal trust and decline in social mores, if I can discover and present a few of these deeply touching stories, they can perhaps be regarded as helpful in areas where laws are ineffectual, and where the detective’s ability to reason falls short. The ancient sages and worthies had this very idea when they set up their teaching based on the existence of ghosts and spirits. (p. 148)

He then proceeds to relate how a mysterious feline apparition and the intuition and diligence of an honest judge bring to justice an adulteress and her soldier lover who have murdered the woman’s husband. The nature of the crime and the agents of its discovery and punishment mirror the conventions of the court-case fiction critiqued in the story’s opening, and the tale as a whole seems a vindication of traditional xiaoshuo and traditional beliefs against the critiques it began by rehearsing. But there is a final twist. Conclusive evidence of the murder emerges only when a modern autopsy reveals a thin metal spike driven into the victim’s cranium. The soldier has copied this method from a Judge Bao tale, whose author “had never read anything about legal procedure… [and] had no knowledge of autopsies…. Had the sergeant not believed the fictional story of Judge Bao, he might not have committed this extraordinary crime” (p. 157). It would be foolish to claim that this brief appeal to modern forensic medicine, or more properly to the trappings of modern-style Holmesian crime fiction (represented by the next two selections in the anthology), amounts to a frontal assault on the apparent defense of “tradition” that precedes it. But can we dismiss it as mere window-dressing? Or does it rather reveal the extent to which this tale, like its companions, is driven by a desire to deploy and test against one another a variety of materials, varied in provenance and equally unassured of normative status?

I perhaps misrepresent the collection by discussing at such length two tales that so patently draw their material from the body of pre-modern fiction. Many of the stories here strive for novelty in setting, plot, theme, perspective, and narrative strategy. A number of them, in fact, and perhaps this body of short fiction as a whole, can usefully be approached in terms of the notion of the “conceit”: an original, arresting, or paradoxical image or situation that serves to crystallize an issue of urgent fascination. Thus we have the honest petty official in a high-stakes mahjongg game with the warlord general’s concubine; the bridal palanquin envisioned as an upright coffin; the cohabiting husband and wife forced by the frantic pace of modern life to express their affection through love letters; the spurned factory girl who comes into a sudden fortune, etc. Such conceits can be elaborated into almost surreal exercises, as in He Haiming’s “For the Love of Her Feet” (1925). Here a young cobbler, toiling in a basement workshop, gazes out his street-level window at the shod feet of visitors to an adjacent amusement park and meditates on the gulf between their freedom and his own near enslavement. He gradually falls in love with a pair of oft-spotted female feet and is inspired by his passion to an ambition that lifts him, in a few strokes of the author’s brush, to the vice presidency of the huge leather goods company that owns his workshop. Relaxing in a posh hotel, he spies once again his beloved feet and learns that the beauty to whom they are attached, led astray by her youthful proclivity for leisurely amusement, is now a well-known prostitute. The former cobbler professes devotion and makes her his wife. “You may have betrayed your own feet,” he tells his bride-to-be,

“but they have not betrayed me. They have made me a success in my profession, and you will be marrying me only because of them. So, in the end, your feet are a boon to you. From now on, you may keep them under control for my sake, so that I can be close to them each and every day. Then may I redouble my efforts and renew my resolve to strive for even greater success in my work. Your feet have now taken you through the gate of good fortune to a peaceful and happy existence. You have no reason to grieve anymore.” (p. 71)

To criticize the story for its implausibility would be beside the point. The tale is motivated by several intersecting libidinal and social concerns. It represents and addresses them not through the rhetoric of verisimilitude, but through a dream-like constellation of images and situations: the multivalent foot; the toiler in the underworld with his fragmented glimpse of those who journey to delight in the products of his toil; the fantastic reversal which reveals that that journey was in fact one of perdition and allows the now self-liberated toiler to dispense his own liberation and forgiveness.

In this particular story the ostensible moral is clear (Wong aptly evokes Horatio Alger), even if it scarcely accounts for all of the tale’s energies and imagery. Other pieces in the collection, as Wong also notes, display a surprising lack of interest in staking out a clear moral position. Thus the sympathetic manager who witnesses a family’s ruin in “In the Pawnshop” is not so affected that he cannot take his profits and dismiss the matter in the end as only one of countless tragedies; the wretched victim of economic and gender oppression in “Men’s Depravity Exposed” metamorphoses into a abusive heiress for whom readers are likely to feel the same distaste they felt for her erstwhile oppressors. It is easy to imagine rearrangements of plot, characterization, or narratorial perspective by which a writer of the May Fourth school might employ similar material in the service of a particular cultural critique or ideological program. Wong reads these authors’ unwillingness to take such steps as further illustration of their privileging of entertainment over instrumentality. I fully agree that the Saturday authors’ eschewal of a utilitarian approach to literature is one point at which they can be meaningfully distinguished from their May Fourth counterparts. Just as novelty is valued over naturalistic verisimilitude in the articulation of the central conceit, so is exploration of paradox and affective or sensationalistic extreme valued over programmatic consistency in its dramatization. Where I differ from Wong in my understanding of these texts is only, perhaps, in our definition of “seriousness.” The disinterest in utilitarian intent and progressivist orthodoxy gives the stories the freedom to indulge in fantasies that are sometimes hackneyed, sometimes bizarre, yet despite or by means of their very triteness or grotesquerie more often than not uniquely powerful in their rehearsal of the matters that absorbed their authors’ and audiences’ minds. These tales represent voices crucial to our appreciation of the literature and culture of Republican China. Prof. Wong is to be applauded for his dedication and skill in bringing so rich a body of this material to Anglophone audiences.


[1]. Prof. Wong has presented a more extended argument concerning this aspect of traditional fiction in his “Entertainment as Art: An Approach to the Ku-chin Hsiao-shuo,” Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews 3, no. 2 (July 1981): 235-250.

[2]. Cao Xueqin, The Story of the Stone. Tr. David Hawkes (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973), v. 1: 50.

[3]. The appended notes on publication and the authors do afford some interesting glimpses of the fiction’s professional context. In at least one instance the information provided could be more precise. On p. 246 the date of the inaugural issue of Hong zazhi’s successor, Hong meigui, is given as “July 2, 1924;” the actual date on that issue’s title page is the seventh lunar month, but August in the Western calendar. Also on p. 246, the publication of Xiang Kairan’s Marvelous Gallants (Jianghu qixia zhuan) is described as follows: “Even though the story related here eventually became a chapter in Marvelous Gallants… it was first published as part of a serialization that began in Hong zazhi in 1922 and continued in Hong meigui, its successor, from July of 1924…. Xiang Kairan, the principal author, stopped his serialization in that magazine just five chapters later, and much later gave up writing Marvelous Gallants, after chapter 95 of the 134-chapter work.” This is perhaps unclear. The installments of Marvelous Gallants were identified as segments of a continuous novel, chaptered and paginated as such, beginning with their first serialization. Publication in Hong zazhi ended at chapter 45, with that magazine’s cessation, but continued in Hong meigui through chapter 106 (in vol. 4 no. 34, 11th day of the 11th lunar month, 1928). Accounts vary as to the point at which Xiang Kairan relinquished authorship; Ye Hongsheng, for instance, in the introduction to his recent edition (Taibei: Lianjing chuban shiye gongsi, 1984, p. 88), credits Xiang up through chapter 110.

[4]. See, for example, John Fiske, “Popular Culture,” in Critical Terms for Literary Study, eds. Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin, 2nd edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), p. 321

John Christopher Hamm
University of Washington