RogerBW's Blog

The Wallet of Kai Lung, Ernest Bramah 02 March 2016

1900 collection of funny and fantastic stories of Imperial China.

Well, of Bramah's late-Victorian vision of Imperial China anyway. Yes, it has mandarins and the imperial examinations, and there are even some fairly obscure details like the Emperor's ceremonial ploughing of a carefully-prepared piece of ground, but everyone suffers from excessive understatement and politesse, and the only people not thoroughly corrupt are the holy-fool heroes and occasionally their inamoratas.

The plots are frankly forgettable, the setting is vague though spiced with intriguing details, and characterisation is nearly non-existent. All that's really left is the crafting of the individual sentences, and that's where Bramah excels, taking on the style of an overly formal translator. When someone finds himself commanding a force of archers, he is instructed:

"As regards their methods—if the renowned Ling insists—they fight by means of their bows, with which they discharge arrows at the foemen, they themselves hiding behind trees and rocks. Should the enemy be undisconcerted by the cloud of arrows, and advance, the bowmen are instructed to make a last endeavour to frighten them back by uttering loud shouts and feigning the voices of savage beasts of the forest and deadly snakes."

Although there's nothing terribly complicated in the language here, it's not an easy read; rather than belly-laughs or puns, it's a sophisticated dance, and if you don't watch every word you may miss the bit where the knives go in.

One of the less flowery passages, where a lesser man might merely say "have at you":

'When the earth-worm boasts of his elegant wings, the eagle can afford to be silent,' said a harsh voice behind them; and turning hastily they beheld Li Ting, who had come upon them unawares. 'Oh, most insignificant of table-spoilers,' he continued, 'it is very evident that much over-study has softened your usually well-educated brains. Were it not that you are obviously mentally afflicted, I should unhesitatingly persuade my beautiful and refined sword to introduce you to the spirits of your ignoble ancestors. As it is, I will merely cut off your nose and your left ear, so that people may not say that the Dragon of the Earth sleeps and wickedness goes unpunished.'

It's often great fun, but can get samey at length, and I think it's best read in small doses.

Followed by Kai Lung's Golden Hours. Freely available from Project Gutenberg and as an audiobook from Librivox.

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  1. Posted by Michael Cule at 11:45am on 02 March 2016

    “There are few situations in life that cannot be resolved promptly, and to the satisfaction of all concerned, by either suicide, a bag of gold, or thrusting a despised antagonist over a precipice on a dark night.”

    One of the on-going NPCs in my BANESTORM game is the daughter of Kai Lung and the Golden Mouse, a piece of fan-service that is visible to no-one but myself.

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