Gao Wenshi (1567 – 1621) was an essayist, historian, and author who became infamous for his book Drifting Among Rivers and Lakes, a firsthand account of both The Hanzhou Incident and the swordswoman at its center, Jingwei.
Drifting portrays Jingwei as a ruthless yet heroic woman acting with open and uncompromising disdain for “civilized” law and its agents. This proved to be wildly popular with a public all too familiar with the systemic corruption and bureaucratic incompetence that had become synonymous with the Wanli court. The book struck such a chord that it was banned and declared a direct attack upon the Confucian principles that were the very foundation of Ming rule.
This did not have the intended effect.
Drifting’s thrilling (if vicarious) form of rebellion was the crux of its popularity and the ban only increased its allure. Across the empire bootleg editions of Drifting were produced and sold illicitly to meet growing demand. The Wanli government, almost constantly in a state of external crisis and internal dysfunction, found it impossible to enforce its own ban. Finally, in 1599, an example was made by executing one printer, one publisher, and one merchant for their contributions to distributing Gao Wenshi’s book. Sales of Drifting waned as news of this drastic measure spread across the empire.
All copies of Drifting were presumed lost to history until Gao Wenshi’s personal library resurfaced in an acquisition of several private collections by Tsinghua University in 1979. Thousands of pages were recovered, but poor storage conditions prior to the Tsinghua acquisition has made scholarship a slow an arduous task.
Some researchers have called into question the reliability of Gao Wenshi’s narration and therefore the value of Drifting as a whole. The central conceit of the work is that it was written as events unfolded around its author. These scholars assert we can trust nothing Gao Wenshi says since this is obviously a rhetorical device meant to lend authenticity to what must be heavily editorialized accounts written well after the fact.
But the importance of Drifting has nothing to do with its historical accuracy. In fact, the more fictionalized we believe Gao Wenshi’s record to be, the greater a pioneer of the huaben 话本 short story style he becomes. Huaben grew in popularity throughout the Song and Yuan Dynasties, but it flourished under the Ming Dynasty. The generation after Gao Wenshi would include authors such as Feng Menglong and Ling Mengchu whose works came to define wuxia storytelling for the next five hundred years. Are we to believe these wuxia authors managed to completely avoid one of the most popular and controversial pieces of wuxia literature of their age? If Drifting is not a historical document, then it is certainly a literary landmark.
There is an undeniable verve to Gao Wenshi’s prose. His text is full of ironies, puns, and double-meanings that are unfortunately rendered incoherent when directly translated into English. We would need to include copious footnotes explaining what was funny and why. Gao Wenshi wrote to entertain his audience and these annotations would do little to serve that purpose. This translation therefore sacrifices strict adherence to the original text and endeavors instead to best capture the sense of playfulness so essential to enjoying the story as Gao Wenshi intended.
Today, Drifting Among Rivers and Lakes is a forgotten footnote of Chinese literature and completely unknown in the West. This edition is a small effort to (re)discover a text that bewitched a generation and bedeviled an Emperor.