The Unworthy Scholar from Pingjiang:
Republican-Era Martial Arts Fiction

By John Christopher Hamm

Reviewed by Roland Altenburger
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright April, 2020)

John Christopher Hamm, The Unworthy Scholar from Pingjiang: Republican-Era Martial Arts Fiction New York: Columbia University Press, 2019. ix + 299 pgs. ISBN: 9780231190565 (hardback).

Chris Hamm is acknowledged as the leading English-language scholar of twentieth-century Chinese martial arts fiction (武俠小說), hitherto primarily on the basis of his acclaimed Paper Swordsmen, which since its publication has become the standard work on Louis Cha’s (pseud. Jin Yong 金庸, 1924-2018) fictional oeuvre.[1] Hamm’s latest book, The Unworthy Scholar from Pingjiang: Republican-Era Martial Arts Fiction, is a “prequel” of sorts to Paper Swordsmen, examining the oeuvre of Xiang Kairan (向愷然, pseud. [平江]不肖生, 1889-1957), who has often been credited with the single-handed “invention” or “creation” of the genre of martial arts fiction, based on his two landmark serial novels Marvelous Gallants of the Rivers and Lakes (江湖奇俠傳, 1924-1930) and Chivalric Heroes of Modern Times (近代俠義英雄傳, 1926-1929). Hamm unpacks this as, at least partly, a myth forged by editors and publishers, but nevertheless confirms Xiang’s key role in the establishment of martial arts fiction within the landscape of commercial entertainment fiction, and posits Xiang’s two serial novels, with their specific features, as seminal to the genre. Hamm also brings Xiang’s earliest major publication, The Unofficial History of Sojourners in Japan (留東外史, 1916-1922), a novel of social scandal (黑幕小說), into the picture, thereby situating Xiang’s oeuvre as a window into old-style fiction more generally. Consequently, Hamm manages to expand what at first may seem a rather conventional author-and-works approach into a much broader and more ambitious investigation of literary genre, the milieu and networks of commercial entertainment fiction writing, and the mode of publication by serialization in periodicals. This thoughtfully organized book proceeds from the contexts to the texts, from bio-bibliography to literary genre, then on to form and media, before finally turning to a detailed discussion of the author’s main works. Incorporating a host of paratextual sources, he admirably and thoroughly fleshes out the various contexts before undertaking an insightful analysis of these three Xiang Kairan novels.

Hamm’s introduction addresses an over-arching issue of this book—the relationship between “old” and “new” ways of literary writing. The progressive May Fourth writers aggressively polemicized against all old-style fiction, singling out martial arts fiction as its epitome. In the PRC, this has long—at least up to the late 1980s—prevented any serious scholarly examination of this enormous body of fiction and virtually banned it from literary history altogether. Hamm’s work, while not explicitly pursuing a revisionist agenda, contributes to the task of deconstructing this deplorable bifurcation in modern Chinese literary history, with its still widely shared conventional discrimination between “valuable,” “progressive” new-style literature, on the one hand, and “trashy,” “escapist” old-style fiction, on the other. Although an extensive inquiry into literary modernity underlies Hamm’s study, he does not argue for the positioning of old-style Republican-era fiction, exemplified by Xiang’s oeuvre, as an “alternative modernity”; he does, however, promote the rehabilitation of this body of literature and outlines a genre “poetics” for Republican-era xiaoshuo (p. 10). While he acknowledges Xiang’s serial novels as cultural commodities that were produced and marketed to certain audiences, Hamm’s critical methods and sensitive readings do them justice by treating them as genuine aesthetic works in their own right.

In Chapter 1, Hamm reconstructs, from the still only fragmentarily available information, “The Writer’s Life.” Based partly on recent Chinese publications that indicate the growing interest in this author in Mainland China,[2] Hamm has succeeded in reducing some of the gaps in our sketchy knowledge about Xiang Kairan. This chronological bio-bibliography portrays Xiang as a person who, from early in life, was closely entangled with politics. Somewhat more could have been made, though, of the Hunanese regional context of Xiang’s involvement in the revolutionary movements of his time as well as of his affinity with the martial arts, not only in fiction, but also in actual practice.[3] It appears that during the first half of his life Xiang periodically lived in Japan and Shanghai, interspersed with repeated return trips to Hunan. He made Shanghai his permanent residence in June 1916, at the age of 26, and soon managed to establish himself as a professional fiction writer, due to the success of his first novel, The Unofficial History of Sojourners in Japan, that began to be serialized in the same year. In late 1926, he returned home, likely exhausted after a phenomenally prolific decade of intensive fiction writing, with two martial arts serial novels still running and unfinished. Back in his native Hunan, Xiang plunged himself into the escalating military conflict between Nationalist and warlord forces. He returned to Shanghai only briefly, between 1930 and 1932, during which he completed his Chivalric Heroes of Modern Times. Thereafter, he would seem to have definitively abandoned professional writing, turning to other occupations—secretary, administrator, and educator—that to him may have seemed even more appropriate fields of employment for a literatus (文人). The bulk of Hamm’s study is primarily concerned with the decade between 1916 and 1926, when he wrote most of the fiction for which he is largely remembered.

In Chapter 2, entitled “Xiang Kairan’s Monkeys: Xiaoshuo as a Literary Genre,” Hamm pursues the question of how Xiang conceived of his role as a commercial fiction writer, and how his understanding of the craft shaped his writing. He draws here on some of the shorter classical style tales that Xiang wrote on the side. Xiang obviously did not write for purposes of self-expression or to convey his political ideas, and he tended to portray his métier in conventionally self-depreciative terms, which would only seem to support assumptions about its marginality and triviality and even foreground its commercial character. Hamm finds, nonetheless, that Xiang was strikingly innovative in his formal experiments with fictional discourse, as seen in his manipulating of the narrator’s role, dramatizing the narrative situation, and combining the narrative techniques of expansive vernacular fiction with those of the terse classical tale. Moreover, as Hamm demonstrates, the reputed image of Xiang’s colorful authorial persona was strategically forged as a key element in the marketing of his work in Shanghai’s commercial publishing sphere. Hamm condenses numerous autobiographical vignettes found at the margins of Xiang’s fiction to succinctly reconstruct this multifaceted persona:

a man both worldly and eccentric; a native of Hunan, familiar with its jungles, beasts, hunters, and shamans; a denizen of cosmopolitan Shanghai, seasoned by his rakish student days in Tokyo; an adept in the martial arts, intimate with Buddhist holy men and tricksters and toughs of the real-life Rivers and Lakes; a scholar versed in the classics and prepared to answer the call to service in the government and military; a convivial raconteur; and a successful author. (p. 48)

The potential metafictional function of Chapter 2’s titular monkeys—recurring characters in Xiang’s fiction—might have been pursued and developed; they remain just an intriguing hint (p. 37) of the affinity between the domesticated monkey and the serial-fiction writer’s commercial constraints. Hamm instead notes their function as a trope of the strange and of desire, integral to xiaoshuo writing practice from early on. The author’s apparent self-portrayal in Marvelous Gallants of the Rivers and Lakes (translated by Hamm on pp. 122-123) as a commercial author under constant pressure to produce in time for the next issue, having to juggle five or six parallel-running plots and hundreds of characters at a time while always in danger of being accused of carelessness and oversight, may read like an apology about the professional writer’s trade. However, it also has perceptible self-congratulatory undertones from an author who, at this point in his career, was already quite confident about his achievements as a novelist. If these lines were not written by Xiang himself (Xiang is acknowledged as the author of only the first 86 chapters of Rivers and Lakes, and the remaining chapters may have been written by someone else, without authorization), but by the unauthorized author, as alleged by some critics, they can be seen as a nod to the original author’s skillfulness.

Chapter 3 deals with the rise of martial arts fiction as a “thematic genre” and the role Xiang played in developing it. Focusing on the medial and editorial context, Hamm explains some of martial arts fiction’s features vis-à-vis detective fiction, a thematic genre that had emerged conspicuously and gained a stable and marketable genre profile in the fictional landscape of the late Qing and early Republican periods. Hamm justly foregrounds the pivotal role of Shen Zhifang 沈知方 (1883-1939) in the publishing world of the 1920s. In 1921, Shen founded the publishing house Shijie shuju 世界書局 that in 1922 launched Scarlet Magazine (紅雜誌; renamed Scarlet Rose 紅玫瑰 in 1924), a general periodical for entertainment fiction, and in 1923 the generically more specialized Detective World (偵探世界). Detective World featured detective fiction, adventure fiction, and martial arts, highlighting their generic affinities, which justified the inclusion of the serialization of Xiang’s Chivalric Heroes of Modern Times through the magazine’s entire run. Scarlet, for its part, carried installments of Marvelous Gallants of the Rivers and Lakes, from 1923 to 1926. As Hamm shows convincingly, it was only through the combination of his considerable talents with Shen’s aggressive promotion that Xiang Kairan managed to carve out his own genre niche in the popular-literary arena of his time; Xiang’s martial arts fiction would not have attained the status of genre-defining brand without this symbiotic liaison between author and publisher.

In Chapter 4, Hamm goes on to demonstrate how Xiang’s reinvention of the martial arts narrative in the traditional “linked-chapter form novel” (章回體小說) was instrumental in the creation of his brand of martial arts fiction. Hamm further shows how Xiang’s formal innovations dovetailed with the modern conventions of publishing serial installments in periodicals and as ten-to-twenty-chapter book volumes. Comparing Scarlet to other popular literary journals of the time, Hamm argues that it found a new harmony between a text’s content and form and created perfect synergies between periodical serialization, book publication, and sequel production, thus marking it as a key player in the successful innovation and reinvention of the traditional linked-chapter novel. Scarlet’s serialization, in half chapters, of Marvelous Gallants of the Rivers and Lakes went so far as to split chapters in midsentence, anticipating the complete text’s book layout. The idea behind this may well have been that subscribers of the magazine could remove the pages from their copies and rebind them in book format, with continuous pagination, just as the publisher could conveniently use the same plates prepared for the magazine, without adjustments, when reprinting in book form.[4] Hamm briefly considers (pp. 120-121) the possible editorial intention behind the combination of installments from novels of different genres in each issue of Scarlet. It might be worth considering this juxtaposition of content types from the readers’ perspective as well, asking what effects the pairing of the fantastic martial arts novel Rivers and Lakes with a social novel such as Yan Duhe’s 嚴獨鶴 (1889-1968) A Dream of the Human Sea (人海夢) might have had on reader perception and reception.

By including the filming of Rivers and Lakes in 18 installments (as The Burning of Red Lotus Temple 火燒紅蓮寺, 1928-1931), which had a profound impact on the novel’s popularity, Hamm highlights the legal struggles over copyright and issues of censorship. In Chapter 5, he shows persuasively how Rivers and Lakes defined not just the genre of the martial arts novel as a reinvention of the linked-chapter novel, but also, in tandem with the serial cinematic spinoff, contributed to the rise of a more comprehensive “transmedial martial arts genre,” as he terms it (p. 134). Since the film adaption itself has not been preserved, Hamm focusses on the circumstances of and the reasons for its banning, in a climate of increasing hostility to all kinds of “superstition.” Both the novel and the film inherit some of premodern fiction’s inclination for the strange, the marvelous, and the weird, which Hamm takes as a starting point of his appreciative discussion of the main thematic concerns, and structural and narrative features of Rivers and Lakes. He points out that patrilineal transmission of the Way, and of the martial arts more specifically, is an important motif, representing transmission of the cultural tradition. This thematic concern, moreover, implied questions regarding the validity and continuity of autochtonous knowledge in the face of national crisis and the onslaught of modernity. Additionally, in Rivers and Lakes, patrilineal transmission is constantly threatened by heterosexual desire. One may wonder if the novel’s urban readers actually related this theme to their own experiences, or if indeed it merely functioned as “fairy tales for adults,” escapist flights from the struggles of everyday life, as its critics claimed.[5] Hamm understandably does not delve into the issue, his focus being on the production-aesthetic perspective of the author and his medial contexts.

In Chapter 6, Hamm offers a discussion of Chivalric Heroes of Modern Times, which Xiang wrote simultaneously with Rivers and Lakes. Modern Times, although exhibiting similarities to its sister work regarding language, style, and rhetoric, was, unlike Rivers and Lakes, lauded for its this-worldliness and a political stance labeled “patriotic and progressive.”  The setting of Modern Times in the modern metropolis Shanghai clearly sets it apart from the jianghu 江湖 sphere of Rivers and Lakes. Patrimonial transmission of the art of fighting is the one theme shared by both the two novels. However, in Modern Times this theme is overshadowed by an inquiry into the place of the heritage of the martial arts in the modern world and of the national body’s necessary strengthening through physical education in the face of global competition. The founding of an athletic association finally signals the transition from secret transmission to the public dissemination deemed appropriate for the modern age.

In his treatment of Modern Times, Hamm also introduces a discussion of Sojourners in Japan, Xiang’s first serial novel prior to his shift to the martial arts genre. While Rivers and Lakes and Modern Times share numerous features making them complementary to one other, Hamm introduces the question of how a work like Sojourners in Japan, with its panorama of depravity, might fit into the oeuvre of a single author. Its fictional world, governed by the desires for sex and money, indeed makes a sharp contrast to the consequent rejection of such cravings in the two later works. All three works do have in common the representation of the martial arts; even Sojourners in Japan features a challenge by Japanese opponents—a theme that is almost seamlessly continued in Modern Times, in its version of the legend of Huo Yuanjia 霍元甲 (1868-1910).

In his Conclusion, Hamm seeks to derive significance from the pen name Xiang Kairan used throughout his decade-long career as a professional writer: Buxiaosheng, “Unworthy Scholar.” Despite its self-depreciatory ring, Buxiaosheng might have implied a modicum of irony, especially once Xiang’s novel-writing had begun to pay off handsomely. The pen name’s sense of inferiority may have been informed more by Xiang’s adherence to traditional scholarly opinion of the xiaoshuo genre, which had yet to acquire much prestige in the modern era despite the existence of a thriving commercial market.

Throughout the book, Hamm draws extensively on paratextual materials that accompanied the serialization of Xiang’s novels in magazines. He translates and analyzes in meticulous detail several editorial statements by Xiang himself that include striking authorial self-representations as well as descriptions of the practice of fiction writing that testify to a remarkable level of self-reflection about the discourse of old-style fiction, albeit at the paratextual periphery. These extra-textual details, together with the always well selected and carefully translated passages from source texts, constitute a deep description of Xiang Kairan the author, his voices, styles, and rhetoric. A few illustrations, mainly of pages from literary magazines, but also including a rare—and suggestive—portrait of Xiang Kairan from a family archive, are additional welcome enrichments to the book. The only quibble I have about this otherwise thoughtfully and meticulously produced book concerns its practice of applying the English-language rules of hyphenation for word division to terms in Hanyu Pinyin transcription, which leads to results that not only contradict the well-established orthographic rules of Chinese Romanization, but may also strike some readers as eyesores, e.g.: “Pingji-ang,” (p. 28); “Jian-ghu,” (p. 53); “Buxiaosh-eng,” (p. 131); “Zoux-iaosheng,” (p. 132); “Zhang Wenx-iang,” (p. 170); “Bux-iaosheng,” (pp. 94 and 185).

In sum, The Unworthy Scholar from Pingjiang offers an impressively well researched, stunningly thorough and balanced study of the most important author of Republican-era martial arts fiction, his life and oeuvre. In this first book-length study of the martial arts genre and its emergence in the 1920s, Chris Hamm explores its narrative and genre features with great connoisseurship and masterful expertise. He exemplifies what can be gained from the rediscovery of, and serious inquiry into, old-style fiction written since the 1910s. Moreover, he also generously contributes to our understanding of the commercial entertainment fiction business, the practice and aesthetics of journal serialization, and transmedial adaptation of fiction into moving pictures. Thus, this most welcome book helps fill several gaping lacunae in our knowledge of the cultural history of early twentieth-century China. As the first comprehensive study of one of the most influential writers of commercial entertainment fiction of the Republican era, The Unworthy Scholar from Pingjiang will be indispensable reading for scholars of modern Chinese literature, and of great relevance to readers with a comparative and world literature perspective, such as students in the emerging field of global popular literatures.

Roland Altenburger
Julius Maximilian University of Würzburg


[1] John Christopher Hamm, Paper Swordsmen: Jin Yong and the Modern Chinese Martial Arts Novel (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2005).

[2] See Pingjiang Buxiaosheng yanjiu zhuanji 平江不肖生研究专辑, edited by Zeng Pingyuan 曾平原 and He Linfu 何林福 (Shanghai: Fudan daxue, 2013), contributions to which are frequently cited by Hamm.

[3] Cf. Stephen R. Platt, Provincial Patriots: The Hunanese and Modern China (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007).

[4] As mentioned by Hamm, this was found by Gu Zhen 顾臻, “Jianghu qixia zhuan banben kao ji xiangguan wenti yanjiu” 《江湖奇侠传》版本考及相关问题研究, Suzhou jiaoyu xueyuan xuebao 苏州教育学院学报 30.3 (2013): 21-32.

[5] See Lujing Ma Eisenman, Fairy Tales for Adults: Imagination, Literary Autonomy, and Modern Chinese Martial Arts Fiction, 1895-1945 (Ph.D. diss., University of California, Los Angeles, 2016).