Gao Wenshi was a historian, essayist, and author active in the 16th and 17th centuries who enjoyed a brief stint of infamy as an accomplice to the outlaw known as Sword Witch. Gao Wenshi, a classically trained scholar, maintained a diary of these travels between 1583 and 1584 and published them as Drifting Among Rivers and Lakes; a Record of the Sword Witch in 1590.
Gao Wenshi portrays Sword Witch as a ruthless yet heroic woman who holds open and uncompromising disdain for “civilized” law which she views as hopelessly corrupted by wicked officials. The story of Sword Witch’s pursuit of outlaw justice became a wildly popular form of vicarious rebellion. The Wanli Emperor saw the book as a direct attack upon the Confucian principles that were the very foundation of Ming rule and in 1592 banned it by imperial decree.
The Ming government, almost constantly in a state of external crisis and internal dysfunction, was not equipped to actually enforce the ban and enterprising publishers illicitly distributed new editions unabated.
In 1600 the Jinyiwei secret police selected a publisher and a merchant, more or less at random, and executed them for printing and distributing Gao Wenshi’s book. Suddenly the risk of random retribution outweighed the reward and Drifting was finally out of print.
Indeed, it was thought there were no surviving copies until 1979 when Gao Wenshi’s personal library resurfaced in an acquisition of several private collections by Tsinghua University.
Thousands of pages were recovered but scholarship was slow and arduous. Although the vast majority of individual pages are more or less intact, they were not stored in any discernable order. Entire sections of Drifting are scattered among several of Gao Wenshi’s other writings as well as books by other authors. Still, the Gao Collection’s slow trickle of material has offered tantalizing details about day-to-day life during the Wanli era. Perhaps even more valuable than Gao Wenshi’s personal accounts are the documents and other items he collected during his travels. These range from menus, to gazettes, pamphlets, and books on history, medicine, calligraphy, and the forbidden art of astronomy.
Some scholars have called into question the reliability of Gao Wenshi’s narration and therefore the value of any research on Drifting. The central conceit of the work is that it was written by the author as events unfolded around him in real time. 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 Drifting remains an important work even if we believe it to be wildly inaccurate. In fact, the more fictionalized we believe Gao Wenshi’s record to be, the greater a pioneer of the “huaben” short story style he becomes. Huaben grew in popularity throughout the earlier Song and Yuan Dynasties, but it flourished under Ming authors such as Feng Menglong and Ling Mengchu who defined wuxia storytelling for the next five hundred years. Are we to believe these wuxia authors managed to avoid the most infamous piece of wuxia literature of their formative years? 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 would be utterly lost on a modern English speaking audience without copious footnotes explaining what was funny and why. That is no way to enjoy a ripping yarn.
This translation therefore sacrifices strict adherence to the original text in an effort to best capture the sense of playfulness so essential to enjoying the story as Gao Wenshi would have wanted. This mostly involves adapting the vernacular of our day to replicate the vernacular of Gao Wenshi’s. He wrote to entertain his audience after all, and annotations would do little to serve that purpose here.
Today, Gao Wenshi’s Drifting Among Rivers and Lakes; a Record of the Sword Witch is a forgotten footnote of Chinese literature and almost entirely unknown in the West. This edition is a small effort to (re)discover a text that bewitched a generation and bedeviled an Emperor.