Willow fluff and trashy romance novels


Except for a few stray, drifting bits of white fluff, the plague of willow and poplar catkin that descends on Beijing every spring seems to have left us at last.

Every year when the willow cotton arrives, I am reminded of the novel Flying Catkin (飞絮), published in 1926 by Zhang Ziping, a Shanghai-based writer who was one of China's most popular novelists in the 1920s and early 1930s.

Zhang's career was an interesting one. Together with Yu Dafu and Guo Moruo, he was a founding member of the Creation Society. Alluvial Period Fossils (冲积期化石), a semi-autobiographical novel published in 1922, holds the rather meaningless distinction of being the first full-length novel of the May 4th period.

But Zhang's popular image as a trashy romance novelist was shaped by his later works, and the controversy over his books has echoes in today's publishing industry. In the late 1920s, Zhang struck out on his own, setting up a publishing house, running magazines, and publishing an astonishing number of novels within the space of a few years — so many that he was accused of hiring hack writers and slapping his name on their work (compare to Hai Yan).

Flying Catkin tells the story of Liu Xiuxia, a young woman torn between her education and the love of two men. Her father wants her to accept the proposal of Lü Guang, a professor recently returned from overseas, but Xiuxia has already pledged her heart to her childhood sweetheart Wu Mei, a struggling writer. As the novel progresses, Xiuxia's affections drift from from one suitor to the other like a puff of willow cotton carried on the wind. She's ultimately raped by Wu, marries Lü, then leaves him when she finds out she's carrying Wu's child. The novel's tragic romance struck a chord with readers: it went into successive printings and sold tens of thousands of copies, making it one of the author's most successful works.

Xiuxia is typical of Zhang's protagonists: indecisive young women whose lives are subject to horrible events beyond their control. But Zhang shouldn't be given all the credit for the novel's success: he adapted (or lifted) it from a Japanese novel serialized in Asahi Shimbun in the 1920s, when he was a student in Japan.

When Flying Catkin came out in print, Zhang felt it necessary to explain the connection in order to head off any charges of plagiarism. Here's a translation of the preface:

Over the summer break I read the story 归儿日 serialized in Asahi Shimbun and thought that it was quite well-written. With nothing to do in the summer, I got the idea of translating it day by day to make a bit of spending money. The school didn't provide any stipend at the time, so life was hard. And the weather was too hot, so I had no creative drive of my own. I simply translated the story every day for about a week. Later on, however, I discovered that there were too many thing that I couldn't translate, and as I read further, I found that the writing wasn't as good as the beginning. I was disappointed, but I also felt that it would be a shame to simply burn all those translated manuscripts. So I worked over my translation into the deformed Flying Catkin. Later, for various reasons, and because I was afraid of criticism, I never sold the manuscript. After the founding of this publishing house, I presumptuously gave it a slot on the press's booklist — it's quite shameful, really.

At any rate, Flying Catkin can't be called a purely original work. You could call it an imitation of 归儿日, or you could say that it was written after various suggestions in that novel.

At any rate, when I read the last half of that book, I felt that both it and Flying Catkin were both clumsy works; I feel a deep regret over this.

Also, I must add one more thing: I completed this manuscript before I finished reading 归儿日.

8 April [1926]

Zhang declined to name the original author, and even the title is unclear (in my simplified-character version, it's given as 归儿日, but one scholarly paper lists it as 帚え日).* Other works were "inspired" by Japanese sources as well: later scholars have made a convincing case that Spring in Meiling (梅岭之春), a short story about a girl's affair with her uncle, was an unattributed rewrite of Shimazaki Toson's New Life.


As a relatively early-period work, Flying Catkin is still fairly tame: the female protagonist is only involved with two men, and the obligatory rape scene is handled with a "fade-to-black." Novels of the late 20s and early 30s were much more explicit; shown here is the cover of a 1993 reissue of Happiness at Last, whose back-cover copy describes it as "the story of an affair between five men and one woman."

On the basis of his success as a writer, Zhang lectured in "fiction studies" at a number of universities. But his lack of a humanities degree (he studied geology in Japan and published science texts in addition to fiction) led some critics to comment that the universities were merely taking advantage of his celebrity status to attract additional students.

Zhang's "fiction studies" and his predilection for cookie-cutter romantic triangles led Lu Xun to formulate a classic definition of Zhang's work in an acerbic bit of commentary published in the journal Mengya in 1930:

Now let me distill the essence of The Complete Works of Zhang Ziping and "fiction studies" below as an offering to those admirers, an imaginary dish of plums to quench their thirst. That essence is: △.

That wasn't the last time that Zhang tangled with Lu Xun. In 1932, he began serializing the novel Crossroads of Time and Love in the newspaper Shen Bao. The following spring, the serialization was terminated by supplement editor Li Liewen, and Zhang was mocked by Lu Xun and left wing writers as having been "cut off at the waist" and rejected for going beyond the boundaries of decency. Scraps of doggerel and invective filled the pages of Shanghai's literary magazines, and the episode ultimately marked the beginning of the end of Zhang's fiction career. Although his works continued to sell throughout the 30s, he turned his energies to science writing and translation during the remainder of the decade.

In the 1940s he published one last original novel, The New Scarlet Letter (新红A字), a surprisingly well-written romance set in Shanghai under the Wang Jingwei government, but his association with the puppet government earned him a prison sentence after Japan's surrender.

Of course, the parallels with authors today aren't exactly one-to-one: after the founding of the People's Republic, Zhang worked as translator for the Commercial Press until 1955, when he was arrested as a counter-revolutionary. He was sent to a labor farm in 1958 and died there the following year.

Still, when the publishing industry is murmuring about setting up a rating system for books to protect children from literature's slide into the gutter, or when people wring their hands over recalcitrant plagiarists like Guo Jingming, Zhang's novels of the 1920s and 30s remind us that mainstream culture was nothing sacred even in the legendary days of the May 4 movement.

Note (2008.06.03): The source text is probably 歸る日 by 池田小菊 (Ikeda Kogiku), which was published by Asahi Shimbun in a standalone version in 1925 (here's the bibliographic data, in Japanese). Thanks to Matt from No Sword for the updated info.

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There are currently 2 Comments for Willow fluff and trashy romance novels.

Comments on Willow fluff and trashy romance novels

This is a great article -- it was all new information to me, and was a lot of fun to read. Thanks!


Joel, great article, really enjoyed reading it (and am worried now more than ever: its one thing for the government to control the weather, but the willow fluff?! thats just *unnatural*!) ;)

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