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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Misadventures of
Master Mugwort

Su Shi, Lu Cai, and Tu Benjun

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To purchase The Misadventures of Master Mugwort

Title: The Misadventures of Master Mugwort
Authors: Su Shi, Lu Cai, Tu Benjun
Genre: Fiction
Written: ca. 1100; 1516; 1608 (Eng. 2023)
Length: 171 pages
Original in: Chinese
Availability: The Misadventures of Master Mugwort - US
The Misadventures of Master Mugwort - UK
The Misadventures of Master Mugwort - Canada
from: Bookshop.org (US)
directly from: Oxford University Press
  • The Misadventures of Master Mugwort collects three works
    • 'Miscellaneous Stories of Master Mugwort' (艾子雜說; ca. 1100), attributed to Su Shi
    • 'Further Sayings of Master Mugwort' (艾子後語; 1516), by Lu Cai
    • 'Other Sayings of Master Mugwort' (艾子外語; 1608), by Tu Benjun
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Elizabeth Smithrosser
  • This is a bilingual edition, with the original Chinese text facing the English translation
  • A volume in the Hsu-Tang Library of Classical Chinese Literature

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Our Assessment:

(-) : well presented; interesting collection

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The Misadventures of Master Mugwort collects three collections of stories or anecdotes involving 'Master Mugwort' -- 艾子 ('Aizi'; 'Master Ai') in the original, with 艾 indeed meaning 'mugwort' but, as translator Elizabeth Smithrosser notes in her Introduction: "Ai may be an intentional homophone of ai 騃, or "fool," making him "Master Fool".
       The fictional Master Mugwort appears to have been introduced in the Song dynasty collection 'Miscellaneous Stories of Master Mugwort' (ca. 1100), attributed to Su Shi. (There is some debate about the authorship of the collection, addressed by Smithrosser in both her Introduction as well as an Appendix on: "Issues of Attribution in Miscellaneous Stories".) The character is picked up again in the two later Ming dynasty collections included here, from 1516 and 1608, presenting similar comic pieces; the original collection consists of thirty-nine pieces, and all together there are seventy-six.
       As Smithrosser notes in her Introduction: "the episodes do not follow a chronological sequence and vary in length" -- and, while the court of Qi in the Warring States-era (475-221 BCE): "is presented throughout as his primary base and the state by which his services are patronized,", the stories: "are peppered with anachronisms, ranging from references to material culture and social structures that did not yet exist, to poetic allusions to later texts, to mention of figures who had not yet been born". And:

Each collection not only reflects the personal touch of the author, but also expresses the concerns of his era; the Master Mugwort collections are much less parodies of Warring States matters than they are satires of their own day and age, whereby the Warring States setup is a vehicle through which to poke fun at current affairs and human folly more broadly.
       Exegesis presented, in a smaller font, with the translations of the texts, as well as footnotes and text-critical endnotes, help make much of the historical context and allusions accessible to the contemporary reader, as well as also pointing out and explaining the language-play that is often at work here.
       For someone expecting a light comic collection, the first story, 'Master Mugwort is bestowed some excellent medicine', makes for quite the cold shower, with Master Mugwort concerned about his infant son, who is sick, and the King of Qi telling him he has just the thing to set the kid right again. Master Mugwort is philosophical about the outcome, but it's still pretty shocking -- but the tale does give an idea of how untouchable and uncondemnable the ruler is.
       None of the other anecdotes are as dark as that first one, but there is a hard edge to many of them -- though generally also with an amusing side. The scenarios and set-ups are often also wildy (and sometimes bizarrely) creative, as in 'Master Mugwort's disciples stage an intervention'. Since "Master Mugwort was an avid drinker; rare were his sober days", his concerned disciples want to scare him straight here, and so when he gets drunk and throws up one of them slips some pig guts in the vomit and then holds them up for Master Mugwort to see, suggesting he has vomited his own insides out ..... (Here, too, Master Mugwort proves fairly philosophical -- and surprisingly unimpressed.)
       The comedy and its presentation, as well as the moral lessons on offer are often rather different from those familiar from classical Western literature -- often with rather a different sort of punch in what amounts to the punchline. In some, the harsh edge is nicely used and turned, as in 'Master Mugwort's grandson', from 'Further Sayings of Master Mugwort', in which Master Mugwort punishes his lazy and misbehaving grandson by making him kneel shirtless in the cold and snow. Master Mugwort's son never dares interfere when his father punishes his son, but now he takes off his own shirt and kneels down beside the boy in the snow:
艾子驚 問曰 :「 汝兒有罪、︁應受此罚 〫 汝何與焉 ?」其子泣曰 :「 汝凍吾兒、︁吾亦凍汝兒 〫」艾子笑而釋之 〫

     In surprise, Master Mugwort asked, "Your son is at fault and needs to be punished. But what have you done to deserve this punishment ?"
     Tearfully, Master Mugwort's son replied, "If you freeze my son to death, I'll freeze yours !"
     Master Mugwort laughed and let them go.
       'Further Sayings of Master Mugwort' also has the sharpest lesson for a ruler, in 'Three feet of rope', where King Xuan has a grandee executed for plotting a coup and then wants to put his entire clan to death. At their request, Master Mugwort intervenes, coming to the king with three feet of rope and cheekily suggesting that the king should punish himself for a similarly treasonous act of his brother's .....
       Some of the explanations offered by Smithrosser make some of the comedic efforts clearer, but the humor is mostly of the chuckle- rather than laugh-out-loud variety. There are several nice bits that do work in translation as well, such as in 'Master Mugwort hears weeping in the sea', where some animals are weeping because: "the Dragon King issued an edict that declared, 'All water creatures with a tail shall be beheaded !' An alligator is surprised to hear a frog is also weeping, but the frog explains:

True, I am fortunate enough not to have a tail at present. But I'm terrified my past will come back to haunt me !
       The translation of the collection -- as suggested also in this somewhat freer but very nicely put example -- is solid -- fairly straightforward, with the annotations helping to suggest the other language-games and allusions at play here. A few phrasings are arguably too modern -- "what's with you ?" the alligator asks the frog in 'Master Mugwort hears weeping in the sea', and elsewhere someone suggests: "Shut up and stay in your lane !" -- but the text mostly reads well.
       It's neat to have such an example of Chinese comic writing -- not least because it covers two distinct periods (and dynasties), centuries apart -- and Smithrosser's informative Introduction and extensive supplementary material help greatly with appreciation of the texts.
       In a Preface to 'Further Sayings of Master Mugwort' Lu Cai coyly suggests: "And if it be said that there are hidden meanings lodged inside -- well, how could I dare ?" Contemporary readers will likely miss some of these -- despite Smithrosser providing many keys -- but enough are nevertheless (also) broad and general enough to be appreciated.
       The Misadventures of Master Mugwort is more literary-historical curiosity than funny-tale collection, but it is -- especially in this presentation (bilingual and all) -- an interesting one -- and there is real humor to be found here as well.

- M.A.Orthofer, 27 June 2024

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The Misadventures of Master Mugwort: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Authors:

       Su Shi (蘇軾) lived 1037 to 1101.

       Lu Cai (陸采) lived 1497 to 1537.

       Tu Benjun (屠本畯) lived 1542-1622.

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© 2024 the complete review

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