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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Adventures of Ma Suzhen

attributed to
Zhu Daotong and Qi Fanniu

general information | our review | links | about the authors

To purchase The Adventures of Ma Suzhen

Title: The Adventures of Ma Suzhen
Authors: (Zhu Daotong / Qi Fanniu)
Genre: Novel
Written: 1923 (Eng. 2021)
Length: 127 pages
Original in: Chinese
Availability: The Adventures of Ma Suzhen - US
The Adventures of Ma Suzhen - UK
The Adventures of Ma Suzhen - Canada
from: Bookshop.org (US)
directly from: Palgrave Macmillan
  • An Heroic Woman Takes Revenge in Shanghai
  • Chinese title: 馬素貞歷險記
  • Translated and with an afterword by Paul Bevan
  • With six illustrations

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Our Assessment:

B : neat-to-see work of 1920s Chinese adventure fiction, well presented

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The Ma Suzhen of the title is the (fictional) sister of Ma Yongzhen, a real-life figure who died in 1879 -- and, in fact, The Adventures of Ma Suzhen is a sequel of sorts to the novel 馬永貞演義 ('Ma Yongzhen: An Historical Romance') -- though, as translator Paul Bevan notes in his afterword-essay, 'A Hero of the Women's Realm, Ma Suzhen', "Though written as a sequel, The Adventures of Ma Suzhen stands alone as a self-contained story in its own right". The siblings' story was also made into a play and a film already in the 1920s, and Ma Suzhen has since become a figure featuring in numerous adaptations, including more contemporary films -- as has the better-known Ma Yongzhen.
       As the subtitle suggests, the novel involves An Heroic Woman Takes Revenge in Shanghai -- though as it turns out, that is a bit of an oversimplification (not least because it's quite a while before the character even makes it to Shanghai); nevertheless, the idea of revenge is central to the novel. The Prologue already reveals much that readers can expect, summarizing ( a bit more vividly than actually turns out to be the case ...):

     Recently, Ma Suzhen -- that most remarkable of women -- took revenge for her brother, and travelled many leagues alone, suffering countless hardships, while remaining undaunted by the repeated setbacks she encountered along the way. For those who have the will to succeed, ambitions may actually be achieved. In the case of Ma Suzhen, she succeeded in punishing her enemies by splitting them open to pluck out their hearts and tear out their livers, thereby laying the spirit of her departed brother to rest.
       The Mas hail from Shandong, and while Ma Suzhen has remained there, Ma Yongzhen had gone to Shanghai. When the novel opens, Ma Suzhen is wondering why she hasn't heard from her brother in a while and then has a vivid dream in which he appears to her -- dead. And, as she then tells her maid: "He told me to take revenge for him".
       It seems to have just been a vision, so Ma Suzhen isn't entirely convinced her brother is actually dead, and she first tries to ascertain whether or not he is. Among the interesting aspects of the novel is that, in fact, she only gets confirmation of his death far, far into it, when she is finally told the (more or less) full story:
     This was also down to Scrofulous Bai. I heard that he took charge of a scheme cooked up by his second in command, Lu the Lackey and invited a mob called the Axe Head Gang to join them. Someone by the name of Cheng Zimin started a fight at a small teahouse by the Nicheng Bridge at Sinza. First they threw a bag of quicklime in your brother's eyes to blind him, then chopped off his arm with an axe.
       So, at this earlier point when she is still uncertain and concerned about her brother's fate, Ma Suzhen decides she has to go to Shanghai herself, and she undertakes the dangerous journey. Skilled in martial arts like her brother, she is willing to undertake the perilous journey on her own -- even as her Uncle Gong protests: "It is such a great distance. How can you, a weak and feeble woman, make such a journey all alone ?" She does take some precautions -- specifically, disguising herself as a man -- but soon proves her mettle.
       Several of the adventures she has take place on this journey -- including one at an inn she stops at on the way, where she uncovers their technique of "two faces, three knives" which is an unpleasant but efficient way of ... getting the most out of their customers. Seeing injustice, Ma Suzhen does her best to right it, in fairly dramatic fashion (often with a bit of a comic touch to it as well). Still, as one of those she helps out points out:
Although you are making this journey to rid the world of evil, that is still murder. The law will not forgive you just because you are a knight errant with just and noble aims, and your crimes will not be diminished.
       (Somewhat disappointingly, this notion is not really considered at all beyond this in the novel; it's basically just shrugged off.)
       Among the interesting aspects of The Adventures of Ma Suzhen is how it sits at the intersection of eras. As Bevan points out, the novel: "should be recognised as being rooted firmly in the nineteenth century", as a Qing dynasty tale, even as the authors' descriptions are of a more modern China, especially in the cities of Nanking and Shanghai. So also, among the amusing scenes comes when Ma Suzhen encounters electricity and electric lighting for the first time, when she gets to Shanghai.
       Eventually, Ma Suzhen learns that her brother is, in fact, dead, and who is responsible, and she is determined to get her vengeance. As someone else from Shandong notes, the matter has so far: "passed by with neither the sweet smell of rightful conviction, nor the stink of unjust exoneration", but Ma Suzhen is determined to get a resolution -- not through the authorities, but personally:
Retribution after a murder is, of course, a matter of personal responsibility, and must be undertaken by the victim's own flesh and blood.
       So it's up to her. To do so, she has to seek out those responsible, and figure out how she wants to get justice. As someone reminds her: "This matter will work itself out in the end. The long plan is to take revenge, but we must not be too impatient."
       The novel is fairly patient, with Ma Suzhen's revenge-exacting saved until close to the end; in a way, it's almost anti-climactic in how quickly the conclusion is then reached ("In no time at all the evil doers had had their comeuppance and had been dispatched to the yellow springs of hell"), as ultimately The Adventures of Ma Suzhen is about all her adventures, rather than just this final one, getting revenge for her brother perhaps the personally most important one for her, but just one among several dramatic cases of justice being variously done.
       Each of the twenty chapters comes with a descriptive couplet of what to expect, and the authorial presence comes to the fore at times as well, including in such nice segues such as:
Here in my studio, though, the weather has turned cold, the sun is sinking, and the ink in my inkstone is frozen solid. I've got as far as this in my account but must now put down my pen and stroll down to the inn at the crossroads to purchase a few bowls of wine with which to warm my bones. I will then continue to tell the tale of Ma Suzhen and how she took revenge for her brother. This is a true story but I'm afraid my writing is not really up to the task. I do hope the reader will forgive me for this. We will meet again anon, but for the moment, gentle reader, farewell !
       There's also the nice concluding admission that:
I have brought us thus far in the narrative and my wrists have become painful from endless scribbling. I feel a little lightheaded and my mental and physical energies are much depleted. Having completed the writing of this tale, I'm afraid there are still many details that are sorely wanting and I hope the honourable reader will forgive me for any oversights. I pray do not be too picky as I had little time to write the book.
       The story is rather rough and tumble, frequently zipping ahead, with many junctions where the author decides that, of this or that: "we will say no more". Still, if rather rushed (and oddly paced), there's some decent adventure here, and some vivid scenes, and the comic touch helps as well. And, while the novel alone is overall fairly unexceptional, the packaging of the volume much enhances it: along with the illustrations, Bevan's supporting apparatus and especially his afterword-essay provide a good deal of information and context, making for a more interesting whole.
       It's neat to see a piece of 1920s popular Chinese literature like this -- far too little is available in translation -- and while more a curiosity than of real literary interest, even the novel itself does hold some appeal, especially in its strong protagonist and how she presents herself in the different situations she finds herself in. For contemporary readers the novel likely feels very underdeveloped in its telling, but quite a bit is raised here. (A shame, however, that a translation of the earlier volume, 'Ma Yongzhen: An Historical Romance' isn't also included, as that might also have helped make for a more balanced whole.)

- M.A.Orthofer, 9 March 2022

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The Adventures of Ma Suzhen: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Authors:

       Auhtorship of The Adventures of Ma Suzhen is uncertain, with translator Bevan noting that there are: "three names in particular mentioned in connection with the book": Qi Fanniu (戚飯牛), Yan Duhe (閻獨鶴), and Zhu Daotong (朱大公).

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© 2022 the complete review

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