Grayswandir (_grayswandir_) wrote,

The Deer and the Cauldron - Louis Cha

A book review, of sorts.

For my first foray into Yuletide this year, I took a bit of a risk: I requested a book that I hadn’t actually managed to read yet. I’d been looking for a copy for more than two years, after falling utterly in love with an old TVB adaptation of the story. But finding a complete copy in English was impossible. My library did have the first volume, but the other two I could only find at online bookstores for outrageously high prices. Finding it in Chinese was easy enough, but it’s set in the 17th century and hence full of archaic and literary language, and besides that, it’s extremely long. (How long? Well, the English version1 spans almost 1,600 pages, and according to Wikipedia, this War and Peace-length translation is “highly abridged.” o_o )

I’m generally a book person, though, or at least a primary-source person, so when I decided to nominate the TV adaptation for Yuletide, I really wanted to include the original novel as well. So I did. And then I sort of panicked about having not actually read it, and went looking for a copy again—and found one!

So I’ve now finally read the whole book. Or the whole “highly abridged” English version of the book, at any rate. And needless to say, I have thoughts. A lot of them are thoughts about how the book measured up to my expectations, based on what I knew from the TVB series. Aaaand a lot of them are also just "slash goggles: on."

In brief, The Deer and the Cauldron traces the adventures of a street-urchin trickster anti-hero, Wai Siu-bou,2 as he (in one reviewer’s words) “traipses all around the countryside avoiding problems and creating even more of them.” Much of the drama stems from his increasingly hopeless efforts to navigate a lot of very contradictory loyalties—in particular, his close friendship with the young Emperor of China, and his simultaneous membership in a secret society whose aim is to overthrow the empire.

The relationship between Wai Siu-bou and the Emperor Hong Hei anchors the rest of the story, and it was what I loved about the TVB series and was hoping to see more of in the novel. And there is more of it in the novel. Actually a lot more. But... also sort of less? I’ll come to that in a bit. It wasn’t exactly what I was expecting.

One thing can be said, though: if you're looking for subtext, the novel is most accommodating. “Several of the officers and courtiers noticed—with surprise, for he was normally so grave and mature in public and never showed any sign of emotion—that Hong Hei’s eyes were red and swollen with weeping. When they saw Wai Siu-bou’s tear-stained face as well, they assumed that he was responsible and wondered of exactly what nature the boy-Emperor’s relationship with his young favorite might be.

Wai Siu-bou is about thirteen when he happens to become the improbable daily playmate of the boy-Emperor Hong Hei (who is one or two years older). They meet by accident in the Palace sparring room, where Wai Siu-bou, disguised as a eunuch and having no idea who the other boy is, proposes a wrestling match. The Emperor has never in his life met anyone bold enough or ignorant enough to challenge him in earnest (or to roughhouse or play with him at all, for that matter), and is delighted. He promptly adopts an alias in order not to scare off his first-ever potential friend.

I was familiar with this delightful setup already from the TV series, but the novel offered a lot more details. And also, onscreen, the wrestling scenes were all just punching and kicking, whereas in the book, the boys seem to spend half their time rolling around and climbing all over each other.
Wai Siu-bou finally managed to wriggle on top of the boy and hold him down. He was too light to maintain the upper hand for long, however, and soon the boy was back on top of him again.

Wai Siu-bou had meanwhile managed to hook his left foot round the boy’s waist, and started to rub it up and down the small of his back. The boy, it transpired, was extremely ticklish, and he couldn’t help giggling, and loosened his grasp.

Wai Siu-bou reached out frantically as he fell, clutching at the boy’s legs, and the two of them went down together. They struggled for a while, each one gaining the upper hand for a moment, then going under, ringing the changes more than a dozen times, until finally they were in a complete deadlock, panting and staring fixedly at each other. And then suddenly, at exactly the same moment, they both burst out laughing. There was something about the clinch they were in that struck them both as terribly funny. Slowly they let go.

As Wai Siu-bou rose to his feet, he stole a closer glance at his opponent: there was something at once impressive and attractive about the boys’ features, a clearness of brow, a noble look in the eyes, an expression in the face, that drew Wai Siu-bou towards him.

“What’s your name?” asked the boy.

“Little Kwai,” replied Wai Siu-bou. “And yours?”

After a moment’s hesitation the boy replied:

“Mine’s . . . People call me Little Yuen.”
For the next couple of months, Wai Siu-bou seems to spend all his time either practicing for, or dreaming about, wrestling with “Little Yuen.” The Emperor’s experience is pretty much the same:
Their subsequent sparring matches brought the young Emperor untold delight, so much so that he became determined not to reveal his true identity to his newfound friend. He gave instructions that none of his personal eunuchs was to disturb them.

With Wai Siu-bou, Hong Hei could unwind, he could discard his Imperial persona and be himself; he could play and fight and scramble around. Never in his entire life had he known such unadulterated fun. Since meeting Wai Siu-bou, his very dreams were of fighting and tumbling with his new friend.

For both boys their daily wrestling bouts became something of an addiction: if they missed a day, they became positively unwell.
Eventually, however, Wai Siu-bou finds out that his new friend is the Emperor, which puts a bit of a damper on their wrestling matches, despite the Emperor’s best efforts:
He held Wai Siu-bou by the hand, and said: “In front of other people, you’ll have to call me Your Majesty; but when we’re on our own, I’d like you to carry on as before.”
Incidentally, I don’t even know how many times the two of them hold hands in the course of the book. It happens a lot.
Hong Hei seized Wai Siu-bou by both hands and asked in a shaking voice: “Are you... sure all this is true?”

Hong Hei descended from the throne, took Wai Siu-bou by the hand, and led him over to the table, on which was spread a large map.

He reached out and held Wai Siu-bou’s hand in his own. They could each feel how cold and clammy the other’s palm was.
Also, as soon as the Emperor realizes that Wai Siu-bou is too afraid to fight with him in earnest anymore, he starts bringing him into his private chambers and other Imperial rooms around the Palace to just keep him company instead. The Emperor’s bedroom is apparently not quite up to his friend’s standards:
Wai Siu-bou went on in with Hong Hei. He had always imagined the Emperor’s sleeping quarters to be a place of absolute luxury and splendor, gilded with gold and studded with precious stones, with so many lustrous pearls suspended on the walls that there would never be need of lamps at night. To his surprise, he found it to be rather an ordinary room, apart from the bedding and coverlets, which were of yellow silk, embroidered with dragons and phoenixes. Wai Siu-bou was greatly disappointed.

“Why,” he thought to himself, “this place isn’t even up to the standard of some of the top rooms at Mum’s whore-house in Yangzhou!”

When they reached Hong Hei’s apartment, the Emperor dismissed all his other eunuchs, but told Wai Siu-bou to stay behind.

Hong Hei retired to one of his private chambers with Wai Siu-bou, and the two of them got changed.

Hong Hei would often take his friend with him to the Upper Library, to keep him company in his studies. The guards and eunuchs on duty in the Palace by now all knew that “Little Kwai” [...] was the Emperor’s special favorite.
The Emperor shares most of his secrets with Wai Siu-bou—“the only human soul to whom he could ever unburden his true feelings.” And though Wai Siu-bou is a compulsive liar, he shares quite a few secrets as well. This particular scene in the Emperor's bedroom is rather something:
Wai Siu-bou looked at him. To think that one day his friend the Emperor might be in grave danger. [...] He had a duty to tell him everything he knew. He had visions of Hong Hei’s body lying dead on the ground, his bones all broken. He suddenly burst into tears.

“What’s the matter?”

There was a concerned smile on the Emperor’s face. He patted Wai Siu-bou on the shoulder. “You want to stay with me, don’t you? Don’t worry, that can be arranged. In a few days’ time, when she’s better, I’ll have a word with the Empress Dowager. To tell the truth, I really miss you too.”

Wai Siu-bou put the cakes on the table and took hold of both of Hong Hei’s hands. His voice trembled.

“Little Yuen—can I call you that again?”

Hong Hei laughed.

“Of course you can! I always said that when there was no one else around we should drop the formalities. I know what it is: you want to fight, don’t you? Come! On guard!”

As he said this, he turned his hands around, and adopted an upside-down grip.

“It’s not that,” said Wai Siu-bou. “Fighting can wait. It’s something else, something very important. Something I need to tell my dear friend Little Yuen. Something I could never talk about to His Majesty... His Majesty would certainly chop my head off.”

Hong Hei found this all highly intriguing. He put his hands on Wai Siu-bou’s shoulders and guided him to the edge of the bed, where they sat down together side by side.

“Come on then, speak up.”

“Promise you’ll be Little Yuen, not His Majesty?”

“Promise. At this moment I’m your good friend Little Yuen. I’m no one’s Majesty. I can tell you, being a Majesty all day long, without a single real friend in the world, can be very tiresome.” [...]

Wai Siu-bou heaved a long sigh, and began: “Well, here goes. First of all, I’m not really Little Kwai. I’m not really a eunuch at all. The real Little Kwai is dead. I killed him.”

What?” Hong Hei looked utterly flabbergasted.

Wai Siu-bou proceeded to give him a brief account of his life to date: where he had been born, how he had been captured and brought into the Palace, how he had blinded Old Hai Dafu, how he had impersonated, and then killed, Little Kwai, and how Old Hai had taught him kung fu.

Hong Hei’s first reaction was hysterical laughter.

“Tamardy! Come on then! Undo your trousers and let’s have a look!”

He needed more than his friend’s word. Wai Siu-bou did as he was told. He untied his trousers and let them fall to the ground. Hong Hei was now able to see with his own eyes that Wai Siu-bou was decidedly overqualified for the role of eunuch.
And, several years later:
“Incidentally, tell me, Little Kwai, whereabouts in Yangzhou exactly was your home?”

Wai Siu Bou flushed.

“Majesty, it’s nothing to be proud of, I’m afraid. As a matter of fact, I was brought up in a whore-house. My folks ran one of the best places in Yangzhou, a place called Vernal Delights.”

Hong Hei smiled. He was thinking to himself: “I’ve always known you were a street-urchin. But I’m touched that you finally felt able to tell me the whole truth.”
Emotional professions of mutual attachment? Check.
“You know that for me the best place of all is when I’m near you, Majesty. I just like to hear the sound of your voice. I like to see your smile. That’s what makes me happy. And I mean it. I’m not trying to flatter you.”

Hong Hei nodded.

“I believe you. I feel the same way myself. I feel happy when I see you. All that time when you were away and no one knew what had happened to you, and we all thought you were drowned, I felt so wretched. I should never have sent you on such a dangerous mission in the first place. I felt damned bad about it.”

Wai Siu-bou was genuinely moved by these words of Hong Hei’s.

“I just... I wish I could stay with you for the rest of my life.”

There was an unmistakable lump in his throat.

“Very well. I shall rule as Emperor of China for sixty years, and you shall be my Chief Minister of State for sixty years.”

The Emperor rarely talked to one of his subjects in this way. But the friendship between these two young men was most unusual.

“I’m not afraid of the danger,” said Wai Siu-bou. “It’s the thought of leaving you. After all, I’ve only just got back.”

Hong Hei nodded. “I know. I feel the same way.”

Passing through the city gate was for Wai Siu-bou like re-entering paradise after a long spell away. He set off to see the Emperor at once.

As of old, he was summoned to a private audience in the Upper Library where Hong Hei was seated on his chair of state waiting for his arrival. Wai Siu-bou advanced, knelt down, and kowtowed. There, while he was kneeling down with his face on the floor, his pent up emotions got the better of him and he burst into tears. Whether it was from joy at being back or sorrow for everything that had happened, he probably couldn’t have said. Hong Hei for his part had equally mixed feelings on seeing him enter. Two-thirds of him was delighted to see his boyhood friend once more, but the remaining, Imperial third was extremely angry.

“The little bastard thinks he can get away with anything,” he told himself. “This time I really must do something about it, or else it will be the same this time as it was before. He’ll take things into his own hands and do exactly as he likes.”

But as Wai Siu-bou knelt there in front of him, crying like a baby, his heart melted and he forgot his resolution.
And on a side note, Wai Siu-bou isn’t the only one who does his fair share of crying. For someone who “never showed any sign of emotion” in public, the Emperor sure doesn’t hold back around his friend. In all, there may be almost as many crying scenes as hand-holding scenes:
He walked into his bedroom and stared deeply into Wai Siu-bou’s face. A tear stole down his cheek.

Hong Hei broke down and wept. When Wai Siu-bou handed him the Sutra the Old Emperor had given him, tears fell on the cloth wrapping.

Hong Hei threw himself against the door and for a while sobbed uncontrollably. And this time the tears that Wai Siu-bou shed to keep him company were not entirely forced.
Of course, it’s not all angst and drama. Sometimes they just... pee on things together.
Wai Siu-bou mischievously suggested that they should commence operations against the Satrap of the West by pissing on his stone. And Hong Hei, who, for all the Imperial gravity of his everyday demeanor, was still a boy at heart, gleefully took up the suggestion, hitched up his gown, and began untrussing his trousers.

“You too,” he said.

And so the two friends, Little Kwai and Little Yuen, stood there, one on each side, solemnly watering Wu Sangui with their piss. Their eyes met as they were trussing themselves up again and they burst out laughing.
When Wai Siu-bou is off doing things on his own, the Emperor envies him and tries to live vicariously through his stories. But they also do plenty of things together. They scheme. They look out for each other. They have adventures.
“Let me go in first,” said Wai Siu-bou. “The Emperor is too important a person to take risks.”

Knowing that the false Empress Dowager was powerless against him, Wai Siu-bou could afford to be heroic, but Hong Hei’s knuckles were white as he grasped his sword.

Meanwhile, Hong Hei had retreated so far that his back was against the altar and he could go no further. Just when the monk apparently had him at his mercy, Wai Siu-bou, not stopping to think what he was doing, jumped in front of him and received full in his own chest the thrust that was intended for the Emperor.

“Don’t be scared!” said Hong Hei. “I’ll be there to protect you.”

Wai Siu-bou was now in a cold sweat and trembling too violently to get a proper grip on the rope. He and Hong Hei looked at each other, speechless with joy and excitement.

Hong Hei looked on, reflecting on how carefully Wai Siu-bou was taking everything in hand, how devotedly and effectively he was seeing to his Emperor’s personal safety, just as he had done on Mount Wutai.

Wai Siu-bou was a little taken aback by this. “I might be risking my life,” he said, “but you’re the Emperor. Who would dare harm you? Besides, with you to protect me, how would I be afraid for my life?”

What he really meant was: “If I should ever be in any danger, I hope you’ll take care of me.”

Wai Siu-bou dashed forward, threw his arms around Hong Hei, and bundled him under the desk, at the same time protecting him with his own body. From beneath the desk they heard a series of heavy thuds. [...] Hong Hei, who had himself only just emerged from under the desk, reflected that once again he owed his life to Wai Siu-bou—however unorthodox and lacking in dignity his methods of protection may have been.
I just don’t even know how they could possibly be any more of an OTP.

Character dynamics: book vs. show

As is probably obvious, I quite enjoyed the interactions between these two characters in the novel. But I have to say... I think the TVB show actually made the relationship a lot more interesting, by developing an ongoing power struggle between them almost from the very beginning. The fact that their friendship begins as a playful sort of battle waged on wrestling mats seems like obvious foreshadowing for much more serious power struggles later on, and the TVB show capitalizes fully on this potential. The novel never really does.

In fact, in the novel, there’s practically no tension between the two characters at all until the latter half of the final book. And even then, the Emperor only really gets angry a couple of times, and his threats never sound all that genuine. He never seems to really doubt Wai Siu-bou’s devotion, or to feel threatened by his lies or transgressions. He never even seems all that bothered by the fact that despite being the Emperor, and despite having no other friend in the world except Wai Siu-bou, he’s just one of many important people in Wai Siu-bou’s life, and has no particularly elevated status. One never gets the sense of any really deep conflict between them.

By contrast, on the TVB show, that conflict is one of the story’s most persistent themes. The Emperor seems to realize very early on that Wai Siu-bou’s stories are all lies or wild exaggerations, and although this amuses him at first, he becomes increasingly exasperated as it continues, and in the final few episodes he’s positively outraged. The show also arranges for Wai Siu-bou to make a number of very unauthorized moves within the Palace, and again, the Emperor initially finds his waywardness charming, but much less so once the novelty of having his authority challenged wears off.

On the show, too, the boys’ early arguments are an important part of their developing relationship, and I even think they show the Emperor’s feelings of friendship toward Wai Siu-bou more clearly than the novel does. We know that the Emperor has no need to argue with anyone; he has absolute authority to dismiss or outright execute people who contradict him. But he argues with Wai Siu-bou, and he lets Wai Siu-bou argue back. This feels like an extension of their wrestling matches, where the Emperor is making a point of struggling with his friend as if they were equals. We see how he deliberately allows Wai Siu-bou to wield a certain amount of power over him, for the sake of having him as a friend rather than a subject.

In the novel, there’s none of this. The two of them don’t argue at all until almost the very end of the final volume. Sometimes the Emperor calls Wai Siu-bou out on a lie or reprimands him for something, but almost before Wai Siu-bou can start making his apology, the Emperor is already laughing and holding his hand again.

On the show, we see how the Emperor’s political role gradually takes over his personality and changes him. He changes in the novel, too—but in the novel, it’s mostly just a process of maturing and becoming more wise, sedate, thoughtful, and benevolent. On the show, there is a distinct element of danger in it, as his personal interests and feelings are gradually subordinated to his Imperial responsibilities.

We can see, too, on the show, that the Emperor has grown up with a typical princely worldview in which practically everyone else is expendable, and even Wai Siu-bou is, to some extent, a possession—at first a rare and valuable plaything, and later a tool to be used judiciously. As he matures, the Emperor seems torn between friendship and political ambition. He takes Wai Siu-bou’s self-sacrificing loyalty increasingly for granted, and is vexed as often as he’s amused by his friend’s insistent autonomy.

On the show, the Emperor’s early displays of boyish intimacy gradually take on a rhetorical charge, and seem to transform into modes of coercion. He becomes suspicious and calculating, and his words of praise become subtly barbed. By the last few episodes, much of his dialogue is distinctly sinister. Yet we can also see that, underneath his suspicion and his perpetual bristling at so many challenges to his authority, his emotions are very conflicted. He’s looking for some final proof of Wai Siu-bou’s total and sole devotion to him, but this is something he can never have.

The novel has none of this. The two boys get on quite well. The Emperor realizes fairly early on that he and Wai Siu-bou can’t sustain the fiction of being equals, so he adjusts their relationship accordingly, and it seems to be no problem. We get a couple of hints that the Emperor is becoming more distant, as here:
Wai Siu-bou watched him anxiously. With every day, the Emperor was growing more and more a figure of authority, someone to be feared. Each time he saw him, he felt their old friendship slipping away. Gone were the days when they used to spar and tumble together without a care in the world.
But that’s about as far as it goes. Even toward the end of the book, when the Emperor does get angry, it just never seems very serious.
“I want a full confession from you,” replied Hong Hei. The very mention of the old names Little Yuen and Little Kwai had brought memories of their happy sparring days flooding back. And the Old Sage Onion joke—Hong Hei could not help smiling. But at the same time he could not possibly allow Wai Siu-bou to get away with it as easily as that. “Confess everything. One lie, and I’ll have you chopped up and fed to the dogs!”

“Yes, Majesty! Yes, Majesty!”

From where he was on the floor, Wai Siu-bou could only hear Hong Hei’s severe tone of voice. He could not see the hint of a smile on his face.

Hong Hei looked at Wai Siu-bou prostrate on the ground before him, and realized that wealth and glory, rank and title, meant nothing to him. He was still a street urchin at heart. It made him angry. It offended him. But at the same time, he could not help being amused by it.
There are places where it feels like a certain tension between the characters is present in the novel, but only in very subtle ways. Here, for instance—
“Tamardy, how you’ve grown!” said Hong Hei, momentarily transformed, as he jumped down from his throne, into the cocky boy whom Wai Siu-bou used once to wrestle with.

“Come on,” he said, “let’s see which of us is the taller!”

He made Wai Siu-bou stand back to back with him and felt above their heads with the flattened palm of his hand. Wai Siu-bou had already noticed that he was now a little taller than Hong Hei and deliberately flexed his knees so that he would appear to be an inch shorter than he really was.

“We’re exactly the same height!” said Hong Hei triumphantly.
—what exactly does it mean if Wai Siu-bou has grown up taller than the Emperor? And what does it mean if he chooses to conceal it? And what does it mean if the Emperor, who is infinitely the more perceptive of the two, doesn’t notice, or chooses to play along with the lie?

There are places like this in the novel that bear questioning. But as here, they tend to show both boys doing all they can to avoid conflict with each other, and generally succeeding. The TVB show is all about the conflict, including their separate internal conflicts as they try to juggle contradictory identities.

I was expecting these kinds of things to be developed more fully in the novel, but as it turns out, they’re almost just not there at all.

In fact, the final couple of episodes of the show appear to have been wholly the invention of TVB’s screenwriters. In the novel, Wai Siu-bou plays a trick on the Taiwanese, and then leaves Beijing—and in terms of action, that’s basically the end. On the show, the trick on the Taiwanese is merely a lead-up to a far more dramatic sequence of events, in which Wai Siu-bou and the Emperor get into a raging argument, and after calling the Emperor out on all his failures as a ruler, Wai Siu-bou slaps him across the face before being dragged off by the guards. The Emperor then goes to wipe out the last of his enemies, knowing that if he succeeds, Wai Siu-bou will never forgive him. At the last moment, he calls off the attack, and we see him put out a canon fuse with his bare hand, burning himself. The action makes no logical sense, but symbolically it works: this is the only time we ever see him making something like a real, physical sacrifice for his friend. It’s the only thing even remotely analogous to the times when Wai Siu-bou has thrown himself in front of swords to save the Emperor’s life. There’s something importantly reciprocal here, which the novel never gives us.

On the show, they meet one last time in the sparring room. The Emperor himself seems to have set the whole scene up like theater, calculated for maximum tragedy: the sparring room where they used to play as boys, the cassia cakes that were always Wai Siu-bou’s favorite treat, the announcement of his having spared his own enemies for his friend’s sake—and then an execution order. His rhetoric, invoking their childhood nicknames and complaining bitterly that he has made every possible concession for Wai Siu-bou but has never been repaid with the respect or loyalty he’s deserved—it’s perfectly credible, perfectly human, while Wai Siu-bou spits at him and thrashes, equally enraged at this abuse of power, this complete failure to understand what friendship means to him.

I’m sort of at risk of launching into a recap of the whole final episode of the TVB series, but god, there’s just so much there. There are all these reversals, and by ultimately pardoning Wai Siu-bou even after every single test has been failed, the Emperor finally, for the only time, proves his loyalty. And at that point Wai Siu-bou, in turn, gives him the last thing he still has to give: information about the buried treasure that has been the MacGuffin of the entire story.

That this never happened in the novel was frankly astonishing to me. We spend the entire three-volume epic watching Wai Siu-bou collect books and map pieces and finally discover the location of the treasure, but in the novel there is no resolution. Maybe that’s fitting, in a way, either because what the Emperor actually wanted was for there to be no resolution (he wanted the maps destroyed), or because Wai Siu-bou can’t tell the Emperor where the treasure is without in some sense betraying his other friends and definitely choosing the Emperor’s side. Maybe it’s even fitting just because the novel is, after all, an anti-epic, and part of the point is for it to defy generic conventions, such as having a resolution. If so—that’s fair. But I have to say, I am very, very fond of the way things play out at the end of the TVB series, at drama levels fully worthy of Shakespeare.

And then, my renewed appreciation for the TVB show is in itself a touch disappointing, because after all, the show is not that good. It’s still a dated, low-budget wuxia drama that at best merely hints at all the depth and complexity that I was hoping the novel would actually embody. Much of the show is taken up, inevitably, with ridiculous kung fu battles and questionable romantic interludes. And although Tony Leung and Andy Lau may be two of Hong Kong’s best actors, they were both very young when they acted in this series, and neither one of them was at anything like their present skill levels. The show they made is adorable, but hard to take seriously.

Other points

Anyway. Leaving aside the parts of it that concern Wai Siu-bou’s relations with the Emperor, I have mixed feelings about the rest of the novel. It has good points, certainly. It also has some fairly serious faults.

I was fully expecting the utterly ridiculous abundance of coincidences, so I wasn’t too irritated by those, although one does get an overall impression of China as being roughly the size of, like, a large university campus, based on the fact that our hero can’t seem to step into a single tavern anywhere in the whole country without running into at least half a dozen people he remembers meeting previously in some completely different part of the country. There’s some iffy stuff with the timeline. There’s also a lot of tedious redundancy, because the book was originally published in serial form, so a lot of things had to be re-explained periodically, for the benefit of possible readers who might have missed the earlier installments. (I’m not sure why the translator didn’t just omit these bits, since he was abridging the thing anyway...)

The worst thing about the book, hands down, is its treatment of women. I already knew from the TVB series that this would be bad, but that didn’t make it any less bad. I don’t mind the fact that our protagonist is a chauvinist bastard. He’s a lying, cheating, wily, manipulative trickster anti-hero who grew up in a brothel in 17th-century China, and I’m willing to accept him with his flaws. There’s even one place in the novel where another character calls him out on his abusive treatment of women as mere objects for possession, and he himself admits that where women are concerned, he’s incapable of selfless love. That’s fine. I don’t need him to be punished for this, or reformed. But I do expect the women he chases after in the story to behave like real live human beings. Alas, the plot demands that they all eventually succumb to his (very questionable) charms and become his willing harem. And so they do. :|

On the positive side, one thing that the novel does well (and that the TVB series did rather poorly) was to develop Wai Siu-bou’s relationship with his other friends, the rebel society group, and in particular their Helmsman, Chen Jinnan. On the TVB show, none of the rebels are all that interesting, and it’s hard to understand why Wai Siu-bou is so hell-bent on being loyal to them. In the novel, though, Chen Jinnan is a compelling figure in his own right. He seems to positively radiate an air of wisdom, intelligence, patience, skill, and command, which makes him a very fitting opposite for the young Emperor. Wai Siu-bou looks on him as a kind of idol. The Emperor is his playmate and friend, but doesn’t strike him with any particular awe, except by virtue of his title. Chen Jinnan, by contrast, is positively magnetic. He’s a storybook hero, a teacher, and a father-figure.

So Wai Siu-bou’s divided alliance makes perfect sense in the novel, whereas in the TVB series, it was hard to understand his attraction to the rebel group or their leader. In the novel, we spend many pages with his rebel friends, and we know what he owes them and why he feels responsible for them, and can understand his horror at the idea of letting the Emperor massacre them with his cannons. It’s a pity this wasn’t handled better by TVB, because its being handled poorly detracts quite a bit from Wai Siu-bou’s character. A lot of his motives and decisions don’t seem to make a lot of sense without a clearer picture of what draws him to the rebel group.

So. I don’t have a good place to end this post, but those are my extremely long-winded thoughts about The Deer and the Cauldron (as relentlessly juxtaposed to the TVB adaptation that induced me to read it). I liked it—I really did, even in spite of the very mediocre translation and other assorted faults. But it does sort of bother me that there are things I still like better about the TV version, because I feel like the original book canon is the “real thing” and deserves according priority.

This is why I always try to read books first. It makes sense to complain about changes made in adaptations, but it’s sort of a problem when you want to complain about the original text having not been more like the way it was later adapted. :P


1John Minford’s translation of The Deer and the Cauldron is so far the only translation in English, and sadly, it leaves rather something to be desired. In a lot of places, the prose style is just sort of clumsy, and also I’m apparently not the only person to disapprove of Minford’s choice to translate the characters’ names into English words (“Trinket,” “Laurel,” “Misty”), rather than keeping them in Chinese.

2The quotations above are all from Minford’s translation (with occasional slight edits for clarity), but I’ve replaced Minford’s translated character names with Cantonese transliterations. (I realize it would make more sense to use the Mandarin forms, but honestly, the only person really likely to read/reread this entry is me, and I prefer the Cantonese. If you’re curious, in Mandarin the main characters are called Wei Xiaobao, alias “Xiao Guizi,” and Kangxi, alias “Xiao Xuanzi.”)

3 I guess some of these things might be in the original novel but just not in the abridged translation?

[This entry was originally posted at]
Tags: books, literature, shows, the duke of mount deer
Comments for this post were disabled by the author