If He Hadn’t Heard It Nothing Would Have Happened—On the Scholarship and Translations of Patrick Hanan

An essay by Dylan Suher

Patrick Hanan’s most recently published translation, Mirage (New York Review Books, 2016) is historically significant for two reasons. First, the 1804 novel is the earliest to describe the lives of Guangdong merchants who traded with the West. Second, it is the last translation completed by Patrick Hanan, the foremost scholarly authority on premodern Chinese short fiction in the Western world and a prolific translator of that same fiction, before his death in 2014. In both his translation and his scholarship, Hanan was relentlessly attentive to the elegant touches that animated works of fiction like Mirage, to works that took seriously the craft of entertainment and the lives and values of ordinary people. It is only fitting to devote the same attention to Hanan’s life and work.


Patrick Hanan’s life story is one of venturing further and further out: from remotest New Zealand, to London, to China, and finally to Harvard, where he spent most of his life half a world away from where he began it.1 Hanan grew up on an isolated farm in the Waikato. The first school he attended was a one-room schoolhouse that could only be reached on horseback. After university in Auckland, Hanan moved to England and worked a series of short-term jobs (apparently, at one point, making ice cream) before opting to study Chinese literature at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). Hanan’s New Zealand nationality afforded him the opportunity to do research for his dissertation in the People’s Republic of China, a rarity for Anglophone scholars during the Maoist era. His year abroad in 1957-8 coincided with the Anti-Rightist movement. At one point, his mentor Wu Xiaoling politely discouraged him from coming to visit, since it was dangerous for Wu to be seen with a foreigner while the political purge was in full swing.

At SOAS, Hanan’s advisor Walter Simon, a German sinologist who had fled the Nazis, encouraged him to study The Plum in the Golden Vase, a notoriously sexually explicit novel from the late sixteenth century. Hanan’s work on Plum marked the beginning of a career dedicated to Chinese vernacular fiction. The choice of specialization was unconventional for the time—earlier English-language sinologists, many of whom had been missionaries or at least Victorians, had dismissed these stories as morally dubious and low class. The field of study was also a seemingly incongruent choice for Hanan, the kind of professor who would teach in a full suit, work a nine-to-five day, and address his students as Mr, Miss, or later, Ms.

One of Hanan’s most influential works of scholarship is the 1973 book The Chinese Short Story: Studies in Dating, Authorship, and Composition. In The Chinese Short Story, Hanan attempts the daunting task of determining the date of one hundred and forty-nine extant Ming short stories. Bibliographic records from the period are scant and dubious; editors had no compunctions about repurposing material in a period before copyright; and since Chinese bibliophiles and librarians before the twentieth century had been less than sedulous in collecting fiction and other material they deemed unserious, the few editions that survive to this day have been preserved only through fortuity.

In a laconic, unfussy style, Hanan lists all the relevant sources and criteria for dating the stories, and then details the reasons he rejects previous attempts at doing so. He then hypothesizes that the newer stories can be identified by their use of certain colloquial short phrases that simulate oral storytelling. Hanan gives clichés that a reader of seventeenth-century Chinese fiction usually passes over quickly—日月如梭 “the days and months were as swift as a shuttle,” 萬事皆休 “[if he hadn’t heard it] nothing would have happened,” 閒話休提 “let us cease this idle talk [and get back to the story]”—a momentous significance as he counts up every instance, uses it to sort the old stories from the new, and shows how his conclusions fit with what we already know about when these stories were written.

This blur of data is exhaustive and sometimes exhausting, but such documentation is necessary to answer some of the most fundamental questions of literary history. We moderns are generally comfortable with the idea that people might lie professionally in print for our entertainment, a proposition that is odd, unsavory, and possibly dangerous upon closer examination (and indeed, seemed that way for centuries). From where did this concept of fiction emerge? How did it win people over? To answer these questions, you need accurate dating, which in turn requires a lot of footnotes, and a lot of homework. The scholar Cyril Birch recalled a January 1980 trip to Beijing in which Hanan returned to their shared hotel room blue from head to toe. Hanan had spent an entire freezing winter day in the unheated basements of various archives, wearing only his suit.

Where Hanan’s scholarship is effortful, his translations seem effortless, and they support each other, as if his research were the buttresses and his translations the vault. Consider Hanan’s work on the writer Li Yu (1610–1680), which includes the monograph The Invention of Li Yu, and translations of a novel (The Carnal Prayer Mat), and several short stories. Li was an aesthete whose expensive tastes often outstripped his means—in one essay, he tells a story about forcing his wives to pawn their jewelry so that he can buy some narcissus flowers. Coming from a modest family and having failed to obtain an official career, Li hustled endlessly, earning a living from his writing, indulgent patrons, and various publishing ventures. In his fiction and drama, he skewers his society with a sly, cheerful libertinism and delights in his own ingenuity.

Li Yu is difficult to translate. Humor in the first place is hard to preserve, wit is harder, and old wit is the hardest of all. Li enjoys showing off, but showing off in good taste. His substantial narrative commentary contains moral judgments you should know not to take seriously, abstruse references that are in-jokes to a select class of learned eighteenth-century Chinese literati, and gorgeous, exuberantly vernacular bullshit. Hanan captures Li’s voice with English reminiscent of Edwardian fiction at its most lucid—balanced sentences that know where to stop, diction that is erudite and elegant without being ostentatious. Like Li, Hanan hides his light under a bushel. See, for example, how Hanan handles the beginning of “Return-to-Right Hall,” a great caper about a con artist who finally goes straight:

Why should a wicked man be allowed to sacrifice to God so long as he repents? I have a splendid illustration: Goodness is like sunshine and evil like rain. Suppose the sun has been out all day. When you see the moon and stars, you’ll hardly think it cause for great celebration. But when you’ve had nothing but rain for days on end and are heartily sick of it, if the sun then breaks through, everyone will rejoice as if they’d seen the blessed skies. No one will blame the sun for coming out too late and shove it into the sea!

Hanan captures the middle register of Li Yu’s prose perfectly. “Suppose,” “Hardly think it,” “heartily sick of it,” are all vernacular, but vernacular from expensive zip codes. “Blessed skies,” a phrase first used by nineteenth-century Romantics, is a good match for the ethereal but not quite metaphysical 祥雲瑞靄 (literally, “auspicious clouds and propitious mists”). And best of all, in Hanan’s translations, the jokes hit home, which is probably what would have mattered most to Li himself.

Reading Hanan’s scholarly work on Li Yu, it becomes clear that Hanan’s comfort with the ironies of Li’s language comes from his deep understanding of the ironies of Li’s life. The Invention of Li Yu seeks to capture the entirety of its subject, from top to bottom, birth to death. The resulting portrait is schizophrenic. Li, in his life and work, seemed set on driving his future biographers mad. He prized authenticity but was rarely sincere; he mocked stuffy social mores but supported the conservative status quo; he loved novelty, yet also hated those who love novelty for novelty’s sake.

Hanan’s goal in Invention, however, is not to permanently pin down his subject. Instead, as he puts it, the study is “concerned above all with the ‘false’ Li Yu and his generally comic permutations of self, rather than with any search for a ‘true’ Li Yu.” His approach is necessary to show that Li, like any person worth spending time with, is not a simple archetype in a set narrative, but someone who cheerfully flits between contradictory positions that he feels are equally indisputable, and dwells with uncanny ease in the hypocrisy necessary for living in this world. Every great scholarly work is a disguised autobiography, and one cannot help but speculate about how Hanan, the Harvard professor studying eighteenth-century smut, personally relates to Li. His chapter on Li’s notion of creativity in particular seems a reflection on his own vocation. Li believed that great writing required both divine inspiration and the discipline and craft to rationally realize those divinely inspired ideas. In the same way, both scholarship and translation require not only the discipline to stick to the facts, but the creativity to fill in the gaps between those facts.

Despite these similarities, good scholarship and artful translation are often seen as significantly distinct, if not mutually opposed, practices. An essay in Esther Allen and Susan Bernofsky’s 2013 volume In Translation: Translators on Their Work and What It Means by the scholar-translator Catherine Porter, “Translations as Scholarship,” ironically serves to catalogue how often translations are overlooked as scholarship: translators left off dust jackets by scholarly presses, translations published anonymously by scholars afraid of how such frivolous work might affect their tenure. In the very same volume in which Porter’s essay appears, Eliot Weinberger advocates for translation as a liberating, transformative force, and makes as his bête noire those “foreign-language academics [who] are largely concerned with semantical accuracy, rendering supposedly exact meanings into a frequently colorless or awkward version of the translation language.”

I read Weinberger’s essay shortly after I finished Mirage, and I was prompted to reflect on my own failings as a critic and a scholar. As an undergraduate, I had found it difficult to see the appeal of traditional scholarship like Hanan’s, which seemed to me irrelevant pedantry when compared to the pyrotechnics and world-striding ambitions of poststructuralist and Marxist-inspired critiques. And in criticizing translations, it can be so difficult to appreciate solid, responsible craft; it is so much easier to fulminate against a criminal mistranslation, or celebrate virtuosic style. But to go to such romantic extremes is to fundamentally misunderstand the purposes and practices of good scholarship and translation. The good scholar, like the good translator, does not pay attention to the details out of myopia, but precisely because she understands the paradox of the vast gap between the part and the whole. A story seems so much more than the sum of its sentences, and yet, strictly speaking, that’s all a story can be—shift register here, lose a word there, cut a sentence, and the consequences are vast and unknowable. The more the scholar or translator stares at a troublesome point, the stranger this enterprise of literature seems. The simplest sentences become impossible to translate, impossible to explain. And yet it moves. The parts work together, and like a strandbeest, the work strides forward with uncanny grace.

Mirage is an OK novel. Like television, another medium that used to be seen as a mildly disreputable way of killing time, nineteenth-century Chinese novels are episodic, sometimes interminably long, often indifferently plotted, and filled with familiar tropes added for fan service. Mirage mostly fits the model, but it has its charms. It deals sensitively with the passions of its adolescent protagonist and spares him the punishments usually meted out by the fiercely moralistic genre. And it treats seriously the ordeals of men engaged in tawdry commerce, a topic not considered suitable for official chronicles or respectable poetry, but acceptable for a vulgar genre like fiction. Consequently, Mirage is one of the most detailed accounts we have of the trivial pursuits from which the mighty contests of the Opium Wars would arise. Somebody (we don’t know who—Mirage, like most Chinese fiction before the modern era, was published anonymously) decided that these lives were worth preserving in fiction. And Patrick Hanan decided that the charms of this novel were worth sharing with a wider audience. The best Ming-Qing short fiction is a pact, a society that unites the writer and the reader in shared appreciation for the pleasure of a truly unpredictable plot twist, a well-crafted scheme, a well-told tale; for the encounter between the everyday and the marvelous. Thanks to Hanan, I and many others have been able to enter that pact.

My favorite of Li Yu’s stories is translated by Hanan as “An Actress Scorns Wealth and Honor.” The title actress is the daughter of an acting family, and is raised to perform and to seduce rich men. A poor student sees her, instantly falls in love with her, and joins the acting troupe to get close to her. She soon falls in love with him as well, but the pair is watched closely, and can only express their love in the plays they perform. Her mother ultimately decides to marry her off to a rich man, and after protesting, the daughter finally concedes, so long as her mother would allow her to perform one last play. In this play, the female lead jumps in a river rather than marry, and when the time comes for the suicide scene, the young actress really does jump in the river. Her lover jumps after her, and the two are carried away by the stream until they are miraculously rescued by a fisherman. The two lovers return to his home where he plans to study for the civil service examinations, and they promise to repay the fisherman someday. When the young man finally makes it big, he returns to reward the fisherman and invites him to enjoy a life of luxury with them. The fisherman turns him down. How much better it is, the fisherman argues, to live by the river, enjoy the beauty of the world, and survive by honest labor. Eventually he convinces the two lovers to abandon their wealthy existence and live out their days farming right beside him.

By such fishermen the world is saved. Patrick Hanan gave that story to me, and now I give it to you.

Most of this information is taken from this collection of reminiscences submitted by Hanan's students and colleagues, which is strongly recommended reading for anyone for whom a teacher made a difference.