“Don Quixote” in the Middle Kingdom


In the second part of Don Quixote, before the “Prologue to the Reader”, there is a dedication “To the Count of Lemos”, Don Pedro Fernández de Castro, who was Cervantes’s patron. In this dedication, Cervantes complains about “another Don Quixote”, a false Quixote, whose practices greatly annoy him. What Cervantes refers to is the publication of a forged second part of Don Quixote in 1614 by an author whose true identity still remains unknown today, who capitalized on the fame and popularity of the first part of Cervantes’s original book, published nine years earlier in 1605.

Cervantes writes in the message to his patron:


… and the person who has shown the deepest interest has been the great Emperor of China, who […] sent an emissary with a letter for me in the Chinese language, asking, or I should say begging, me to send the knight to him, because he wanted to establish a college in which the Castilian language would be read, and the book he wanted the students to read was the history of Don Quixote.[1]Here and elsewhere, the 2005 Edith Grossman translation


The information contained in this dedication is interesting on several levels. The Chinese Emperor is portrayed to be rather gullible, as he believes the forged second part of Don Quixote to be authentic. It also suggests that Cervantes, the real-life author—a war veteran and former prisoner in foreign parts—was very much aware of the idea of what we today call globalization: he imagines the text of Don Quixote, in however counterfeit a version, to have travelled to the Far East and attracted immense interest, right up to the supreme office in China. Finally, the letter from the Chinese Emperor, unsurprisingly written defiantly in Chinese as if it were a universal language, concerns the very learning and circulation of languages, as the ultimate aim of the Emperor of China is to “establish a college in which the Castilian language would be read”.

Quixotica: Poems East of La Mancha, Juan José Morales, Tammy Ho Lai-ming, David McKirdy, Germán Muñoz (eds) (Chameleon Press, July 2016)
Quixotica: Poems East of La Mancha, Juan José Morales, Tammy Ho Lai-ming, David McKirdy, Germán Muñoz (eds) (Chameleon Press, July 2016)

Cervantes of course concocted the letter from the Chinese Emperor and the emissary, and whatever fictional connections there might have been between China and Cervantes’s text, in reality it was not until 1978, when the first complete translation of Don Quixote from the original Spanish into Chinese appeared, that the book reached a much wider audience in the country. Although there were translations into classical Chinese before then, it was this 1978 translation by Yang Jiang (1911-2016), who died in May this year, that is—in spite of several subsequent translations—commonly considered to be the definitive Chinese translation of Don Quixote.


Some Chinese read Don Quixote earlier than that, however. For example, Lu Xun (1881-1936), the writer who is regarded as having invented the modern Chinese vernacular novel, read a German translation of Don Quixote when he was in Japan in about 1908. Lu Xun is famous for his story The True Story of Ah Q, published in 1921. Ah Q is Lu Xun’s mostbest-known character. Though of lowly social status and often bullied in his village, Ah Q confronts adversity through optimism and he turns humiliation into what is called “the spirit of victory”. To give an example, in one episode, after Ah Q is beaten, “he raise[s] his right hand” and “slap[s] his own face hard twice”, and because he is the person doing the slapping, he sees himself as the victor, not the victim. This is “the spirit of victory”.

While some may think Ah Q ignorant and stubborn, others might see good qualities in him. And for better or worse, his name has entered colloquial Chinese: “Ah Q-ism” comes to describe the optimistic spirit of never feeling deflated or defeated. Even when struck down, one only need stand up again.
The interesting thing about The True Story of Ah Q is that scholars believe that Lu Xun was inspired by Cervantes’s Don Quixote to write the story, the “Q” in “Ah Q” being an allusion to Quixote. Today, Ah Q is often compared to Don Quixote, such as in the following remark by the scholar Xiao Jun (1907-1988):


Just as Cervantes left mankind with Don Quixote and Shakespeare bequeathed Hamlet to the world, so did Lu Xun produce the unforgettable character Ah Q… They—great authors—are forever the teachers of mankind, forever the nurses of mankind’s soul, […] they—their characters—all belong to mankind and are all immortal.[2]Quoted in Leo Ou Fan-Lee’s Lu Xun and His Legacy, 1985


Although Lu Xun did not live long enough to read Yang Jiang’s translation of Don Quixote, it is worth mentioning the translation history of Cervantes’s celebrated novel into contemporary Chinese. Yang Jiang, who had taught herself Spanish, translated Don Quixote during the Cultural Revolution in China (1966-1976), at a time when many intellectuals were the targets of persecution, and in fact, the Red Guards confiscated Yang Jiang’s manuscript, although it was fortunately later recovered.

Returning for a moment to the dismissive remark on translation made by Don Quixote in the novel: when he arrives in a modern printing shop and is introduced to a man who has just translated a book from Italian to Spanish, Don Quixote says,


It seems to me that translation from one language into another, unless it is from Greek and Latin, the queens of all languages, is like looking at Flemish tapestries from the wrong side.


When you look at the reverse side of a tapestry, what you see is a jumbled version of the front, even though both sides share the same threads. Yang Jiang agrees with what Don Quixote says about translation, and in a talk she gave in 1982 said,


It is certainly true that a translation cannot help but lose some of the brilliance of the original. Moreover, as a result of the Cultural Revolution China’s printing industry has deteriorated to the point that all of our foreign language publications contain countless spelling and punctuation errors. I merely hope that our translation is a little better than our printing.[3]Quoted in Carlos Rojas’s “How to Do Things with Words: Yang Jiang and the Politics of Translation”, 2015


This remark, ostensibly showing Yang Jiang’s modesty and humbleness and in agreement with Don Quixote about the inherent deficiency of translations, that is, they are just not as brilliant as their originals, in fact contains a veiled criticism of the effect of the Cultural Revolution on the production, conservation and translation of literary works. According to the scholar Carlos Rojas,


Reading between the lines, we can read this allusion to the devastation that the Cultural Revolution wrought on China’s domestic printing industry as an allusion to the inhospitable political backdrop against which she had completed all her literary translations.[4]Carlos Rojas, “How to Do Things with Words: Yang Jiang and the Politics of Translation”, 2015


We have so far looked at Don Quixote’s influence on Lu Xun’s writings in the early twentieth century and the background of the Cultural Revolution to the first complete translation of the novel into Chinese by Yang Jiang. Interestingly, apart from literary influences and linguistic exchange, Don Quixote has another connection to China, that is, to China’s professional journalists. For them, Don Quixote has become an increasingly relevant metaphor, in the face of censorship, propaganda and corruption. Whereas the knight in the novel believes the large windmills are giants to be overwhelmed, the China analyst David Bandurski remarks:


In the context of Chinese investigative or in-depth reporting, the windmills are monsters, and they are the sum total of the social and political ills from which China suffers […] these investigative reporters make it their business to serve a greater public interest, like romantic fools on a hopeless errand.[5]David Bandurski, “Jostling with Monsters: Journalists in a Rapidly Changing China”, 2012: 37


The investigative reporter Lu Yuegang, for example, is believed to have once said prior to a dangerous reporting assignment,


Often, the opponent we face is like an army, or like a monster with countless arms. If one person, or a few people, face off against something as vast as this, something webbed with self-interest, we are like Don Quixote, or at best like a band of Don Quixotes.[6] in David Bandurski’s “Jostling with Monsters: Journalists in a Rapidly Changing China”, 2012

* * *

I would like to end with two further examples, two happier ones, of the enduring connections between Don Quixote and China.

In 2010, a 3-D film adaptation of Don Quixote, a joint Hong Kong and China production, was released. In the film, the story is relocated from 16th-century Spain to China’s Tang Dynasty and the protagonist is obsessed with martial arts novels. The film was billed as the first fully 3-D film from China.

On the other hand, in November 2015, Don Quixote was adapted into Ganju, an opera style in the Jiangxi dialect that has a history of over 600 years. This “genremorphosis” is in itself quite remarkable, but more remarkable still is the fact that this Ganju version was performed in Madrid, with the performers wearing traditional face paint. Spanish surtitles were provided for the audience members.

These two examples show that Don Quixote, for the Chinese imagination, is versatile enough to be adapted into both one of the oldest art forms as well as a contemporary 3-D blockbuster film. And I believe Don Quixote will continue to inspire new works, in new forms, forging new connections, in China.

Tammy Ho Lai-Ming teaches at Hong Kong Baptist University and is co-editor of the journal Cha. She is the author of Hula Hooping and a co-editor of the Desde Hong Kong and Quixotica anthologies.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Here and elsewhere, the 2005 Edith Grossman translation
2. Quoted in Leo Ou Fan-Lee’s Lu Xun and His Legacy, 1985
3. Quoted in Carlos Rojas’s “How to Do Things with Words: Yang Jiang and the Politics of Translation”, 2015
4. Carlos Rojas, “How to Do Things with Words: Yang Jiang and the Politics of Translation”, 2015
5. David Bandurski, “Jostling with Monsters: Journalists in a Rapidly Changing China”, 2012: 37
6. in David Bandurski’s “Jostling with Monsters: Journalists in a Rapidly Changing China”, 2012