Sound Rising from the Paper: Nineteenth-Century
Martial Arts Fiction and the Chinese Acoustic Imagination

By Paize Keulemans

Reviewed by Mengjun Li
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright November, 2016)

Paize Keulemans, Sound Rising from the Paper: Nineteenth-Century Martial Arts Fiction and the Chinese Acoustic Imagination. Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2014. Pp. xiii, 338. ISBN 13: 9780674417120 (HARDCOVER: $49.95 • £36.95 • €45.00)

Paize Keulemans, Sound Rising from the Paper: Nineteenth-Century Martial Arts Fiction and the Chinese Acoustic Imagination Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2014. Pp. xiii, 338. ISBN 13: 9780674417120 (HARDCOVER: $49.95 • £36.95 • €45.00)

Traditional Chinese fiction, especially vernacular short stories and novels of the late imperial era, has attracted considerable scholarly attention over the past few decades. The field has greatly benefitted from scholars’ innovative use of new theories and interdisciplinary approaches both in the studies of canonical works and of previously neglected titles. Paize Keulemans’s Sound Rising from the Paper: Nineteenth-Century Martial Arts Fiction and the Chinese Acoustic Imagination offers one such example of a meaningful and fruitful re-reading of familiar materials from an illuminating new angle. It is a work that fundamentally changes our perception of an entire literary genre and its relationship with cultural and historical contexts. Perhaps more important, the book demonstrates how research on traditional Chinese literature can be informed by and contribute to transnational and interdisciplinary discussions, such as sound studies and comparative studies of early modernity.

Sound Rising from the Paper is the first monograph to apply sound studies to novelistic texts in the Chinese tradition. The acoustic features of late-nineteenth-century martial arts novels allow Keulemans to generate new understandings of important issues in the study of vernacular fiction, such as narratology, reading habits, imagined communities, and the role of commercial printing in nineteenth-century China’s cultural production. Those insights are grounded in admirably careful and convincing close readings of textual evidence found in both the novels and related texts. The prism of acoustic features allows these readings to break free of conventional thematic analysis. This is particularly valuable given that the novels examined are well-studied works. In terms of methodology, Keulemans explains his approach clearly in the Introduction and applies it consistently and effectively throughout the volume.

In the first two chapters, Keulemans establishes the cultural, historical, and technological contexts for the following chapters’ detailed examination of the acoustic features of martial arts novels. Chapter 1 examines the Ming and Qing literati’s interests in oral storytelling and their varied ideological motivations. In it, Keulemans compares Yu Yue’s 1889 editing of The Three Knights and Five Gallants into The Seven Knights with earlier scholars’ textual engagement with the storyteller’s oral performance. For late-Ming and early-Qing scholars such as Jin Shengtan, emphasizing the storyteller figure’s marvelous ventriloquistic skills of sound-making enabled the fiction writer to call attention to the illusionistic nature of the performer’s voice and, more important, “to the fictional qualities of the vernacular text itself” (p. 39). Their elite interest in and written patronage of the popular oral performance was meant to defend “literati domination over textual knowledge” (p. 37), and thus served to establish a community of literati scholars. By appreciating the storyteller’s voice in the late Qing, Yu Yue “places himself in a long textual lineage of the cultural elite’s patronage of the vernacular arts” (p. 57). His attempt to establish an uninterrupted lineage from the late Ming to his present was a form of nostalgia at a time when the Qing empire was struggling with both internal and external challenges during its twilight.

In the conclusion of this chapter, Keulemans points out that only two decades after Yu Yue’s creation of The Seven Knights, which aimed at elite Jiangnan literati readers, martial arts novels began to be sold in “hastily and shoddily produced cheap imitations” using newly imported Western printing techniques, and were consumed by a broad “middlebrow audience of readers” (p. 61). This link between the popularity of cheap printed editions and the middlebrow status of their readership in the early twentieth century is important. Robert Hegel has discussed the decline of fiction’s status in the Qing based on the shoddy quality of most Qing fiction editions. Indeed, a large number of vernacular novels were mostly, if not exclusively, circulated in these more affordable inferior quality woodblock editions in the Qing. Building from the insights of Hegel and Keulemans, I suggest we might reasonably speculate that the existence of a middlebrow audience and the popularization of cultural production, although usually associated with the rise of Mandarin Ducks and Butterflies fiction in the early twentieth century, can be extended back into the early eighteenth century.

While Yu Yue’s edition of The Seven Knights appealed to southern literati sentiments, Keulemans finds that the turning of storyteller tales into printed novels, which preceded Yu’s project in Beijing, capitalized on the popularity of the storyteller familiar to the local audience. By associating the novels with the reputed storyteller Shi Yukun in prefatory materials and foregrounding “the oral nature of the original telling,” the author is able to “suggest the kind of organic, oral community that is replaced by the printed tale” (p. 90). In the printed novels, the oral storyteller continues to function “as a locus of folkloric authenticity in an increasingly modernizing world” (p. 91). However, as Keulemans notes, when these novels were printed outside of Beijing in large quantities of inferior quality with new technologies of lithography and metal printing, they lost their folkloric authenticity. Nonetheless, the storyteller figure continued to be employed by writers for a variety of purposes. As such, these two chapters illustrate the cultural and historical significance embodied in the acoustic “excitement” of martial arts fiction.

In Chapters 3 through 5, Keulemans follows three lines of inquiry—generic, philological, and folkloric—to examine three different acoustic techniques. Chapter 3 pursues the generic line and its ideological features. It examines how the sound of the late-imperial marketplace—that is, its loud and lively vendor calls—in performance-related texts (such as drum-songs and storyteller libretti) generated literary “liveliness” (renao) that was appreciated by audiences and helped performers and publishers to advertise their martial arts tales. At the same time, vendor calls also functioned to discipline the potential vulgarity of renao by calling attention to the storyteller’s masterful creation of sound through the highly disciplined use of language. The transgressive potential of renao is further contained through “the focalization of the sensory experience” of the protagonist (p. 108), who moves through the chaotic marketplace as a disciplined observer. As exemplified in The Case of the Dragon Diadem, it is the vendor call, with its promise of liveliness and excitement, that entices readers to find out what happens next in the story. Yet, as the narrative progresses unilinearly toward a moralistic ending, the diverse desires it evokes—for commodities, for sex, and for indulging in the appreciation of literature—are eventually curbed. For aesthetic and economic reasons, the presence of vendor calls diminished significantly when these performance texts were turned into novels. However, the opposite was true in the case of the use of onomatopoeia, as Keulemans shows in the following chapter.

Keulemans’s philologically-grounded analysis in chapter 4 is a very welcome and long overdue intervention. It is the first in-depth study of the use of onomatopoeia in the Chinese novel. He suggests that this literary technique should be considered “the novelists’s invention” (p. 161) and that “onomatopoeia turns the reading of fiction into a lively and suspenseful experience” of spectacle (p. 159). These new findings complicate the accepted understanding of martial arts fiction readers and their reading habits, one that emphasizes the change from oral to silent reading in the late imperial period. Readers interested in the field of sound studies and historical linguistics should find Keulemans’s discussion of this phenomenon particularly informative and edifying. The chapter also examines the early development of fiction serialization, which occurred when “the production of sequels took a decidedly more commercial turn” in the nineteenth century (p. 172). It fills an important gap in the field, since most of the scholarship to date has focused either on the earlier phenomenon of fiction sequels and rewritings or on the more mature forms of fiction serialization in newspapers in the twentieth century.

Chapter 5 takes up Keulemans’s third line of inquiry, the folkloric, examining the dialect elements in The Three Knights and the Five Gallants and Tale of Romance and Heroism. Investigating the skill of cross-talking, Keulemans demonstrates how writers and readers relied on their “distinction from and skillful imitation of provincial speech” to create a community (p. 183), one built on a shared cosmopolitan identity. He then places the cosmopolitan appreciation of the capital city’s linguistic diversity in the larger intellectual context of Qing scholars’ interests in philology and dialect, and argues that dialect novels are the “linguistic expressions” of the “historical and literary shift towards regionalism” in vernacular fiction (p. 186). Existing scholarship has focused on manifestations of nineteenth-century regionalism in the Jiangnan and Lingnan areas, including dialect novels written in the Wu and Minnan dialects. Focusing on the empire’s political and cultural center, Kuelemans locates the existence of a superior Beijing identity “voiced”—literally and figuratively—in martial arts fiction. The practice of double printing characters to record the sound of dialects in The Three Knights, Keulemans observes, provides a most interesting example of a late-nineteenth-century linguistic experimentation, heralding many others that would occur in the transition from the imperial to the Republican era in the following decades.

The last chapter of the book links the textual world back to the urban space of the imperial city by examining acoustic techniques and effects in Tale of Romance and Heroism. Keulemans demonstrates how literati sentiments and popular taste—embodied in the sounds of the studio and that of the streets, respectively—collide, interact, and eventually come into balanced co-existence. This is a good example of how “the novel can create a harmony between these two worlds,” the elite and the popular (p. 258). The examination of the peculiar acoustic features corresponding to the complexities of the capital’s urban spaces echoes and complements the preceding chapters’ discussions of the importance of acoustic elements to our understanding of local audiences and their regionalist identities. The wall-piercing and boundary-challenging force of the sound of the market, with all the excitement and liveliness it produces, Keulemans argues, is ultimately contained in the literati writers’ textual world of the novel.

I would like to point out an important implication of Keulemans’s conclusion, which I find convincing. Keulemans observes that novelists’ interest in exploring the storyteller’s technique reached two peaks: the Ming-Qing transition and the late Qing. Both cases add weight to the theory that the use of the storyteller’s manner in vernacular fiction was from the beginning an intentional aesthetic choice on the part of literati writers. More important, the uneven attention received by the rhetorical figure of the storyteller from the Ming through the Qing suggests that the novelistic genre did not follow a linear development in terms of its mode of representation. If by the late Ming the storyteller’s manner and style had been incorporated into written literary conventions, what developments might have taken place in the period between then and the late-Qing’s renewed interest in the storyteller? More research needs to be conducted before we can make any general conclusions about such developments during those two hundred years. I would offer one tentative answer to this question: the role of drama. Drama proved a rich source for Ming/Qing literati novelists because its inclusion of poetry lent it respectability and because it was a good example of generic hybridity for the novel in its combination of poetry and prose. Studies of vernacular fiction have focused on the genre’s relationship to the oral tradition, but have yet to seriously explore drama as another important source that nourished the development of the novelistic genre both with thematic materials and aesthetic conventions.

I would also pose a few questions in response to Keulemans conclusions concerning the reception of the martial arts novel’s acoustic features. Chapter 1 examines elite (southern) readers’ appreciation of martial arts fiction through Yu Yue’s edited version of The Seven Knights. Here Keulemans notes that massively printed cheap editions of martial arts novels disseminated “the image of Beijing as the center of the Qing empire” to a nation-wide audience through the voice of the storyteller figure (p. 80). Yet, it is not clear how the rest of the empire responded to this image of Beijing and how they enjoyed the acoustic world in The Seven Knights and other novels. Martial arts novels’ ridicule of provinciality did not seem to have stopped dialect-speaking readers outside of Beijing from reading them. Why was that the case? Assuming that they did not take offense, what might be the reasons for overlooking this ridicule? Were they unaware of the condescension and/or unimpressed by the imperial city’s cosmopolitan linguistic diversity and superiority complex? How did social class, educational background, and regional variation affect readers’ responses? It would have been intriguing if Keulemans had addressed those questions.

Paize Keulemans’s Sound Rising from the Paper is the third recent English-language monograph on Chinese martial arts fiction, building on Margaret Wan’s Green Peony and the Rise of the Chinese Martial Arts Novel and John Christopher Hamm’s Paper Swordsmen: Jin Yong and the Modern Chinese Martial Arts Novel. Representing different theoretical approaches and literary-historical eras, these three books complement each other on multiple levels. Sound Rising from the Paper is a meticulously researched and intellectually challenging work. While offering significant contributions to the field of Chinese literary studies, it is sure to be of interest to readers interested in Chinese martial arts fiction and genre studies more broadly. For adventurous general readers, Sound Rising from the Paper will also prove to be an informative and thought-provoking page-turner.

Mengjun Li 
University of Puget Sound