Saturday, October 1, 2016

Ernest Bramah, Kai Lung, Li Kung and A Case for Mandarin English

My first exposure to the works of Ernest Bramah Smith, under the pen name  Ernest Bramah, was from Lin Carter’s Ballentine Adult Fantasy Series, which introduced young readers (and not a few older ones) to fantasy works both important and rare, many of which had been out of print for years.  This was especially important in those days before the internet or for those without a major metropolitan library available.   Although the series ran from 1969 to 1974, it placed important volumes in the hands of readers who might never have previously encountered them.
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The series had two Ernest Bramah books in its listings, Kai Lung’s Golden Hours (number 45), which was reprinted in 1972 for the series and Kai Lung Unrolls His Mat (number 64) in 1974.  Actually I read the second one first and turned up the former at a SF convention in the latter ‘70s.   Eventually, I had nearly all the BAF books, including the precursors and leftovers, carefully collected over many years at used book shops, conventions and flea markets.  Alas, they went with The Storm, along many hundred of their siblings, but such is the way of things.   But now I have many of them in electronic format.

Recently I turned up a book that made me suspect that Bramah’s character Kai Lung may be a humorous nod to a real historical figure in Chinese history:  Li Kung-lin [a] , was a Sung  philosopher and painter of the 11th century who is considered to be an important scholar of Confucius.  The transliteration of the name stuck me as too much of a coincidence as Ernest Bramah Smith was supposedly quite well read.  I have a strong feeling that Li Kung was indeed the inspiration for Bramah’s literary character Kai Lung, although I have no proof.  Now this possibility might be known and documented some deep Ernest Bramah scholars, but that is unknown to me.  I’d certainly like to see somebody take this up and either expose my ignorance or agree with my hypothesis.

The book in question in this bit of serendipity that set this post in motion was a volume called Li Kung-lin’s Classic of Filial Piety[b] , which was published in translation (1993) by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, authored by Richard M. Barnhart, Gonglin Li, and Robert E. Harrist.  The Met site had it available for free download and you know me and free ebooks. Many thanks to the Met for their e-generosity.  The link to download both this fine Met book and English translations of Li Kung’s original work for those of you who are interested is available here. 

Translations of the text here 

Bramah’s technique of poking fun at British institutions by pretending they are actually translated from Chinese and written in a stilted “English translation” style of formal language which is jokingly called Mandarin English for its formal stiffness and yet subtlety of meaning.  In addition to facetiously flowery language, circumlocution, and obscure descriptions of common western ideas, he also used joking proverbs and aphorisms, many of which are recognizable distortions of English sayings.  For examples of these you can go to the Wikipedia page for Ernest Bramah page in the “writing career” section

This site gives twenty five Kai Lung quotes to amuse the reader as does Wikiquote .  Here is a pretty good essay about Ernest Bramah that also explains Mandarin English .

An origin of this style of writing in English literature can probably be referenced to Tobias Smollett’s satirical work The History and Adventure of an Atom, (1749) where Smollett makes fun of England and English figures by pretending it’s actually Japan. Bramah’s Kai Lung stories does pretty much the same, but more gently and with a good deal more geniality.  The History and Adventure of an Atom is an amusing proto-science fiction work in itself, as communication with an atom is not possible nor are they sapient, at least as far as we know.  The link for downloading is in the link section.

Another possible source (and closer to the experience of the average person) is Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera The Mikado; or, The Town of Titipu, which Bramah was surely familiar since the opera has run on stages from its debut in 1885 to the present day.  Nobody watching or reading the operetta could fail to notice that the characters of The Mikado were actually based British civil servants. 

Another source is Jonathan Swift’s satire is probably better known to today’s readers with his famous Gulliver’s Travels.  Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) has the Struldbrugs of Luggnagg near Japan, but this is probably reaching a bit in connecting him to Brama.  What can’t be discounted, however is that Bramah was familiar with Swift’s satire.

To bring this discussion a bit more up to date, Brama’s humorous Mandarin English style is not what is now is being called orientalization by any means.  In fact, he was poking fun at Britain and its institutions, not at Chinese people or the their culture during the imperial period.   Nor was Bramah doing so it in the sense of Edward Said’s definition found in his book Orientalism (1978), which is making the rounds again in fashionable salons who have just discovered the book as it nears its fourth decade in print. 

Lin Carter, the architect of Ballentine Adult Fantasy Series said in his book Discoveries in Fantasy (1974)  Ernest Bramah’s China, then, is a fantastic bogus China of convention, not the real historical thing at all.  He wrote in a prose so perfectly conceived that it become a miracle of style.  As Hilarie Belloc once observed, the sly humor and philosophy of Bramah’s stories is a trick he achieved by pretending t adapt the flavor of Chinese literary conventions into the English”.  Kai Lung had several fans over the years along with Hillary Belloc and surprisingly Jorg Luis Borges was also a fan.

There are two Kai Lung books have been printed, both containing stories not previously available.  One is a rare volume in an edition of 250 published in 1974, that escaped my attention for many years due to its rarity, which was called Kai Lung Six, which is a group of stories originally published in Punch and not seen the light of day since then.  Those stories and a number of never-published Kai Lung stories appear in the much more accessible and more recent  book, Kai Lung Raises His Voice (2010) by Durrant Pub.  I haven’t yet gotten a copy, but it’s on my list.

At this point, I’d like to point out another work by Bramah that showcases his style is, The Mirror of Kong Ho (1905). While not part of the Kai Lung series, its in the mood of his style with a series of short stories in the form of letters from a Chinese gentleman discussing the eccentricities of the barbarians living in England.  It really holds up a mirror to the west at a time where westerners took themselves and their superiority for granted. 

Personally, Ernest Bramah Smith very private man who gave no details of his life during his time on this planet.   The only recent biography of him is by Aubrey Wilson, The Search for Ernest Bramah (Creighton and Read 2007).  I didn’t use this book as a source simply because I didn’t have a copy available.  It’s possible the Kai Lung/Li Kung story is explained there.   The Wikipedia article on him and the below essay in links is about all that’s easily accessible on the web as far as his personal life.  But what’s important is not the man, but the works and what them mean to us, both when they were originally written, beginning about a century ago and what they mean to us today.

Hopefully, this bit of esoteric diversion hasn’t bored you too much and has given you a few books to consider reading this fall.  I’m no scholar but have been a reader and autodidact for half a century and not a few books have both fallen into my grasp as well as escaped my attention.  In any case, all but a few of the mentioned books are free downloads, so it won’t cost you anything to enjoy them. 


The text to this post is copyright William Murphy 2016 – ‘cause I created this.  The images belong to their creators and quotes of others are attributed.  If I missed anything, let me know.   Feel free to link to this post or quote me. 

[a]   “The figure painter Li Kung-lin, who lived in China from about 1041 to 1106, was the leading exponent of the Northern Sung scholar-official aesthetic. One hundred seven of his works were recorded in the great government catalogue of the imperial collection of paintings a few years after his death. Sadly, today only three of his works still exist. The hand scroll of the Hsiao-ching, or Classic of Filial Piety, a classic of the orthodox canon of Confucianism, is one of those three. It is among the preeminent monuments of Chinese cultural and art history”.  Richard M. Barnhart, Prof  History of Art at Yale

Additionally, for those of you who have a thirst for knowledge, the role of filial piety within Confucian thought and society is discussed in Fung Yu-lan’s, A History of Chinese Philosophy, trans. Dirk Bodde, 2 vols.  Also I found Li Kung-lins’s name in A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy, pg 704.

[b]  “A slight volume composed of eighteen chapters, the Classic of Filial Piety takes the form of a dialogue between Confucius and his disciple Tseng-tzu on the meaning and application of filial piety in the affairs of the individual and of the state. The text dates to the period between 350 and 200 B.C., long after either Confucius or his immediate disciples lived, but its subject, the governing of relationships among men and the rules of conduct by which society is made secure, was for centuries before and for centuries to come the keystone of Chinese society.
Before Li's time, the art of painting had been a public and imperial art, conveying the images, ideas, values, and propaganda of the imperial court, the powerful hereditary families, and the great temples. In the eleventh century, under the inspiration of Li Kung-lin and a few others, painting was transformed into a formal mode of expression, which, like poetry, could serve to convey the mind of the artist as well as the emblems of those who controlled his life. For Li, art was a tool, a moral vehicle that allowed him to set out his views of the institutions, ideas, and conflicts of his time.”  Richard M. Barnhart, Prof History of Art at Yale

Links of Interest – in no particular order, because I’m lazy
The Ernest  Bramah site

Wikipedia article on The Wallet of Kai Lung 

Download a digital copy of some of Bramah’s works
Kai Lung series
The Wallet of Ki Lung (1900)
Kai Lung’s Golden Hours (1922)
Kai Lung Unrolls His Mat (1928)
The Moon of Much Gladness (1932)  Unavailable for free in digital format for now
Kai Lung Beneath the Mulberry Tree (1940)  Unavailable for free in digital format for now
Kai Lung Six (1974)  Unavailable for free in digital format
Kai Lung Raises His Voice (2010) Unavailable for free in digital format

The Mirror of Kong Ho (1905) While not part of the Kai Lung series it sets the pace for his style with a series of short stories in the form of letters from a Chinese gentleman discussing the eccentricities of the barbarians living in England.  It really holds up an amusing mirror to the west.

And some other works by Bramah that were also popular in his time
Four Max Carrados Detective Stories
The Secret of the League:  The Story of a Social War

More stuff
An essay about Ernest Bramah

The most recent biographical source is: Aubrey Wilson, The Search for Ernest Bramah (Creighton and Read 2007), which I have not read and so consequently have not used in this article.

Ernest  Bramah site

Download Smollett’s Adventure of an Atom (1749)

Download Johnathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels in digitial formats

What started this article in the first place was the discovery of this book (which you can download for free BTW) and of the existence of Li Kung, at least for me 
By Richard M. Barnhart, Gonglin Li, Robert E. Harrist

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