Idle Talk under the Bean Arbor:
A Seventeenth-Century Chinese Story Collection

By Aina the Layman
Edited by Robert E. Hegel

Reviewed by S. E. Kile
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright September, 2017)

Even though some new shoots with tender leaves are growing up the bean arbor that I set up some days ago, the bean vines have not yet entirely covered the arbor, and beams of sunlight still shine through empty places among the leaves. These spaces are like storytellers who break off at some crucial spot in the middle, leaving gaps that make the audience unhappy. But let’s be done with that troublesome talk. (23)

Aina the Layman, Idle Talk under the Bean Arbor: A Seventeenth-Century Chinese Story Collection Ed. Robert E. Hegel. Seattle: Washington University Press, 2017. 288 pp. ISBN: 978-0-295-99997-5.

The most elaborate frame-story narrative in traditional Chinese literature is now available in English for the very first time, thanks to the impressive collaborative achievement of editor Robert E. Hegel and nine of his current and former students who did most of the translation work.[1] Idle Talk under the Bean Arbor (豆棚閒話) by Aina jushi艾衲居士 (Aina the Layman) is a thoroughly enchanting early Qing departure from the conventions of the Ming vernacular short story (huaben 話本). It is such a departure, in fact, that to call the volume a “collection” of “stories” is to disregard many of its most vibrant elements.

Aptly compared to Boccaccio’s Decameron, Idle Talk, as Hegel explains, “links its numerous narratives together with . . . a continuing motif that is also unprecedented: the growth and maturation of runner beans” (xi).[2] This narrative innovation anchors the stories in space and time: they are exchanged in twelve sessions during a single growing season in a single location. Nearly every session opens with a comment related to the bean plant, which, as it grows, lends an organic quality to the narrative trajectory. The beans nourish and shade storytellers and their audiences; through symbolic, technical, and culinary exposition, they function as anything from medicine to metaphor, nurturing diegetic listeners and readers alike. In one instance a young man is asked to compose a story on the topic of beans to test his ability. After briefly citing Cao Zhi’s famous bean poem, he goes on to recount an unrelated story. His audience is forgiving, and no one interrupts to question his choice of topic (Session Seven).

In the 1660s, Idle Talk marked a significant development in the genre of the traditional vernacular short story, the widespread popularity of which dates to Feng Menglong’s three collections of the 1620s. If earlier stories depicted a generic storyteller that may even invite comparison to the author, Idle Talk, by contrast, depicts a host of uncertain participants, sharing stories somewhere in “the lower Yangzi river valley” (9). The hesitant tellers of stories at the bean arbor insist that they are not professionals, warning that their stories are fragmentary, misremembered, poorly recounted, and often inferior retellings of already existing stories. Many tales lack the typical characteristics of the huaben story, comprising a handful of anecdotes rather than a fully developed plot or a long series of ditties that relate only tangentially to a story that follows. Over the course of the early sessions, the stories gradually increase in length—in the translation, from a few pages in the first to seventeen by the third—although their internal consistency does not undergo a steady consolidation. Hegel suggests that such “structural exceptions” may have been “deliberately provided to provoke a sense of strangeness among readers” (xv).

This “sense of strangeness” will be quite evident to readers of this complete and unabridged English translation, which includes all of the commentary and paratextual materials. It may be most readily apparent, perhaps, if the collection is read together with the complete translation of Feng Menglong’s three collections.[3] It is difficult to overstate how valuable it is to have complete translations available of these collections. Despite incontrovertible evidence that story collections were carefully arranged so that themes and structures paralleled each other to enable cross-story corroboration or contradiction, only rarely have complete collections been translated. A significant proportion of stories by Ling Mengchu and Li Yu, for example, have been masterfully translated, but not as complete collections.[4]

Hegel’s introduction to Idle Talk is deeply insightful and stimulating, offering historical and political context, details about the development of the genre of the short story (huaben), and speculations about what the author’s experience of the dynastic transition might have entailed. Unlike Patrick Hanan in 1981, Hegel does not conjecture about who might have authored the text. Instead, he explains that “‘Aina’ is not really a name; it means ‘a cassock woven with artemesia’ of the sort that might be worn by one of the Buddhist faithful” (xvii), and proposes some characteristics that may be attributed to the author based on the text. Intentionally inconclusive, these speculations invite readers to wonder about this mystery author: Had the author taken the examinations? Had he lived in Beijing? Had he perhaps sold medicine for a living, and, if so, was that decision the result of personal loyalty to the Ming?

Hegel’s introduction also offers incisive literary analysis of the collection’s structure, themes, narrative style, and commentary. Hegel notes a special “thematic contrariness” to these stories that sets them apart from others, with “dramatic plot twists” and “ironic inversions” that are more extreme than those found elsewhere (xi). This is surely true of the stories that debunk beloved historical figures, but it seems to me that even those stories that recount extreme and senseless violence invite leisurely and detached reflection, thanks to the verdant and convivial setting of the bean arbor, the relative brevity of the recounted anecdotes, and the frequent interruptions from listeners. These frame elements tend toward sparing readers from the sense of despair produced by some of the darker folly-and-consequence type huaben stories in earlier collections.

The final section of the introduction, which touches on the history of the text, goes well beyond a usual focus on editions, alerting readers to the fact that most of the vernacular stories of the late Ming went out of circulation after the tumultuous transition, with only a single forty-story collection remaining (今古奇觀) (xxii). Hegel also notes the unfortunate accident that the final session of the collection was translated into French and English in the early eighteenth century and included in Jean-Baptiste Du Halde’s The General History of China (French version first published in 1735, English translation in 1738), observing: “The historian seems to have mistaken this parody for a sincere exposition on contemporary philosophy” (xxii). Readers of the translated Idle Talk, who will encounter this fictional philosopher only after reading through the first eleven sessions, will have an extra laugh at this ludicrous mistake. Benefitting from Hegel and his collaborators’ precise translation of the collection in its entirety, readers will be able to marvel at the character of the uptight philosopher—who tells the final story that causes the bean arbor to collapse, and the storytelling to end—becoming, for generations of educated Europeans, representative of “Chinese philosophy.”

Hegel’s introduction engages with the unresolved question of the dating of the text without providing sufficient evidence to support its claim. There is no question that the collection is a product of the early Qing, written some years after the dynastic transition when young adult men were first coming of age under Qing rule. Hanan had conjectured that the text was written sometime after 1668, based on his proposed identity of the author.[5] Hegel dates the text rather to “around 1660” based on “internal evidence” that appears to draw on his substantial understanding of seventeenth-century printed books, but the specialist reader remains unsure of what this evidence is (xxi).

The introduction offers brief summaries of the topics covered in the twelve sessions, each of which comprises a chapter in the book. These range from “female jealousy” to the “vicious crimes” of Buddhist monks, from a dead man “producing goods for sale” to a self-aggrandizing neo-Confucian philosopher (xii). Many themes in the stories recounted are well known from earlier stories, such as cheating, filial piety (and impiety), strange coincidences, and unexpected wealth or status. Also like earlier collections, the stories can be read productively with reference to one another; their themes resonate in quite complex ways when they are considered in pairs or even more elaborate groupings (xiii). The differentiation of storytellers in this collection adds a further level of complexity to a comparative thematic analysis, adjusting the interpretation of the stories according to the description of the storytellers in the frame narrative. The language is occasionally quite stunning, as in this vivid image: “If he were to talk to a fellow who has no ideas, however, it would be as if the words were like chestnuts raining down on his head, with none entering his ears” (23). And this one: “My ribs are bent in like the window frames of a ramshackle house” (107).

This translation will prove invaluable for use in the undergraduate classroom, perhaps for reasons similar to those that inspired its creation in the early Qing. At a moment when the term “relatable” is surfacing with increasing frequency in the classroom, students may be especially interested in how the frame story provides a vehicle for questioning the storytellers, and for allowing listeners and readers to critically engage and question them. In addition, concerns about the veracity (or otherwise) of the news one reads or hears that surface in the collection may ring true at this particular moment.

The relationship between reading and truth emerges as the major theme of the book, both within and across the various stories. As we approach the final sentences of the twelfth and last chapter, the commentator, identified as “Ziran [Purple Beard] The Eccentric Wanderer,” proposes that special interpretive maneuvers are required to grasp the meaning of most existing texts: not only the Confucian classics, but even such long vernacular fiction as the Outlaws of the Marsh (水滸傳) and The Plum in the Golden Vase (金瓶梅) of the Ming dynasty. “Writing books and establishing their theories,” he writes, “are the means by which the sages and worthies expressed their resentment, but their texts require skillful reading [善讀] by scholars of later times” (208). As a result, he explains, misunderstanding of these texts has led heedless readers to promote harmful government policies and to engage in banditry or licentious behavior. In writing these words, Ziran doubtless had in mind the influential fiction commentator Jin Shengtan (1608-1661), who was responsible for the heavily revised commentary version of Outlaws of the Marsh. Jin had inaugurated a new trend of drawing on traditional exegetical practices for classical works like the Spring and Autumn Annals (春秋) to uncover hidden meaning, with an aim to elevate the authors of what had previously been considered lowbrow works to the level of genius sages (才子). He encouraged readers to imagine themselves as those authors in order to gain a full understanding of the works.

There is a certain degree of continuity between that commentarial practice and the relation between Aina, the author, and Ziran the Eccentric Wanderer, the commentator, in Idle Talk. However, Idle Talk consistently works against this tradition: The commitment to simplicity in Idle Talk is underscored by the illiteracy of many of the participants involved in the swapping of yarns, and Ziran the Eccentric Wanderer claims that Aina presents meaning clearly and simply, so that anyone who reads the collection or hears it read will be able to ascertain the true meaning of the classics, and of the world.

This emphasized simplicity, however, belies a different sort of complexity. Readers of Idle Talk, like those of other multi-chapter stories, might read across apparent meanings in search of deeper symbols, but the many intradiegetic storytellers of Idle Talk interrupt a straightforward interpretation of authorial intentions. Incongruity between narratorial comment, purported moral significance, and narrative content was not uncommon in earlier story collections. Likewise, ironic dissonance between paired or grouped stories could open them up to new interpretations. However, none of these earlier collections so vividly dramatized the responses of clearly differentiated audience members. As many have pointed out, one can identify in this text as many as nine unique storytellers, and the stories they tell are distinguishable to a certain degree by subject matter, perspective, and even language or register (xii-xiii). Idle Talk is unique in its commitment to showcasing multiple perspectives, a technique that allows disparate truth claims to coexist without resolution.

Despite this expansion of storytelling perspectives, however, Idle Talk retains a consistency of interpretive possibilities by staging a conversation among multiple voices that seeks communion but resists consensus. The collection opens with a brief description of the value of bean arbors for dispelling the summer heat, followed by an account of a young man under one such arbor reading about the extent of women’s jealousy: “This is too much! It’s just too much!” (10). Importantly, he is not alone, but is surrounded by an intergenerational group, and some of his elders are eager to share their stories. The young men, for their part, desire a “true story” corroborated with “evidence from others” (11). After just a single “session” (chapters, called ze 則 in the original) consisting of two stories, both of which are presented as testimonials of personal experience, this narrative requirement is reconsidered. The reception of these first tales ranges from belief to disbelief to skeptical confusion, and the question of the ultimate truth of the accounts is forgotten as the range of audience responses is recounted instead: some took them as “made-up stories like those heard from the professionals” (23), while others were “half convinced and half doubtful and wanted to ask around to shed some more light on the question” (23). Idle Talk invites readers to put down the book and to converse and learn together with others: the elders, especially, seem intent on drafting stories according to what the younger generation would like to hear. The storytellers and audience members of Idle Talk are generally characterized by age or occasionally occupation, but not by name, inviting comparisons with the reader’s own experiences: whose tales should be believed?

Issues of narrative credibility, audience receptivity, and the intersubjective transmissibility of experience may be most dramatically considered in times of dynastic transition, when the filial relationship is strained far beyond the normal extent. Over the course of the growing season, the group grapples with questions of Heaven, morality, filiality, identity, and belonging in times of dynastic transition. When competing moral claims are forced onto a single body, as in Session Seven, the result is something unprecedented, and grotesque: “He put on his purple formal robe, wound a sackcloth mourning scarf around his head, and shod himself in eight-eared hempen sandals—an outfit never seen before on the mountain or anywhere else in the wider world. If anyone along the road questioned him about his clothing, he could say that it was meant to represent both filial piety and loyalty” (108). Ultimately, even Heaven and Earth—the frame of our world, perhaps our ultimate story—are up for debate. The final session is the most interactive of all, with a pedantic scholar calling into question the foundations of most of the stories that had been exchanged under the arbor, such as belief that the Jade Emperor, ruler of Heaven, could pass over the bean arbor at any moment and listen to the stories, punishing “without mercy” those who would “tell tales that are obscene or deviant” (84). From another perspective, the beans themselves (the stories themselves?) offer a tangible, edible, visible alternative to abstract discourses on Heaven and Earth such as those lectured upon in the final session. For “Unbending Chen,” the final storyteller and Du Halde’s conception of a Chinese philosopher, energy (qi 氣) is the originator of the world: “Before there was a Heaven and an Earth, in the midst of the Infinite Great Vacuity there was an Energy (Qi), all confused, which then became the Limitless” (189). Elsewhere, this same energy is credited with giving life to the beans: “Once the seeds absorb the energy [qi] from the soil, they will naturally flourish” (57). It is left to readers to determine which accounts of energy ring true, and to, perhaps, attempt to adjust their worldview to accommodate both, however strange the resulting outfit may appear.

In addition to extensive annotations, the translation includes two textual innovations of its own: “afterthoughts” on each story by its translator(s) and a miniature encyclopedia of historical and cultural references. The “afterthoughts” are very brief, almost whimsical, notes that highlight the impression a story made on its translator(s), and suggestions on how we as readers might start to think about it. The entries on historical and cultural references provide concise and informative explanations of many of the historical allusions and potentially confusing terms that appear throughout the collection. These two features supplement the text with interpretive and factual aides, respectively, and both will be extremely helpful for undergraduate and general readers alike. The navigation, however, could be improved: It is somewhat cumbersome to turn to an endnote in the midst of a story, only to be redirected to the “Historical and Cultural References” section (no page numbers are provided). I found it more feasible to read through the “Historical and Cultural References” section first in its entirety. The section is certainly a welcome addition to the translation, but some tinkering with the method of linking it to the stories could serve to make it more accessible to readers. In any case, one of the most striking features of the original collection is the way it layers stories and narrators on top of one another. With ample paratextual material, a creative and skilled array of translators, and expert framing by the collection’s key editor and translator, Robert Hegel, Idle Talk in its English translation conveys both the complex contents and the multilayered pleasures of its early Qing original.

S. E. Kile
University of Michigan


[1] The translators are: Lane J. Harris, Robert Hegel, Li Fang-yu, Li Qiancheng, Mei Chun, Lindsey Waldrop, Annelise Finegan Wasmoen, Alexander C. Wille, Xu Yunjing, and Zhang Jing.

[2] The collection was systematically compared to the Decameron by André Lévy. See “Études sur Trois Recueils Anciens de Contes Chinois.” T’oung Pao. Second Series. 52, nos. 1/3 (1965): 97-148. Pp. 133-137.

[3] Feng, Menglong. Stories Old and New: a Ming Dynasty Collection. Tr. Shuhui Yang and Yunqin Yang (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000). Feng, Menglong. Stories to Caution the World: A Ming Dynasty Collection. Tr. Shuhui Yang and Yunqin Yang (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2005). Feng, Menglong. Stories to Awaken the World. Tr. Shuhui Yang and Yunqin Yang. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2009).

[4] See, for example, Lenny Hu’s translation, In the Inner Quarters: Erotic Stories from Ling Mengchu’s Two Slaps (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2003) and Patrick Hanan’s translation of some of Li Yu’s stories in A Tower for the Summer Heat (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998).

[5] He proposed Wang Mengji as author. See Patrick Hanan, The Chinese Vernacular Story (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981), p. 191, 240 n. 3.